In his Farewell Prayer, Jesus prays that all his followers will be of one mind … but how do we get everyone to agree on “truth”? This is the wrong question to ask – one that has led to the division of churches and the rise of the religious right. Pastor Roger Barkley explores how Progressive Christianity asks a slightly different question and more significant question.
They’ll Know We Are Christian by Our Love
John 17:20-26 June 2, 2019
Think for a moment:
If you knew that you were a day or two away from dying what would you pray for?
Something special on your bucket list?
Peace of mind?
Another year to live?
In Matthew and Luke’s gospels Jesus publicly gives his disciples instructions about how to pray, those being the early versions of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
When I visited the Church of the Beatitudes in Israel it was packed with visitors from all over the world.
In its big, echoey chapel someone began the Lord’s Prayer in an unfamiliar language, and right away everyone joined in reciting the prayer in unison.
English, French, Vietnamese, Korean and I don’t know what else we all prayed our common connection to one another and to God.
We have so much to connect us, but we find so much to divide us.
Times of transition and anxiety can bring out the worst in us.
Right now, we are witnessing some people rebel against what had felt like social progress to other people.
Some people feel like victims of the social and economic changes and are retreating to what feels safe and familiar.
Everywhere is rancor … even in my ham radio hobby, you have to be careful what you say or some otherwise kind person may turn on you.
Congregations aren’t being spared this rancor.
The national Methodist church is the latest victim as fierce disagreements over doctrine are overwhelming centuries of common ground and literally ripping their denomination in two.
The Lord’s Prayer does not appear in the Gospel of John, but in its place, in John 17 we eavesdrop on Jesus’ personal prayer the night before his crucifixion.
It is sometimes called Jesus’ Farewell Prayer or Priestly Prayer.
One of the first things you’ll notice is that Jesus isn’t praying for himself at all.
Rather, his prayer is for his disciples then and to come.
John 17:11 “For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world; they’ll continue in the world while I return to you. Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred as a gift through me.”
So, we overhear Jesus pray for his followers to continue what he started, which is a life so at odds with the world that they will need divine protection.
Throughout his life, Jesus exposed social, ethnic and sexual divisions as destructive to the Kingdom life.
Everywhere he went, Jesus confronted his culture’s divisions by dining with sinners, enlisting women disciples, touching lepers who were actual untouchables in his culture, and praising the faith of aliens who were reviled by fellow Jews.
That is what led to Jesus’ crucifixion as an enemy of the state.
Much of our recent spike in divisive rhetoric is cloaked in religious language.
Those of us on the outside miss the influence of extreme religious right voices who have the ear of some of our national leaders – but we need to take note of where they’d like to take us.
During the past year, Charisma magazine, which is a powerful media voice of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, has run half a dozen articles predicting an actual and imminent civil war in America.
Charisma quotes pastor and syndicated broadcaster Michael L Brown, as saying,
“A civil war is coming to America, only this time, it will be abortion, rather than slavery, that divides the nation”.
Several legislators are echoing this sentiment.
Among them, Washington state lawmaker Matt Shea says, “I don’t think we can (coexist), because you have half that want to follow the Lord and righteousness and half that don’t, and I don’t know how that can stand.”
At some level, divisiveness resonates with all of us because buried deep in the human psyche are tribal instincts that awaken in times of transition and anxiety.
But “us against them” rhetoric becomes especially toxic when it claims divine truth.
Yet the spiritual path Jesus models leads beyond the human retreat to tribalism.
Jesus’ Farewell Prayer continues:
John 17:21 The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, you are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
OK, sounds good.
But how are we ever going to get everyone to agree on everything?
Isn’t this leading people to shout at each other across picket lines and social media?
Well, how to get everyone agreeing may be the wrong question to ask.
Sharing one heart and one mind that is united with Jesus does not mean agreeing on everything.
God created diversity.
God intends diversity without division – so we have to ask the right questions.
A little history here:
Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples scattered far and wide, many starting faith communities among Jews across the region.
Then a Pharisee named Saul had a vision to carry the new Jesus movement to Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean.
Before long, there were isolated pockets of Jesus communities springing up among a variety of cultures, each dealing with its own local customs and issues.
Leaders scoured whatever memories and records they had to distill exactly what Jesus meant for them to do and believe.
Over the next century or two, those communities developed different gospel(s) – like the Gospel of Mary, the Signs Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter.
