Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter - 5/4

You know what an oxymoron is: expressions like a deafening silence; organized chaos; make haste slowly. Oxymorons are two words or sometimes two phrases that are joined together but which seem to mutually contradict each other and there are lots of other examples; you can find long lists on the internet some like the ones I already mentioned that despite their contradictory nature, you know exactly what they mean, some that are just kind of humorous; like governmental organization, political honesty, charismatic Lutheran. One I found that I thought was a little bit offensive was entertaining sermon. I know we're not in the entertainment business up here but I still didn't like that very much.

Well, how about "Christian unity?" Is that an oxymoron? Every year on the last Sunday of Easter we hear part of Jesus' prayer from the 17th chapter of John, a prayer that several times has Jesus praying to the Father for his followers that "they may be one as we are one." Thus the idea of Christian unity is raised, but one could certainly say that it is an oxymoron. It is an oxymoron if by unity we mean same mindedness. I wouldn't expect that even of those of us here today. I'm sure that despite attending the same church with a common confession of faith in the Apostles' or the Nicene Creed, we don't all agree on exactly what those words mean.

But then why should we when throughout Christian history there has never been agreement on these things. When you study the early history of the church, in the seven Ecumenical councils from the year 325 to 787 they did come to agreements on major points of doctrine concerning the nature of God as Trinity and the nature of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, but following each of the councils there is always the added statement that this didn't really settle things. The losers of the ecumenical battles, those who had views different from those that became known as orthodox, continued to hold those views and continued to have followings. Officially there was unity; in practice there wasn't.

In the year 1054 there was an official split in the church that resulted in what we know as the Roman Catholic Church, the Western church and the Orthodox church, the Eastern church. And in the 1500's there was further division in the west with Luther and the Reformation and the many offshoots of the Reformation that result in the multi-denominationalism we have today.

But on top of that you know that even among Lutherans there is not unity. As I said, I'm sure that all of us here today don't agree on everything and we all know how difficult it is even to get the 4 ELCA churches in Ishpeming to cooperate and that's just ELCA. You might not know, but besides the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that you're probably aware of and maybe the Wisconsin Synod and up here people know about the Apostolic Lutherans but I found almost 30 other Lutheran Synods in the United States, synods which in most cases are made up of a small number of churches that became dissatisfied with some position of one of the larger groups, so they up and left. We all call ourselves Lutheran, but it's not exactly unity.

Relative to this kind of Christian unity, the good news is that in recent years there has been significant progress in relations between many Christian denominations such that the ELCA is now in full communion with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and preliminary agreement has been reached with the United Methodist Church and there are other conversations going on. The bad news is that we're in closer relationship with these churches than with many of our fellow Lutherans. So still, not exactly Christian unity in terms of same mindedness; there continues to be a great diversity of beliefs and understanding among those who call themselves Christian so in that sense Christian unity does seem to be an oxymoron.

But, I'm pretty sure that's not what "May they be one as we are one" meant in its original context. Ecumenism the way we think about it now was not what John would have been thinking about as he wrote his gospel. Now, that's not to say it's wrong to use this verse to promote better understanding and cooperation between Christian denominations; that's all to the good and to be commended, just not likely what this verse was really about.

The unity expressed in "Let them be one as we are one," isn't about what we do but has to do with what Jesus does to make us one, the unity that he provides. To be sure, that can get rather confusing and mystical and John's gospel definitely can lean in those directions, but I also think we can imagine it in simpler terms.

In this passage of John, we are the ones Jesus prays for. Our unity lies in the fact that Jesus prays for us, whoever we are. I don't know about you, but I find that rather comforting. Jesus prays for us; whatever masks we hide behind, whatever sins we think we're keeping hid, Jesus sees it all and prays for us. He prays for us as we are in order that we might be more than we are and I don't think he cares if we are Lutheran or Methodist or Catholic or Assembly of God or not much of anything at all. He sees what is good about us and about our traditions and he sees what is bad and he prays for us. Our unity lies not in what we do, but what in Jesus does. With Jesus, we're all in this together. The prayer that we be one as they are one is answered.

As the ones being prayed for there is a communal identity we share in Jesus, but there is also an individual component to "that they may be one as we are one." As I said, Jesus prays for us as we are so that we might be more than we are. To put it another way he prays that our relationship with God might be more like his relationship with the God he calls Father.

Now obviously this too gets pretty complicated theologically as in our Trinitarian understanding the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, while being separate are also the same. There is that mystical union between the persons of the Trinity that we confess but I think anyone who says they really understand it is lying.

In any case, in our relationship with God we are not going to become part of the Trinity; the essence of who we are as humans and the divine essence of God are different. But from the earliest church fathers through the reformers such as Luther there has been the understanding that by grace we are able to participate in the life of God. By grace we are able to perform actions of mercy, compassion and forgiveness that are pleasing to God and which agree with the will of God. Those actions draw us into closer unity with God and with one another answering Jesus prayer that we be one as they are one.

Also, as a sacramental church we believe that in the bread and wine of Holy Communion the real presence of Jesus becomes part of us. Like the doctrine of the Trinity this represents another mystery beyond our understanding but by experience we know it's true. Again it's an individual thing but also a communal thing. As Luke said very well in his newsletter article, along with the loaf of bread we share, the common cup symbolizes the understanding of our unity as one Christian family, the one Christian life that we live. In the sacrament then there is unity; Jesus prayer that we be one as they are one is answered.

I sometimes say that Christianity is a religion of being before it's a religion of doing. You have to know who you are before you can be who you're supposed to be. We are the people Jesus prays for. We are people drawn by grace into closer unity with God as we perform God pleasing acts of love. We are people in unity with God and with each other through the mystery of Holy Communion. That all describes Christian unity that is not an oxymoron but which answers Jesus' prayer, "Holy Father, protect them in your name, that they may be one as we are one."

 

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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