As I’ve read Scripture over the years and learned more about the history of the people of God and the Church of Jesus Christ, it strikes me how much of that history has involved conflict and controversy.
You’re probably familiar with many of the conflicts in Scripture. The Old Testament speaks of how the Samaritans and the Jews became a divided people, how the Hebrews split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judea, how the people left behind in Jerusalem after the Babylonian take-over resented the people who returned after the exile. Then you get to the New Testament, and we have the Pharisees and the Sadducees squabbling over whether there is life after death, various Jewish factions vying for theological and political power, Jesus’ own disciples arguing with each other. And, of course, we have the letters of Paul, which pretty nearly all deal with conflict of one kind or another in his churches.
Things didn’t get any easier later on as the Church grew, and some of those stories are pretty hair-raising. We forget that what we accept as doctrine was hashed out and decided upon amidst great controversy by very human church leaders at councils in the 4th and 5th centuries—kind of like an ancient version of General Conference, but without any women or lay people, and with lots more violence involved. These councils decided such things as who exactly Jesus was—was he God? Was he not God exactly but just a step below God? Was he just a human being that God adopted? Was he sometimes God and sometimes human, or all God and all human all of the time? As one author put it, “How close to man had God drawn near, in the person of Jesus Christ?” The members of these councils had to figure it out.
As the proponents of different ways of thinking schemed and jockeyed to have their viewpoint accepted as Christian orthodoxy, their actions and arguments were heated and political, and sometimes deceitful and even violent. Councils were planned so that bishops with dissenting views wouldn’t have time to get there. Bishops and other leaders were accused of heresy, deposed, exiled, and reinstated on a regular basis.
The Council of Nicaea (where our Nicene Creed comes from) condemned a man named Arius as a heretic for his views. He was exiled, and just being in possession of his writings became a crime punishable by death. Later, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt refused to reinstate Arius, whereupon Athanasius’ enemies falsely accused him of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason. (He was exonerated on the murder charge when the supposedly dead victim turned out to be very much alive.)
Archbishop John Chrysostom was popular among the people of Constantinople, but not so much among some other bishops, who accused him of heresy, deposed and banished him, and then (after his reinstatement) exiled him again. When he continued to have influence over the people of Constantinople through his letters, he was sent further into exile to a place so far away that he never reached it; he died of the cold and hardships along the way.
Hundreds of years later, the Methodist Church would face conflict, schism, and reunion over issues like slavery, divorce, the use of wine in Communion, whether churches could deny a person of color a place in their pulpit, and whether women should have any place in a pulpit.
Disunity has been a characteristic of the church since its beginnings. I’m never sure whether I should be dismayed and discouraged, or hopeful and encouraged by this. Of course, it can be discouraging to think how little we have changed—that we still have so much disagreement about how to live faithfully together. It is so easy to fall into an attitude of “things will never change.” But there is hope here, too. Because, in spite of our apparent lack of ability to live peacefully as one people, the Church continues to exist, and new believers come to know Jesus. It appears that God has not given up on us.
As our denomination struggles through our latest phase of disagreement and controversy, it’s easy to focus on what divides us. So, today, I’d like to think instead about what unites us. Because, Jesus’ last words in the upper room were a prayer that all those who believe in him would be one as he and his Father are one.
Until Jesus began his prayer, he had been speaking and interacting directly with his disciples. John sets the scene in Chapter 13. They had all gathered in the upper to celebrate the Passover. Judas was ready to put his plan into action, and Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to his Father. John tells us that, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
That beautiful phrase, “he loved them to the end,” can be understood in two ways. It can be understood as referring to time: that Jesus loved his disciples until the end of his time here on earth. But it can also be understood as referring to the quality of Jesus’ love: that he loved them to the fullest extent. The author of the gospel of John probably wanted his readers to keep both of these meanings in mind—to know that that even as Jesus was facing the end of his earthly life, he loved his disciples fully and completely.
Jesus demonstrated his love in what he said and did in that upper room. He washed the feet of the disciples—all the disciples, even Judas’—to show them how they were to care for and serve and love each other as he had loved them. He explained to them what was to happen to him, and he promised them that he would not leave them defenseless and friendless—that the Holy Spirit would come to them. He offered them words of advice, words of encouragement, words of comfort. In all that he said, he made it clear to them who he is—the Son of God, who knew the Father’s heart and was beloved of the Father.
Then, Jesus turned his attention away from the disciples and began to pray to his Father. He prays for the disciples, as they—and we—listen in on his prayer. He spoke as a Son who was returning home but leaving loved ones behind—loved ones he wants the best for, loved ones whom he is trusting to help others come to believe as they have come to believe, so that his mission would be fulfilled—that all would enjoy eternal life.
