When you and I were in our mother’s wombs – we were sensitive to everything she did. What she ate, we ate. What she drank, we drank. What she breathed, we breathed. Good things: like cheese and bread and veggies — and bad things, like cigarettes and too many cups of coffee. Whatever she knew, we knew. Wherever she went, we went. When she was awake, we slept blissfully rocked by her motion. When she was asleep, we rocked her with our motion. We were separate people, but we were also one.
Jesus uses mothering imagery, birthing and nursing, to speak of God and God’s reign. Jesus tells us to be born again – one again – this time not with our biological mothers, but born of the Spirit. Born and connected to God.
Jesus says God cares for like a nurse, a sitter, a grandparent soothing a little one’s fears. He says we are welcomed into God’s presence like a lost son welcomed home by a loving father; and we are sought after like lost sheep, or coins.
God’s love is like these examples, but yet more. It is a love and desire for us that is even stronger than what we can feel for our significant others, our children, our families and friends.
Jesus prays that we — all Christians around the world, throughout all time — will come to know this closeness, this empathy, and love. So what one does, another feels. When one hurts, we all hurt and respond. When one is praised, we’re all praised. When some sleep, others are awake, and we work in partnership: united, as one.
Just as we cannot be literally born again, but must be spiritually reborn, so too we cannot literally be one with one another. There is a difference between you and I; there is a gap that we must work to cross. But scripture gives us many examples of how learning to be one-in-Christ looks like.
In today’s reading in Acts, Silas and Paul are in Philippi. As they go to tell people about THE way to salvation through THE God, a slave girl follows them who has a spirit of python, a spirit of divination from the Zeus pantheon. Zeus, too, is called The God Most High. And the words the Zeus-following-spirit give the girl are just true enough “a way of salvation” versus “the way of salvation” — not naming which God is being spoken of — that Paul and Silas’ mission is getting confusing to the locals. Are these Jews and slave girl one? Are they both saying salvation comes from Zeus?
Paul gets annoyed – turns – and demands the spirit to leave the poor girl alone so she, and others, can think clearly.
But the girl was bound by more than just a spirit. She was also a slave girl, and her owners saw that their money left with the spirit. Where the presence of Jesus is, a person cannot exploit another. It is against Christ to become rich off of taking advantage, exploiting, another.
The account continues by saying the owners of the now-free-to-Christ girl drag Paul and Silas to court and charge them with disturbing the peace. That is such a broad charge that today plenty of people are still charged with it. And often, like Paul and Silas, they are activists who are trying to teach people a better way: the way of being one. The way of identifying with all people and loving all people. The way of standing in solidarity with those society likes to use, abuse, exploit, hide away, and shun.
The two missionaries are put in jail after being beat. They’ve not had a trial. They’ve never been given even a chance to identify themselves, let alone explain their side of the story.
But in the middle of this super unfair situation, they still praise God. Silas and Paul knew that God is one with us, and we are one with God. God is our father, our mother, our perfect love who doesn’t leave us in our darkest hours.
At midnight – there is an earthquake – and everyone’s doors and chains are released. Everyone! They all could run free! As soon as the jailer sees this, he gets his sword to kill himself. I mean – what else is he going to do? He’ll be tried as a criminal: he didn’t prevent all the prisoners from escaping. We know criminals die by crucifixion. A quick sword is a better death.
Much like Silas and Paul, and the slave girl, this jailer is in a prison too: and just like for Silas and Paul and the slave girl, the word of Christ releases the jailer.
The jailer hears “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here. No one escaped.”
The jailer gets a torch and comes into the prison — where all his prisoners calmly wait, freed, where without lights they knew the jailer was going to kill himself. These prisoners who didn’t fear their unjust treatment and praised their God… who in the world are these people? What gives them such strength?
The jailer doesn’t know who these people are, or who their powerful God is – but he wants to know: what must I do to be saved?
Saved from their God – who is far more powerful than anything the jailer knows? Saved from misery and hopelessness, as these people are? Saved from being selfish and saved from not identifying even with those who persecute and jail? What is the secret to these missionaries’ ever burning, hopeful, life-giving light?
They share: the source of their oneness, their love, is the Lord Jesus Christ.
And the jailer becomes one with the prisoners. He washes their wounds. He feeds them and gives them a place to sleep. The prisoners become one with the jailer. They baptize him and his family. They rejoice with him and his family. They all praise God, who brought them together.
