Tuesday, May 21, 2013

That The World May Believe

That the World May Believe  
Jn. 17:20-26[1]
  It’s not hard to see the breakdown of community all around us.  It’s especially pronounced in the major urban centers like ours, but I think you can see it in small towns across the country.  Families are in some cases literally spread from coast to coast.  Even when they’re not, the “modern family” seems to struggle to stay together in these days.  And the concept of a “neighborhood” is just about gone, relegated to the days of the 1950’s and 60’s.  We barely know the people we live around.  Rather than the community of the past, we tend to see ourselves as individuals, living as individuals, concerned with our individual welfare.  As a result, we isolate ourselves, immersed in the virtual reality of television, internet and video games.  Not much of a substitute for real flesh and blood relationships.
  Unfortunately, the individualism of our society has made its way into the church.  Rather than the common good, we are mainly concerned with “what I get out of it,” when it comes to church life.[2]  We can talk a good game when it comes to our congregations as “families” and “communities,” but I’m afraid the reality in most cases is very different.  I doubt very much that Jesus had in mind the church where people fight over the color of carpet in the sanctuary or vie for control of multi-million dollar institutions run by official or informal hierarchies.  And when it comes to TV personalities who build their own empires, I think that goes way outside the pale.
  When you look at our Gospel lesson for today, we find that Jesus had something very different in mind.  He prayed for his disciples and those who would believe through their witness that they might be one.  If you look at the church today as a whole, you would be hard-pressed to say that we are “one.”  Even when it comes to individual congregations, it’s hard to find a church where everyone is on the same page.  It’s not this way for lack of efforts at creating unity.  But it seems to me that our efforts at creating unity are ineffective at best and at worst adventures in missing the point.[3]
  In many of the churches of our day, the method for promoting (or enforcing) unity is through agreement regarding what we believe.[4]  While the essential beliefs of the Christian Faith are important, trying to promote and/or enforce doctrinal agreement has failed to produce the kind of unity Jesus had in mind.  If anything, it seems to me that this has actually contributed to the fragmentation of the church.  Then there are those churches that seek to promote (or enforce) unity through organizational uniformity.  In some contexts, this occurs through a ladder of authority that works from the top down.  In other contexts like ours, we seek to promote (or enforce) unity through a policy manual.  We call it the Book of Order and it seems that we have been obsessed with it every since we established it. 
 But these well-intentioned but misguided efforts at promoting (or enforcing) unity really haven’t succeeded at producing the intended result--a church that is one.  I think part of the problem is that we’re looking in the wrong direction for unity.  We think somehow that we can find unity through our own efforts.  But Jesus pointed us in a very different direction when it comes to our unity.  Jesus called the disciples to a unity that is grounded in the unity of love between Father and Son.[5]  Jesus prays, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (Jn. 17:21).  He says it in several different ways, and the repetition can be confusing, but essentially Jesus prayed for the disciples “that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (Jn. 17:22-23).  Clearly, what creates a real and lasting unity in the church is the love of the God among us. 
  As we have been discussing the ways in which Jesus envisioned his followers demonstrating the reality of the new life of the resurrection to the world, it seems to me that this is also a crucial factor.[6]  Jesus voiced it this way, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17:23).  The truth of the matter is that it is the love that unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit that brings unity to the church.[7]  Given the wide variety of personalities, cultures, worldviews, and expectations among those of us who actually make up the church, it seems reasonable that the love of God is the only thing that can possibly unite us.  As we turn our attention away from all our efforts at promoting unity and focus on the love of God that binds us together, then we have the opportunity to become a community that lives in such a way that the world may believe.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/12/2013.
[2] Cf. Craig B. Anderson, “Community Reconsidered,” The Living Pulpit 3 (Oct-Dec 1994) 8: “Much of our concern for community, owing to a felt loss of it, is rooted in a misunderstanding of community as an aggregate of individuals in service to the individual.”
[3] cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 775-76, where he discusses the various suggestions scholars have made to interpret this unity in human terms.
[4] That this is significant emphasis in the Johannine literature cannot be denied.  Not only in John’s Gospel, but also in the letters of John, right belief, especially regarding Jesus, is an essential basis for the identity of the community.  Cf. Brown, John XIII-XXI, 778; Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 198.
[5] Royce Gordon Gruenler, “John 17:20-26,” Interpretation 43 (Apr 1989): 180: “The disciples of the new society are to go generously into the world with the same hospitality that motivated the Father to send the Son, and the Son to send the disciples. This progression of love reveals the inner relationship of the divine Community as selfless hospitality to the other: Father and Son are utterly at the disposal of one another in selfless and dynamic love, and manifest this generosity to the new society, which in turn is empowered to pass it on to others.” Cf. also Bruce D. Marshall, “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today 50 (Apr 1993) 80: “The unity of the church is the unity of God. In other words, according to Jesus' prayer the church is to be unified, made into one, by sharing in the very bond of being, knowledge, and love by which Jesus is unified with the Father.”  Cf. similarly, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:235-36; Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:794-95.
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:677: “The disunity of the Church is a scandal.”
[7] cf. Marshall, “Disunity,” 85: “What makes the church to be, and so to be one ... is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church.”
[8] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:795: “The community’s oneness, like the incarnation itself, makes visible and tangible the love of God.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 345: “unity is not merely an attribute of the church; it is the church’s task in the world as well.”  Cf. similarly Ernst Haenchen, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, 155: “the unity and unanimity of Christians ought to convince the world that Jesus is really he whom the Father has sent.”

1 comment:

Pastor Jerry said...

Alan, thanks for that good commentary on the Gospel lection for this week. I intend to preach it and like what you said very much. I agree with you about unity and the lack of it in the church as well as in society. We Americans are very individualistic and proud of it. We as a society have little respect for authority and want to rebel against it unless it agrees with the way we think. Thanks for sharing your words. I read your commentary most weeks and always enjoy them. If you would like to read my take on the Gospel for this week, my blog is found at: www.weimarwanderings.blogspot.com. Grace and peace.