Text: John 17:20-26
Note: My commentary on this text can be found here.
Not long ago my wife and I attended a ministers’ retreat that focused on how we deal with some of the issues that divide us. At the retreat, we talked with other ministers about the importance of unity in the church, and we wondered and hoped together that the love of Christ would be stronger than any disagreement that we may have. One man I spoke to said, “Our job as Christians is to lead the world toward peace, but I wonder if we will ever be wise enough to find our common ground, and live together without division.” Later on that evening, I realized how sad it was that in the wonder and beauty of the season of Easter, there we sat, wondering if Christians can find common ground. But these are the times in which we live.
The sad truth is that we live in a world that is increasingly divided. We live in a world of different religions, different cultures, different races, and different nations. We have different ideals, different opinions, and different thoughts on how things are to be done. Even in our own country, we separate ourselves into groups of liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, those who have it right, and those who have it wrong. It is a painful thing to be a part of, and it becomes even more painful when the division and separation is done in the name of God. In the name of God people have attacked and murdered. In the name of God people have cast aside or ignored those who are not like them. In the name of God we have destroyed each other and blamed each other. A few years ago, someone scribbled a chilling message on the side of a building in Washington, D.C. It read, “Dear God, please save us from the people who believe in you.” It seems the forces of separation and destruction can take a variety of forms.
Even in our own churches, we are in a time of conflict. Around the country, Christians are dividing up over matters of theology and arguing about whose interpretation of scripture is better or more faithful to Christ. We claim truth for ourselves, and dismiss the possibility that God might speak through others. With these things in mind, I think back to the words of the minister I met at the retreat. I wonder with him if we will be wise enough to find our common ground. Can’t we help each other set aside our differences? Can’t we lead our community, our nation, and our world towards peace? We are, after all, the body of Christ. Shouldn’t we be an example of the solution rather than an example of the problem?
In his memoirs, Elie Wiesel, who spent most of his childhood in a German concentration camp, recounts a conversation he had with a cell block guard as his father died from hunger and dehydration.
“This is your father, isn’t it?” asked the guard.
“Yes,” Wiesel answered.
“He’s very ill,” said the guard.
“The doctor won’t do anything for him,” Wiesel replied.
“The doctor can’t do anything for him, now. And neither can you,” said the guard.
“Listen to me, boy. Don’t you ever forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.” (Night, pp. 104-105)
There is probably no better example of separation and isolation. In a world where all too often it seems like everyone lives and dies for themselves alone, surely the Christian community must be the one place where all are brothers, all are sisters, and all are friends. It must be the place where we live for each other, where we care as much about the lives of others as we do our own. In Jesus’ grand closing prayer of John 17, he prays for this. This is to be the mission of future generations of Christians. It is what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Without that, we would just be some strange club with no real purpose other than to get together every Sunday morning.
When my wife and I were in seminary we would often worship at different churches together. One Sunday we drove about thirty minutes outside the city to a small church that we expected would be very friendly and welcoming. Boy, were we wrong! I don’t think a single person spoke to us the whole time we were there. Now that I think about it, I don’t even think anyone made eye contact with us. It was saddening. It was frustrating. It was eye-opening. Afterwards we wondered together, “What made us so different?” Was it the way we look? The way we dressed? Was it just that we were strangers? Why did they see us as different, instead of seeing us as the same? I still don’t know why we weren’t greeted more warmly by that church family, but I have heard enough similar stories from other people to know that it’s not an uncommon experience.
Maybe you have a similar story, and so maybe you reserve the right to be skeptical when you hear Jesus pray for us all to be one, just as he and God are one. You can look around the sanctuary of just about any congregation and see that churches are rag-tag bunches of people from vastly different walks of life, and furthermore, there’s no real way to make sure that we all believe precisely the same thing. We are just ordinary people with vastly different backgrounds, histories, and experiences. There are times when our differences get the best of us, and suddenly we behave like adversaries rather than brothers or sisters. But then there are also times when the very thing that draws us together, the love of God for each and every one of us, overrides our tendency to divide and separate, and we find ourselves worshiping together, praying together, singing together, and working together. Ideally, we are reminded of this every Sunday morning.
If you think about it, Sundays really are crazy days. It’s been said that you can choose your friends, but not your family. That goes for your church family as well. When Sunday morning rolls around we have no control over who we’ll be sharing the pew with. When we sing the hymns, we have no say in who sings along. On Sundays, people come from miles around, these worshipers, and they stream in through the doors of the church. There are old people and young people, happy people and sad people, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, children from different schools, parents from different neighborhoods, all kinds of people from different walks of life. They all come here together on Sundays – they volunteer to be here, no one is making them! – and they gather together in a place that we call ‘sanctuary’. For everyone here, this place is home. I once heard someone say that Home is where they have to take you in, and I thought, “Sounds like church to me.” No matter where you’ve been, or what you’ve done, no matter where you live or how you voted, no matter how old you are or what you look like, you are welcome in this family. So, on Sundays, we end up with a very interesting mix of people in here, people who really shouldn’t get along. We are a motley crew, and we may very well find ourselves glancing down the pew toward the end of the row and wondering how that person got in here…
But you know, when we come together to worship, we come together as God knows us, with our differences and our wildly various experiences and perspectives. And by some miracle, we sing, and listen, and pray as one. And this is how we start our week. This is the beginning of all that we do.
Someone once said that for Christians, there are only two days: Sundays and other days. If this is true, then we must let what happens on Sundays shape what happens in our other days. We must let the peace and unity that we share in worship overflow into the rest of our lives. This is the life to which Christ calls us. Let this morning be a beginning, brothers and sisters. Let it be the beginning of generosity, the beginning of compassion and love. Let it be the beginning of common ground. Author Parker Palmer once wrote, “When people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics but that they be moved by the quality of our life together: ‘See how they love one another.’” (The Company of Strangers, p. 118)
So, love one another. For in Jesus Christ, God has called you and claimed you, and Jesus Christ prays for you even now. God has given you a new life, built on a new foundation of love and service to each other. God has destroyed the walls that threaten to divide and separate us. There are those in the world who would call that strange, and different. We in the family of Christian faith just call it Easter.
Amen, and thanks be to God.
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This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz