John 17: 20-14
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world." (NRSV)
I did a little experiment this week. I ran a word search on my sermon files to find out how many times I talked about community since I've been a member of this community. The word "community" came up in 25 sermons. That is just to say that if your instinct is to roll your eyes and wonder if I haven't already preached about this before, you have good instincts. I have, and I will again. It's not that I don't recognize and value the importance of personal expressions of faith. I simply cannot imagine personal faith that is not lived out within the sacred space of Christian community.
For me, faith is rooted in relationship. Most Christians understand that there is a mysterious and beautiful relationship at the heart of God. We praise a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a paradox of three in one. The biblical witness continually points to relationships. Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments focus on the relationship between God and his people. And both testaments use a lot of holy ink on human communities— families, tribes, nations, kingdoms, and finally the church.
Our scriptures not only portray communities as they are, but they are also rich with hope as they imagine reconciled relationships between God and the varied creatures of his dominion.
The passage we heard today from the Gospel of John is just a brief piece of a much longer prayer. Jesus has a lot to pray about the night of his betrayal. He enters a deep communication with God, lifting up not only his own fears and faith, but also his concerns for the men and women who believe that he is God's word of salvation.
He prays for his Disciples, and then he prays for us—for we are part of those future Christians who believe in him through the testimonies of our spiritual mothers and fathers. Jesus prays for the church, the community of the faithful who bear the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel. He doesn't pray that the church will be wealthy, or well respected, or theologically orthodox. He prays that the church—that we—may all be one.
If we are to be honest, this is a difficult message to hear. The church is broken. The forefathers of our Disciple tradition were keenly aware of this. They believed that the lack of Christian unity was a great crisis in the Body of Christ. They were appalled that Christians denied one another access to the Table of the Lord's Supper. The Stone-Campbell movement tried earnestly to restore the Church to unity by emphasizing the simple practices and beliefs of the New Testament. It is no small irony that the movement has suffered not one but two fractures on account of differences of religious opinion.
The unity of the church is tested when Christians question the faithfulness of other Christians on account of theological differences. And it is tested when pride is valued more than unity. Most of us have probably heard more than enough about the public fall of the evangelical leader Ted Haggard.
This week the Daily Show, a comedy program that revels in lampooning the headlines, ran a clip of one prominent evangelical leader after another denying that they had anything to do with Ted Haggard, despite the fact that many had worked closely with him through the National Association of Evangelicals, the organization that Haggard led until last week. Without comparing Reverend Haggard to Jesus, the denial of his colleagues in ministry certainly echoed the words of Peter.
Instead of demonstrating difficult though honest unity to the world by condemning Haggard's breach of trust while standing by him as a colleague and friend, many Christian leaders simply denied that Ted Haggard had ever really been an important part of the Christian community to begin with.
It's easy to point out when other people are damaging the unity of the church. It isn't so easy to turn that lens on our community and ourselves. When Jesus prayed for those who would believe in him, he longed that unity would prevail not only between communities of faith, but also within each community of faith.
I met a woman studying to become a minister in the Mennonite tradition a few years ago. She spoke of the first time she attended chapel at her non-Mennonite seminary during the first week of classes. She was startled and uncomfortable to realize that part of the worship experience included receiving the bread and cup of communion. She explained that in her community, members celebrated the Lord's Supper together perhaps only once a year, and then only after a long and searching process of reconciliation among the members of the fold. Receiving Communion without that process, let alone with Christians she barely knew, felt like a cheapening of God's grace.
As a Disciple, I used to think that the only way of keeping Communion central and significant is to gather around the Table each week. Yet my Mennonite friend reminded me that Communion is to be celebrated by a unified and reconciled church. Though it was a rare occasion in her tradition, the Lord's supper was as central and significant as could be. It meant that broken relationships had been restored, old hurts forgiven, and open arguments resolved. Though my friend eventually participated in the Eucharist meal at her seminary, I know that she receives the gifts of bread and cup most deeply when she shares them with the fully reconciled community of her home church.
I pray that as individual believers and as a congregation, we can embrace the reconciliation and forgiveness that is recalled at the table of our Lord each week. We are never going to be perfect. Relationships are full of struggle. All communities encounter conflict, but the healthy ones address it with boldness and humility.
For conflict to truly be resolved, and not simply swept under the carpet, we must take responsibility for our own actions. When I was at church camp in high school, our counselors encouraged us to make amends before the camp community celebrated the Lord's Supper. I remember waiting for a fellow camper to come apologize for hurting my feelings earlier in the week. He never did, yet I was so wrapped up in my sense that he owed me an apology that I did not search my own heart to consider if I had any bridges to rebuild.
The unity of the church is not something to consider only when a clear sign of disunity arises. To be a faithful and welcoming community that is in loving union with one another and with God, that polar star of Christian unity must always be held in sight. We must take Jesus' prayer for unity seriously and personally, and continually seek God's help in answering that prayer.
For we do not simply have on our shoulders the well-being of our own beloved community of faith. The unity of the church is the clarion witness to the mysterious and beautiful unity between God and his son Jesus. When we are a united church, a forgiving community, a reconciled people, we give glory to God. And when God is glorified by the citizens of his holy Kingdom, the world will know of his love and his grace. Just as we sing in that great hymn of peace, let it begin with me. Let it begin with us. Let it begin. Amen.