Now, I know there may be a few of you who missed it, but last night was the Champions League final. Liverpool and Real Madrid battled it out to see who could win the premier club title in European football.
Okay, I’m guessing most of you missed it. Football isn’t everybody’s thing. But I think we all know enough about team sports to know that if the players in a team don’t work together they will lose. If the team goes on to the pitch and then each player just does their own thing, then the other side will simply walk all over them! A team has to be united. To coin a phrase – There is no I in TEAM because TEAM stands for Together Everyone Achieves More. Teams, in order to win, must be united.
I think it’s fairly safe to assume, given the teaching in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, that Jesus wanted his church to be united. I think it’s also fairly safe to assume that for Jesus this wasn’t an optional extra, only to happen if the situation at any particular time demanded it.
I think it’s also fairly safe to assume that he knew that it wouldn’t always be united! Given that in our gospel reading he prayed to the Father that those who would believe might be one, it seems that he thought that, people being people, they might find that “being one” might be a bit difficult!
We find it so hard to agree within our own denomination – let alone agreeing with the rest of the world’s churches.
You’d think that since we all worship the same God, follow the same Lord Jesus, and are filled with the same Holy Spirit, it shouldn’t be too difficult – but it is, isn’t it. Take Easter as an example. This year we celebrated Easter on April 17th. But not everyone did. The Eastern Church celebrated Easter a week later, on April 24th. Christians can’t even agree on the date of Easter. And in most years, the Eastern Church celebrates Easter on one Sunday and the Western Church, of which we are a part, on another.
Even in our own country, during the time that Augustine was bringing Roman Christianity and seeking to absorb the Celtic Church, people couldn’t agree. The Celtic Church and the Roman Church worked the date of Easter out differently. The problem even divided families. Queen Eanfleda of Northumbria, in the 7th century, is known to have quite deliberately kept Palm Sunday by fasting at the same time that her husband King Oswy was feasting because he thought it was Easter Day. At least we don’t have that problem here. I’m sure you all celebrated Easter together in your own families!
Christians can’t even be united over the date of Easter! And there is so much else in addition – beliefs, doctrine, ways of worship – that we allow to divide us, when we should be seeking to be united – to be one, as Jesus prayed!
And there are so many Christians of different traditions or denominations who think that their particular beliefs, or doctrines, or ways of doing things, are right – and it’s the others who need to change. Nobody seems willing to say, “Let’s do it their way – our way might be important to us but for the sake of unity let’s give a little” or “It doesn’t matter that we’re different or that they want to do things a different way – let’s embrace and rejoice in our differences” or even “Let’s see what God wants – he might want us all follow a new way!”
So we continue to disagree. What a poor witness to Christ!
In his High Priestly Prayer, just before his death, Jesus prayed that his disciples “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
And yet, we are not one, and we wonder why it is so difficult to get people to believe.
As individual Christians, we have little power to resolve such issues as the date of Easter, but we can resolve to love one another instead of criticising one another, to serve one another instead of condemning one another. If the roughly two and a half billion Christians in the world today would just love each other, what a witness that would be as together we help answer Jesus’ prayer that we would be one.
And yet two thousand years of church history have demonstrated how difficult it is for Christians to become one. We have divided the church, the body of Christ, into many parts. We have called ourselves Baptists and Methodists and Anglicans and Catholics and Orthodox and a host of other names that serve to keep us apart rather than helping to draw us together.
Many people still worship in churches that require a commitment to a specific set of beliefs that exclude other denominations or Christians that think differently. Yet surely to be a Christian all one has to do is have a living relationship with Jesus Christ – to be a follower of Jesus. To reject as un-Christian, to demonise, those who don’t assent to specific doctrines is to negate the grace of God.
A friend of mine who had been a life-long Baptist once came to see me because she wanted to become an Anglican. In her retirement she had started to attend lunch-time services at some of the City churches – and what she discovered was that as her understanding of Christianity broadened, so the Baptist church of which she was a member became more rejecting of her. She simply wasn’t allowed to believe anything that didn’t conform. She was no longer seen as a ‘proper’ Christian.
Her attendance at Anglican churches was frowned upon and her acceptance of some of the things that the Anglican Church did was, she was told, wrong. So she was made to feel unwelcome. There are too many churches like that – even some that are so rejecting of others’ beliefs that they will not even join Churches Together. How Jesus must weep.
Isn’t it enough that we all believe in Jesus and want to follow him, and to live by his teaching? Of course, different churches will have differing theologies, differing ways of worship, and so on – but surely we can accept that we are all following the same Jesus and believing the same good news? Too many denominations require personal commitment to a particular set of beliefs and demand absolute loyalty to the denomination. People having often criticised the Church of England for not believing anything in particular, or allowing you to believe anything you like – I’ve always thought that was one of its strengths! It simply asks – at baptism or confirmation – that you will follow Jesus and reject evil. As long as you love Jesus and want to live according live according to his teaching then you’re welcome here at St John’s. And if you are still thinking about it, or haven’t even started out on the journey yet, or just want to know more without making a decision – then you’re welcome here as well.
The jailer, in our first reading today, asks “What must I do to be saved?” And what do Paul and Silas reply?
Do they say: You must go to communion every week, sign up to the stewardship scheme, join a house group, go to confession, pray every day, man a stall at the summer fete … no!
Do they say that you must believe in transubstantiation or that Catholics aren’t Christian or that you’re only a proper Christian if you were baptised as an adult by full immersion or that God literally wrote every word in the Bible personally or that women can’t be priests … no!
No – they say “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved”. The bottom line is that salvation depends only upon our belief on Jesus Christ – and that is what should unite us, our common belief in Jesus.
Jesus’ prayer was that we might be one. How we have resisted that prayer! We love so many things more than we love Jesus! We have too many loyalties other than Christ! We want to be our own kind of Christian instead of being Christ’s kind of Christian! We want others to be our kind of Christian too, instead of together focussing on Jesus. So what can we do?
- We can learn more about how to be the kind of Christians Jesus wants us to be, discovering how to live out a truly Christian life.
- We can give our ultimate loyalty to Jesus – and not to anything or anyone else – as we seek to celebrate our faith and to share that faith with others.
- And we can decide to be one – to be a united team seeking to live out the love of Jesus and welcoming any who will come and join us.