Hear now the words of Jesus, spoken to His Father….
Scripture: John 17:20-26
“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. 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 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. 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. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 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.”
The word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Beginning: Recapping Last Week
Last Sunday, we started our three week series on Ordinary Time and ordinary practices by looking at the practice of prayer. This simple, ordinary act is our bridge into the extraordinary presence of God. We learned from Jacob that prayer is the most ordinary and natural response we can have after coming into God’s presence. The ordinary practice of prayer can give us all a deeper understanding of humanity and what we can do to meet the needs of those around us.
This week, we move from prayer, what I find to be the most difficult of the ordinary practices, into the one that I find the easiest: Fellowship with other believers. There’s not much in the whole world that I enjoy more than spending time with other Christians. That’s even more true when those Christians are a group of Methodists. You just can’t beat a roomful of good Methodists. And It’s always great to meet and get to know new people, something I’ve gotten to do a lot over the last month.
Fellowship is that ordinary practice that lets us get together as friends, have a good time, and fill our souls up with the joy we receive from being around other people. And if you’re an extrovert like I am, you want to do this as often as you can. However, what we hear from Jesus is that our fellowship has an impact that extends far beyond ourselves. There are things about Christian fellowship that can and do impact people other than those inside this church and those inside our circles of friends. According to Jesus, our joining together in fellowship is an active witness to who our Christ is and what his hopes for humanity entail.
In our passage, we find Jesus at the end of the Last Supper. He has been teaching the disciples his final lessons before his betrayal and crucifixion, and now he turns to his Father in heaven to pray. After this prayer, he and the disciples will go to the garden of gethsemane, where he will be arrested. I find this passage to be quite interesting considering our message about the ordinary practice of prayer last week. We have the power to pray, and in that power we connect with our extraordinary God. But here we actually get to hear what it is that God prays for. What does Jesus, our savior pray about? Well, he actually prays for a lot. Our passage is the end of a long prayer in which he has asked for the truth of God’s glory to be known on earth; he’s prayed that God will glorify him in heaven once his death on earth has taken place; and he’s prayed for the disciples – that they would be protected from the powers of evil after he was gone. All of these things are very immediate. Jesus is crucified only two chapters from where we are now.
However, even though Jesus knows his death is imminent, he doesn’t stop his prayer with the approaching needs of his disciples. Jesus also prays for us. He states, “I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” His concerns are for that first generation of people who would hear the gospel after his death and every subsequent generation including ourselves and those who will come after us. Jesus in the flesh has prayed for us. And that prayer is for one thing: our fellowship. Jesus prays specifically for the fellowship we will have with one another.
My favorite theologian of all time – his name is Karl Barth and I’m sure you’ll hear me quote him often – speaks to this truth about the importance of fellowship in the Christian faith. He writes, “The liberation of the Christian takes place as he [or she] is drawn out of solitariness into fellowship. The glories and miseries of isolation, of self-dependence, of loneliness, are now over for the Christian. As a witness of Jesus Christ he [or she] has nothing more to seek or find in this dark cavern. With every step which [the Christian] takes as such, he [or she] moves further out of it, leaving it behind and moving over and into fellowship, into fellowship with Jesus Christ… and fellowship with [humanity].”
Entering into fellowship, into this community of believers, is the first indication that we have entered into the Christian faith. We just can’t be Christians by ourselves. Indeed, this ordinary practice of fellowship is the first sign that we’ve decided to follow Christ. And that means you’ve got to be here. Your presence at church, at bible studies, at small group meetings matters tremendously. It’s important for the quality of the whole group, and it’s important to you as an individual.
But… and hear this… once fellowship is established it must exhibit one very important characteristic if it’s going to remain authentic and fruitful. Christian fellowship must be distinctively marked by unity.
Unity in Fellowship:
Christ prays that we may be one. Just as Christ is one in the Father and the Father in Christ, Jesus wants us to be one with them so that we may be in unity with each other. Jesus raises a very important description of what unity means for us as Christians. But first, let me tell you what unity is not. Christian unity isn’t based on the notion that everyone has to be in 100% agreement all the time. Christian unity isn’t about everybody believing the same thing politically, socially, or even doctrinally. That is not unity. It is conformity. An expectation of conformity is an expectation that you must believe what I believe. I don’t get the sense that there’s much grace in conformity.
We will never agree on everything, and that’s okay. Christians have been arguing with each other for 2,000 years. You can even find many examples in the New Testament of our arguments. The book of Acts shows several instances of conflict between church leaders and among new Christians. In addition, Paul’s letters often address specific conflicts within the communities to whom he writes. However, just because there has always been conflict in the church, it does not mean we cannot strive to do better.
Christian unity is possible only because of the endless, unconditional, self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. We share a common story, and it is one forever marked by a savior who was willing to die for us while we were yet sinners. When we are unified behind this enduring love, when we’re willing to be imitators of that love… that is when we are in Christian unity. Even if we sometimes feel like this is the only bond that we share, when we actively choose to follow this fact we hold in common, we can experience Christian unity.