Jesus’ prayer is this: that we love one another. That we all become one, as Jesus and God are one. That we convert the world with examples of our love for each other, and for the world. Compassion, empathy, willing to reach across divides and save the enemy- save the jailer- from themselves; save the imprisoned- save the slave girl- from those who exploit; and save each other -from the hopelessness of dark prisons at midnight– Jesus’ prayer is that our love reflect the love of our heavenly parent. And that our love be the balm that tends the world’s wounds. That the love – the love shown to us in Christ – may liberate the entire world so that we may all be one.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
How shall they, the world, know us? How can you witness if someone is a Christian? If it is by all of us worshiping the same, being in agreement, unity by similarity… showing love in the same way… we Christians are failing.
As of the last count, about ten years ago, there were over 330,000 Christian churches dotting America; and these are divided into 217 different denominations. World wide, there are about 4 million churches and 33,000 different denominations!
And an awful lot of us are not speaking to each other anymore.
Yet, Jesus’ prayer in John for us is, “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one–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.”
What happened to Jesus’ prayer? What happened to our unity? Where did it go so wrong that Christians frequently leave churches in anger, never to speak to their former brother and sisters again; and that Christians go out to injure, murder other Christians?
Can we pinpoint a particular moment?
Was it when the United Church of Christ began to openly welcome gays? You and I both know we lost many churches and members in the UCC.
What about several years before that, when in 1959 our denomination aligned itself with Martin Luther King Jr., and became publically active in challenging racial laws? We lost some churches then, who felt King was too radical, and we were mixing politics and religion. Again, we split into different denominations and factions.
But you know and I know, the UCC draws together several different denominations. To draw together denominations means our splitting had already begun.
So the divisions among Christianity had to start earlier.
Maybe our conflicts began in the early 1900s when new scholarship opened the history of the Bible for the laity. People began to see and read, understand, that the Bible has many different translations over millinia, and these translations don’t all agree.
At the same time, people struggled with science, which no longer tried to prove how the world was made in 7, 24 hour days… and science began to interpret the Bible rather than the Bible dictate science. Maybe the early 1900s is where we broke into churches that support science and those that oppose it.
But there were arguments long before science.
In the 1800’s, some people felt church was dry. Scholastic. It was all about lectures, learning, and the mind. It had no heart or soul. It didn’t affect the real lives of the people — lives that are messy and not scholarly at all. The Holy Spirit moved among some of the people and awoke them to reinvent their faith so that it was relevant to them again. Little Bible-study groups led to tent revivals, and tent revivals to new denominations that focused on the Spirit rather than study.
Now we had churches that began and ended when the Spirit moved the people; and we had churches with planned scripture and written sermons. Churches and denominations to serve both kinds of ways to worship God.
But, I tell you, we argued before the 1800’s too. Two hundred years before the Spirit reawoke the church, there were people who wanted to live pure lives, according to Biblical standards, and they felt that the Church – as it was – wouldn’t permit them. These “puritans” sure caused waves too.
Some of them held insane ideas… such as it is wrong to have slaves, others advocated many wives, while still others said one should never marry and be chaste. One such crazy man named William Penn started a whole colony based on treating the native Americans as HUMANS. It’s hard to believe his colony is now the state of Pennslyvannia… several early colonies were purposefully made as havens, safe places, to worship God in unique ways… such as by treating natives as brothers and sisters. Obviously other churches disagreed on many of the strange new ideas – and many new denominations were formed.
Simutaniously, other people felt our sacrements were no longer sacred – anyone could get baptized, anyone take communion – it wasn’t just for the faithful. These scholars read the Bible and saw adults being baptized, not children – and they wanted to baptize only adults who could confess their faith. So they began to re-baptize adults, and stopped baptizing children.
You know that caused major, major fights – because some people believe there is value to a child’s baptism. Some even argued unbaptized children go to hell. Big, big stakes — big, big emotions — lots of bickering — lots of new denominations.
Sexuality, race, what is proper to study, nationality, ethics and theology… these have divided us.
So too has money.
The Protestant Reformation was in part about money and power. The Reformation leaders felt that the Church needed to be far simplier, far less wealthy and powerful on the earth, and far more concerned with souls than with who is sitting on this or that throne. Each Reformation leader had a different idea how to go about this — and the Counter-Reformation — when the Catholic Church reformed — had different ideas within itself too. But all over, people split over how best to run a society with rules, and live a Christian life with rules, without the duties of either conflicting.
… We still haven’t solved this issue.
For example, it is wrong to kill, says the Bible. Is it always wrong? Can we defend ourselves? Is the military acceptable in Christian ethics?
Depends on your denomination.
Your interpretation of Scripture, Tradition, and experience.
They didn’t solve this issue in the Reformation. Nor was the Reformation the beginning of our divisions within Christianity.
