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Back when I was doing a yearlong residency as a hospital chaplain in Seattle, and then again during the years I was working on a doctorate in Berkeley, I often used to serve as what church lingo calls a “supply priest.” This is a priest who’s available to cover Sunday services when a congregation’s regular clergy aren’t available. It’s sort of like being a substitute teacher, except with vestments on, and with usually a better-behaved clientele.
One of the fun things about doing supply ministry is getting to lead worship in a wide variety of different congregations. Each place has its own congregational culture, and its own ways of doing things: where to stand, when to bow, where things go. I’ve served in congregations with altars up against the wall and altars in the middle of the room, pipe organs and electric guitars, lace vestments and tie-dye vestments. One congregation I supplied in had been part of the charismatic movement and a few people still prayed in tongues during the Prayers of the People.
Doing supply gave me a new appreciation for both the diversity, and also the unity, of the church. Some of the places I’ve visited as a supply priest were congregations I’d love to worship in regularly. Others would never feel like a fit for me in the long run. But each one I benefited from visiting. I’m glad they exist. I’m glad they each contribute their own unique gifts to the Body of Christ.
It’s been said that God values unity, rather than uniformity. We don’t have to all be the same. In fact, God prefers us not to be, because God created us beautifully different. But we do have to love each other.
It goes beyond the Episcopal church, of course, or the Anglican Communion. All those congregations where I supplied were united by a single Prayer Book and by belonging to a single faith tradition, even with all their differences. But there’s also a deeper oneness of all Christians which is real, even though it’s fractured.
I believe this is true: even though we often feel like we have nothing in common, there is a unity among Episcopalians in California, incense-swinging Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, hand-raising Pentecostals in South America, and even nondenominational prosperity-gospel preachers on TV. That unity isn’t grounded in our theological opinions, because those differ drastically. But there is one thing that all Christians have in common, and that is that we love and follow the person of Jesus.
I don’t want to minimize those differences, which are painful. Yesterday my family and I were at the Pride Festival downtown, enjoying a beautiful day and a beautiful community celebration of unity amid differences: of the remarkable spectrum of gender and sexuality that I believe God has created and loves. And I’m also very aware that many Christians, in fact most Christians around the world, would not be able to celebrate that festival. One thing I do believe is that we will discover our deeper unity by going deeper into our love for Jesus: his work, his message, his person.
The name of Jesus. Paul speaks that name to free the young woman in today’s reading from Acts from demon possession. The jailer confesses that name to be saved. The book of Acts, which we generally hear read in church during Easter Season, is about the good news of Jesus moving through all sectors of society. Paul and Silas are Jews; the girl and the jailer are Greeks. The girl is a slave; the jailer is free. The girl is female; the jailer is male. So this story is a lived demonstration of something Paul writes elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, all are made one in Christ Jesus.
Now we are entering the last week of Easter. Three nights ago we celebrated the Ascension, and in this last week of Easter the church waits in anticipation for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But today’s gospel reading takes us back to the last moments before Easter, when Jesus is praying for his disciples immediately before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. His prayer for them is to be one, as he and the Father are one.
Not to be the same, but to be one.
That prayer extends to the whole church. And it even extends beyond the church, to everyone God has created, who may or may not have come to know and love Jesus by name, but who are made for oneness with God and each other.
That oneness is not always easy.
Who is it hard for you to be one with? Who gets on your nerves?
Whose ideas can you not stand, because they’re just plain wrong?
What shows can’t you stand to watch, or websites to read?
I know some of the answers for me. Maybe you can think of some for you too. The fact is that God doesn’t expect us to agree on everything. But what God does desire for us is to be able to love one another with the same pure, self-giving love Jesus shares with the Father. That doesn’t mean we don’t stick to our convictions and fight for what we value. It does mean that when we fight, we fight fair, and we stay aware of one another as human beings and children of God. Fortunately, we’re not asked to do it on our own. Jesus says in this passage that he’s praying not only for the disciples in the room for him but also for those still to come—for us. And if Jesus prays for something, you can bet it’s going to be fulfilled. So in the end, unity isn’t something we have to manufacture. It’s a gift God has already given us, through the prayers of Jesus, the great high priest. It’s for us to open that gift, and live it out as much as we can in our own lives.
This morning we are celebrating the great sacrament of unity, the holy meal where we share one bread, one cup: Christ in us, we in one another, all of us united in the one Jesus calls “Father.” Then we are going to be sent out into the world to live out that oneness in the middle of a fractured, hurting world. As we do, remember: you do not have to do it alone. Jesus is praying for you.