Being "One" Doesn't Mean Boring Uniformity

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter 7
May 21, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed that his followers may "be one." But what does that really mean? Are Christians all supposed to belong to the same denomination? Should our worship style be the same from church to church? Or is Jesus praying for something richer and deeper?

In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed that his followers may "be one." But what does that really mean? Are Christians all supposed to belong to the same denomination? Should our worship style be the same from church to church? Or is Jesus praying for something richer and deeper?

Perhaps you've seen the cartoon of a man being rescued from a desert island that shows his rescuers asking the man about two structures on the small island.

"Oh," he says, pointing to one building, "this's my church."

"And," he continues, a little sheepishly, "the other is the church I used to attend."

So in the scripture passage that we read today in which Jesus prayed that his followers "will be one," does that longed-for unity seem like an impossible dream?

After all, just think of how divided Christianity is worldwide.1 People who keep track of these things say there now are about 2.6 billion Christians in the world. But that's the 40,000-foot view. If we look closer we find Christians separated, first, into Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. But those divisions don't include everyone who identifies as Christian, and they don't begin to describe the atomization of the institutional church.

For instance, Baylor University, a Baptist institution, tells us that Baptists divide up into 22 different denominational identities.2 And that's just in the United States.

Beyond that, there are more than 30 different Methodist branches just in North America, with the new Global Methodist Church added last year as a break-away denomination from the United Methodist Church because of that large denomination's most recent schism.3

I could spend the rest of this sermon listing hundreds of other branches and divisions within Christianity. It's worth wondering whether all that division breaks the sacred heart of Jesus. And yet, maybe we need to rethink what Jesus meant when he asked his disciples - and, by extension, all his eventual followers - to "be one."

Even Jesus' disciples weren't exactly 'one'

Maybe he didn't have in mind a single institutional church at all. Maybe, rather, he wanted his followers - no matter how they identify themselves religiously - to pay attention to his words and his mission and the meaning of his life and death. He wanted them to have that focus because he knew that his own first followers were not all alike. Yes, for sure his 12 disciples were all Jewish males. But Peter was not a duplicate of Nathaniel and Nathaniel was not a carbon copy of Judas, who was quite different from brothers John and James, the sturdy sons of Zebedee.

Jesus even had a follower who felt free enough to express grave doubts about Jesus' resurrection, a man we call Doubting Thomas. Beyond that, Jesus had plenty of female followers, some of whom exercised leadership roles, though the gospel writers - with the occasional exception of Luke - seemed to go out of their way not to give many of them credit for that.

So the question is whether we can find a way for all of us Christians to "be one" without being locked into some kind of soul-crushing sameness of worship style or institutional makeup.

Yes, we can find such a way. We can hold to the center of our faith simply by recognizing the sacrificial way God loves us and by responding to that love in gratitude. We don't all have to sing in the choir. We don't all have to be preachers. (Thank God for that.) We don't all have to be youth leaders.

As the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there are different gifts of the Holy Spirit and we should respond to the gift or gifts the Spirit gives us. Paul also emphasized unity in Christ in other writings, including his letter to the Philippians, in which he wrote this: "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."4

Being 'one' in a Trinitarian sense

Notice, too, that in Jesus' prayer we read from the Gospel of John today, he asks "that they will be one, as we are one."

That phrase - just "as we are one" - is crucial. Jesus is not saying that he's an exact replica of the God we call Creator or Father. Rather, he's saying they are one in purpose, one in spirit, one in love. In Trinitarian theology, we don't mash up the Creator, Son and Holy Spirit into one squishy pudding of the divine. Rather, we recognize that each member of the Trinity is always unique but in complete harmony with the other members. One never does something that the others would not do.

That's the beauty of true pluralism. Pluralism is a conscious, even built-in, decision and celebration of the benefits that come from having people together who are different. Although diversity, by contrast, happens by chance, pluralism happens on purpose, and it engages us in a deliberate recognition that strength for good can come out of differences.

That brings us to what Jesus might have meant when he asked God to watch over his followers "in your name."

Names were and are extraordinarily important in Judaism. In fact, in Genesis, when God asked Adam and Eve to name animals and plants, God was offering an opportunity for humanity to be, in at least a limited sense, co-creators with God. Naming things was an indication of power, just as names themselves were sacred in some way.

When Moses, at the burning bush, asked for God's name, the answer was both compelling and mysterious. "I am who I am,"5 God said. Or, put another way, "I will be who I will be." Which is why Jewish people even today are careful about how they refer to God, often using just the term "Hashem," which means "the name."

When we speak "in the name of" someone, we invoke that person's power and authority. Have you ever heard either in person or in a movie a police officer shout this? "Stop in the name of the law." That officer is not speaking for himself or herself as an individual but, rather, as a representative of a larger system, a broader way of being.

So in this case, Jesus is invoking God's power and authority by asking for his followers to be protected "in your name."

So what may at first sound almost like blasphemy may, in fact, be exactly the right question when we see churches purposefully excluding certain people from full participation and ask, "What in God's name are you doing?"

For if congregations or denominations are taking actions that draw the followers of Christ away from "being one," to use Jesus' description, they need to be called to account for their actions. Jesus wanted his followers united - not in the language used to create dogmatic statements, not in this or that architectural approach to church design, not in worship style, but rather united in allegiance to Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the savior, in allegiance to the good news, in allegiance to the loving God of all creation.

'Laughing at our divisions helps'

I began today by describing a cartoon that made fun of Christian divisions. In that spirit, allow me to end with a joke, British in origin, that once was labeled the world's funniest religious joke. It, too, makes fun of our Christian divisions and our failure to live into Jesus' prayer that we all would be one.

A man was walking across a bridge one day and saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump. The first man ran over to him and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

"Well," the first man said, "there's so much to live for."

"Like what?" was the response.

"Well," the first man said, "are you religious?"

He said: "Yes."

"Me too," the questioner said. "Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

"Baptist Church of God."

"Amazing. Me too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

The potential jumper replied, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

Which caused the first man to say, "Die, heretic scum," and he pushed him off the bridge.

See? Sometimes humor hits us where it hurts. And perhaps that's because we haven't understood the pain and anguish Jesus was in when, right before he was hauled away to be crucified, he prayed that all his followers might be one.

He wasn't asking us to wear standard uniforms. Or to understand his multi-layered parables in only one approved way. Or to base our social witness to the world on some political party's platform instead of on Christ's own teaching.

No. He was asking us to be one in spirit, to be one in a commitment to love one another as he loved us, one in commitment to the joy of sharing the great, good news of Christ to a wounded world in need of just such good news.

Let's do that, making sure we do it in the name of the one Triune God - Creator, Cross-bearer, Comforter. May it be so.


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