Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 06/02/2019

While I haven’t done one for awhile, I like doing jigsaw puzzles; there’s a sense of accomplishment when I find pieces that fit together and see the image on the cover of the box start to take shape. A few years ago Kathy gave me a puzzle for Christmas that was the image you see on the cover of your bulletin. It’s an Escher print that among other things includes one of those staircases that goes around but represents an optical illusion so it appears that you can climb them forever and never get any higher.

Note that the only colors are black and white and shades of gray and that there is great similarity in the various staircases and arches and roof lines of the building and that all the characters climbing the stairs look pretty much exactly alike thus making it a ridiculously difficult thousand piece puzzle. It’s one of those where all the pieces seem to look alike so you find ones that look like they should fit together but they don’t. There were times when I would sit there for an hour and might not find any pieces that fit, on a good sitting I might have found one or two.

But I was determined. I don’t remember how many weeks it was, but it was quite a few, a couple of months perhaps, and I was making progress. I had maybe a third of it done, maybe even a little more so I was thinking, “I can do this; I’m going to finish this sucker.” And then…Silky the cat took a flying leap up onto the table and slid across it, knocking most of what I had done onto the floor. I love Silky, she’s the cutest cat in the world, but at that moment she was lucky I didn’t kill her.

Realizing how long it would take me to fix the damage she had done and not wanting to go through it all again, I said some bad words and shoved it all back in the box. I think Kathy then gave it to the folks at Peter White Library where they always have a jigsaw puzzle going in the staff room. I wonder if they ever completed it?

Chapter 17 of John’s gospel, the chapter from which the gospel reading for every Seventh Sunday of Easter comes, is a long prayer of Jesus for his disciples. In it there are several places where his prayer is for them to…“be one as we are one;” It’s a phrase, a version of which shows up three times in today’s reading, a phrase that is often interpreted as a prayer for Christian unity, a prayer for greater ecumenism, a prayer for the one holy catholic and apostolic church that we confess in the creeds to become a reality.

On the face of things, it would seem to be a prayer for the impossible because…one could think of Christian unity not as a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle to be assembled, but a 33 thousand piece puzzle as according to Wikipedia there are that many different Christian denominations around the world.

Add to that the fact that there are some denominations that aren’t particularly interested in ecumenism because they’re already certain that they are the one true church and the rest are all heretics. For them ecumenism would amount to everyone else simply acknowledging that they are right.

Even for those who are interested in ecumenical conversations there are likely to be some groups with whom there isn’t much desire for relationship. I’ll confess guilt on that front; there are some groups who, in my opinion have badly distorted the message of Jesus, thus giving Christianity a bad name so that I don’t want anything to do with them other than to say that they’re wrong and I don’t like them. That’s not the basis for good ecumenical conversation.

Even when useful conversation does take place, the experience can be like my experience with the aforementioned jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes there seems to be progress as points of agreement between denominations are indentified so that some of the pieces come together, only then to have a cat jump up on the table in the form of a new social statement or political stance or policy change on the part of one group or another thus causing the pieces to be scattered and progress to be set back. With so many pieces of the puzzle and so many ways to disagree, it is tempting to want to just put all the pieces back in the box and forget about it.

But then we have this prayer, this prayer of Jesus “that they may be one as we are one.” It’s part of what is known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, part of his Last Discourse. In John this discourse takes place during the Last Supper but Raymond Brown who was probably the pre-eminent twentieth century scholar of John’s gospel, talked about this as Jesus’ prayer for his disciples after he had ascended to the Father, making the timing of this reading today quite appropriate having celebrated the Ascension last Thursday. He also says that this section of John is best understood when it is the subject of prayerful meditation rather than technical analysis.

Personally, I think there are large portions of John’s gospel that are best understood as the subject of prayerful meditation because what approaching it that way does is it causes you to slow down and read it differently. Reading today’s verses as more of a meditation means that rather than trying to figure out exactly what Jesus meant with these words or perhaps even wishing he hadn’t said this at all, you can play more with the possibilities of what this “being one” might mean.

If being one is about church unity, according to article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran answer concerning church unity says that “the church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. It is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.” That allows for some differences, again as long as the gospel is purely taught and the sacraments are administered rightly; but who decides?

I’m pretty sure that all 33,000 pieces of the puzzle would say that they are teaching the gospel purely and administering the sacraments rightly, but also that a lot of the other pieces are not. For Lutherans article 7 is a good answer, but in terms of fostering unity, it really doesn’t hold. It doesn’t cause the pieces to come together, quite the opposite actually even among different Lutheran groups!

Continuing to read these words meditatively though and recognizing that “being one” as agreement on everything is proably not going to happen we can consider other ways we might think about “being one.” Is there any way that we can envision more of the puzzle pieces coming together in our time? Should we keep working on the puzzle or should we put it back in the box?

One of the metaphors I’ve used a lot is faith as a journey. “Join us on the journey” was the tag line that we used in the ad campaign we did, however many years ago that was. We use the phrase here acknowledging that we’re all at different places on the journey of faith. When we gather here on a Sunday, we don’t all believe exactly the same thing, we don’t all agree on every point of Lutheran theology or on every social statement the ELCA puts out; but we’re all on the journey with Jesus and each other, professing faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Those who lead and attend other churches, even the ones I don’t like very much, they’re on the journey too, traveling it in ways that are different than how we travel it, but still on the journey with Jesus. There’s still a lot I disagree with, a lot that makes me mad even, but at my best, which doesn’t always happen, I can acknowledge that they too are on the journey and that there is sense of “being one” in that.

Jim Nieman, the president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago has another way of getting at what I think is the same thing. In talking about theological education he speaks of it as not just being about information, but also about being “in formation.” Thinking of all of the various pieces of our puzzle, we could say that again, despite serious differences, we are, all of us, “in formation” as we gather to worship the Risen Christ. We can perhaps agree that there is one-ness in that. There might be those who would disagree, feeling that faith is about having the right information, but being “in formation” is another way to connect some of the puzzle pieces.

When Jesus said “Let them be one, as we are one,” one of the ways he was one with the Father was in prayer. That’s another reason for reading these verses meditatively and prayerfully. Christian unity as “one holy catholic and apostolic church” might be elusive, but each of us can experience moments of “being one” in prayer as we spend time in the presence of God. In prayer, we can be one as Jesus and the Father are one and maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about.

So there are other ways to think about “being one” and we should celebrate those ways, but one can’t deny that we’re still left with a Christian Church that is horribly divided. The puzzle of Christian unity is a difficult one, so difficult that it makes the one on the cover of the bulletin look like child’s play. But…we have this prayer of Jesus that we can’t ignore. That makes it a puzzle that we shouldn’t just put back in the box despite its difficulty…even when the cat jumps up on the table.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

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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