Many shared the common practice of welcoming men and women, slave and free, rich and poor to share meals and care for the poor and needy among them – but many different understandings evolved about who Jesus was and what his sacrificial death meant.
Their understandings of what to believe were all over the board.
Contrary to common thought, today’s Christians are much more unified in beliefs than those in the early churches.
In part, that’s because in the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire.
He even painted the cross on his battle shield, which might have been a clue that the church was heading in the wrong direction.
Beware of emperors who promise privileges for your religion.
Next, he called a council in the city of Nicaea to sort out what is real and true Christianity – which of course led to expulsion and even death of people who didn’t sign-up for the Nicaean truth.
John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Doesn’t that mean that there is one only way, and only one true Christianity?
Doesn’t that mean that some people are right and everyone else is wrong?
Doesn’t that mean that we must get our doctrine right and convince everyone of this truth … for the unity of the church, and so they can make it to heaven?
Sound doctrine is important so that we anchor our faith in something solid, tested and consistent, and so we share a frame of reference for our spiritual journey.
One of the suggestions that came from our recent brainstorming sessions is to have more book discussions and classes on Christian doctrine, which Michael and I are now developing.
We can take Christian doctrine seriously but hold it lightly.
Doctrine and creeds are human ways of getting our heads around the ineffable, so we must be humble enough to know that they are not the absolute truth or final word.
Today there are about 9,000 Protestant denominations, 242 Roman Catholic denominations, 781 Orthodox denominations, and 22,000 independents – all convinced that their creeds are divine truth.
But St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of all times, cautioned, “If you have understood, then you have not understood God.”
Take doctrines seriously, but hold them lightly.
You see, through doctrine, we try to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
But here’s the deal: instead of asking how to be a Christian, how about we ask how to be Christian.
Those are two different questions.
To be a Christian has come to mean agreeing to a set of beliefs about the Trinity, salvation, the sacraments, and things like that.
Because I do lots of bible research on the internet, the web’s algorithms assume certain things about me … so I get lots of very conservative political and doctrinal stuff directed at me.
Recently there was an article called something like “Six Urgent Facts You Must Know about Baptism”.
It makes a heated argument that only adult baptism by immersion will get you to heaven – and that baptizing babies is actually condemning their souls to hell.
Only one tribe are true Christians – that’s where the question of how to be a Christian inevitably leads.
But to be Christian means to do our human best in cooperation with the Holy Spirit in our time and culture to follow the example Christ modeled in his time and culture.
Instead of limiting Christ as an object of worship, we see Christ as the example of the way to live.
John 17:10 “(I pray that) … my life is on display in them”.
To be Christian means to take Jesus’ Farewell Prayer seriously by trying to have his life displayed in my life.
You see, the glory of Jesus is not his glowing face in stained glass windows.
The glory of Jesus is not media sizzle or Emperors’ blessings.
The glory of Jesus is humble people serving and sacrificing.
Jesus’ glory doesn’t shine. It bleeds.
John 17:20 “My prayer is not for (my current disciples) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.”
That would be all the followers who came later.
That would be you and me for whom Jesus offered his final prayer.
Last Wednesday I visited Jimmy and Vicki at UCLA hospital.
Vicki looked exhausted.
But her face lit up when she told about some men from our congregation who had shown up to cut down the weeds in her front yard.
Vicki said that the day before his unexpected trip to the ER, a church member had taken her and Jimmy to see the Aladdin movie, which Jimmy had been looking forward to for months.
After I left another church member showed up at the hospital, and she was back yesterday – and I know others have called Vicki and provided practical support and prayers.
On Monday, I saw Larry who is now at home.
While I was there, a church member dropped off a wheelchair ramp he had built.
Several people had given Larry things he needs like washcloths.
Someone is offering a better hospital bed, and others helped Shirley move furniture and organize their living room.
Someone is helping them produce a GoFundMe site.
People have sent gift cards, provided food and given generous checks because the costs of this surgery and ongoing care is astronomical and beyond the family’s resources.
Questions of doctrine are what to believe – and they are important.
But they are dwarfed by the question of “Are we as a congregation Christian?”
And the answer to that is in your personal care for Jimmy, Larry and the many dozens of other ways you have brought practical aid, spiritual support and emotional care to our church members and neighbors.
They know we are Christian by our love.