Liturgy can open the world to some interesting questions. The things we say and do as part of our worship services introduce ideas to people that they may never have heard before, especially if they have never been in a church as part of our denomination. Of course, sometimes people who have attended the church all their lives may miss something or wonder about something a long time before asking about it. Usually, this leads to questions for me to answer as the resident local church theologian about whatever the person is wondering about.
One of these wonderings happens at every church I have ever served and usually creates a conversation about the creeds. Normally, after the church service, someone will walk up to me and say something like, Are we Catholics? Usually this is someone who became a member the church by letter or transfer rather than having gone through confirmation or they have simply forgotten what they learned in confirmation. And while there is an explanation at the bottom of page for numbers 880-882 in the hymnal, it is small and hard to read. Most people just look up at the screen and read it from there. In the end, I explain to them that there are two meanings to the word catholic and the difference has to do with whether you capitalize the first letter. If you capitalize the word Catholic, then yes, you are talking about arguably the most ancient expression of Christianity, usually the Roman Catholic Church. If you don’t capitalize the word catholic, you have the word that comes from the Greek word katholikos, which means universal or general. In short, we are from the Catholic church originally (as are all Christians who are not Orthodox) but no longer Catholic with a capital C. We are a part of the greater Church (also capital C) and therefore, we are part of a universal or catholic movement (with a little c).
This morning I want to share with you a little about this idea of unity. We are hearing quite a lot about it in the United Methodist Church these days as, quite frankly, our denomination is faced with the potential of fracturing. The major issue that people talk about is homosexuality, but the real underlying issues have to do with authority, regarding The Book of Discipline, and how various people on either side of the issue interpret the Bible. All of this has been stewing in one way or another through most of the twentieth century. We had almost the same issues regarding the role of women in ministry and the role of minorities in ministry. In many places, we still struggle with both issues even though the greater denomination made decisions on the matter years ago. Our current denomination, The United Methodist Church, brought the baggage of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church together in one place and chose to share it with each other, while never really sorting through it. From my research, we have argued over everything from slavery, alcohol, the major tenets of Christianity, abortion, and almost every political and social issue of the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries. For most of our existence – from the Methodist Episcopal Church to MEC North and South, to Methodist Church to UMC we have fought about something. It reminds me of my childhood; my sister and I in the back seat of my parent’s station wagon, arguing and fighting over an imaginary line in the middle of the car while my parents tried to keep the peace from the front seat. This line has been drawn, erased, redrawn, crossed, ignored, and generally fought over in one way or another for the better part of two centuries in this country.
And yet we have a passage here today where Jesus is saying, 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 more modern translation of that phrase that they may all be one is in order that all are in a state of belonging to one another. The idea of unity in the church, the oneness of belonging to one another, isn’t some formal arrangement or gentlemen’s agreement. It is based, as the scripture says above, in the oneness that Jesus shares with God, a unity of presence, purpose, and being. The oneness described here is a reference to wholeness, the singular nature of the community of people who claim belonging to God. We find our wholeness, our oneness, through our bond with each other as we bond with God. This unity is an interconnectedness of life and love, bringing us into true communion with God. Some might balk at the idea of community over the individual, after all, the American ideal is rooted in rugged individualism and personal distinction. This is not the ideal where God is concerned. Where God is concerned, we become what we are intended to be through our connection and communion with others and ultimately, with all of nature and with God.
Think of it like a triangle, with God at the top of the triangle and with us along the bottom. As we grow closer to God, we grow closer to one another, more unified in our direction and purpose as those who seek to know God through Jesus. In my way of seeing things, this is how we attain unity as a body of believers.
I wish I could say we are doing that as a big C Church, but I don’t think we are. I think we look more like this. We are moving not toward together, but in many cases away from God and away from each other. The unity, the wholeness, the oneness that Jesus prayed for us to have has been lost. We have traded being one for being, what we think, is right. We have decided that we know God well enough that our side, whatever side that is, has a monopoly on what is right and everyone else is at best, wrong, and at worst, going to hell. We have come to use our sacred book as a hammer to beat others into submission rather than a guide, a map for living in love and peace with God and neighbor. We refuse to admit that we might be wrong, that we might have something to learn. We might need to deepen our understanding of the faith beyond where we are. We might need to approach our faith with more humility than certainty, more openness than absolutism. We hide behind our fears of having to change without realizing that transformation is, in its simplest form, change.
Don’t take this to mean that I advocate doing or condoning the wrong things in the interest of unity, far from it. But before we run over to that and grab it as an excuse to go back to the holy war, ask yourself, how certain am I of being right? How well do I know or think I know what I’m talking about? Where did I learn it? How did they know? Why do I think I’m right? Why do I think the other person is wrong? We will never have unity without stopping to question ourselves and make certain that we are moving in the right direction. And we will never know if we are going the right direction without first stopping to check.
And here’s a little checkup. I see two things that we need to do about it in light of one statement that I see as our purpose for being here. The statement is this:
We are not okay until we are all okay.
What do I mean by this? I mean that as disciples we are called to make disciples, all over the world, of all peoples, in all place. We do not clean them and then call them, we do not force them to behave as we do, then believe as we do, before allowing them to belong with us. We create a space for them to belong to the community, drawing them in, making them one with us. Then we share with them what we believe and why it has made such a difference in our lives. And through it all, we show them the behavior of true disciples, the behavior of Jesus as if He were standing before them.
Unity, oneness, is not all of believing exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way. If that is your mindset about church unity, you’re in trouble. It doesn’t exist. No two people in this room agree on everything in the same way. Unity is a matter of developing oneness with one another through our continued work in developing oneness with God through Jesus.
Years before the first gospels were written down, Paul wrote to a group of churches in Ephesus and said,
1 I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
One body. One Spirit. One Hope. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God and Father of all.
This is our calling. This is part of our way of life.
Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sanford, John A. 2000. Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroads Publishing.
Spong, John Shelby. 2013. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Wright, N.T. 2004. John – For Everyone: Part Two, Chapters 11-21. London / Louisville: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Westminster John Knox Press.
 (Arndt, et al. 2000, pp. 282-286; 326-330; 475-477; 782-784)
 (Wright 2004, p. 99)
 (Sanford 2000, p. 303)
 (Spong 2013, p. 205)
 (Sanford 2000, p. 304)
 Ephesians 4:1-6