Sunday May 12,
Sixth Sunday after Easter
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Senior Pastor
Although I was required to take both Old Testament and New Testament Survey courses in college, I can tell you without a doubt that most everything I know about the stories of the Bible came from Arch books.
And it’s a good thing for those Arch books, for they inspired more than one very holy Halloween costume, among other things! (That’s a long story for another time…).
They also taught me stories we don’t hear too much in worship. As you know, around here we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year cycle of scripture passages used to guide worship by much of the Christian world. And not every single thing in the Bible is included in the RCL. For example, in the RCL over a three year period, there are 84 different passages from the Gospel of Luke and only 2 passages from the book of Daniel, a small book in the Minor Prophets that tells the famous story of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abendnego in the fiery furnace. Remember that?
Daniel in the lions’ den? No?
Would you like to borrow my Arch books?
The book of Daniel is a story about exile, when Jerusalem was sacked and the Israelites were carted off to Babylon where they struggled to maintain their identity and culture as a people, and their understanding of Yahweh as their God. There’s a lot of drama in the book of Daniel, including but not limited to lions and fiery furnaces. But I wanted to read you part of the story, from Daniel chapter 3 (since this part NEVER appears in the lectionary readings):
King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up…. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.’ Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
That’s right. The king built a shiny statue and decided it would make him feel a little better about all the different people he’d captured and was trying to integrate into society there in Babylon if everybody, uniformly, practiced and believed the same exact thing. So he made a rule that everybody had to bow down to his statue as soon as they heard the trumpet blast.
And I suppose that it calmed King Nebuchadnezzar’s fears about different opinions among the people and any potential dissention in the ranks when he gave the command for the trumpets to blow and then looked with satisfaction out of his palace windows and saw all the people—everybody—bowing down in unison before the statue he’d put up.
Now, really, even if you hadn’t heard this little piece of the story of Daniel before today, this narrative from ancient Babylon shouldn’t sound to unfamiliar to you and me. In every human society ever there have been movements (some more successful than others) to insure conformity. We human beings seem to feel more comfortable when we all know the score, when everybody is on the same page, when we don’t ever need to worry about any kind of challenge to the status quo.
But just read the book of Daniel…or, head down to the National Holocaust Museum…and you’ll quickly remember that imposed conformity like this has horrific and disastrous results…
…which might lead you and me to scratch our heads when we read the Gospel lesson for today, which is a continuation of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, part of the Gospel of John that we’ve been reading over the past few weeks in worship. The little portion we heard today is from John chapter 17, which is known by biblical scholars as the High Priestly Prayer. It’s a prayer of Jesus that occurs in the book of John immediately before Jesus and his disciples head out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is betrayed and the events of Holy Week begin to unfold (also deftly covered in an Arch book, FYI).
This is a beautiful prayer in which Jesus, who knows what’s ahead for his disciples, prays for them…and even prays for those who would come after them (us!). He prays for protection and comfort…and he prays for unity. Listen again: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”
Now, there’s no coincidence that these words of Jesus’ prayer were included in the Gospel of John. Remember that the Gospel accounts were written long after the events John’s writer was recounting, and well into the establishment of the first church. And, as you’re aware from reading any of the Epistles of the New Testament, there was anything BUT “one-ness” in the first church. Squabbles over how to do just about everything were dominating the time of the church’s leaders, and they were desperately trying to figure out how to create communities that reflected the unity Jesus was talking about, instead of a group that looked like a bunch of children misbehaving. They were communicating to the world around them that they were, if not completely crazy, then at least not very much fun to be around.
In other words, the church’s internal conflicts were not doing much to advance the message of Jesus.
Hmmm, 2000 years go by and nothing much changes, does it? We Christians don’t get along much better today than they did in the early church, often because some among us would read the words of Jesus here and cry foul! See what Jesus says right here?!? We HAVE to believe the same things. We HAVE to practice our faith in the same way. We HAVE to understand God through a uniform rubric. We HAVE to value conformity in order to live the message of Jesus. He says it right here!!
Well, I’m not so sure. I do feel sure that when Jesus prayed that they and we might be one, he was praying for unity…but unity is far different from conformity.
Think for a minute about the group for whom Jesus was praying that night…! Some were rough-hewn fishers who’d spent their lives in manual labor. Some were educated tax collectors and government leaders. Some were women, oppressed by a society that would never accept them as equals. Some had only the desire for power and prestige; some had a desperate longing for affirmation and relationship. Like any collected group of human beings on the planet, the disciples came to the task of following Jesus from different life experiences, diverse perspectives, even radically varying convictions about their faith. There was no conformity there, and Jesus was not about the business of imposing a value of conformity on the first disciples.
Notice he didn’t pray, “Father, silence the questions among them, and grant that they may always agree…”.
No, he prayed for them…and he prayed for us…that we would do the hard, hard work of relationship, of messy engagement with each other, so that the world would know that DESPITE our differences, we come together in unity to proclaim a Gospel of love and reconciliation to the world around us. It’s not conformity…it’s a unity with integrity.
What does this mean? What does this mean for a community like ours? Well, it means that we welcome and nurture diversity among us…we don’t have to be alarmed if we hold differing opinions, if we don’t understand each other, even if we offend one other.
It means when we encounter conflict or discord, we listen to one another and we prioritize the health of our relationships and our community over our own preferences and even our own comfort.
It means the transference of the Gospel message of love and peace, of justice and reconciliation is always our first priority, its communication an endeavor we undertake with our whole lives joined together in all our diversity for a larger purpose.
You recall in the sequence of events that night of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, the disciples had celebrated the Passover together. They’d gathered around a table. Some in the group sat at opposite ends of the table, just to keep the peace. Nobody really wanted to talk to Judas, who’d begun to act a little suspicious by then. Peter was (predictably) the loudmouth at the table, telling stories everybody had heard about a million times. And John, such a teacher’s pet, of course grabbed the seat right next to Jesus and watched everything he did with rapt attention, trying (as ever) to get on his good side.
And as the evening with all the predictable joys and tensions that come whenever you get a group of people together, came to a close, Jesus picked up a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and invited them to remember why they were there. They didn’t know exactly what he meant when he said the words, “This is my body broken for you…this cup is the new covenant in my blood…” but you know that they felt something strong and true as they offered the bread and wine to each another.
In that moment, in spite of all their differences, together they ate and remembered the unity of conviction that drew them together and held them connected.
And for that moment, anyway, they changed from a rag tag group of individuals staring confused at the task ahead of them…to a band of disciples, focused with purpose and unified in conviction.
John wanted the first church to remember and relive the first disciples’ experience. And perhaps in the memory of that meal even we can truly know what Jesus meant when he prayed for our unity. For Christian faith, the life of a Christ-follower in the community, is certainly not about conformity. But it is a unity, a beautiful unity that seeks to be part of God’s biggest hopes and dreams for our world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran theologian who lived and worked in Germany during World War II and who was executed by the Nazis for his resistance to their regime, said it very well. He wrote: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize or actualize. It is rather a reality created by God in Christ, in which we may participate.”
And we, you and me, together in this place, are not tasked with creating a standard to which we must each conform. Rather, we’re invited to gather around the table, to take the bread and the wine together, to join our voices in worship, to put our hands to the task of healing our world…all of this, even in our diversity…especially in our diversity…participating in God’s work of healing our world.