Primary Text: John 17:20-26
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 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. 24 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. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.” - John 17:20-26 (NRSV)
What does this mean? How on earth do we even begin to live this out? What does this even mean, both for us an individuals and us as modern Christians and Protestants in particular? There are 300 different types of Christians, with churches on every block, with different worship styles and liturgies, different doctrines, everything? What does this mean for us as members of this of this particular church, in this denomination, which is going through a split right now? How can we even talk about living this out where we are, right here, right now?
A good way to begin answering this question is to ask: “What did it mean for them?” The early church struggled with division. Even in the time of the apostles, the church struggled with division. The big example of this that is talked about in the book of Acts is a conflict over how much of the law of Moses one needed to follow in order to be a Christian. Did gentiles converts need to essentially convert to Judaism first, and commit to following all of the mosaic laws, in order to be a Christian? The first generation of Christians where all Jewish. They where very similar to what we would today call Messianic Jews: the celebrated the feast days, they didn’t eat pork or shellfish, etc. So this was a natural question to ask. The answer that they came to was, no. Greeks could remain culturally Greek, Ethiopians could remain culturally Ethiopian, and so on. For the early church it meant that they were united around a person.
In Ephesians 4:1-6, the Apostle Paul says this:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. - Ephesians 4:1-6 (NRSV)
As Christians we are united around a person. We are one in Christ.
This passage from John that we read at the beginning is fascinating and beautiful and includes some stuff that is simply hard to wrap your head around. There is all of this incredible trinitarian language which invokes the infinite mystery of the trinity. But at the end Jesus wraps everything up quite nicely:
25 "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them." - John 17:25-26
I often wonder if the fullness of Jesus prayer is something we can reach prior to the eschaton, prior to the new heaven and new earth, just because of simple human limitations, as John says in 1 John 3:2 “what we will be like him for we will see him as he is.” We are limited, we don’t see God fully. We are not omnipotent, there are things we don’t know. But we can live out this. This we can do.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, lived at a time of great division is his country. He was an English minister, ordained in The Church of England, during the American Revolution. He wrote a sermon on Christian unity, that has really stood the test of time and really titled Catholic Spirit.
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection. Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike. May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion
– John Wesley, The Catholic SpiritRead Wesley’s entire Sermon at http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-39-catholic-spirit/
That’s it, that’s how to do this. We can be of one heart, even though we are not of one opinion. But how do we do that. Wesley has a profound insight on that as well. It takes a little bit of humility and a dose of reality. Wesley puts it this way.
Nay, farther: although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it); yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true. … This, therefore, he is sensible, is his own case. He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.John Wesley, The Catholic Spirit
This, this right here, this is how you do it! We are all finite. We are simply human. This means that there are things we don’t know and this means that we are wrong about some things. We’re not perfect, and that means we are wrong about some stuff. That’s Wesley’s point. Wesley goes on to clearly explain hat he does not mean that we shouldn’t have convictions, and actually goes as far as to call indifference the spawn of hell. If you want to follow the golden rule not only in what you say but how you say it, without sacrificing your convictions, this is how you do it: simply accept the fact that neither you no I nor anyone else other than God is omnipotent.
We may, we DO, have the written word of God right here, we don’t fully understand it and we don’t fully understand how to apply it to our lives, and part of the journey is figuring out where we’ve got it wrong. We get to (not have to , get to) keep learning, keep growing. This doesn’t leave us lost in relativism. Just because you don’t know everything, that doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. You don’t need to know the physics of how vitamins work to know that they do work.
I have one more Wesley quote to share and I promise it will be the last one until the very, very end.
‘If it be, give me thy hand.’ I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.’ You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavor to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only ‘give me thine hand.’– John Wesley, The Catholic Spirit
What does this mean for us right now? The United Methodist Church is going through a split right now. It already started on May 1st. And soon we are going to have to make an initial decision. I say initial decision because there will be another opportunity to make a decision in a few years one all the terms have been worked out, but we’ll have to make an initial decision right now. And regardless of what happens, regardless of what this church decides, we’re gonna loose people; people are gonna go to different churches, as a result. We may end up going to different churches, but that doesn’t mean that we as people need to break apart. Even though we may not be of one opinion even now, that does not need to break apart now. Whatever happens both in the lead up and in the aftermath, stay close to each other as people. This does not mean that the friendships you have built over years or decades need to break apart.
One of the greatest examples of Christian conviction and love that I have seen in a long time is members of opposing sides wishing each other well as they part. These differences will prevent an external union, and those who leave, regardless of what this church decides, will not be jumping ship or abandoning the church. This ain’t chairs vs pews; it’s a big deal, and it’s completely understandable why this is a line in the sand for so many, with regard to an external union. But although they will prevent an external union, don’t let it prevent the spiritual one. Don’t let it prevent the spiritual one, not only in the aftermath, but right now leading up to it. The worst thing that could happen is factions being formed and people who have been friends for years, or decades, starting to hate each other because of this.
Keep your eye on the ball. Keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t let these differences, although they will lead you to end up worshiping id different places, regardless of what the church decides to do, and although things may get heated in the lead up, don’t let these differences distract you from the person whom this is all about. Let your love for each other and for the person whom your faith is built upon continue to bond you together as people. Let the spiritual union remain, even when the external union does not.
As we go I want to leave you with one last quote from Wesley.
Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight ‘If thine heart is as my heart,’ if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: ‘give me thine hand.’– John Wesley, The Catholic Spirit