Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 12, 2013
John 17:22-26

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How many of you have ever tried –just tried - to read the Bible from cover to cover, straight through, Genesis to Revelation, no skimming? (Just tried…show of hands.) And how many of you have succeeded, made it all the way through, no skimming? My hand is going down now and I am pretty sure I am in good company.


The Bible is a very hard book to read. Where did some of you get stuck? Leviticus? Numbers? Yeah, most of us don’t make it past the first 5 books of the Bible. But if you do, if you make it through all the genealogies and the long lists, the censuses and the incomprehensibility of much of the prophets, all the way to the New Testament, you’re still bound to get a little bogged down by this point in the gospel of John.


Jesus’ farewell discourse, that we’ve been hearing from for the past few weeks, is 3 chapters long and it’s slow going. Jesus is talking to the disciples and he’s praying to God and there’s a lot of “the world will know you by knowing them because you sent me and I’m in them so they’re in you,” kind of talk, so much so that all that I am in you’ing and you are in me’ing and they are in me’ing so you are in them’ing, gets a little mind numbing.


As one of my favorite commentators, The Rev. Russell Rathbun, acknowledged this week on his blog: “this is “ ‘heart of the Gospel,’ the ‘culmination of John’s message,’ …so it must be really important. The only problem is that it is (also) really confusing and I am not completely sure I know what it means. I don’t mean that, given what it says, I am not sure how to interpret it. I mean, I do not always understand the sentences that are formed by the words which are strung together.”[1]


I really appreciate Russell’s honesty because I don’t always either (and not for nothing but I’m a professional. I’m supposed to understand this stuff). So sometimes, especially with passages like this, I think rather than try to figure out the theological implications of every last word, it’s actually better to just let the words wash over you and see what sticks, what rises to the surface, what catches your attention.


I think you kind of have to relax into the rhythm of this sort of scripture and trust that what you need to hear is going to rise up when you need to hear it.


Well, what rises up for me this week are those words about unity.  Jesus is praying here, praying not just for his disciples back then but for his disciples right now, for you and for me:


“I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus says, referring to Peter, James, John and all the rest, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, (that’s people like us, “[ask])21that 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.”


Now the mechanics of how we are all able to be in one another is a bit of a mystery to me, but what comes through loud and clear is Jesus’ desire for unity amongst his followers. What comes across plain as day is the fact that Jesus is counting on us to get along - be of one mind, one heart, one spirit - one body united in our love for God and our love for one another. Why? Because that is how the rest of the world will know that Jesus wasn’t just some nice guy with some good things to say, but that he was God, in God, and from God, come to us that we might know the love and will of God.


Man, it’s hard to talk about this without starting to sound like John. I’m feeling more and more sympathy for that guy.


But seriously, our ability to get along with one another, to love one another, live in peace and harmony with one another as followers of Christ, is not just our witness to the world, it isJesus’ witness as well. It’s how people know, not just that we are different, but that Christ’s presence among us makes a difference. Do you get that? It’s how they know this, all of this, is for real.


I mean any group of people can get along if they share enough in common, right? What sets the church apart, or at least what should set the church apart, is the fact that it is full of people who get along even if Christ is the only thing they share in common.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. The Rev. Dr. King famously observed that11:00 on Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America. He said that a long time ago, but not much has changed. People, even today, tend to worship with people like themselves. Actually the only thing that has changed is the number of different types of churches one can segregate oneself into on a Sunday morning, not just here in America, but a round the globe.


Just out of curiosity, do any of you have any idea how many different denominations there are worldwide? Well, I can tell you that as of Thursday, it was 44,351. I say “as of Thursday” because at the bottom of the web site that tracks this data there is actually a ticker that reads: “Your Total Christian Denominations Count for today is 44,351.”  A TICKER! A ticker because that number is always going up.  Actually, I checked it this morning and the number is now up to 44,356. 

But here’s the real kicker: right below that ever changing number, I kid you not, are the words: “Please pray for Christian unity.”[2]


44, 351. I mean 6.




Christian Unity.


One of these things is not like the other.


44, 356, because the truth is that we Christians tend to congregate in churches full of people who like us and are like us -that’s just human nature - and if that arrangement begins to shift and change such that we become uncomfortable personally or spiritually or theologically or organizationally or even musically, we react.  Rather than trust in the Spirit to bind us together and help us work toward the unity Jesus was praying for, more often than not we either leave and go looking for something that fits better, or drive out the people who started making us feel uncomfortable in the first place.


Sometimes it’s the pastor packing their bags and sometimes it’s the parishioners. Sometimes you’re the one not so subtly pushing people out the door and sometimes you’re the one trying not to let it hit you on the way out. And sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t take it anymore. Living in community is hard, people –especially church people -can be really hard, and thanks to that ever-increasing number of denominations, we all have options.


