Complete Unity

John 17:20-26

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

 

I remember the first 3D movie that I ever saw. I was probably 10 or 11 years old when my family went on our one and only trip to Disney World in Florida. The movie starred Michael Jackson and involved a lot of dancing and flying objects that appeared to jump right off the screen and directly toward my face.

I remember that the kind people at Disney did not want any children to get too scared and perhaps they didn’t want any parents to get too sick, so when they handed out those lovely, multicolored glasses, we were told, “If you find yourself getting sick or unsettled by the three dimensional images, just close one eye.”

You do not need to take off the glasses. If you want the movie to instantly return to a flat image, just close one eye.

I remember nothing of the plot, or even if there was one. What I do recall is playing around, trying to figure out how a 3D movie works. So I took off my glasses and the first thing that I noticed was that the screen was now very blurry. The glasses did not contain correctional lenses. They were simply pieces of blue and red plastic. But when I took off these glasses, I saw everything with a hazy outline.

More research led me to understand that when they film a 3D movie they often use two different cameras — or another method — of capturing the exact same image from a slightly different perspective and overlaying these two images. The reason things looked blurry without the 3D glasses is because the glasses cause your brain to combine the two 2 dimensional images from slightly different angles into one 3D image.

I don’t know all of the science behind it, but this is the same concept that allows us to see things in our environment in 3D. We have two cameras, two eyes that film what we see from a slightly different angle. To see this all you need to do is place your finger about six inches away from your nose, look at it with one eye, and then close that eye, looking at your finger with the other eye. Your finger appears to jump around.

If you have ever lost a contact lens or the lens from you glasses you likely know that your depth perception is going to be off. You reach for things, but instead of grabbing them, you knock them off the table.

Seeing something from a slightly different angle, a slightly different perspective, allows you to see it better. It allows you to see it more clearly.

I recently went through a pastoral review. This was something I asked for as I simply wanted to know how I might be able to improve as a pastor. And I thank everyone that helped by participating in that review process. One of the things that was mentioned in my review is that I have done a good job of reflecting on the Bible and Christian life from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective. However, it was mentioned that many people in this church do not come from a Mennonite background and would be interested in hearing about some other traditions. Sounds interesting to me as well.

So I started reflecting on why so many people from other traditions have felt comfortable worshipping at Staunton Mennonite. And I came to realize that I have been formed and informed by a lot of Bible scholars and theologians from the traditions represented in our congregation. For instance, we have a number of people that have grown up in the Episcopalian Church. One of the greatest influences on my theology is N.T. Wright, a former bishop in the Anglican Church. My understanding is that the Episcopal Church was birthed from the British Anglican Church around the time of the American Revolution.

Another denominational root that we find here at Staunton Mennonite is that of the Wesleyan tradition, specifically the United Methodist Church. You may hear me quote Stanley Hauerwas from time to time. Hauerwas taught theology at Duke Divinity, a school affiliated with the United Methodist Church. I even learned this week from a Duke Divinity graduate that Hauerwas’ wife is now serving as a minister in the United Methodist Church.

Finally, I want to mention that I have been formed by David Fitch. Fitch is an interesting character. He teaches at Northern Baptist Seminary, is an ordained pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, and self identifies as an “Anabaptist.”

These three scholars/theologians that have been very influential in my life come out of the same faith traditions as some of the people in our congregation. So I thought it would be fun to take the month of August to look at these three denominations as well as the Presbyterian Church, because I am taking a class this fall at a Presbyterian seminary and I need to do a little more research to keep from putting my foot in my mouth. I plan to spend one week on each of these denominations, looking at what I think they could learn from us as well as what we can learn from them.

But today as way of introduction to this sermon series I want to look at why we need to learn from one another. The first thing that I want to mention is people from different denominations are looking at the same thing, or person (Jesus), from a different angle.

I come back to my opening story about watching a 3D movie. When we see something from a slightly different perspective we have the opportunity to see it better. I believe that this applies to Christianity as well. When we can see things from another perspective, we can come to understand it better.

