“United in…”

John 17: 20-26

(The fourth sermon in the series, “Community.”)
By: Michael Roberts

A teacher once asked this essay question: “In what way is the United States united?” The problem was that the teacher misspelled “united” by reversing the “t” and the “i.” So the question read, “In what way is the United States untied?” Only one student caught it and wrote an essay on political partisanship and economic disparity and explored the idea that we are divided more than united. The teacher gave the student a bad grade and commented that he did not read the question carefully. He nicely asked the teacher to read the question more carefully, and he ended up with an A.

I do not know of another English word where you can reverse just two letters like this and you end up with the exact opposite meaning. United or Untied. Just one small change in the letters and the consequences are so profound.

Believe it or not, this can happen in the church. It happens when we shift our focus on what we think unites us. So, what unites us? Are we united in our politics? As your pastor, I can guarantee that we are not. Are we united in our opinions about social issues dealing with sexuality and marriage and poverty and climate? As your pastor, I can guarantee you that we are not. And what do you think might happen if we tried to find union in our opinions and stances of such issues? Well, we would quickly become “untied.”

What about unity in spiritual things – like styles of worship, modes of baptism, what kind of songs we sing? Here’s what John Wesley had to say about this: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, 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? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite ... and forward (my emphasis) one another in love.” Once again, it is not our opinions and understandings of worship that unite us.

So, what does unite us? This word is in our name – the United Methodist Church. It became a part of our name in 1968 when the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The EUB Church was originally a German-speaking Wesleyan Church. In 1968 these two great denominations merged together, where we are “united” in mission and ministry and a Wesleyan approach to life.

Beyond our name, we also believe that we are united with other Christians. We celebrate that today on this World Communion Sunday. We do not believe that we have a monopoly on the gospel. In the Apostles Creed we affirm, almost every week, that we are a part of the Holy “catholic” Church. The word catholic, with a small “c,” means universal. On this day, we proclaim that we are a part of the universal body of Christ, the holy catholic church. We see ourselves as part of this diverse body, which manifests the love of God in so many different and beautiful ways. It is true that some others in this body may not claim us, but we claim them. Hopefully, we will be able to enjoy the surprise on some faces when we all get to heaven. (“Oh, so you made it as well.” “What do you know?”) One thing that we want to cultivate here is the blessing of not being surprised by who will be there -- because we will all be there by the abundant forgiveness, amazing grace, and steadfast love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. That core understanding of faith is what truly unites us together as the Holy catholic Church.

When Jesus prayed for his disciples before he was sent before Pilate and to the cross, his prayer was dominated by two words, two big thoughts – First, that we would be “one” and, second, that the world would come to know of God’s love through us. That’s what was on the heart of Jesus that night. He was praying for the future church – that we might be “one” and that we would give witness to the love of God.

Later the Apostle Paul would give expression to this same prayer by saying that we are One body, under One Spirit, even as we bring many different parts and perspectives. Paul uses this analogy of the body because the people in the church were seeking uniformity rather than unity. They were trying to unite around smaller things, like whether or not to eat certain foods, or to listen only to certain leaders, or to worship is a particular style, and thus able to claim that those who were doing it differently were wrong. Paul calls us to be united to something much bigger, to find our unity in the Christ who is in all, above all, and works through all. He calls us to be one in patience, kindness, and humanity, in our eagerness to live in peace, or in a word “Love.” (Ephesians 4:1-6).

We’ve tried to capture this kind of love in our “Love Grows Here” focus statement where we say that we will (quote) “accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to love, forgive, bless, and honor one another.” We affirm these words of Wesley: “In essentials unity; in nonessentials freedom; and in all things, love.” I continue to hope that you will read this, write it on your heart, and say, “yes I want to be a part of a church like that.”

Today, we all have the opportunity to participate in this call to unity in a powerful way. Today is World Communion Sunday, which means that people around the globe, from many different theological perspectives, in many different cultures, speaking many different languages, are creating this procession to the altar in a continuous wave, moving with the sun from east to west, blanketing the world with this love. Today, we get to be a part of it. Today, we get to come and receive the life of Christ that unites us together. Today, we get to continue the prayer of Jesus. Father, make us one. Oh God, give us the courage and the gifts to reveal your great love for all the world. May this be your prayer as you come to this altar today. Amen.