I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.
The Disciples in the World
But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17:6-19

With the division and polarization so pervasive in our society it’s not surprising that many of our churches reflect this division. We see this in our own United Methodist denomination. It’s obvious the church is not perfect and never will be perfect as long as it is composed of sinful, fallible human beings. We’re not all God created us to be. I had a seminary professor who once compared the church to Noah’s Ark. “If the storms and the flood on the outside were not so bad, you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.” That can happen in the church. We are, after all, only human. In John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for the church. He prays that we will all be one. Considering the present fragmentation of the Christian community and our own denomination, I’m sure Jesus is still praying that prayer today. What is it that holds together the body of Jesus Christ? What’s the source of our unity? 

First, we’re united by our beliefs. I say that knowing that churches are just as apt to be torn apart by what they believe. Particularly in our United Methodist Church there’s a great affinity among Christians for breaking into rival camps. Maybe that is not totally bad. At least where people are arguing, beliefs are important. It’s important that we know and understand what we believe. John R. Claypool tells a delightful story that he picked up in Texas about a certain Mexican bank robber by the name of Jorge Rodriguez, who operated along the Texas border around the turn of the century. He was so successful in his forays that the Texas Rangers put a whole extra posse along the Rio Grande to try and stop him. Sure enough, late one afternoon, one of these special Rangers saw Jorge stealthily slipping across the river and trailed him at a discreet distance as he returned to his home village. He watched as Jorge mingled with the people in the square around the town well and then went into his favorite cantina to relax. The Ranger slipped in and managed to get the drop on Jorge. With a pistol to his head he said, “I know who you are, Jorge Rodriguez, and I have come to get back all the money that you have stolen from the banks in Texas. Unless you give it to me, I am going to blow your brains out.” However, there was one fatal difficulty. Jorge did not speak English and the Texas Ranger was not versed in Spanish. There they were, two adults at an utter verbal impasse. But about that time an enterprising bilingual man came up and said, “I am bilingual. Do you want me to act as translator?” The Ranger nodded, and he proceeded to put the words of the Ranger into terms that Jorge could understand. Nervously, Jorge answered back: “Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, he will find a loose one there. Pull it out and all the money is behind there. Please tell him quickly.” The translator got a solemn look on his face and said to the Ranger in perfect English, “Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die.” It’s absurd to say that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Tell that to Jorge Rodriguez. It’s equally absurd to say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere. Of course it matters what you believe. Sometimes it matters so much that churches divide. That’s tragic. But when the dust settles, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, there is a common bond that unites everyone who takes upon himself or herself the name Christian. That bond is this: We believe that God so loved the world that He gave His own Son that whoever believes in him shall have life everlasting. We believe that and that unites us with millions of believers around this planet. This is an essential of our belief. As John Wesley once allegedly said, “In essentials, let there be unity. In non-essentials, liberty. But in all things let there be charity.” We are united by the essentials of our faith. 

Second, we’re united by whom we serve. We serve Christ. He’s the inspiration of our lives. He’s the living presence who works within us. He’s the Lord and Master of all we are and hope to be. Years ago, Peter Drucker, an American management guru, once told of a hospital administrator who held his first staff meeting. They worked through a rather difficult matter and the new boss felt the matter was settled. But then suddenly one of the staff asked, “Would this have satisfied Nurse Bryan?” The arguments immediately started all over again and did not stop until a better solution to the problem had been hammered out. Who was this Nurse Bryan? The administrator soon found out. She had been a long serving nurse in the hospital. Whenever a decision regarding patient care came up, Nurse Bryan would ask, “Are we doing the best we can to help this patient?” As a result of her conscientious concern, patients on her floor did better and recovered faster. Gradually as time went by, the whole hospital learned to adopt what became known as “Nurse Bryan’s Rule.” Though she had retired ten years earlier, the standard she had set was still providing vision for employees in the hospital. Her secret? She took every aspect of hospital work back to the central question: “What can we do to best do our job as a hospital?” St. Paul set the standard for us over 1900 years ago when he wrote that our job is “whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” (II Corinthians 5:9). That’s our test of excellence in the church and in our lives as believers in Jesus. Would this be pleasing to Jesus? 

