Out of Many, One

[getty src="10180574" width="508" height="337" tld="com"] 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. -John 17:20-21Today’s schedule of lectionary readings presents two voices, each speaking of the future with a mixture of concern and hope. In Revelation, John looks forward to the terrible but glorious events of the Second Coming.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus looks ahead to the time when he will be physically absent, and offers a prayer for his disciples, that they may all be one, in order that the world may believe that God sent Him.Jesus must have known how difficult it would be for his disciples to maintain a united witness. He had experienced the political maneuvering of James and John, who wanted guaranteed seats of honor in his kingdom. Jesus had just had predicted Peter’s denials.  At that very moment, Judas was elsewhere in the city setting into motion his betrayal. Already, Jesus could sense the fear and anger that his death would create in the hearts of his disciples.  Perhaps he could also envision the way in which his followers might fight about his legacy, and argue about the meaning of the cross.If you keep up with the news, you know that such arguments continue to the present day.  Almost every year at this time, one denomination or another is preparing to hold its annual national gathering, like the Southern Baptists will be doing in a week or so. At each gathering, there is likely to be rancorous debate about theological, social, and political issues of one kind or another. Presbyterians hold General Assembly every other year, so we’ll be spared a news focus on national conflict until 2020.Regardless of the particular issue under consideration, the loudest voices usually are toward the extreme edges of the spectrum, which tends to embolden those at the opposite extreme, and drive the moderate middle away in distress or disappointment.  On issues related to abortion and reproductive choice, for example, statements of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) often emphasize areas of substantial agreement on which all or most Presbyterians can and do agree. However, all too often, one extremist side frames the other as the embodiment of evil, and what could be productive conversation devolves into name-calling.Shannon Kershner at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago recalls a statement that the famous preacher William Sloane Coffin made long ago: “It’s wrong for preachers on every issue to stand as if in Armageddon battling for the Lord …. The temptation to become moralistic is strong, for it is emotionally satisfying to have enemies rather than problems. It is emotionally satisfying to seek out culprits rather than flaws in the system. God knows it’s emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that (kind of) righteousness that nourishes itself in the blood of sinners. But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can be spiritually devasting.”[1]From my vantage point as a former moderator of our regional presbytery, some of the most disturbing behavior of this type involves a kind of “staging” of public confrontation so that the results can be recorded, then used as “evidence” in later church and civil proceedings.  Why would this be important? Because if one party to a contentious issue can make a strong case it is in the right, that it represents the true successor of its denominational heritage, then the more likely that party in a legal proceeding will be allowed to retain its property. In order to achieve an end that is considered holy and just, it’s become more common to engage in some very unholy means and methods of getting there.When we think about the divided state of the larger church, we might fairly ask, “Why would we want to be part of the Church, knowing all its faults and frailties?”  It’s an important question. The question has many answers, each as unique as the individual who gives them.For today, I’ve tried to formulate a partial answer in a roundabout way, first by telling you a little bit about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was German pastor, who died in a Nazi prison camp in 1945.  I’m reading a recent biography that is exceptionally engaging. Along the way, I’ve been reminded how sad it is that I’ve not found a way in my preaching to better acquaint you with this bright, humble, self-sacrificing disciple of Christ.  But, to the point, Bonhoeffer not only expected a certain amount of disillusionment with the church, but actually was grateful for it. He seems to say that seeing the sin in others – the errors in their theology or behavior – should not be the end of our examination, but should drive us to see the sin in ourselves. And the recognition of our collective sin should make us more dependent upon and grateful for the grace of Christ.  In fact, our personal imperfections make God’s grace all the more remarkable when we see it at work among us and through us.In this world, there are many storms that threaten.   No matter how much we may put up with inside the Church, someone like Bonhoeffer would argue, it pales in comparison to what we would put up with outside it. The danger of not joining the church, and traveling unprotected outside its fellowship, far exceeds any danger associated with membership.  And, sometimes, in spite of the storms, we see amazing examples of God’s love.Every time an instance of gun violence occurs, as it did on Friday in Virginia Beach, some of us still remember the shock of the first nationally-discussed shooting at Columbine High School.  And when I think of Columbine High School, I always recall the story of John Tomlin, the student who had learned to love Christ in his local church, and learned to serve Christ through mission trips and service projects.[2]When the storm of gunfire entered his school library, John, like many students, ducked under a table.  From his vantage point he could see another student, Nicole Nowlen, deeply distraught and paralyzed with terror.  When John extended his hand, inviting Nicole to share his space under the table,[3]his actions were saying louder than words could, “The spirit of welcome is more important than the spirit of fear.”  When he put his arm across Nicole, as the murderous bullets thundered in upon them, he was saying, “God’s love is more powerful to bring people together than human hatred is to drive them apart.”  “The Christ who creates unity is stronger than the sin that causes disunity.”  When things get loud, angry, and sometimes even violent, it’s people like John Tomlin I look for, and draw strength from, as Christ reflects his light through them.Even in the worst circumstances of life, often Jesus’ prayer for unity is answered. He prays to the end “that they may all be one,” and sometimes it actually happens. You are educated by others and nurtured for your spiritual journey; you find a place with others to serve and make a difference; you make your best and truest friends who stay by your side through life’s most difficult challenges. Diverse as we may be, remember that in Jesus Christ we are one.NOTES[1]William Sloane Coffin, Credo, as quoted by Shannon J. Kershner, “One Body? The Question of Political Diversity in Church,” a sermon preached 19 May 2019, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, accessed online 29 May 2019.[2]Dick Foster, “Mourners recall respectful teen,” RockyMountainNews.com, 24 April 1999.[3]Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, p. 31.