A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer
Fir-Conway Lutheran Church
at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Sedro-Woolley, Washington
The Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 27, 2000
Brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters at Fir-Conway Lutheran, who join with us in spirit, worshiping our Lord, hearing his word and celebrating his Supper this morning. On a Sunday in which we read Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers, I feel especially privileged to represent one small stitch of the unity of believers everywhere, the unity shared by Bethlehem and Fir-Conway.
My text for preaching this morning is the Gospel, which records Jesus’ impassioned prayer for his disciples and everyone who would come to trust in him after the disciples. He has just shared his last meal with those disciples, and has taught them at length...a series of teachings that feels not unlike the parting words of a loving parent, leaving the children with a babysitter: These are the things you need to know before I leave. Be good. Behave. You are mine. I love you. I’ll be back soon.
Finally comes this lengthy prayer, apparently spoken openly before the disciples. That’s appropriate, since it is especially for them that Jesus prays, and he wants them to know it. “Let all of them be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Jesus asks that all of those the Father has given him might be one. And, to be true, countless Christians have echoed his prayer for oneness. Yet, our prayers and our efforts at being one with each other too often seem to come up short. Our world is one of disunity, and Jesus’ words may seem a tad naïve to us, if not outright misguided.
What kind of oneness can we have when people within our country are split right down the middle in their opinions about practically every major issue? When we’re so divided that one person’s change of conscience–and partisan loyalties–can drastically alter the political landscape overnight?
Travelers this holiday weekend know a thing or two about disunity. As they drive from state to state, they will encounter different road signs and traffic laws. They will pass through different time zones, through places which observe daylight savings time, and through places which do not. Within one single state, let alone a whole country, the simple question, “What time is it?” might just produce a not-so-simple answer.
What sort of oneness can Jesus possible be talking about? There are three types, I propose, that Christians have tried out for size. Their names sound very close to the same, so we’ll have to consider very carefully which one is really what Jesus was praying for that night. The three different kinds of oneness I would like to talk about are uniformity, union, and unity.
First of all, we have uniformity. Imagine for a second a classroom in a private high school. There is a dress code; uniforms are required. Navy blazers, white Oxfords, striped ties, khakis for the boys, plaid skirts for the girls, shoes polished to a shine. Most likely there are many good reasons for this school’s dress code. It’s probably a long-held tradition, for starters. Perhaps it helps minimize the effects of high school’s social caste system, where kids are defined by the cost of the clothing on their backs. Maybe the dress code was implemented to curb the effect of gangs in that town by requiring decidedly unganglike outfits.
But go back to that mental image, the classroom full of kids in uniforms, for a moment. Do you see the kids? Or do you see their uniforms? Whatever a uniform’s reason for being, it’s purpose is to make many different people identical, to make them uniform in appearance. In our classroom there are probably kids of several different colors and complexions. There are boys and there are girls. There are tall kids and short kids, fat kids and skinny kids, kids with tons of money, and kids with somewhat less. But their uniforms give them a kind of oneness to the eye that, in the end, denies their individuality.
Or imagine a football game at Sedro-Woolley high school. Your kid is down there somewhere on the sidelines, but you’re stuck in the farthest-back bleacher...nosebleed section. From this distance, the only real way to tell the kids on the team apart is by the huge numbers silk-screened onto their jerseys. Other than those numbers, the kids are all more or less identical blotches of color out on the field. The uniforms show you at a glance which team is which, but they hide for the moment all of the individual charm and endearing idiosyncracies that make your kid so precious to you.
In the church, we certainly have considerable uniformity. I can guarantee you that my people back at Fir-Conway will hear a sermon this morning. They will pray the Lord’s Prayer using the same words as other Christians. The will confess their faith with the very same creed we’ll use here at Bethlehem. You could go to Fir-Conway, in fact, and feel right at home from the very first hymn because of how uniform our congregations are. But–and here’s the important part–underneath those “uniforms” we wear, each of our congregations has its own personality, and those are important to Christ. He would not ask the salt of the earth to give up the very unique flavor that makes it valuable, would he? Not at all! In fact, he says that when salt loses its zing, the only thing it’s good for is to be tossed out and walked upon. Jesus wants his followers to be one, but not at the expense of their individuality. After all, Jesus died to save individuals, not the uniforms they wear.