Finally, we’re united by whom we’re seeking to save. The church can never be satisfied with protecting its own existence. We serve One who poured out his life for the world. That is our calling as well. Alan Loy McGinnis tells a moving story about a Swede named Johan Eriksson. In 1939, trainloads of Jewish children with pale, thin faces and sunken eyes were piling into Sweden, and the boys and girls, some only three and four years old would file off the trains with no belongings except for the large tags around their necks, designating their home city, their name, and their age. They had already seen and experienced things far beyond their years, atrocities that most people would never have to see in a lifetime. Swedish families were taking in children for the “duration of the war.” One of the Swedes who opened his door was Johan Eriksson, a middle-aged man who had already raised four children as a young widower. When he learned that a frightened nine-year-old named Rolf needed a home, he responded and so a little Jewish boy began to adjust to life in a strict Swedish Baptist home. At first, when there was a knock on the door or loud voices outside, the boy would dive into a closet and cover his head, but he was surrounded with warmth and love in the Eriksson house, and he began to gain weight, to lose the faraway gaze, and eventually he began to laugh again. When an invasion by the Nazis seemed imminent, men at the machine shop warned Johan that soon he would lose the boy. “They’ll never take him so long as I’m alive!”, declared Johan. In keeping with a promise that the Swedish government had made to the Jewish refugee organization, Johan respected Rolf’s religious heritage. Johan took little Rolf to church with his family, but he went to considerable lengths to see that the boy also learned the Hebrew tradition and that when the proper age came, he was prepared for and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. When the war ended, Johan wanted to return to Rolf’s parents a son who had been raised as closely as possible to the way they would have wanted. But when the war did end, the family was never reunited, of course. Rolf’s parents perished somewhere in Europe along with millions of others of the Jewish faith. Their last hastily scribbled note to Rolf instructed him to never forget what this Swedish family had done for him. Rolf didn’t forget. He grew up to become a successful businessman. One day, however, Rolf suffered what we might call a severe nervous breakdown. The authorities wanted to place him in a mental institution. Johan wouldn’t hear of it. For a year Johan nursed him until his mind returned to stability and peacefulness. Rolf went on to become a successful businessman with a family of his own. But he never forgot Johan’s acts of kindness. If Johan was sick or needed him, Rolf thought nothing of taking the train across Sweden to spend what was left of the weekend with the man who had become like a father. And when Johan was on his deathbed, all the children hurried home, but everyone knew who would arrive first-Rolf. Alan Loy McGinnis goes on to say, “…if Johan Eriksson had accomplished no other noteworthy thing in his long life, it surely would have been worth living to have been there to shelter one such child.” Who is it that you’re offering shelter to? To whom are you reaching out arms of love and mercy? We have no other purpose as the church of Jesus Christ. 

So we are united by what we believe. We believe in Jesus Christ as our personal Savior and Lord. We are also united by whom we serve. We seek to serve Christ in all we think, say and do. And we are united by whom we’re seeking to save: the world for which Christ died.

O God of unity and compassion, help us to look past the differences that divide us to our faith in your Son Jesus who unites. In our ministry together help us to serve in such a way that our efforts are pleasing to You and never let us forget that our ministry is to share Your Son, Jesus with the world.          

Questions for Reflection:  

  1. John Wesley purportedly said, “In essentials, let there be unity.” Which beliefs do you recognize as essential for all Christians to hold? What do you see as the source for these essential beliefs? The Bible? The Apostles’ Creed? The Nicene Creed? The UMC Book of Discipline? Other?                    
  2. “We’re united by whom we serve.” Whom do you serve? Yourself, Christ, or something else? Who are you trying to please each day, yourself or Christ?                            
  3. What is the primary purpose of the church? Is it to care for others who are homeless, naked and hungry and share the good news of Jesus? Our is the primary purpose of the church to take care of ourselves?