May 20th, 2012
Scriptural basis: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19
You may have noticed that this is a presidential election year. You can tell by the number of incredibly annoying ads on television and radio, the even more annoying phone calls asking for money and votes, and the breathless coverage of one candidate’s bad behavior in high school and the other candidate’s bad behavior in… high school. Charles Krauthammer, a political commentator who leans to the conservative side of things even though he worked for the Carter Administration and as a speechwriter for Vice President Mondale in 1980, said during a panel discussion earlier this week that this year’s presidential race will be so dirty and nasty that we should hide our children and make sure the plumbing is in good order because anyone who pays close attention to the race will have to shower several times a day. And we’re already seeing evidence of this some six months before the election! Lord help us!
How did we come to this point in our political discourse? We are pulled this way and that by the most extreme elements of the political class in our country, attempting to deepen the divisions among us by forcing us to declare ourselves to be conservatives or progressives or moderates, and then using those terms as pejoratives and beating us over the head with them. This when poll after poll suggests that the vast majority of citizens of the United States are slightly to the right of the political center, and only ten percent or so are at the far right and ten percent or so at the far left of the political spectrum. Most of us are pretty moderate, so how is it that the country seems to be divided as deeply as the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s? And how is it that the body of Christ, which is the church, seems to be equally divided across denominational lines when we are called to be united in our witness?
A legitimate argument could be made that the body of Christ was divided even as it was being formed, given that the disciples were not always of one mind when it came to confronting the religious and political powers of the day, but that is not the point. Jesus, in his prayer that comprises today’s gospel reading, asks God the Father to protect the disciples and to treat them as he was treated, as one with the Father. In our baptisms, we were made one with the disciples and with all who have followed Jesus down through the centuries, yet we can’t seem to get this united thing worked out. And it’s going to tear us down if we don’t.
I’m not suggesting that we should start a movement to bring all the world’s Christians together under one denominational banner. Just as in heaven there is a mansion with many rooms, here on earth I think it’s OK that there are many churches that appeal to the faithful in different ways. Different music, different worship formats, different emphasis in preaching all have their place. It would be nice if we could agree on a few things beyond the basics of God loves you, Jesus died for you, Jesus rose from the dead for you, be nice to people, those sorts of things, but those are good starting points. It would be great if there were a common understanding about the role of women in the church, that baptism is baptism, no matter when it is celebrated or how it’s done, but for many of our brothers and sisters around the world those are huge, intractable issues and I accept that it may take Christ’s second coming to resolve them, but there are other issues that divide us that we can do something about.
The first step is to make sure that whatever is dividing us within these four walls is brought up, discussed openly and honestly and respectfully, and an equitable agreement is reached. That will probably mean that there will be some compromising, and contrary to what one prominent political pundit has said recently, compromise is not a four-letter word and winners do indeed compromise. This is true in the church world, in the business world, and in the family world. The next step may well be the most difficult; to stay engaged with the world outside our doors. The easiest thing to do is to pull the covers over our heads and pretend that by keeping to ourselves, nothing bad can happen to us. Over the centuries, countless groups have tried to live apart from the world and pull the covers up over their heads. Monastic communities have come and gone, convents are still in business, there are still a few communes around, cultural groups like the Amish do their best to avoid prolonged contact with outsiders, and survivalists get their own realty TV shows on cable networks. For non-religious folks there are cruises and all-inclusive resorts that offer a respite from the big, bad world for a time. I understand that just about everybody needs a break to recharge their batteries, to escape from the pressures of life but then the holiday is over and you have to step back into the real world. You will step back into the real world refreshed and recharged, but step back in you will. At its very core, Jesus’ prayer is an antidote to thinking that if we just ignore the world it will go away. It won’t. And since it won’t, we have to deal with it exactly as Jesus prays that the disciples will; working together under the protection of God. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples is also his prayer for us, and it should be our prayer for one another. “Let us work together as a team, each doing his or her part as our individual gifts dictate, presenting a united front to a world that can do us no harm if we continue to trust in God.” The only way Jesus could pray this prayer on the eve of his death was if he was facing God, and it is because he turns and faces us that this prayer becomes our promise. If the essence of this prayer is to become a part of our own lives, we must live our lives facing God and one another. It is only then that we will know his glory and the unity for which he prayed. And in that glory and unity, we can help feed the hungry in our communities, we can see to it that basic necessities are provided for, we can work together to renovate homes so that none are without shelter, we can identify jobs that need doing so that none are without the dignity of work. And we can do all of this with other Presbyterians, and with Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and Jews and Muslims, and unchurched folks too! Who knows, maybe the unchurched will become churched if we do our good works as a unified body of Christ!
Very early in the history of the church, there were controversies upon heresies upon controversies, one of the biggest being the doctrine of the Trinity. This was settled in favor of God in Three Persons, being of the same substance but in different forms that we acknowledge to this day. But underneath this complex religious doctrine is a simple truth; the Trinity is the model for all of our relationships, both those with God and those with one another. Jesus’ relationship with his disciples mirrors the inner life he shared with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, and our relationships with one another should have the same character; mutually supportive and nonhierarchical, giving space to one another and allowing others to live into whom they are meant to be within a loving community of care. Jesus’ divine nature gives him first-hand knowledge of God and his purposes, and his human nature allows him to share this knowledge with other human beings. Jesus emphasizes his divine origin when he says “that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me,” which is the foundation of the doctrine of revelation; this verse authenticates his words and deeds as revealing God. Then when Jesus prays for God’s providential care of the disciples, he is asking that God guard them from harm with the same loving care that he himself received which sets up the doctrine of providence. Finally, he asks that the disciples be set apart, or sanctified so that they can live in the world but be used for God’s special purposes, which sets up the doctrine of sanctification. Think of it like this; holy water is not fresher or purer or cleaner than any other water, it has just be set apart and assigned to a special role. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples is that they be equipped to do their special work, just as he was equipped to do his special work, and that they receive the same protection and guidance he did. If we can all agree that the doctrines of the Trinity, of revelation, providence and sanctification are universal, then we have the basis of becoming united in our witness to the world of what it is we believe. These doctrines were hammered out in councils that went on for years. History tells us that these weren’t quiet debates among gifted academics; they were knock-down, drag-out battles between powerful men who were absolutely convinced of the righteousness of their positions, yet they were able to produce the foundations of our faith that we stand on to this day. These men wrestled with enormous theological issues and were able to come together as a united body. Nothing we argue about these days rises to the same level, so it seems to me we can find a way to work together, to stand united for what it is we believe.
It isn’t likely that our political discourse will become dignified or intelligent any time soon and even less likely that the nation will unite behind a single candidate or political party. It’s not likely that all the Christian churches of the world will fall in line behind a single banner and march forward in harmonious unity. But it is highly likely that we can resolve our differences in this particular church, and it’s highly likely that we can work with our brothers and sisters in the community to make a difference. And maybe that’s all that really matters right now. That we stand united behind those who have need.