Repeatedly he asks that his followers be made one as he and his Father are one. This is a prayer of grand proportions. Jesus isn’t praying that his followers will simply be in agreement with each other, or cooperate on mission projects. He wants them to be one as he and his Father are one. He wants them to be completely one—to reflect the perfect wholeness of the Trinity, or (as a more literal translation of John’s Greek says) to be perfected in unity. Jesus wants his followers to be so united that we are “in” each other as he is in the Father and the Father is in him—inseparable from one another.
Why would Jesus want this kind of perfect unity and wholeness for his followers? Because they—because we—have been entrusted with the Word of Life—the knowledge of who Jesus is and what he has done. Because it is up to his followers to share the good news with all the others who are in the world and need to hear it. Jesus asks for unity among his followers so that we can experience the joy that Jesus shares in his unity with his Father.
Jesus prays that his followers may be one for the sake of those who will come to believe in him through their word. He prays that his followers will be in him and in his Father, just as Jesus and his Father are in each other, because it is that kind of oneness that will show to an unbelieving world that Jesus truly was sent by God to be its Savior. That perfect unity—the wholeness and oneness of Jesus’ followers—will be our witness in the world to which he sends us.
We act out this unity in every baptism. Baptism is the sign and seal of the discipleship we share. Our baptism is the most basic bond which brings us into union with Christ, with each other, and with the Church universal—Christians in every place, Christians in every time—past, present, and future. Our Book of Worship reminds us that “when someone is baptized, it is a crucial event in the life both of that person and of the Church [because] what happens to that member of the body of Christ will make a difference to every other member, and the rest of the Church can never be the same again.” This is the unity that Jesus prayed for.
In the United Methodist Church, nearly all baptisms take place within the worship service, where the faithful gather as a community. In the baptismal liturgy, the community responds to God’s gracious love, poured out on us through Jesus.
When the Church, or a part of it, is going through a time of decision-making such as we are, we need to remember the unity we have been bonded into through our common baptism. Our baptism is a call to overcome our differences so that we may be a visible sign of Jesus’ unity with his Father and our unity with Jesus. Our baptismal unity is what enables us to offer a faithful witness to the healing and reconciling love of God.
The news that we hear from the General Conference may or may not be to our liking, regardless of where we stand on the issues at hand. We may wonder whether we can live out our faith with integrity within the UMC after the Conference has made its decisions. As we consider the decisions that are made, I suggest that we look to the example of the prophets.
In Scripture, the authenticity of the prophets’ call and message was confirmed by the events that followed. If those events were consistent with the prophetic message, the speakers were confirmed as true prophets; if not, they were exposed as false prophets. But, that kind of confirmation took time—years, decades, generations. A prophet could not be identified as true or false until events unfolded over time. An instant evaluation of authenticity wasn’t possible.
We can use the same standard as we determine whether the decisions made at the Conference are consistent with the call we receive in our baptism—to give a genuine witness to the love of God through Jesus. If, over time, we find that our witness to the world is compromised by the decisions made this week, that will become evident and we will see that we have taken a wrong turn. But, if the chosen way forward strengthens our witness and increases our ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we will know that we have moved in the right direction. That kind of confirmation will take time. As a testimony to our baptismal unity with each other, we should take the necessary time to observe how the Conference’s decisions affect our ability to be a witness to Christ in the world.
What do we do in the meantime? We remember what unites us as members of Christ’s holy Church—our baptism and our place in Christ’s body. We remember what unites us as a denomination—our shared commitment to growing in personal holiness and happiness and to ministries of mercy and justice throughout the world. We remember what unites us as a congregation—our shared history, the friends and family who are now part of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the ministries that truly place us in the heart of Whitehouse, and the relationships which enrich our lives and our spirits.
We continue to serve the Lord we love. We continue to live out our baptismal vows to support the ministries of this church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. We continue to give our gifts of money and talents, so that ministry can continue in this place. We continue to worship together, lifting up our praise with our combined voices. We continue to grow together in our studies. We continue to share one another’s burdens through prayer and material support. We continue to live out Jesus’ expectation that we feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. We continue in our witness to others about the difference Jesus makes in our lives, not just after we die but now, as we live every day with Jesus by our sides.
Because, the one thing that truly unites us is not a thing at all. It’s a person. It’s Jesus: our Savior, our Redeemer, our Brother, our Friend. It’s Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. It’s Jesus, who commanded us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength our neighbors as ourselves, and each other as he has loved us. It’s Jesus, whose prayer was that we would all be united in him—one church and one Body, with him as our head. It’s Jesus, in whose liberating death we are buried through our baptism, and who, by the power of his resurrection, raises us to new life, here and now.
As you leave the sanctuary today, you’ll find bowls of water at both doors. I invite you to prayerfully touch the water, perhaps to make the sign of the cross on your hands or forehead. As you do, remember your baptism, and be thankful. If you have not yet been baptized, remember that the gift of baptism is yours to accept. Remember the One who prayed before his death that all who love him will be one, so that they may continue to witness to him who is one with his Father. Remember who unites us, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young