Pastor John Kerr
Date: Sunday, May 24, 2020 Theme: “He’s Still Praying Yet Today” Text: John 17:1-11
I don’t know if you are reading this sermon by accident or if you visit our church website or look at your email regularly during this COVID-19 epidemic, but I’m glad you stopped by. On this Memorial Day weekend we pause to honor those men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to our country. I remember as a child we called this day Decoration Day when we visited the cemetery to decorate the family graves with flowers.
While I was doing graduate work and serving as pastor of a Lutheran church in the small town of Lithopolis, Ohio, about 12 south of Columbus, Memorial Day was a celebratory day with a parade to and speeches at the local cemetery. It seemed as if about everybody in town was either Methodist, Presbyterian, Nazarene or Lutheran. Our next-door neighbor Tom and his family were neither. One day he told me they were Primitive Baptists, a tiny group of about 3,000 members in the wholeUnited States. They were worshipping in the American Legion hall until they could build a church.
I asked him, “Who are the Primitive Baptists?” He said, “We are so small that nobody but us and God know who we are. When people ask me what church I go to, I just say Protestant or I’m just spiritual. It’s too hard to explain.”
It’s even harder to explain Christianity. Christians are divided into three major groups: Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants, along with those who wouldn’t claim any of the three. Protestants are divided further into United Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Lutheran and a zillion others. Then you have the independent churches that often claim no denomination affiliation, and small sects whogather in a living room on folding chairs. It all seems too hard to explain.
What happened to Jesus’ prayer in John’s gospel when he prayed, “Holy Father, protect them (the disciples) in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one?” And later on in his prayer, Jesus says, “I don’t only pray for these disciples, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one.” He’s praying for you and me!
After all those years, Jesus is still praying for us that we may be one. If that is true, should we get rid of all denominational names? Some people suggest removing denominational names from church outdoor signs, letterheads and church publications. “Faith Church” instead of “Faith Lutheran Church.” Should we be working to merge all churches into one super church?
Is that what Jesus was praying for? If so, he didn’t map out a process or way. He doesn’t pray that we all agree or be the same. In St. Paul’s day, his early churches had many arguments and disagreements.
Some may see so many different denominations as a sign of our brokenness, division and separation. Each group has a particular way of understanding the Bible and what it means
to follow Jesus. Wouldn’t it be better to be non-denominational? Non-denominational churches are appealing to young people and older with their upbeat music, drama, Bible-based sermons. They are attracting huge crowds. They seem to be shaped by and defined by a particular charismatic pastor and the people who follow that minister’s preaching.
At the same time, permit me to say that I believe denominations can be seen as a gift too. They remind us of the larger, global family of God that stretches around the world. When I say that I’m a Lutheran Christian, I need to remind myself that there are others with different names who name the name of Jesus—Baptist Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, Methodist Christians. They have something to teach me, for I am not shaped only by those who are like me, but also by those who are different from me.
If our oneness/unity is in Jesus Christ, then we can speak of our differences without destroying each other. We can celebrate our differences as a more complete expression of what it means to be the body of Christ. It’s okay to raise your arms in praise of God, or sit in the pew and barely raise an eyebrow. It’s all right to kneel at the altar to receive holy communion or to stand at the altar or sit in your seat. It’s all right to use a common cup or individual glasses to receive the wine/grape juice. Our oneness is in Jesus Christ and not in human constructions of the church.
Nevertheless, we continue to pray that we might be one in spite of our differences. In1948 when much of Europe lay in ruins from World War Two, church leaders from 147 churches and many nations met in Amsterdam to form the World Council of Churches. Imagine Dutch Christians sitting with those who occupied their country, and German Christians praying with Americans whose soldiers bombed their cities to dust. Oneness didn’t mean that they all speak the same language or use the same worship style. That assembly included churches with elaborate worship and vestments, and churches with plain sanctuaries and no vestments. But together they committed themselves anew to Christ and to seek the oneness Jesus prayed about. Today, after 72 years, these now 350 churches from around the world have not merged; each church continues to have its own worship style and leadership. At the first assembly of churches it was mostly white men in suits and ties; today it is a colorful rainbow.
To sit and talk with somebody whose ideas of God are different from mine is never easy. But there is a loss in staying by ourselves. We miss out on the fullness of the body of Christ. We miss hearing the Good News as told by Tanzanian Christians, Chinese Christians, Russian Christians, and Peruvian Christians. We miss out on the wonder of open-air worship in African countries. We miss out on the religious relief agencies that feed millions of starving people daily and provide medical supplies and protective gear to hospitals and clinics. None of our churches could accomplish this alone.
It’s scary to open ourselves to Christians and religious people whose language is different from ours, whose worship style is different from ours, whose skin color is different from ours, and whose social standards are different from ours.
But Jesus is still praying that one day all Christians will join hands around the same communion table, and that our differences will not divide us, but will reveal the multi-colored body of Christ.