Denominations tend to be influence by things like geography and ethnicity. If you were born in Germany in the 19th century, you were probably Lutheran. If you were born in England at the same time, you were probably Anglican. You were Catholic if you were born in Italy, or if you were born anywhere in Europe before the Protestant Reformation. Denominational affiliation has traditionally been strongly influence by your geographical location.

We can gain a lot from listening to people from different parts of the world, and even people of different races living in our neighborhoods. One of the most moving sermons that I have ever heard from the book of Exodus came from an African American Christian. It was amazing to hear how this man, whose ancestors had experienced slavery first hand, related to the story of God leading Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. This slightly different perspective still lined up with my theology, but it helped me to see God a little bit clearer than we privileged white males of European descent don’t automatically see.

The second reason that I want to look at these non-Anabaptist traditions is because without unity our witness to the rest of the world will suffer. Our scripture for today from John 17 is a part of a larger prayer. Jesus begins by praying for himself because he knows that his time on earth is coming to an end. He prays that God can be glorified through his actions. He then moves on to pray for his disciples. He prays that God will protect them from the ways of the world so that they might be a witness to God’s kingdom. Then he prays for the rest of his followers to be one.

Jesus prays in verse 21b, “Father, just as you 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.”

I like to emphasize that Jesus never prayed that the disciples agree on everything all of the time. He knows that will never happen, especially with this diverse group of followers. He has people across the political and theological spectrum following him. But he does pray for unity. In fact, verse 23 says, “so that they may be brought to complete unity.”

Complete unity.

Again, I don’t believe that Jesus ever expected Christians to agree on everything. Even Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals that Jesus’ will and God’s are not always one and the same. But I also feel pretty confident in saying that the way the church has repeatedly split in the last 500 years is doing the exact opposite of what Jesus was praying for here. The dis-unity of the church causes the world to question our witness.

Harvey Yoder, who is a counselor in Harrisonburg, Virginia, recently noted that “today there are 12 different Mennonite subgroups in Rockingham County (Va.) alone, and there are signs of even more church divorces to come… I find this multiplicity of divisions beyond embarrassing.”

I, too, find it more than embarrassing. I find it to be unfaithful to Jesus.

Many of these groups are among the Old Order Mennonites. Perhaps their reasons for splitting even sound downright silly to us today. I’m told that one of the main reasons for the split between the Old Order Mennonites and what is now the Virginia Mennonite Conference was over the issue of whether or not a congregation could hold Sunday school classes.

Remember Jesus’ prayer was that his followers would be one so that the world would come to believe that God sent Jesus to redeem the world. If non-Christians were to hear of this division among just a small group of people like the Mennonites of Rockingham County, what would they think? I can’t imagine that people would be saying, “Now there’s a group I think God is leading me to be a part of. I just need to decide which one to pick!”

I am not saying that there is never a reason for churches and denominations to split. What I am saying is that we have a history of doing it too quickly and that it hurts the body. But sure, I will admit that there are times when the healthiest thing to do for a body is to perform an amputation. However, amputation should never be the first option. You don’t amputate your entire leg when you stub a toe.

So the question I have is What does it look like to work toward “complete unity” in Christ?

I don’t have the answer to that question, but like so many important questions today, I know that the answer is not a simple one. Unity requires work. It requires effort on our part and on the part of others. But unity is what faithfulness looks like. And I believe that understanding the perspective of others is the first step toward unity. Whether we agree or not, we must seek to understand. That is why we are doing this sermon series.

As an act of unity I want to close our worship time today by observing the Lord’s Supper. The table is a sign of reconciliation through the covenant of Jesus Christ. Sitting down together, breaking bread with one another is an outward gesture of reconciliation. The host of this meal, the one who offers this gesture is of course Jesus Christ himself. Jesus invites us to his table to be reconciled to him and to one another, to be in complete unity with Him and with each other.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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