Sermon for 7 Easter Yr C, 23/06/2004
Based on Jn 17:20-26
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Christian Love and Unity”
In today’s gospel, Jesus prays the high priestly prayer for the whole Church. In this prayer, Jesus prays for the unity of all Christians. He prays that all Christians might be united in love, just as he is united in love with us and with God the Father. If Christians are united in love, then they will bear witness to the world that God loves the world, and all peoples in the world.
In verse 20, Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word.” And what does Jesus ask for us? What does he feel we need from God if we are to be faithful Christians? He asks: “that they may be one.” Century after century, Jesus singles out as the greatest requirements of his Church first, that we should live near, with and in our God; that is first and foremost. Second, out of that there needs to flow a desire in us to draw nearer to one another, to live in unity with other people. It is because we live too far from God that we are alienated or separated from each other—person from person, church from church. For just as we are not capable of loving God without, at the same time loving our neighbours; we are likewise not capable of loving our neighbours without also loving God—and loving God first. The love of God claims first priority; for it is only God’s love through faith in Christ that gives us the power to love and live in the unity of love. Only if we live in the unity of love can we be witnesses to the world.
This point is made very clear in a Charlie Brown cartoon. In the cartoon Lucy is talking to Charlie Brown. Lucy says: “Our family has solidarity! And our family has loyalty and” Then Linus walks over to Charlie and Lucy hoping to get in on the conversation; when all of a sudden Lucy yells at Linus in an angry voice: “Why don’t you stop dragging that stupid blanket around!!!? You Blockhead!” Then Lucy continues to tell Charlie as if nothing happened: “and this family has love for one another.” Charlie looks at Lucy sadly, and Lucy does not convince him that her family does have love for one another.
Faced by the lack of unity among Christians, the world cannot see the true value of the Christian faith. It is our calling and purpose as Christians to demonstrate that unity of love with our fellow human beings, which is the answer to Christ’s prayer. Such Christian love and unity shall accomplish much more together, than alone as an individual, a congregation, or a denomination.
A story is told about a young lad who strayed from his home in a small town in Maine. It was a cold day and snow was falling. When the parents discovered that the child was missing, they first began to search for him in the homes of neighbors and friends. When he could not be found within the limits of the town, they began to search for him in the neighboring fields and woods. After a while the entire population became alarmed and all were eager to help. They ran around frantically in all directions, calling the boy's name, but their search was fruitless. When a wise man saw what was happening, he summoned the people and said, "This will never do. Let's organize this search properly and we are bound to succeed. Let us all join hands and march through the fields and woods and we will find the child." When they did as they were told, when everyone in the community joined hands, they came upon a pile of snow. They brushed aside the snow and found the frozen body of the lost child. The heartbroken parents cried out in grief, "Oh, if only we had joined hands earlier!"1
My hope and prayer is that all Christians might take the point of this tragic story, along with the words of Jesus in today’s gospel to heart. If that were the case, then this world and the Church would be a much better place to live in, as Christians everywhere reflected and lived that unity and love of Jesus. However, sad to say, too many congregations and denominations are divided and torn because they find it easier to fight with one another than they do work together in unity and love.
In a Kudzu cartoon, preacher Will B. Dunn is the coach of a church league ball team, offering words of wisdom in the game of life. The cartoon shows the batter waiting for the other team to resume the game while Will says, “This happens every time we play the Baptists! They squabble amongst themselves, and somebody winds up going off and forming another team!”
Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Baptists have a monopoly on church squabbles and divisions—the powers of sin and evil have influenced every denomination in one way or another to create strife and prevent Christians of every denomination from living together in love and unity.
Individual Christians as well as various denominations are discovering that the path to unity is an arduous one. There is much discouragement because of the time and energy that is needed to work through all of the complications. Maybe we all need to catch the vision of Jesus’ prayer for unity so that this process is not just the task for an elected few. Is not Christian unity the responsibility of all Christians?
Because of our pride and sinfulness this search for unity may be a never-ending task. But in recent years we have seen the Holy Spirit change organizational structures and create new channels for cooperation and unity. 2
The ecumenical movement over the last decade or so has been fruitful: Anglicans and Lutherans around the globe are drawing closer together; a few years ago, Lutherans, Catholics and Anglicans in Southern Alberta signed a covenant with each other; there are ongoing dialogues and cooperation with other denominations wherever possible. Here in western Canada, in Saskatoon, theology students are able to take courses in the Lutheran, Anglican, and United Church seminaries. There are some western Canadian ecumenical parishes—for example, in Slave Lake Lutherans, Anglicans and United Church folks all worship together and they are able to call a pastor from any of these denominations. All of this and more are hopeful steps on the long journey towards a complete unity based on love for one another.
One of the perhaps more unique contributions that we Lutherans can offer other denominations on the road to a greater unity and love is our tradition known as adiaphora. The word adiaphora for us Lutherans is used to describe all things in the Church which are neither forbidden nor commanded in the Bible. This is a sound, healthy tradition, which leaves a lot of room for diversity and variety in how we do things. For example, whether we celebrate Holy Communion by using homemade bread or wafers is adiaphora—it does not matter; whether we sing our hymns accompanied by a pipe-organ or piano or electric guitar is adiaphora. This emphasis that there is freedom for diversity and variety on matters that Scripture neither forbids nor commands may lead Christians into a deeper unity and love.
In our words, thoughts and actions, may Christ grant the grace to each one of us as Christians to live to fulfill the words which Jesus prayed for us: “The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Amen!
1 Cited from: Rabbi Bernard L. Berzon, “Miketz-Brotherhood,” www.jr.co.il/books/rberzon/styr016.htm .
2 Cited from: Durwood L. Buchheim, The Power of Darkness (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1985), p. 126.