Two hundred years before that, so about the 1300’s, the Lollards got in a lot of trouble. John Wycliffe believed people needed to understand Scripture. Few people spoke and understood Latin, which the Priests read scripture in. And sometimes even the Priests didn’t know what they were saying! So Wycliffe began to translate the Holy Scriptures into his native tongue, so he and others could understand Scripture better… and this divided the church. Is English too secular a language for Scripture?
But language was already dividing the church before the Lollards. A hundred years earlier, the church has split into the East and West. In the East, Latin was spoke and the Latin Empire was fighting Crusades against Muslims and others. In the East, Greek was spoke and they saw their Christian-Muslim cities being attacked by Latin-speaking Christians.
But their East-West issues began long before this moment. It started back when translations and theology couldn’t be agreed upon, hundreds of years earlier.
This takes us back to 400 years after Christ’s death… and you know what… Christians were arguging even then. They argued: Is it okay to be part of a secular community or should one be monastic? How is Jesus both divine and human? How does Mary fit into this? Is she the Mother of God, or Mother of Jesus, and is she divine?
And what about the Trinity? Not once in our scriptures is the Trinity described. Rather, it is inferred from the talk of God, Son, and Spirit. But once we speak of Trinity, it sounds like we have 3 Gods instead of one.
Oh yes… Christians slaughtered other Christians over these issues and understandings. Several councils were people were supposed to help each other with defining Christian theology ended with shoes thrown, swords drawn, and insults or death.
Yet, if we return to scripture, before this major conflict… we will find more yet conflict. The letters of Paul, Peter, John, Jude and the book of Acts all talk about conflicts in the early, early church! Jewish Christians and Greek Christians fighting; Aramic Scripture and Greek Scripture not agreeing in translations; and no one knowing if the Apostles, John, or maybe James has the most authoritative word.
… Even the Apostles couldn’t agree.
Jesus was right there! Right there with them and they argued amongst themselves! Peter even argued WITH Jesus!
Debate, diversity, has always been a part of Christianity.
… Jesus’ prayer, that we may all be one, has never been answered in the form that we don’t argue with each other.
… I think it never will.
See- Jesus didn’t pray: “Father, don’t let them argue.” No, he prayed that we may be one, united. He never prayed “May they all be identical.” No, he prayed that we be one in Christ, united.
In all the history of Christianity, which we just skimmed through, we have NEVER been united in everything. We have different languages, different prayers, different ways of understanding God, different priorities. We are different people with different souls.
I don’t think we ever WILL be united in these things.
Our unity isn’t in ethics, or governments, or language, or song, or even scripture…
Our unity is in Christ.
We are one because we all confess Jesus as Christ.
As Paul wrote the Collosians, we SHOULDN’T all be the same. Some of us are called to be ears — we hear things others miss. We hear scripture and know there are better, more modern ways to say that language. Or we hear the old hymns and know that these old songs speak a truth modern songs have forgot.
Others of us are called to be eyes — we see things others miss. We see how power and religion are helping or harming one another. We see and understand.
Others of us are mouths — called to be prophets, Called to be a voice to those who are silenced.
Others of us are hands — called to be doers, movers, workers. Called to build new churches, try new things, go new places.
Others of us are rumps — believe it or not — and we need to fill a pew, keep the fire of the faith burning, and pass this faith fire on to a new generation.
We are feet for walking with others; we are knees for kneeling in prayer; we are elbows for networking and shoulders for crying and backs for carrying and bellies for great big childish laughter.
We are the body of Christ.
We are different members, with different gifts, different ways of understanding God and responding to God’s call — but we are united in one Spirit, in one God, under one Christ.
God calls us by NAME. Our own personal name. We each hear our name, not each other’s, and we respond to our own name.
So long as we each are following where our Shepherd calls us, we are united.
So long as we are each confessing Jesus as Christ, we are united.
In the future, we’re going to have more arguments. I don’t know what they’ll be. Maybe we’ll argue whether or not robots have souls, or can take communion. Maybe whether or not computers can be pastors. I don’t know what we’ll argue, but we’ll disagree.
HOwever, I believe in Jesus’ prayer. I belive in the power of the Holy Spirit. I know we worship One God who, in stunning, exhubulant creativeiy, has given us unimagionable diversity. And this One God has One Love expressed in billions of ways.
I believe we will remain united in this love, united in Christ.
Arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings, divisions — these have always happened among Christians. But so too have we always had the prayer of Christ.
And this prayer, this promise, of unity in Christ will always let us extend forgiveness, tollerance, and love to one another.
We never have to agree.
We simply have to love.