7th SUNDAY OF EASTER
Many of you remember the good old days, back in the 60’s, when we had 60 or 70 people each Sunday, we had a choir, and we had a bustling Sunday School. I’ll bet that almost everyone you knew then was in church somewhere in this community on Sunday morning.
Well, times have certainly changed. I haven’t seen the latest demographic information, but it’s quite clear that most people no longer go to church with any regularity and large numbers never go. This decline started in the mainline churches, but the Evangelical churches and the fundamentalist churches are now having the same problems.
I recently attended the ECMN annual clergy conference. The whole time was focused on a book called The Missional Church, written by Randy Ferrebee, who was also there to do a number of workshops and presentations for us. When Mel came back this week from our Mission Area meeting, she reported that if we want to know what the various Missioners are talking about we will all read this book!
For now I just want to share one thought from this book. Randy labels the church of the first 300 years after Jesus as the Missional Church. After the conversion of Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the official church of the Empire, the church became the Institutional Church. The major mark of the Missional Church was that it existed in a time and place that was at best indifferent to it and at worst antagonistic. It was often ignored and it was also at times persecuted, even unto death.
It’s important to understand that this early Missional Church is the church to which and out of which the author of John is writing. By the time of the second and third generations after Jesus lived, the communities that followed Jesus mostly existed in Hellenistic communities like Ephesus, part of the Roman Empire, full of temples to numerous gods. The Jesus followers had been expelled from the synagogues and were worshiping in house churches.
If you think the Christian Community is divided and divisive now, you should take a look at the first 300 years. According to Bart Ehrman, a scholar who writes extensively about this era, there were even communities that believed in more than one God, not to mention all the arguing about the nature of Jesus, human or divine, about why the 2nd coming hadn’t come, about why Jesus died on the cross, or about whether communion with God came through human will or divine grace.
This is the community for whom John wrote his Gospel, and what we heard this morning is known as the High Priestly Prayer. This comes just before Jesus goes off to Gethsemane, and he is praying, not only for his disciples, but for every believer who comes later, that they may all be united by God’s love, in the same way that Jesus and his disciples are. This is a good lesson for the community just after the Ascension too, a reminder that we are still connected to Jesus even though we no longer see him.
While the repetition in John can be annoying, the purpose is to emphasize what Jesus is asking for. At its highest level, this prayer is asking that the relationship that exists between Jesus and God be replicated among all believers. Not just the disciples, but everyone who comes after them, including you and me. He prays “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.”
Peter Carman comments in Feasting on the Word that this means “unity among the followers of Christ may offer a model of a better world for all of humanity. . . and that this “unity grows out of the love of God.” This unity in love is what the Christian community can offer to a broken world.
Clearly this is as true today as it was in John’s time. At least in this country we are now a minority. We have to compete, not so much with other religious communities, but with sports, and working families who have little time together, and indifference. But the signs of brokenness are all around us, as well as signs of great hunger for meaning. The Christian community does still have much to offer to the world around us. Love, more than anything else.
There was a time when I was very enthusiastic about ecumenical work, that is, with the various Christian denominations working towards some common understanding. And lately I’ve heard three or four people express the wish that all the churches could agree. Well, I no longer think that is either doable or even necessary. For one thing, the major differences between Christian churches seem to me to be a reflection of the differences in our personalities, something that is not going to go away.
You know, some folks like everything to be black and white and some see mostly gray. Some want to be told what to do and some want to figure it out for themselves. You can go on from here.
The important fact from today’s Gospel is that the unity we should be seeking is a unity founded on love, not on belief, not on practice, and not on polity. When unity is based on the love of God that we all share, then there is necessarily respect between us as well. This is the recognition that we are all children of God.
I’d say that we have acted on such love, even if we have not talked about it this way, because we have joined with other denominations in practical mission to the broken world. Whether it’s the Lenten services, the Clothes Closet, the Servants of Shelter, or the Christmas dinner, we are in fact being a Missional Church by working with other Christians to model Christ’s love for us, and our love and respect for each other.
There’s still more we can do, especially by focusing on being with people outside our walls, as well as giving to them. But we have taken very important first steps.
All week I’ve been humming a song, and now it’s your turn – “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Wouldn’t John love this song? I hope you hum it all next week! That’s the root of who we are and all that we do. AMEN