So if uniformity is not the thing, what about union? As I drove to work one morning this last week, I was surprised to encounter a handful of people picketing on the overpass near Conway. They were state employees, their signs said, and they were protesting what they considered unfair treatment by their employer. Now, these people were not wearing any uniforms. Perhaps on the job the put on the caps and slacks and shirts of a uniform, but on that overpass their oneness came from something other than their clothes. They shared a common purpose; they were standing together to achieve a goal; they had a oneness we call union.
Now, union is a much better thing for Christians to be striving for than uniformity. People in union with each other probably have different tastes in clothing. They almost certainly watch different programs when they settle into the sofa for an evening of vegging out. Some are probably pretty laid back; others are likely to be more organized about things. They never lose their sense of being individuals, but they do gain something by drawing together. People in union discover that they are stronger together than the sum of their parts. Their collective voice is louder than their isolated voices. When there is a mission or a goal, many individuals in union together are what you need to get the job done.
The tricky thing about union is that we may not really care all that much for our teammate’s personal hygiene. Or her taste in music. Or his rather obnoxious humor. In short, we might not like many of the things about the individuals who are part of our cause. We might even wish for some uniformity...as long as all the members of our union were uniformly like us. But the strength of union comes precisely from all those different abilities, all those different styles, all those different gifts being put toward the common goal. Union is not about “me times a thousand.” It is about “all of us, together.”
This is not the oneness that our church naturally has. We have to work at it, and work hard for union with each other. But we are on a mission for Christ, and we do share a common goal of proclaiming his good news. Our challenge is always to put aside our differences in order to work together toward our mission in this world, to take a stand–like those picketers did–for something we all believe in.
But even this union among believers is not what Jesus prayed for, I think. Jesus asked the Father that evening to make his followers one, and I have to believe that the Father did indeed answer Jesus’ prayer, that very evening. Clearly he did not–and would not!–simply make us all uniform. Union is not the thing, either, since our track record with this noble goal is rather less than impressive. No, what Jesus asked for, and what the Father granted that night was unity among believers everywhere.
Think of unity like a family tree. My name is Bob Schaefer. “Bob” identifies my individual little branch of the larger “Schaefer” tree. Now, looking back on generations of Schaefers, it quickly becomes clear that we are not in the least bit uniform. Sure, there is a certain family resemblance, but if you were to take some Schaefer from five generations back and stand him next to me in this pulpit, the lack of uniformity would be clear. Even less so do we Schaefers have union! I suspect that we would be largely unable to decide on what sort of topping to put on our ice cream–much less who should be president, or anything else of great importance. But despite the lack of uniformity and union in my family, I still have such a sense of oneness with this people that I wear their name with my own: “Bob Schaefer.” That’s me. My oneness with them has nothing to do with appearance or purpose...it’s all about identity. We Schaefers have unity with each other.
Christian unity is like that. God has made us family, adopting each of us as his own. God’s action, his free gift of grace, has given us a new identity–“child of God”–and has put us on the same family tree. If you doubt this, consider one of the “going away” lessons Jesus taught his disciples right before praying for their unity: Jesus is a vine, and we are the branches of the vine. Or, if you will, Jesus is a great oak tree, and we are boughs and branches and twigs and leaves.
This is a unity that we have regardless of how well we all play together. It’s the most basic part of who we are, the most real thing you could ever say about Christians: We are all one, because God has made us family. When we squabble, when we disagree, when we don’t want to look each other in the eye...those are the times to look to the Vine to which we were all grafted and remember the name he gave each of us: “Child of God.”
So, we have three different kinds of “oneness”. Uniformity is about appearances, and it is something that Christ’s followers should pursue only to the extent that it is helpful. Union is about acting together on a common belief, and unity with each other is something that all Christians everywhere are called to strive toward, even (and especially!) when it’s hard to do so. Unity is God’s gift to us, his answer to Jesus’ prayer, his forming us into one family–his family.
Today, during our sacrament of unity–the Lord’s Supper–let us lift up our hearts in gladness with our brothers and sisters in Christ, those at Fir-Conway and those throughout the earth, thanking our Lord for the unity with which he has so richly blessed us. Amen.