Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
May16, 2021 Worship Sermon - "That They May Be One"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Holy Father, protect them in your name, which you have given me, so that they may be one as you and I are one.
There was a book written a few years ago by Barbara Brown Taylor called Holy Envy. In it, she describes her experience as a Christian looking at the faith of people from other religious traditions. She realizes that even if she can’t agree completely with these other religions, very often they carry gifts that she admires… gifts that she wishes we Christians could share.
I experienced a little holy envy this Thursday morning as I was driving to the church. I passed by the mosque on 69th Street just as they were finishing up their morning prayers. Thursday was Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, so there were hordes of worshippers leaving the mosque, people from all over the world dressed in the most stunningly colorful attire of their native countries. There were Ethiopians, and Bangladeshis, and Indonesians, and North Africans. It was beautiful to see the ethnic diversity of all the people who had been worshipping together as one body.
We are fortunate to be in a community like Upper Darby, where our neighbors come from all over the world. And we at Christ Lutheran Church have a rich diversity of our own, for which I am deeply grateful. I think Muslims have one advantage, though, that we Christians don’t have. Their prayers are all in Arabic, regardless of where you go, anywhere in the world. The only part of the service that is not in Arabic is the sermon. So, there are no English-speaking mosques, or Spanish-speaking mosques, or Chinese-speaking mosques. Neither do they have arguments about what kind of music should be sung during the service; it’s all chant from the Arabian Peninsula.
The downside of this, of course, is that unless someone speaks Arabic, they may not know what is being prayed or sung during the service. Christianity - especially Protestant Christianity - has tended to emphasize speaking the Gospel in a language that people can understand. The Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages so that anyone can pick it up and read it in their own native language and discover what it says. The Bible itself is a translation. Jesus spoke Aramaic; but the oldest copies of the New Testament that we have are in Greek. No one has a copy of the Gospels written in the language that Jesus himself spoke.
For the sake of mission, Christianity has opted to speak the Good News in languages that people can understand. I really do think that is a good thing. You don’t have to be an expert in ancient languages to read the Bible. But the downside of this is we Christians have tended to split apart along ethnic lines… not just here in the United States. Even in the Book of Acts, it describes a controversy taking place between the Hebrew speaking Christians and the Greek speaking Christians. So, we Christians need to be extra vigilant against this tendency to split apart. We need to be willing to go outside of our own cultural comfort zone in order to be able to worship and pray with the full spectrum of people who are included in the Kingdom of God.
What unites us Christians is not a language, but a person… Jesus Christ. This past Thursday, when our Muslim neighbors were celebrating Eid, we Christians celebrated the Ascension of Jesus Christ. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, he ascended into the presence of God. What that means is that Jesus became absent from us as an individual human being living somewhere in the Middle East, so that he could become present to us anywhere in the world. Jesus can be present to us regardless of what language we speak, regardless of our ethnicity, regardless of our age or our political affiliation or our gender identity. None of the things that we human beings use to divide ourselves into little groups matters… not in the eternal perspective. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Where we Christians seem to be most united is when we are serving others. We may not agree about all the nuances of our theology. We may not agree about the right way to worship. But we can still work together to alleviate hunger or to help people recovering from catastrophic events.
Jesus prayed that his followers would be one as he and the Father are one. We have long way to go in fulfilling this prayer… this vision of Jesus for his disciples. It will happen eventually. If the goal of the Christian life is union with God, that means our goal is to be united with everyone else who is in union with God. Eventually, every one of us is going to have to give up our prejudices and our ethnic biases. Honestly, I think that when I enter into the presence of God, my awareness of myself as an English-speaking American male living in the early 21st Century will melt away and I will be caught up - along with every one of you - in the awe and mystery of the One God whose love birthed the universe in all its myriad diversity. I can’t wait.