(Preached at Alma United Church, October 1, 2017)
A couple of jokes to start off our World Wide Communion Sunday Sermon:
Told by Rev. Terrence Toland, S.J., former president of St. Joseph’s University
The Pope convenes the College of Cardinals to make a special announcement.
“I have good news and bad news,” he tells them. “First the good news: Our gracious heavenly father Jesus Christ is returning to Earth for the Second Coming, at which time he will preside over a meeting of all Christian denominations, for the purpose of uniting them into a single Christian church.
“Now for the bad news: He wants to hold the meeting in Salt Lake City.”
Another one that I’ve heard about Baptists, but it could be about many other types of churches as well:
A man was passing through a small southern town, and noted that there were two Baptist churches, one on each side of the main street. So he asked a local, “Why do you have two Baptist churches in this tiny town?”
“Well, sir,” the local said, “it’s like this. That there Baptist church believes there ain’t no hell, and that other Baptist church says the hell there ain’t!”
Would you pray with me and for me please…
The competition began in the womb, so to speak. No, I’m not talking about Jacob and Esau, those twins from the book of Genesis we’ve heard so much about. Nor am I talking about any sibling pair you or I might know personally.
I’m talking about the disciples of Jesus, in the metaphorical womb of their instruction by the Lord himself, and already there’s trouble. The disciples want to know which of them is the greatest. Which of them will hold the keys to the Gates of Heaven. Who will sit beside Jesus on his heavenly throne.
By the time we get to Paul, we have Christians boasting about who it was who baptized them. “I was baptized by Peter himself!” We have Christians doubting whether some other Christians were really Christians, because they didn’t follow the Jewish purity laws.
A few hundred years later, we have Christians debating and fighting about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.
Then we get Martin Luther nailing bits of paper to a cathedral door, telling the Catholic priests to go read their bible. We’ve got churches that dedicate their ministry to the poor, and churches that go after the rich. We’ve got churches that preach to primarily LGBTQ folks, and churches that say those particular Christians are going to Hell. And of course, we have Christians who don’t believe a God of Love could ever allow anyone to go to Hell.
Then there’s the fact that Sunday morning, ten am has been called the most racially segregated hour in America, because even today, blacks and whites tend not to attend the same churches, to say nothing of Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese, Egyptian Coptics, and so forth.
How sad Jesus must be! He prays that we may all be one, as Jesus and God are one, so that the world may know that God has sent Jesus and that God loves us, every one.
We’re human, and like the very first disciples, we like to pretend that we can rank people in order of importance, using wealth or intelligence or accomplishments or gender or age or skin colour or sexual orientation or religion or who our parents were to decide who is better and more worthy, but our passage today from Genesis tells us that all human beings were created in the image of God, and that we are all good, all blessed.
We like to believe that our form of Christian worship, our denomination, is not only the best, but the only true one.
But scripture gives a different story. The ancient Israelites were divided into twelve tribes, each with it’s own character and function. In the New Testament, Paul talks about Christians being part of the body of Christ, and how each of us has gifts, and that these gifts are not ranked in order of importance—they’re just different, and each one is necessary to the whole.
On this World Wide Communion Sunday, we have heard Jesus’ prayer that we who have come to believe through the disciples be one. That we might all work together to make God through Christ known to all the world.
But what does that mean?
I personally don’t think it means that we have to go back to the old United Church model where other denominations have to become part of the United Church. I think what Jesus is asking is that we learn to recognize that each Christian is important to the shared mission of the church, and that each denomination brings gifts.
The Anglicans and Catholics, for example, bring the gift of liturgy to the table. The Mormons bring the gift of song, and the recognition that door-to-door evangelism is important. Some Catholic groups highlight the importance of spirituality, the Mennonites teach us about non-violence. The Salvation Army works for the poor and downtrodden, the Presbyterians emphasize preaching, the Methodists communion and temperance, the Baptists, of course, highlight the importance of baptism, the Pentecostals bring unbridled praise, the evangelicals highlight the importance of sharing our faith.
We in the United Church also have our gifts—we are respected for our willingness to be political and share our thoughts with our elected representatives. We also bring an ecumenical faith, that challenges other denominations to work with us rather than along side us.
Christians from other countries, other socio-economic position, other races help us to experience a bigger God than the sandy-haired, blue-eyed, clean-robed Jesus so often depicted in our stained-glass windows. A shining example of this is our Native Canadian Christians, who are teaching us to be more respectful of God’s creation, and of other cultures, than we have been in the past.
Becoming one doesn’t mean that we do away with denominations.
Becoming one means that we acknowledge our basic common denominators: that we are all human beings, made in the image of God, and that we are all followers of the risen Christ, working together towards God’s realm of justice and peace.
Becoming one means that we acknowledge that none of us personally has a complete picture of who God is or what God wants, but that when we each put our different pieces together, we have a better understanding of God, and draw closer to the divine.