The problems start to arise when we mistake conformity for unity. This happens too often in the church universal, as well as in our communities and congregations. We like being right and hearing others agree that we are right. However, our pursuit of “winning” the argument inevitably shames others into the category of “loser.” When we draw lines that divide this from that, the winners and the losers, we divide the church. Where is the grace in that? When we mistake conformity for unity, we alienate our fellow followers of Christ and we cripple the witness of the church. Demanding conformity destroys our integrity. The church is often perceived as bitter factions more concerned with pushing agendas than celebrating the glorious love of Jesus Christ that binds us all together. We must first and always demonstrate love so that we may be witnesses of that love to the world.
I’m not trying to say that we stand for nothing in the church. I’m not trying to promote an idea that we can be wishy washy and let everything and anything go. There will be some expectations of conformity. I just don’t want us to become a church that gets caught up in the minor, tiny details that have little to do with spreading the kingdom of God. As my former pastor and mentor, Rev. Jan Brittain, likes to say it, “If we are to err, let us err on the side of grace.” When all is said and done, and I stand before God in heaven, I would rather have God ask, “Chandler, why did you let so many people in my church?” than have God ask, “Chandler, why did you shut so many people out?” We should be the church that is not afraid to err on the side of grace. That would mean that our expectations of conformity would look radically different than those of the world. We would be inviting people to conform to the way that we love each other and the way that we open our doors to anyone who wants to come in to our fellowship.
I’m dwelling on this point because I want everyone to understand how important our fellowship, and the fellowship of the whole Body of Christ, is to the ministry of the church. When this ordinary practice of fellowship is ruled by conformity to insignificant things, it is divisive and devastating. But when it is ruled by the radical and self-sacrificial love of Jesus, it is the single greatest tool of witness we have in enlarging the kingdom of God. Christian unity proves God’s love has the power to bring together the divided and to heal this broken world.
Jesus’ prayer makes this point absolutely clear. He says, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 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.” We prove God’s love for the world when we treat each other with the same love with which Jesus treated us.
Our unity depends not on a set of shared beliefs, but on a shared experience of Christian love. This love starts with God’s love for us, and it is replicated in our love for each other. It is a love willing to err on the side of grace. It is a love that says, “I will see you first as a brother or sister in Christ.” That’s what unity is about. Though the church might be crawling with people with which we disagree, Christian love reminds us that God loves those people and asks us to love them too. This is what makes the church kind of messy and a whole lot of fun. We’re unified behind something deeper than political alliances and worship style preferences. We’re unified behind a love that knows no bounds… a love that wants to be active, alive, and shared with other people.
Fellowship marked by Christian unity is never satisfied with where it currently is. It wants to grow. It wants to push boundaries. It wants to reach out to people and places that we might would rather overlook. It is always wanting to share this love with others and open the doors of invitation even wider. In unity we realize that our faith is about being loved and loving others. And that love is going to take us places. It’s going to test just how far we can err into grace. We’ll start to see people walking through those doors that don’t look and live much like us at all. We’ll even start reaching out to people we never thought we could.
A unified church is a church that can truly testify to the life changing power of Jesus Christ and the love that he has for people and places of brokenness. A unified Corsicana First United Methodist Church can become a church where fellowship means that every person has food to eat, that every person has a house in which to sleep, that every child has the hope of breaking out of a seemingly endless cycle of poverty. We can be a place of growth and of hope. We can be the church that’s always reaching further, bringing more people in to experience Christ’s love through us.
That is the question, and it is the challenge. It’s my challenge to us. It’s Jesus’ prayer for us. I believe in the potential of this church. I have seen the potential in the people that I have been meeting over this past month. And as I witnessed a community of children come together under this roof for Vacation Bible School, I saw just how ready this area is to hear and feel the love of Christ that we can offer them. Let us all be challenged by the Christ who loves us. Let us all be an answer to his prayer. Hear that again… this is a challenge for you and me to be the answer to a prayer offered by Jesus Christ, himself.
In our journey towards unity, we will all be tempted to settle for the easy out that is conformity. Don’t take that out. Instead, be a church willing to err on the side of grace. Let’s be the people who are known for how many people with let in, not for who we keep out. Let’s accept the challenge of unity. Let’s unite behind the all-embracing, never-failing, self-sacrificing love of our savior Jesus Christ. When we do… I mean when we completely sell out to this choice to love one another in this way… our fellowship will become a tool for transformation and redemption. This simple, ordinary practice of fellowship will announce louder than our voices ever could the love the Father has poured out on the world through the Son, our savior. Let’s be the church of integrity. Let’s be the church of unity. Let’s be the church known to this community for how much we love one another. And if we must err, may we continually err on the side of grace… together.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.