October 21, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
The Good and Beautiful Community
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Christ-Centered Community
John 17:20-23; Galatians 3:26-29
Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America. There are over thirty thousand recognized Protestant denominations, and many of them reject every other denomination but their own. Why? “Because we have adopted a false narrative,” James Bryan Smith writes, “that gives us permission to separate from those who are different from us in appearance or status or belief. It goes something like this: ‘If you do not look like us, act like us, worship like us or think like us, we are not obligated to have fellowship with you.’” Really? Is this what Jesus was about? Gordon Melton is a Methodist minister with an unusual hobby. His hobby is denomination hunting. He literally scours the country trying to count the number of major denominations in the United States. Here’s some that he found. “The Church of the Kennedy Worshippers.” It is a church which actually believes that it can pray to the late President John F. Kennedy and its people can be cured both of congenital defects as well as of terminal diseases. Then there’s the “The Church of the Ministry of Universal Wisdom.” They look for flying saucers to come. J. Gordon Melton has discovered more than 70 different denominations calling themselves Baptist: Seventh-Day Baptist, Two Seeds in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptist, General Baptist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, and the list goes on and on. Is this really the kind of unity mentioned in the prayer from John 17?
Folks, here is the obvious and awful truth: the church of Jesus Christ has been split into many different factions who refuse to have fellowship with one another. For a people who claim one Lord, one faith and one baptism, we are not one church but exist in isolation, judgment, suspicion and condemnation. Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Would you pray with me?
So, how do we overcome isolation, judgment, suspicion and condemnation of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Well, Stanley Hauerwas, theologian at the Duke Divinity School explains it this way: “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people – a people who have learned not to fear one another…Only when my self – my character – has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”
I think Hauerwas pinpoints the problem for us, we fear each other. We fear that which we do not know. So much of that fear that separates us can be overcome by increasing our understanding of different races and cultures. But ultimately we overcome those fears by becoming people who know they are forgiven and are being formed by God’s love.
You see, here is what our true narrative in the kingdom of God should be: If you do not look, act, worship or believe as I do, but your heart beats in love for Jesus, then regardless of our differences, we can and must have fellowship with one another. We do not have to agree about style of worship or certain minor points of doctrine, but we can and must have fellowship if we hold to the central belief about Jesus. That is why all Christians can boldly proclaim: Jesus is Lord!
Paul said this in Galatians 3:26-29: You are all sons [and daughters] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Jesus did not believe and certainly Paul did not believe that our differences should divide us. Our unity in the fellowship comes from a single source, and that source is Jesus. It is through Jesus that we can overcome our fears of other people, of other denominations, and of other church doctrines. As Christians, our promise from God is salvation through Jesus Christ and heirs to the kingdom of God.
Let’s look at that Galatians passage a little more closely. Paul said, There is neither Jew nor Greek. You have to realize that this was quite a bold statement for Paul, a devout Pharisee, to make. He had come a long way from his early “persecute all the Christian Jews” activist days. To the Jew, the only two classes of people were Jews and everybody else, who were called Gentiles or Greeks.
But after his Damascus Road experience, which you can read about in Acts 9, Paul, who was called Saul, had his whole life and perspective changed when Jesus appeared before him. Paul came to realize that God’s love and concern is not exhausted on one nation, but is lavished upon the whole world because his love is so immense.
Jesus wanted his disciples to reach outside of Judaism, even to the Greeks. In his Great Commission before he ascended into heaven, Jesus instructed his disciples: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). That Greek word for “nations,” “ethnos,” is where we get our word “ethnic.” Jesus commands his disciples to go and make disciples of people from all ethnic backgrounds. Jesus wants to unite people regardless of race, culture or creed, into one fellowship. Our unity is established in our baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. There is neither Jew nor Greek. All racial and ethnic discrimination is destroyed in Christ.
And then Paul said, there is neither…slave nor free. Class discrimination is destroyed in Christ. Jesus did not believe that our differences should divide us. Rich or poor, high or low, powerful or weak, we are all one in Christ. In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18, verses 9-14, it says, “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable”:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We see here two men from very different levels of society, one a highly respected man, a Pharisee, the other, the lowest of the low, a tax collector, considered only slightly better than the lepers. But Jesus is only concerned with the attitude of our heart not with the altitude of our position. Only in the Church of Jesus Christ can a pauper stand beside a king and both be received as children of God.
And lastly, Paul said, there is neither…male nor female. Sexual discrimination is destroyed in Christ. James Bryan Smith writes: “Imagine you are a first-century man raised with the notion that women are inferior, and looking across the room at a woman who, by her graciousness, has paid for the home you are meeting in. The cross-centered community discovered a kind of equality unknown in the first century.” The New Testament draws a clear difference between the role and worth, between the function and position of men and women, but nowhere does it put men or women above each other.
And before some of you men begin to quote Ephesians 5 listen closely to this once again from The Message Bible: Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another. Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.
Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.
As men and women of God we are to be a source of provision, life, encouragement, empowerment, strength, and example to each other. Christ is in the Jew as well as in the Greek. Christ is in the slave as well as in the free. Christ is in the male as well as in the female. Christ is all in all. In Christ, we become a Christ-centered community.
St. Augustine is given credit for the quote “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” If in fact it came from Augustine, it was his way of dealing with the difficult matter of disagreement in the church. It is a helpful principle that offers us a way to think about how we can stay unified even when we disagree.
Our founder of Methodism, John Wesley, adopted Augustine’s comment in one of his sermons entitled “The Catholic Spirit” with “catholic” meaning “universal.” Wesley believed that the only way for the church to be unified was to learn how to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. Wesley believed love and commitment to Jesus were essential. Everything else was simply nonessential.
Celebrating Holy Communion is an essential of the Church that was initiated by Christ himself. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. The cup that we bless is a sharing of the blood of Christ. The bread that we break is a sharing of the body of Christ. Paul wrote this in 1 Corinthians 10:17: Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Communion is a visible demonstration of how we who are many become one by uniting in the body and blood of Jesus. We become a Christ-centered community.
During his last night with his disciples, Jesus prayed this prayer: My prayer is not for [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
Notice in this prayer that Jesus is not only praying for his current disciples but for all those disciples down through the centuries who hear the word of God, the Good News, the Gospel, and are transformed by it. “I pray also for those who WILL believe in me…” “Jesus is here anticipating the future,” Smith says, “when people would become [Jesus’] apprentices through the witness of his disciples. [Jesus] is praying for unity within the ecclesia, [that is, the church body], the same kind of unity experienced in the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son.”
Listen as Jesus continues: I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. Jesus did not believe that our differences should divide us. Unity in the fellowship comes from a single source: Jesus. Jesus dwelling in us, and you and I dwelling in Jesus. At the end of the day all Christians should be able to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord!
In his sermon I mentioned earlier, John Wesley offered five ways that we can show our love to those with whom we disagree: We can treat them as companions. We are not to think or speak evil of them. We are to pray for them and encourage them to do good. And lastly, we are to collaborate with them in ministry if at all possible.
The actual word “community” means “with unity.” Community means unity in love. Community means keeping our eyes on Jesus. Community means losing ourselves in service. If we are to be a Christ-centered community, then we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith as it says in Hebrews 12.
Because in the end, it is not about our differences in gender, race, class, or ethnic origin, but about our belief as Christians in the one and only true Savior, Jesus Christ, who brings unity to the body, to the Church. If your heart beats in love for Jesus, then you will take my hand, you will take your neighbor’s hand, you will take that person’s hand who is different, and we will walk together in fellowship. Our primary focus is on Christ as Lord. And so in our unity we say, Jesus is Lord!