I am continuing to follow what I have referred to as connecting points upon which to build my messages. This week, my message us titled Unity, which is a word that I have heard so much lately. Throughout the summer people from around the community and among my network of connections have asked to speak to me about unity and, specifically, finding unity. A few weeks ago our community held a Unity Rally, which I didn’t get to attend, but I thought it was a good idea.
What an interesting word unity is. But what an often ill-defined, murky word it is. What does the word unity mean to you? If ten people gave an answer to that question we would probably have ten different answers.
And that is the problem with the word unity; as much as we talk about unity, we rarely define what it means. We say we need more unity in our community, we need more unity in our nation, we need more unity in our world, we need more unity in our politics, we need more unity in our family, and we need more unity in our church. But what, specifically, do we mean by that word unity, and how do we achieve what we might define as unity? How can be united if we don’t define what it means to be united? Don’t you think unity should be, well, unifying? What an irony that we don’t always find unity on the meaning of the word unity!
I think that the word unity has devolved into what we might call a “catch-phrase” or “slogan,” which are words or phrases that are often used, but without any real understanding of what a person means when they use those words or phrases. At some point, those words and phrases enter our language in significant ways, but without any kind of agreement on their meaning.
For our Scripture text – or texts – this morning I want to read two passages. The first comes from John chapter 17, which is part of the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper. The second passage comes from Luke’s gospel, where the twelve apostles are listed by name –
John 17:22-23 –
22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—
23 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.
Luke 6:12-16 –
12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:
14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew,
15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot,
16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
I selected these texts because one of the final desires expressed by Jesus before his crucifixion was that his followers would be one, which means to be united. The list of the twelve disciples reminds us that, as a group, they were very different people, and yet they were able to find unity because of the mission and purpose to which they were called.
I want to define unity this morning with three words, but first I want to very quickly say a few words about what is not unity.
Unity is not uniformity.
The twelve disciples were so different from one another. One worked for Rome (Matthew, as a tax collector) and another was dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome (Simon, a Zealot). Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. As such, they were small businessmen, and it is highly likely that Matthew was their tax collector. If so, and considering the level of unfairness that was a part of the Roman-imposed taxation system, there would undoubtedly have been some hard feelings. Peter, James, and John formed what we might call the “inner circle” of Jesus (they were taken up the mountain with Jesus to witness the Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-9 – 1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” and taken further into the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, as recorded in Mark 14:32-33 – 32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.) while the others remained more on the fringes, perhaps leading to some measure of jealousy. And, on at least two occasions, James and John sought to find places of privilege and power by gaining seats to the right and left of Jesus (Matthew 20:20-18 - 20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” and Mark 10:35-45 – 35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”) In spite of these instances, there was a unity among the disciples, proving that unity does not have to come under the guise of uniformity.
To be united, we do not have to accept a code of uniformity. People often ask me, for instance, is your church conservative, moderate, or liberal? My answer is, yes. We are all three and more. We don’t all think the same and we don’t all believe the same, and guess what – it’s fine! We don’t have to be the same. We can be united in spite of our differences! Uniformity is not required!
There are such rigid orthodoxies in our society, and it is getting harder and harder to cross the lines of those orthodoxies. We have our various camps and those camps don’t mingle and mix very well. It’s as though the ground in between is shrinking and we must constantly choose sides, picking a camp in which we will live and shun the other camps.
Yesterday’s March to Recovery was a marvelous example of unity without uniformity. Scanning the crowd, it was obvious there was a great deal of diversity among those who attended the March. It was a common purpose that brought together very diverse people in a sense of unity.
Uniformity is not found in a creed.
I get asked a lot of questions, and they generally fall under one of several categories.
Some people ask, what do I have to believe to be part of your church? I have to confess, I don’t really understand that question. That is, I don’t understand why such a question must be asked. We do not have a creed, we do not have a statement of faith, and we do not require anyone’s ascent to a particular theological doctrine or dogma. It’s not that beliefs are unimportant, but we do not require anyone to ascent to a creed, because creeds invariably contain human opinions that are imposed upon others and, as a church [that is, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)], we simply don’t believe it is proper to impose one person’s opinion upon another person.
The closest we come is to say that we gather around the confession that Peter made when asked by Jesus who do you say that I am, and Peter answered by saying you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. We don’t need anything beyond that confession.
So, the three words I want to use to define unity are these – love, grace, and ministry. Those three words defined the ministry of Jesus, they defined the ministry of the apostles, they defined the early church, and they should also define our ministry as well.
