Monday, May 21, 2012

Easter 7 of Series B (John 17:11b-19)

“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this seventh and final Sunday of Easter comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the Christian Church is always waiting. The disciples waited ten days from the Ascension of Jesus until the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; the Church has been waiting two thousand years and counting for Christ’s return. The secret of the survival of the Church these many centuries of waiting is found in our text: Christ prays for us, He holds us up before His heavenly Father and intercedes on our behalf. And on Maundy Thursday, He allowed the disciples to listen in on His prayers for His people. What does He pray for, what does He ask His Father to provide for the Church as she waits? “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Two thousand years after the Son uttered these words to His Father, there is little evidence that this prayer has been heard. Jesus asked that the Church be one, “even as we are one.” The Church is to model the very unity of the Godhead. As there is one God and three persons, so there is to be one Church, with many members. We are to be one, united together in this world but not of it, united so closely that we are of the same body. But we are not one; we are many. Everywhere we look, the Christian Church is hopelessly divided, into thousands of different denominations. This is a scandal, this is sinful, that the one Church is split apart, fractured on fault lines too numerous to count.

And even look within denominations. Congregations are divided, one against another, over all sorts of issues, some major, but most insignificant. Each one is doing its own thing, with little thought of partnering with others for the greater cause of the Gospel. Congregations are extremely parochial, concerned with their own territory, with their own personal mission, and they don’t want anyone else interfering, whether circuit, district, or synod. What about Faith and St. John’s? Do we work together for the good of the Gospel, or are we simply linked by the fact that we sit on the same highway and write checks to the same pastor? 

Finally, look even closer; look within our own congregation. Is our congregation one, as the Father and the Son are one? No, instead so often there is a ‘we’ and a ‘they,’ with factions and disagreements, spoken and unspoken, everywhere we look. Conflict arises over money, over power, over what we think the Church should do as opposed to the opinions of everyone else. Jesus prayed that we would be one, even as He is one with the Father, but two thousand years later, what we have is not one Church, but a Church made up of ‘ones;’ denominations, congregations, and individual Christians all doing their own thing, refusing to come together in unity for the proclamation of the Gospel.

What do you do when you see such division, such disunity? You and I try to fix these problems ourselves; we try to achieve unity through our own efforts. You ignore the differences between denominations, pretending that they don’t exist. Or you dismiss them, declaring that they don’t matter. This often manifests itself at the communion rail. Either you bring someone to the rail who you know isn’t a member of our church body, or you yourself commune at a church we are not in fellowship with. What do we say to justify ourselves in those situations and others? “It’s fine, because they’re Christians, too.” Many church bodies have the same approach; they have no problem with open communion or joint worship services because they have achieved what they call ‘unity’ by simply ignoring or dismissing their differences. You and I take a similar approach to fixing division within and between congregations. You solve conflict by not discussing it; at least not with the person who offended you. And when sin is brought up, you quickly reply ‘it’s fine,’ or ‘don’t worry about it.’ That way, everyone can get along, living together in ‘unity.’

But it isn’t unity at all; you have simply plastered over differences, not solved them. Unity in the Church will not come by ignoring conflicts and divisions, but only by dealing with them with the gifts that Christ Himself gives. In the same prayer that Jesus says, “that they may be one, even as we are one,” He also prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” We cannot have one of those prayers without the other; they belong inseparably together, for they are two sides of the same coin. The unity, the oneness that Jesus prays for only comes on the basis of His Word. Yes, it is a scandal that there are thousands of different church bodies, but their differences can only be dealt with by agreement on the Word of God. The scandal is that division has come by church bodies departing from the Word of God. We compound the sin when we plaster over our differences, because His Word is truth—not lies, pretending, or make-believe.

His Word is truth, the truth of the Gospel, the truth which sets you free. His Word proclaims to you the forgiveness that Christ won for you. You have been reconciled with God; now you can reconcile with one another. His forgiveness flows into your life and enables you to deal with sin, not ignore it or hide it away. Instead of ‘it’s fine’ or ‘don’t worry about it,’ you say, ‘I forgive you.’ You confront sin with the power of the Word, the power of forgiveness, proclaiming the truth of the forgiveness of sins to those who sin against you. You are united together with all Christians not by any effort of your own, but by the Name you bear. Jesus confessed that this Name is the source of our unity when He prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” You can forgive your fellow Christians, you can be reconciled to even those in this congregation because you bear the same Name, the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit placed upon you in your Baptism.

For unity is a gift of our Lord; the same oneness that Jesus prays for is His gift to us, when and where He pleases. We do not know when He will bring visible unity to the Christian Church. Perhaps it will not be until we are all gathered before the throne of the Lamb, wearing the white robes together in perfect unity. But we do know this: despite outward appearances, the Son has already made us one through His own blood. Unity is the gift of His cross. At the end of our text He declares, “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” Jesus consecrated Himself, He set Himself aside as your sacrifice. He set Himself aside as the holy, spotless Lamb of God, to be offered up for the sin of the world. His blood makes you holy, His blood gives you forgiveness, His blood makes you and me His own people. His blood brings forgiveness for all of your sins. If you have created disunity through your words or actions, you are forgiven! If you have tried to solve disunity through your own means, by ignoring or dismissing the truth of differences between Christians, you are forgiven! 

Only the cross can bring unity, for only the cross brings forgiveness and reconciliation—between you and God, and between you and your fellow Christians. Through Christ’s blood, you and I are sanctified, set aside, made holy as His Church, those called to be in the world but not of it, as Jesus declared: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” That is His gift to you through His death and resurrection on your behalf; you are no longer of the world, a part of its evil desires, doomed to its destruction, because the crucified and risen one has set you aside from the world by placing His Name upon You.

That is where true Christian unity is found: in the Name given to us in our baptism. Despite all of our other differences, we are together the baptized, and that is a source of inexpressible joy. Jesus prayed, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” This is the joy of the resurrection, the joy of Easter, the joy that comes from the knowledge that Christ Himself has conquered death for you, that He has reconciled you and your heavenly Father. This is the joy that comes from the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness that covers over even a lack of unity, even our feeble attempts to deal with disunity ourselves. Unity brings joy for unity is founded in the redemption of Christ. So rejoice with your fellow Christians of all denominations in the redemption that we share, even as you acknowledge the truth of our differences. Rejoice also that God has placed you in a congregation where we confess the same faith, bearing one another’s burdens in love, praying for one another and receiving Christ’s great gifts together. In unity, in fellowship, our joy is fulfilled.

We rejoice in this unity because the same Jesus who brought those petitions to His Father, the same Jesus who offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sin, preserves His Church in this world as she waits for His return. He doesn’t take us out of the world, for He hasn’t given up on the world, He hasn’t abandoned it. The Church is not to be of the world, but she will dwell in it, calling the world to repentance and then proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. This is a dangerous and difficult calling, but rest assured that the same One who died for you and rose again for you is praying for you, even at this very moment: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Christ didn’t just die for us and leave us to wait for His return; He is with us, filling us with His gifts, sanctifying us in His truth, and praying for our protection. He will continue to do this until that day when he takes us into His loving arms, there to dwell in unity with Him and all the saints for eternity. There we truly will be one, as He and the Father are one. In His holy and precious name, Amen.

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