Honestly, in today’s world, it’s typically a whole lot easier to leave the Methodists for the Congregationalists, or the Episcopalians for the Catholics, when things are not going your way, than it is to stay put.  And, truth be told, that’s not all bad. I mean look at me. I was raised Baptist but ordained Swedenborgian. I serve in the U.C.C. and identify as emergent. I’m a poster child for this sort of movement and I probably wouldn’t be a Christian today if I hadn’t moved when I did. And I most certainly would not be a minister.


Like so many of you who are sitting here today, I needed to leave one church for another in order to survive. I needed to move to preserve not just my faith in God, but my heart, my sanity, my self –respect, maybe even my life.


But I also recognize that something is amiss here if so many of us not only feel that way but have had to live this way. I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said that prayer for us all those years ago. And as thankful as I am that I had options, as thankful as I am that I finally found the United Church of Christ and this incredibly special community right here in Hadley, I still want to take that prayer seriously because I believe how we treat one another does matter, not just to us but to the world. I believe that how we treat one another truly does have the power to reflect or obscure the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Perhaps because I believe the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is not just about getting you into heaven when you die, but about getting heaven into you right now while you still live. And if you ask me, so much of what leads to division in our churches – the power struggles and the politics and the ultimatums and the emphasis on orthodoxy over orthopraxy – that’s right belief over right action – so much of it is of hell.


People harming each other in the name of God, ostracizing each other, turning their backs on one another, demeaning each other; the judging of who is in and who is out, all the back biting, and mistrust…that doesn’t sound like Jesus to me and it certainly doesn’t sound like heaven. But it sure does describe many people’s experience of the church - doesn’t it? - and that’s not ok.


Now, I know full well that we can’t change the history of the whole Christian church anymore than we can heal all the divisions that exist within it. Honestly, there are days when I wonder if we’ll even be able to hold together this beautiful new thing that God is doing right here. And if it was just up to us, we probably couldn’t. There are simply too many differences present here in this community.

I mean look at us. Seriously, look around you. Do you know all of these people? Because I don’t!  To paraphrase Dorothy: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hadley anymore.”


It used to be that pretty much everyone who came here and called this church home was from Hadley, born in Hadley, raised in Hadley, and still living in Hadley, because seriously, having landed here, why would you want to move anywhere else? Some of you married in. Some of you moved just a little ways away and kept coming, all to the good. But now, people are coming from all over. We don’t necessarily have a lot in common with each other. We weren’t all baptized in the same church, or even the same denomination. Some fo us aren’t even baptized at all. We can’t all trace our history back to the year we started at Hooker or Hopkins.


We’re not all of the same race, class, or even country. We’re young and old, Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight, rich and poor, able and disabled, and that would be a really huge liability if it weren’t also a tremendous gift. Each one of you, whether you’ve been coming here for your whole life or are here for the first time, each one of you is a gift. This kind of diversity in a church, this doesn’t just happen and it takes a great deal of energy and intentionality to maintain t when it does. This is nothing less than a gift of the Spirit; a gift as fragile as it is powerful if – and history bears witness to that if being pretty big – if we, by the grace of God, can receive it and one another as such.


If we can learn to value being loving over being right, we’ve got a shot at making this work. If we can learn to value people more than rules, community over conformity, then we’ve got a shot at holding all this together. If we can learn to trust one another and the God who has brought us here, trust that even though we might come from different places and have different understandings we’re still seeking the same God; trust that even though we may have been raised in different churches and have a different way of doing things, we are still seeking the same good, we’ve got a shot.


In short, if we can trust God and one another enough to give each other the B.O.D.[3] - anybody want to take a guess at what that stands for? - the benefit of the doubt, that’s right. If we can, in all things, find the grace to give each other the benefit of the doubt such that we can keep loving each other even when we don’t particularly like each other and trust one another even when we don’t exactly understand each other, then we’ve got a shot at living up to and in to that prayer Jesus prayed so long ago.


It won’t be easy. Good church, real church, The Church, never is. Jesus wouldn’t have felt the need to pray for us if it were. But he did pray and that prayer is still reverberating. It is a prayer we are invited to pray as well, pray that in Christ and for the sake of Christ we might all be one.


Let us join Him in pray: O God we pray for love and trust and grace. We pray that your grace would be sufficient, sufficient to help us open our hearts to one another, sufficient to keep us from hurting each other, and sufficient to help us forgive one another when we inevitably do.  We pray for trust, trust in you and one another even when we find it hard to understand what you or the other is up to. And we pray for love, a love that is patient and kind and all those things Paul talks about in Corinthians, but most of all for a love that is greater not just than our faith or our hope, but greater than our mistrust and fear. May it be nothing less than your love that binds us together Lord, binds us together as one.  Amen


[3] p 126 in “The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus” by Robin Meyers.  This book is fantastic and deeply inspired the message of this sermon.