Another Mandate: Unity
John 17:20-26

As we celebrate Mother’s Day and give thanks to God for our mothers, there was – once upon a time – a mother who got up early in the morning with the idea of getting out the grill and preparing a nice, fluffy pile of pancakes for her two little boys. As soon as the boys arrived at the table they started fussing, as little boys do sometimes, about who would get the first pancakes. The mother was a tad exasperated but quick on her feet and asked, “What would Jesus do?”

Both boys looked at their mother and sat in silence. The mother thought how she might turn this situation into a learning experience and so in the prevailing silence she answered her own question. Jesus would have said, “Please let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.”

The older brother suddenly turned to his younger brother and said, “You be Jesus.”

This simple little story reminds us of the times and places we have learned some of life’s important lessons at the dinner table, and it also says something about the human condition in a very innocent way. We can be prone to looking out for ourselves at the expense of others. The gospel, however, shows us another way. Even in the midst of trouble and confusion, human anguish and suffering, the gospel provides a worthy but hard lesson. To be a Christian and to practice the Christian faith in the manner of Christ himself calls us to the task of looking beyond ourselves, to think and pray for others, the people we live with, work with, play with, worship with, in addition to the people who may oppose or dislike us. And we should always seek the grace of Christian fellowship and unity.

The more I read and studied and pondered this morning’s readings, the more I recognized a common thread that seemed to have been woven throughout three different stories. Either suffering will drive us to a dreadful preoccupation of self and expressions of self-pity, or it will heighten our awareness of God’s presence and deepen our faith.

Paul and Silas were chased, beaten, and jailed, but they did not give into despair. Instead, they faced persecution and personal discomfort by singing hymns in a jail cell. John was not educated in political science but he understood the politic of Rome. Christians were about to encounter the full fury of real hell. And yet, John conveyed a spirit of confidence that God is mindful of human events and will in the end bring salvation, redemption, and healing to a broken world. And as we look at the gospel of John, Jesus was not naïve. He realized there would be no ground swell among the people to intervene on his behalf. As the shadow of death quickly approached, he wasted no energy in trying to evade or escape. Instead, he prayed and it is important I think for us to notice that Jesus was rather specific in this prayer of intercession.

After Jesus prayed for himself and his disciple’s, are you ready for this, he prayed for you and me. According to the gospel Jesus said, “I pray for those who will believe in me through the message of my disciples, that all of them may be one. May they be one as we are one.” Jesus clearly mandated that Christians love, listen to, respect, and care for one another. We want to be very careful that we continue to practice this mandate in the life of this congregation. And let also be aware of a second mandate. By way of what Jesus for prayed on our behalf, we are called to practice the grace of Christian fellowship and unity. May we be responsible stewards of the Christian faith, and may the virus of conflict and division never, ever be a part of our ecclesiastical DNA.

On a personal note, I have always been proud of my ecclesiastical roots as an evangelical Presbyterian in the Reformed tradition. However, this declaration should never be understood in the context that I consider myself a more authentic, informed or committed Christian than the person whose roots may lie in a different tradition. As I look around and see Christians pointing fingers at one another in a critical way, it has led me to the very strong conviction that Christians and churches should be paying more attention to how Jesus, the bright Morning Star, expects us to live faithfully doing the work of the gospel in addition to showing the world that it is neither a pipe dream nor an impossibility to practice the grace of Christian unity.

Something, I am afraid, is happening right under our noses and we have been late in seeing it. We have become too comfortable with our own particular needs and wants to the extent that we are losing a sense of what it means to think of others first, to pray for others and really mean it, to practice the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation, to sometimes suffer seeking not so much understanding but God’s mercy and grace to endure with patience and hope, to admit without embarrassment that we may not always understand what in the world is going on, but in the name of Christ we need and trust each other and without fellowship and community that leads to true unity, the devil has us right where he wants us and our witness to the good news of the gospel is sadly diminished. Like two brothers sitting at a breakfast table, we want the first pancake.

The following prayer gives example to the problem of which I speak.

I can be a Christian by myself. Leave my dusty Bible on the shelf. I’ll sing a hymn and pray a bit. God can do the rest of it. My heart’s the church, my heads the steeple. Shut the door and I’m the people. I can be a Christian by myself.
I’ll break some bread and drink some wine. Have myself a holy time. I’ll take the offering then I’ll know where that money’s gonna go. So please remember, Lord, when I die, Give me my own cloud in the sky. After this life with its labors Don’t bug me with needy neighbors. (Text for This Week)

We see little value in suffering, especially for the sake of Christ, and we are being drawn more and more into the darkness of the world and no longer feel confident the mercy and providence of God. The question that confronts us at the beginning of each new day is the same question that confronts our young confirmands this morning: Am I prepared to pick up my cross and follow Jesus, and share my life in the spirit and work of Christian community?

This is the world we live in. It is a place where a Candace Glover can pursue a dream, where people by the millions are motivated to do the right thing, and where thousands of churches work tirelessly and quietly behind the scenes feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

But this is also a world where a man in Cleveland can beat his wife, leave his family, and offer three girls a ride and then lock them in the basement for ten long years where they are tied, chained, and raped. We now live in a world where people who give their lives searching for missing children now advise mothers and fathers to withhold permission for a child to walk or ride their bike to school even if they live only one block away. Even closer to home, a man nearby is apprehended and arrested for dealing cocaine and hard drugs. Take some time one day to stand on the sidewalk outside the local jail and listen. You will hear inmates shout crazy words of intimidation and violence. This is the world we live in.

Here, my friends, is the message of the gospel. In the midst of all the things that cause us to worry or fret, we cannot and we must not despair. The Lord reigns in heaven and on earth. Instead of a spirit of resignation, we are called to live as committed and devoted friends of Jesus who know how to walk through the shadow of suffering, who are not given to conflict or division, who seek fellowship, and walk the talk of Jesus with joy and grace.

John kept his eyes on Jesus and met the stress of his times with confidence. Paul and Silas sat chained to the floor and they lifted a common voice in a song of faith. When all seemed to be spiraling out of control and the world grew darker, he prayed for unity among those who would follow and believe.

In the coming week, like two brothers sitting at a table, we, too, will encounter opportunities that will beg for wise and grace-filled choices. May we make these decisions predicated on a faith that is rooted in prayer, grounded in confidence, and motivated by hope.

As we pray for God’s blessings for our mothers and confirmands, I offer this prayer –

May the peace of God go with you: wherever he may send you.
May Abba Father guide you through the wilderness and protect you through the storm.
May Jesus bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you.
And may the Holy Spirit bring you back to this place, once again into our doors.