This sermon was preached at Center Chapel UMC in Indianola, Iowa on Sunday June 2, 2019. Thank you for reading!
Scripture: John 17:20-26
Last week I shared briefly with you all that my husband and I have spent the last 10 months traveling Europe. We are currently back in Iowa for about 2 months, before we head back out on the road again in July. We returned for many reasons - graduations, birthdays, annual conference, a wedding, and more, but for the most part it was simply so we could spend time with family and friends. And because the house we own in Fort Dodge is currently rented, we are spending these two months relying on the hospitality of family and friends.
Have you ever tried living with your parents as an adult? I don’t mean just staying for a couple days here and there over the holidays, but for real, sharing a house, sharing a kitchen, sharing a car, living with your parents. I did it for one year after I graduated from seminary, while I worked as a chaplain resident at a hospital in downtown Des Moines. And now, a full decade later, I find myself doing it again in this in between time.
Let me say this first, I love my parents. And I so appreciate them letting me live with them for a month while I eat their food and drive their car and generally act like a teenager who relies on her parents for everything. I am grateful for all they have done and continue to do for me. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our conflicts. Nowhere does this come more to a head than in the kitchen - my mother’s domain. And mostly, it’s about skillets.
Let me explain. My mother loves to cook with old fashioned cast iron skillets. Some of the ones she has date back to her grandmother, my great-grandmother, and she loves to share the stories of how the women in our family have cooked with these same skillets for generations. I love a good family heirloom as much as the next gal but I have to admit, I don’t love these skillets.
You see, I like to cook, but I’m kind of a lazy cook. I like to throw stuff in my non-stick pan, and when I’m all done, throw that non-stick pan in the dishwasher. When it comes to cast iron I can’t be bothered to clean them properly, season them well, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make my scrambled eggs not stick. After a week of trying to cook with my mother’s pans I borrowed a non-stick skillet from a friend, it was the only way to keep from going crazy.
So you could say that in the realm of the kitchen, my mother and I face some disunity. Her with her well-loved, hundred year old cast iron skillets, against me and my new-fangled modern non-stick skillets, traditional vs modern. I don’t think we will ever agree on which is the superior tool for cooking. And yet, we find a way to come together and cook, despite our differences. We might disagree about how food should be made, but we agree that food is important and we both view cooking for someone as a way of showing and sharing our love for that person. We find unity in the larger goal of creating a meal, of breaking bread together, even if we face disunity in how to get there.
In today’s scripture passage we continue in John’s story of the Farewell Discourse of Jesus. It is still the night of the last supper, and Jesus is praying the final prayer that he prays before the start of the passion. This prayer has become known as the “unity prayer” because in it, Jesus talks about his hope that his followers will find a way to be one, even as he and the Father are one. Jesus prays not only for his current disciples, but for all who will come to believe because of them, which means that in this prayer, on the night before he died on the cross, Jesus was praying specifically for us - that we might be one as followers of Christ.
Well, some two thousand years later, how do we think that call for unity is working out? What would Jesus think of the many, many denominations around this world who claim to follow him - almost all of which grew out of some sort of conflict, some sort of disunity, in which the followers of Christ could no longer agree to get along?
One of my favorite church-related cartoons ever has to do with this subject. The drawing shows a teacher standing in front of a blackboard labeled “Churches & Christian Movements Throughout History.” It starts in 1AD with a single line and then branches off in multiple directions that take over the whole board. The teacher has circled one little branch at the very end, and is saying, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” And a youngster in the class is saying, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.”
Sometimes we think that way about ourselves right? We finally have the Bible right, have following Jesus right, while all those other people before had it wrong, and all those other people outside of us are still wrong. If we look at our own denomination, the United Methodist Church, we are pretty far down on that church history map - we can trace splits back through our American Methodist history, the split of John Wesley from the Church of England (though he never really intended a split) and before that the split of the Anglican church from the Catholic Church. We have plenty of disunity in our history, practically in our DNA as a denomination, despite our cheeky use of the word “united” in our name.
Last week during joys and concerns one of you mentioned that Annual Conference starts soon, and our need to pray for that gathering of our denomination. Prayers are so needed, because nowhere is the disunity of the church more on display than when we gather together to make decisions about the future of the church. This year we will discuss such difficult topics as defunding campus ministries, selling a church camp property, and the official closing of certain churches, not to mention the more overarching conflicts that have consumed our denomination at the general conference level.
How timely, then, that the lectionary has us studying this particular prayer from Jesus, at this particular point in time. (Perhaps the Holy Spirit at work, eh?) In The Message interpretation of this passage (which puts scripture into more modern language) Jesus says this: “The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind - just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us.” What a lofty goal, Jesus!
The fact that Jesus is praying for this tells me that Jesus knew it wasn’t just going to happen. The fact that he felt the need to pray for unity among his disciples in the future, meant that he knew unity would not be our default setting. He would not have been pleading to God about our unity on the night before his crucifixion if he thought our unity would be a given. That Jesus, he really knows us.
So how do we seek this unity which Christ wants for us? How do we begin to heal the deep divisions and cross the great divides we have put and continue to put between ourselves? I think part of the answer also comes from this night before Jesus died, from the last supper, from the practice we now know as communion. The idea of unity, of union, is right there in the name. In the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup we find ourselves not only one with Christ, but one with each other.
Every denomination, every iteration on this earth of how to follow Jesus has retained this practice of communion. Granted, many of us view it very differently. There really could not be more disunity in how we view this unifying act of communion. Some denominations practice it weekly, others monthly, others less than that. Some denominations allow anyone to consecrate and serve communion, some only ordained pastors, some only men at that. Some denominations allow the table to be open to all who are present, some only to church members, and some only to people who have properly fasted and prepared with prayer. Some denominations serve only wafers and wine, others Hawaiian bread and grape juice, others will celebrate with any food and drink on hand. Some believe that the elements literally become the body and blood of Christ while others view the act more symbolically.
I could keep going but I think you get the point - even in this act of unifying of ourselves with each other and with Christ we face a lot of disunity. And yet, we still celebrate. We find that food, especially food given in the name of Christ, has the power to cross barriers, tear down boundaries, surpass cultural and language differences and unify people in a way that glorifies God.
When my mother and I have conflict in our home, in the kitchen, we always find a way to come together over food, even if her food was cooked in a cast iron skillet, and mine in a non-stick pan. In the church, when we have conflict, we hopefully, always find a way to come together over the food of communion, even if a short time later we might return to our argumentative ways.
I don’t have any real answers for the disunity we face in the church; sometimes the conflict is too big to stay together - history has taught us that. And when the argument is not about something as simple as a cast iron skillet vs. non-stick pan, but something much larger, much more important, unity for unity’s sake cannot be the answer, when people are being harmed.
But I do know this - Jesus is with us in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. In this act we join in union with Christ and with each other, and with Christians all around the world. In this we are reminded that Jesus is with us no matter what, and that God is always capable of bringing new life from death. As Christians we share in the hope and joy of resurrection, in whatever forms it may come.
I have hope for resurrection in our church, even if, perhaps, that resurrection doesn’t look exactly like we might want it to. And I find that hope in Jesus Christ, and in his prayer for us on that night so long ago.
Jesus prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one; may it be so in this coming moment of communion, and someday, may it be so in all the moments of our lives.