I realized only last night that, as today is the second of June, I was ordained one year ago today in this sanctuary. If I were a person who thought ahead and compared dates in advance, I would have realized before last night that this was an ordinanniversary sermon and written it accordingly, but I didn’t, so it isn’t.
In fact, I asked the Midweek Manna crew to please team-write this sermon, and instead of writing a sermon they said a bunch of wise things from which I benefited immensely, and which have not left my mind since.
About a month ago I went on a retreat with some other pastors in the presbytery, and we spent a lot of time talking about unity in diversity and the challenges of ministering in an increasingly polarized country. There are things about this language I don’t like—I don’t think polarization itself is bad, for instance; it seems to me that there are things on which one should not compromise and about which one should not feel ambivalent, for instance refugees in cages under highway overpasses and their children held in tent cities; and I don’t think it’s new, just newly evident—but it is undeniable that the sharpening of disagreement puts a strain on everyone, even me, and on the Church itself.
The weekend of that retreat was also the weekend Rachel Held Evans died, that luminary of what many call the “exvangelical” stream of Christianity, the ones who found themselves exiled or fleeing the evangelism of their upbringings, searching for more ways to read the Bible, more ways to believe, more ways to relate to one another, than they had been afforded. In death as in life she was polarizing, that is, she served as a catalyst that made visible the fault lines that already separated us. She has been praised and castigated, mourned whole- and half-heartedly, decried as a false teacher and held up as a prophet. Her funeral was yesterday; it was streamed online, and has been watched by nearly thirty thousand people.
What I am trying to talk about is the problem of unity. We haven’t got any, that should be clear. We’re Protestants already, which puts us at a disadvantage. Presbyterians in particular are natural schismatics, descended from schismatics, with a family tree that looks like a tumbleweed, splitting and splitting and sometimes rejoining only to split again. We split Old School and New School over issues of doctrine before the Revolutionary War, then the Old and New Schools each split north and south over slavery, then there were some mergers, new splits over civil rights and women’s ordination in fifties and into the seventies. My own ordination was made possible at the cost of two schisms fifty years apart.
And of course we’re carrying on a venerable tradition; one of the earliest events in the infant church, less than a generation after the death of Christ, was Paul calling to the carpet Simon Peter and James the brother of the Lord in front of the entire Jerusalem congregation. We have had councils, at least one of which involved one bishop punching another bishop in the face. East split from West, West split from itself, and within every separate splinter we’re fiercely arguing about the nature of God and how to decorate the sanctuary. We haven’t got any unity, we Christians; we never have, not for a moment.
I imagine Jesus knew it would end up that way, either because, himself being God, he knew in the way that God knows which is beyond our knowing, or because he’d spent three years with his ragtag bunch of disciples and it was already abundantly clear that they’d never be able to start anything cohesive. And yet the final sermon he gives, the final talk he has with his disciples, is on unity and love; he talks of other things and always comes back, again and again, to those two.
Two thousand years later the ostensible church of Jesus Christ runs the gamut from doctors who perform abortions to civilians who bomb abortion clinics, communists to wealthy businesspeople to libertarian militiamen, those who think baptism is necessary for salvation to those who do not baptize at all, radical egalitarians to proponents of strict male headship in family and society, MSNBC watchers to FOX watchers, double-predestinationists to sinner’s-prayer partisans to people who think heaven and hell are sublime and unfortunate myths, respectively. We agree on nothing and much of what divides us is breathtakingly important: what human life is and how we should safeguard it, the nature of our selves in relation to each other and God, the truth of the universe and our destiny within it. We cannot talk to each other because so many of the things we differ over are simply our values, what we do and do not consider sacred, what is and is not the will of God.
And it doesn’t matter.
We talk I think of some of the personality conflicts among Jesus’ disciples: Simon Peter was a great blessed doofus, loud and impulsive, while Zebedee’s sons James and John were mama’s boys, for instance. Philip seems to have been a pragmatist. But more to the point here is that the disciples’ band also included a comfortable member of the corrupt local bureaucracy and a member of an armed faction that sought to incite Jews to violent revolt against Rome, among others. For three years a tax collector and a zealot slept around the same fire, following the same God-man.
The unity for which Jesus prayed has nothing to do with agreement. It has nothing to do with shared language or priorities or even values, except inasmuch as our identity as a follower of Jesus Christ is totalizing. The language Jesus uses in this prayer is not about our governance or dinner-table conversations or our comfort; it is about our being, our identity, which is bound up with the being and identity of the Triune God.
I say “our” very intentionally here. 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, Jesus prayed. “Those who will believe in me”—who had not yet, but would—includes every Christian who believed after Jesus’ death, everyone who has trusted someone else’s word as a way to draw nearer to him, which is to say every Christian for the last, oh, 1900 years and change, including us. In praying for Christians who would come to be, Jesus draws us into an unbroken and unbreakable chain with those who came before and those who share this moment with us and those who will come after, a web, a tapestry, a cloak woven in a single piece.
We belong to each other in a way that has nothing to do with how we think Christians should act or how firmly or loosely we hold a given opinion. We belong to each other in a way that has nothing to do with the grievous sins we commit against each other and against those outside the church. We belong to each other in a way that has nothing to do with all of our way-parting, our arguments over whose marriage and whose ordination is godly or valid, how we read scripture. The glory that you have given me, Jesus says, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me. We belong to each other because Christ has commanded us, and prayed over us, to be one in the very stuff of us, as the First and Second Persons of the Trinity are one, united in a love that is inseparable from being and has nothing about it of sentiment, I in them and you in me, bound together by Christ in us, bound up in God.
It is obvious, I think, that it is impossible for us to love each other in this way. It seems to be particularly impossible for to Christians to love other Christians this way, despite the fact that Christ’s command and prayer is for Christians specifically. We have made war on each other the whole of our history. Other Christians grieve me daily, and make me furious.
But yet it is not remarkable that Jesus has told us, in this straightforward way, to do something impossible. This whole religion is impossible. Giving all our money away is impossible, forgiving infinitely is impossible. Jesus Christ’s identity is impossible, his resurrection is impossible, our resurrection is impossible. All of it’s impossible and God does it anyway, straightforwardly, because it has always been in the nature of God to work impossible things for the benefit of ornery creatures. Our oneness is already accomplished, though we kick against the goads, though we make things difficult for each other. It is already done.
Let me tell a story. It’s a story you know, one you just heard. Paul and Silas had been rabble-rousing among Gentiles, and they got in the way of somebody’s money and were beaten and jailed for their trouble. The jailer took them deep within the jail, put them in the stocks there himself, and kept watch. And Paul and Silas sang and prayed and then God burst the jail wide open, and the jailer, the one who had taken these beaten men and put them in stocks himself, moved to kill himself because he had lost them. But them men, the ones he had jailed, were there; and the jailer took them into his own home, and bathed and fed them, and listened to them, and he and his whole house believed.
They belonged to each other, Paul and Silas and the jailer with his newly-opened eyes. I cannot imagine how they spoke to one another. I do not know how Paul and Silas trusted him. But I do know that I have been people’s jailer, and other people have been mine. I know that God opens prisons of metal and stone and prisons of the spirit, that we might wash each other’s wounds, though little is harder than washing a wound that you have inflicted, or letting yours be washed. And I know that the love with which the Father loved the Son, the love in which the Trinity moves, is in us, as Christ is in us, whether we like it or not.
To God be the glory. Amen.