May 29, 2022 - sermon - Pastor Betsy Wooster

Sermon Text


Today’s text from John’s Gospel finds Jesus with the disciples, just hours before he’s arrested. The preceding chapters are filled with Jesus giving a long discourse to the disciples, giving final instructions and speaking his last teachings to them. Now, in chapter 17, we are listening in on Jesus’ prayer for his followers and for us, for all those who will become the church in the world.


 A reading from the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, verses 20-26:

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that 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. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’May God bless us with understanding.


Let us Pray:

O Creator of all that is, be with us in this time of worship, as we lift our hearts to you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen


Jesus is praying in today’s scripture reading. He is praying for his followers, and his followers’ followers, which is where we come in.  Jesus prays that we may be “in God” in the same way that he is, that we may be one in God so that the world will believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God among us.


The unity Christ prays for is not only for our own well-being and relationship with God, although it is that, but the text clearly states that our unity serves as a model of the redeeming love of God through Jesus Christ for the world.


They’ll know we are Christians by our Love, by our love; they’ll know we are Christians by our love.  This rousing hymn seeks to define the unity that Christians find when we walk hand in hand, when we work side by side, and most of all, when we are one in God’s Spirit.


At the conclusion of this sermon, we will rise together and sing the hymn In Christ there is no east or west, another rousing hymn claiming that in Christ there is no division among his followers, that our hearts will find communion, that the faithful will join hands, and most of all, that service to God is the golden cord that binds Christ’s followers together.


We at Federated Church can find ourselves in these hymns.

We work hard at serving our neighbors in need, we work hard on ministries of justice such as racial disparity and creation care, we are an open and affirming congregation that rejoices in the diversity and richness within the human family, all of us formed, created and brought into being together by God. We rejoice to find unity in God’s love across our differences.


The hymn texts make it sound easy, and the singing of these words is an act of worship as we lift our hopes and prayers that we will be the people that we sing about being.


The hymn text also reminds us that living out the words that we sing is harder than the singing. Singing the hymns is an exercise in remembering what God has called us to do.


The challenge, is doing it.


Christians often disagree with one another, sometimes vehemently disagree with one another. How can Christians with real differences realistically serve God in ways that make us one in God’s spirit?


How quickly I can pivot from identifying with Jesus’ embrace of difference and diversity, to keeping my distance from fellow Christians with whom I have, let me say, serious concerns.


It is hard to talk with fellow Christians who hold very different understandings of the gospel message than I do, so different that it can feel like we don’t share the same religion.


I’m also all too aware of siblings in Christ who are critical of my pluralistic approach and inclusivity, they are critical of my still speaking God, they are critical of my God-centered choice to be open and affirming to all those who identify with the LBGTQ+ community.


And, I am critical of them.

I am critical of their exclusionary practices. I am critical because they shrink the expression of the gospel’s extravagant grace; I am critical because they harm the spirit and soul of people whom they deem not worthy of God’s love. I am critical, and I make a distinction between them and me.


I wonder how comfortable I am singing my hymns now?

Jesus prayed for unity…….How do we find it?


Argument and conflict with people within our own tradition is a problem, but it is not a new problem. We have a story from two thousand years ago that tells us so! It is not a new problem and the solutions do not need to be new either.


The Mishnah, the earliest document of Rabbinic Judaism from the 3rd century, is a learning manual of sorts about how to get along with your family, or your faith family, when it comes to arguing about issues of ultimacy. That’s right, there’s a manual!


In the Mishnah, which records much of the two-thousand years of Rabbinic history, there is an approach to dealing with conflict, known in the English translation, as “Argument for the Sake of Heaven.”


The concept behind argument for the sake of heaven is the need to disagree because something valuable is at stake. It’s not talking about just any kind of conflict. It is not for questions like how many consecutive terms should commission chairs be allowed to serve (well, it might be). Argument for the sake of heaven is for issues of ultimacy. Yes, there’s a solution to my problem and it has a name.


Argument for the sake of heaven is a model that suggests that religious debate, even if fierce, can be playful and generous. The point is not to convince the other side, the point is to preserve relationships.


Argument for the sake of heaven has a few basic rules:


1.    Debate the issues without attacking people


2.    A motivation for their disagreements is not about winning, but about debate for its own sake.


3.    Both parties agree to listen to the other side.


4.    Both sides agree that each equally come to their viewpoint honestly.


Arguments for the sake of heaven are the kind that endure because humans are never able to know everything – imagine that.


The Mishnah decidedly does NOT say that either party will be convinced that the other is right, nor is that the point. The point is to embrace this practice of approaching conflict without becoming mortal enemies.


This problem of religious conflict is not new. The solution to conflict does not need to be new either. Jesus is praying for us. Jesus is praying that we might be completely one, so that others can find God through us.

Jesus is asking a lot of us.

So, how do we do it?

We follow the model of Jesus:


Jesus ate with the Gentiles.

Jesus talked to, and argued with, the religious authorities and the disciples.

Jesus crossed boundaries to stay in relationship with others, those considered to be unclean, those considered to be irredeemable sinners, even those who hated him.

Jesus crossed boundaries to witness to the power and love of God.


We follow the model of Jesus…


We also pay attention to the claims of our own faith tradition in the United Church of Christ. There is a core UCC claim that is also a modern day manual for us. It reads: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.” In Christian theology and ethics, charity is a translation of the Greek word agapē, meaning “love.”


“In all things, Love.” When we are grounded in the grace, love and mercy of God, we become an example of unity in God for which Jesus so ardently prayed. We are better able to build meaningful relationships within our church and within our broader communities.


For much of Christian history, the church taught Christians to be in full agreement about theology and doctrinal beliefs. Everyone who claimed Christianity had to believe the same thing. If you didn’t believe in the church doctrine, you weren’t Christian. You were either in or you were out.


There are some Christian traditions in which this is still the case, but there are places where we find life giving gifts in our Christian diversity.


Jesus prayed for us. He prayed that we would be one in our commitment to our faith in God as the source of all love. Jesus prayed that God’s love would ground and center our communion with one another. Jesus did not pray that we be in constant agreement.


We have learned over time that we do not have to agree on every issue. We recognize that people who disagree can come to their opinions honestly.


Practicing a diversity that seeks to preserve human relationships is healthy. We can listen to, and learn from, each other. Listening does not have to mean that we condone another’s belief.  Listening means that we are paying attention across difference.


We have also learned to worship in diverse ways. Certain expressions of sacred music and prayers will resonate naturally with different people, and we can be enriched by the ways that don’t immediately strike a chord with us, or we can at least be curious about them.


In the UCC we strive for the essence of the church to be one. We can fall short in our efforts, yet we seek to learn from others who are different from us, and to speak out when we disagree.

The unity for which Jesus prayed is grounded in reciprocal love, the kind of self-giving love seen in the life of Jesus. This love requires that we first understand ourselves enough to recognize the humanity of others.


This is what Jesus asks of us, to open the doorway to reciprocity by recognizing that we all share a love for Jesus. We cannot speak for others whose understanding of Jesus is unrecognizable to us.


But Jesus prayed for us…. and it’s up to each of us, to share this love with the world in ways that reveal the goodness, mercy and grace of God in each and every person. Like Jesus, we must pray for unity in love.


And in doing so, they’ll know we are Christians, by our love.

Let it be so. Amen.