Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter – June 2nd, 2019

Text: John 17:20-26 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

20 “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. 26 I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

It’s hard to be a member of the United Church of Christ.

“What?” you ask. “How so?”

You might well ask – to begin with, if you asked people about Christian denominations, you would no doubt find that just about everybody knows what a Lutheran is, or a Methodist, or an Episcopalian, or a Catholic – but very few people can tell you what an “UCC” is. When people ask me what church I belong to, and I reply “the United Church of Christ,” 9 times out of 10 I get a puzzled look, so I give a thumbnail explanation of our denomination. I tell them that we’re partly derived from the Pilgrims and also from the German and Swiss Protestants, with a dose of Lutheranism thrown into the mix. I generally conclude by saying that we’re a “mainline Protestant denomination,” which is certainly true. Anyway, it seems to satisfy their curiosity.

Back when I was in seminary, the buzz phrase of the day was “UCC identity.” What was it? How were we to define it? How could we get the word out about who and what we were?

One of my colleagues, Bryan Sirchio, even wrote a humorous little song with the title “What’s an UCC?” I tried to Google the phrase “what’s an UCC,” but the result was that I got a lot of references to the “Uniform Commercial Code”! So even Google doesn’t know what “an UCC” is.

I’ve said many times myself, only half-jokingly, that trying to describe the UCC is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall – it is very difficult, if not impossible, in other words. Others have said that, as soon as you say “we don’t do that/believe that in the UCC,” someone will tap you on the shoulder and tell you that whatever it is you say we don’t do or believe is something their church has been doing and saying for years!

It certainly is true, for example, that the UCC does not enforce adherence to any one creed and that our authority structures are rather nebulous.

Back in 2005, one writer, Randi J. Walker, who is or was an associate professor of church history at Pacific School of Religion, wrote an interesting book The Evolution of a UCC Style. Here are the first few sentences of that book: “This book has steeped a long time in my head. It is more than anything else, the product of conversations with people within and outside of the United Church of Christ who really wanted to understand what kind of Christian community we are.”[1] In other words, lots of people, including many of our fellow members, have asked and are still asking “what’s an UCC?”

I think the key phrase toward answering that question is the one we just heard this morning from John’s Gospel – “that they may all be one.”

Our denomination took that verse as its motto and founding principle. From the earliest days when talks began between the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church toward formalizing the relationship that had begun much earlier in mission work, the concept of Christian unity was at the forefront of people’s minds. When at last the merger happened in 1957, this impulse toward unity resulted in, among other things, the logo of our denomination, on which was emblazoned the mission, the hope, and the goal “that they all may be one.”

“So,” you might be asking, “what’s so hard about that?”

It’s hard, because unity is elusive; and any denomination which dedicates itself to it finds itself a pioneer and a pathfinder – like the explorers in those old movies where the hero, machete in hand, hacks a trail forward through the trackless African jungle. Praying for unity, and even working toward it, was nothing new, but making the quest for unity, real unity, among all Christians the basis of your denomination – that was new.

The last chapter of Walker’s book is titled “The United Church of Christ as an Ecumenical Project.” I think that’s a very interesting concept, and one that is definitely in keeping with our understanding that we are a covenantal denomination. Our individual churches are united by explicitly stating that they are in a covenant with each other to pursue common goals and values; and we intentionally engage in common work with other denominations, too.

I think that this is where the United Church of Christ has a lot to offer other denominations – we can and do enter into covenants with, say, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for the purposes of ministry – Pastor Connie McCallister, for example, is an ordained Lutheran pastor, but was granted pastoral standing by the Minnesota Conference of the UCC to serve the Mendota Heights UCC. In order for this to happen, a covenant had to be achieved between the Lutheran Synod and the Minnesota Conference.

That’s one example of trying to live out Jesus’ prayer for unity. Another good example is the ecumenical work that St. John’s does through the Prescott Area Churches Association.

“That they may all be one” is still a goal, though. We pray that we may one day all be one just as Jesus and the Father are one. There’s a lot of work still to be done. I don’t think that the goal of the unity we pray for is to re-establish some monolithic megadenomination. I think, rather, that what we need to strive for is more of a spiritual oneness, one that recognizes that what we have in common far outweighs anything that separates us.

The Christian Church is united and always will be if we think in terms that all people who know that separation from God brings spiritual death, that all people who belong to the Body of Christ recognize that Jesus died on the cross for them, that all people who profess that Christ rose again three days later from the grave and that in so doing he brought them new life – all people who believe these things are by definition believing Christians, regardless of  whatever church building they pray in. That, I think, is really the only way to look at Christianity.

“That they may all be one.”

There is hope for us. Jesus is praying for us, today, in this Gospel lesson from John. He prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these…” his disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” which is to say, every Christian who has come after them.

As our Communion liturgy puts it, Jesus now reigns with the Father in glory “and ever lives to pray for us.” This is for me a tremendous source of comfort and strength. Jesus, our God is, right now, at this very minute, praying for us, interceding on our behalf, interceding in the world for us.

But it is also a challenge to us. It is a challenge to humbly accept that grace – something that is often easier said than done. And it is a challenge for us to not simply accept this grace as a sort of birthright without also redoubling our efforts to try to live accordingly. We all need to do our part to remove barriers to faith, remove barriers to unity, foster fellowship among all who follow Christ. It’s an uphill climb, but we need to climb that hill. We can’t just stand at the bottom.

“That they may all be one” is coming true, slowly but surely; though it is still more dream than reality, it will one day be fully achieved. We are certain of this, because Jesus is praying for it and for us.

Let us, then, be true to the Lord who prays for us. Let us be strong and true to our faith. Let us go forth from this holy place today to do our part to build unity!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Walker, Randi J., The Evolution of a UCC Style, © 2005 Randi J. Walker, Cleveland, Ohio, United Church Press, p. vii