We talk about love all the time in church. I have preached several messages on love in recent months. But we cannot talk too much about love, as it is so badly needed in our world.
But love, and its opposite – hate – are two words tossed around too easily these days. They are words used so casually that, after a while, they begin to lose impact and meaning. The word hate, for example, is too often attached to people who disagree with us. We far too quickly claim some people hate when they simply disagree with us.
To say I love you is a really big deal. A really, really big deal. I appreciate that you sometimes tell me you love me, and if you have, you might have noticed that I probably responded with some hesitation. Perhaps I shuffled my feet, mumbled something, and then changed the subject. I’ll admit that I’m kind of funny about responding when people tell me they love me – outside of my family – because I don’t know if I will always do what love both asks and requires. It’s not that I don’t love you – I do! – but I want to be sure that I mean it when I say it in return. Please don’t misunderstand me; I do not at all doubt you. It’s just that I want to be sure that when I tell someone I love them I mean something more than simple reciprocity – you love me, so I’ll love you in return. You’re nice to me so I’ll be nice to you. Love doesn’t need something in return to be true love.
Jesus was about love, so we must unite around love.
Can we pass a law this morning? It’s a law that I guarantee will be upheld by every court in the land. Let’s make a law that says this – don’t take to social media to air your differences, your criticisms, and your grievances. Don’t go online and criticize your friends, coworkers, spouse, siblings, etc. When you are tempted to do so call me, and here’s what I’ll do – I’ll bring a hammer and come and beat your phone, computer, or other device into tiny bits and pieces. And don’t get another one until you promise to keep your disagreements off of social media! And when I say social media I mean any form of communication that allows us to air our differences or disagreements with someone without speaking to that person. A plain old landline phone is one of the original forms of social media.
Don’t feel singled out; we’ve all done it. Don’t do it because it’s not grace. In fact, it hinders grace and keeps grace from doing its work. We need to speak words of grace and we must bathe our actions in grace as well. Our world needs more grace.
When we read the gospel we find that Jesus demonstrated grace over and over. One of my favorite stories is the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10 – 1 Jesus entered Jericho(A) and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”). No one in the city of Jericho seemed interested in demonstrating grace to Zacchaeus, but Jesus did. Zacchaeus had defrauded people in the course of collecting taxes, but the grace he was offered by Jesus changed his life.
In John 8:2-11 we read the story of the woman taken in adultery (2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”). Talk about grace! While surrounded with a crowd of angry, judgmental men, ready to stone her death, Jesus stays calm. He reaches down to write something in the dirt (what it was, I have no idea). Suddenly, the crowd grew quiet, as I imagine the only sound was that of stones and rocks being dropped to the ground, and of sandal-covered feet walking away.
I also love the story of Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30 – 1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. 7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” 19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” 27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.) It was a well-known practice that the Jews and Samaritans would not have dealings with one another, and even the disciples were surprised that Jesus would speak to the woman. But this is, again, Jesus demonstrating grace. He would not allow himself to be bound by the prejudices, boundaries, and limitations of the day, and neither should we.
Jesus was about grace, so we must unite around grace.
I vividly remember two phrases printed on the front of the bulletins in my home church – enter to worship…depart to serve. The words serve and ministry are synonyms; they mean the same thing.
Service, or ministry, is such an important word in our culture today. It is a sign, I believe, of how deeply embedded Christian values are in our society that everywhere you turn there is an emphasis on service. I remember a young man some years ago who was applying to colleges. His test scores were amazingly high, with an almost perfect score on the SAT and an ACT score well above 30. He assumed most colleges and universities would be very welcoming to his application, but many of them gave the same response – where are your service hours? Colleges and universities are looking for applicants with a demonstrated track record of service to others. Similarly, businesses encourage – and seek – employees to be involved in community service projects.
We often speak of coming to church, and that is accurate. But we must remember that church is not a destination as much as it is a beginning point. We come to church, not as an end in itself, but as a place to begin in our ministry and service to others. The word church is a noun, but it is also a verb. We come to church, but then we go forth to be the church.
I think it is safe to say that the reason some churches become engulfed in conflict and unhealthy behavior is because they are too inward looking, when they should be looking outward. If we stay in our buildings, looking at one another rather than at the needs of our surrounding communities, we begin to pick at one another and criticize one another.
Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry. Jesus was about ministry, so must unite around ministry.
So this is unity – gathering with purpose around love, grace, and ministry. Let us go forth in that unity!