In 2009 our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, decided to hold its triennial youth gathering in New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans had hosted national Lutheran youth gatherings at least twice before, but in 2009 our denomination saw an opportunity to send 38,000 youth into the hurricane-devastated city to perform thousands of hours of community service. Epiphany sent 24 youth and four adult chaperones to that 2009 Gathering. The planners who organized all those service projects for all those youth groups decided it would be a great idea if all the youth wore the same colored t-shirt on the day they went out into the community to work. So, they gave us—all 38,000 of us—orange shirts to wear. On any given day during the three days of service projects, there were about 13,000 youth interspersed throughout the city doing some sort of service work all clad in orange.
Fast forward to last summer, when our denomination decided to return to New Orleans for another youth gathering and complete even more community service. It was the first time in the history of Lutheran youth gatherings where the same city had hosted twice in a row. This congregation sent 30 youth and eight adults to the 2012 Gathering. It was another very successful event, and yes, we all got another orange shirt to wear while we were working.
What I found most remarkable about the Gathering last summer, however, was the fact that the gift shops and souvenir kiosks in hotels and throughout the French Quarter (and even on Bourbon Street) had orange shirts for sale for us when we got there. Throughout the city, designed and produced specifically for us ahead of our arrival, were thousands of orange shirts of all kinds, usually with some reference to Lutheranism on it. The reason why dawned on me pretty quickly: the residents and merchants of New Orleans think Lutherans wear orange! Thanks to our visible witness throughout the city three years earlier, they associate Lutherans with orange t-shirts.
In fact, I didn’t even realize how strong that realization was until I got home. When we returned to Richmond from New Orleans this past summer, I happened to be wearing my orange shirt. I was tired and hungry after the long 22-hour bus ride, so before I got home I stopped at the Martin’s up on Staples Mill Road. As I was checking out—and I’m not making this up—the cashier who rang me up looked at my orange shirt with the word “New Orleans” on it and asked, “Are you Lutheran?” Shocked that our reputation had even reached Glen Allen, I said, “I am!” She responded, “My husband’s brother lives down there, and he said the city was overrun with a bunch of Lutheran kids wearing orange.” I still think someone from Clemson got on the planning team.
If only it were that easy, right?! If only Christian identity and mission were as simple as a t-shirt uniform. Unfortunately, Jesus never says that our identity as his followers will be associated with our clothing. He doesn’t even say that the world will recognize us as his disciples chiefly by the works of mercy we will do, or how many hurricane-ravaged cities we help rebuild. In the night before his crucifixion, as he prays to his Father for the sake of his disciples, Jesus doesn’t even seem to be the slightest bit concerned about how brightly our individual lights of faith may shine. Instead, Jesus prays that we may be one. Our unity and how we live out our common life will be the main way the world will know Jesus is from God the Father and come to believe in him: “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, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
This is a foundation of Christian theology: that whatever God is, Jesus is somehow a part of it, somehow united with it. Jesus is not something separate and different from God. The two of them are one. They are a unit: wherever Jesus goes, God is also there. Jesus makes it clear that this miraculous relationship of one-ness is now also going to be given to the people who follow Jesus, the community he has claimed and called out with his mercy and forgiveness.
The church, the community of disciples, therefore, is not just some social service organization that goes about doing works of charity…although that is part of what we do. Nor it is it primarily some kind of educational institution that instructs its students on how to live from the Bible…although we do some of that, as well. Rather, the community that arises by the Spirit’s power out of the death and resurrection of Christ bears the very glory of God, and that glory is made known in our common life, our common faith, our common love for each other.
We must pause and reflect on this, because I think it’s very popular theology these days to talk a lot about how it is possible to see Christ in other individuals. We talk at length about ways that we glimpse God or God’s love in the lives of other people. There is nothing wrong with this expression of people’s faith, but we must not forget that Jesus—especially in John’s gospel—wants us to be far more aware of the ways God is made known not through individuals and individual’s actions, but through the life of the whole group.
There is an African proverb that goes, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” It would seem from his prayer on the night before his death that Jesus is far more concerned about the distance his community of disciples will travel than its speed.
Yet what does it mean to be “one”? How strictly do we interpret Jesus’ prayer for unity? Does it mean we are always in agreement about everything? Does it mean we have no conflict, especially on major issues? Or does it just mean that Christians should promise not to go about killing each other? (I propose that would be one place to start!). What about all the dizzying array of different denominations and divisions that already exist among us, which are increasingly confusing and off-putting to the culture at large? There have been different interpretations of Jesus’ prayer for about as long as there has been the church—how exactly this unity is embodied and when we can be sure it’s been compromised.
One thing is certain, however, and we didn’t need Jesus to pray it for us to learn it. That is, our mission and the vitality of the gospel depend on it. In other words, how you and I relate to each other—how all of the groups of Christians relate to other groups of Christians—is going to have a direct effect on what other people think of God. Our unity will not sound and look like some large-scale version of the closing credits of The Waltons—“Goodnight John boy, Good night Mary Ellen”—but it should at least give the impression to the rest of the world that we somehow value each other, that we don’t routinely write each other off.
What is so striking to me about this portion of Jesus’ prayer is that he prays to God not just on behalf of his current followers, but also on behalf of those people in the world who have yet to believe in him. He prays on behalf of all those in future years who will hear the truth of the gospel and be opened to God’s grace through it. The mission of the church is tied directly to our unity. Notice how many times the word “sent” appears in these verses alone! We aren’t closed off in our unity: our life together becomes the chief way we interact with the world.
Think of it this way: the world is already riven by conflict and unhealthy ways of dealing with it, isn’t it? Why would a non-believer join up with a cause that doesn’t offer anything better at dealing with it? Salvation probably wouldn’t feel or look much different than what’s being offered by the world.
The glory of God is made known in the reconciliation of the cross, and if we, the people claimed by that cross, are not committed to living reconciled with one another, to embodying that forgiveness at least with our own pew-mates, then that glory of the cross will be diminished in our witness. Jesus’ death, after all, is about God’s willingness to go the distance—to travel as far as it takes—to have us to him.
It seems to be that Epiphany Church has a unique challenge and opportunity in the coming weeks and months to delve deeper into the life that is prayed for by Jesus. It is easy for a congregation to build its identity around its leadership, or its strongest ministries, or its clarity of theological confession, all of which are important. You have experienced thirty flourishing years of all of those. In fact, we could push it back even farther: the sixty-some-odd years of Epiphany’s life have all been graced with all kinds of growth. Now that you find yourselves in a transition and soon at the beginning stages of a call process to find a new pastor, it will be critical that you are committed to the words of this prayer. Jesus knows that it will be critical for your witness, your faith, and your identity as God’s children that you continue love and value one another, that you pay attention to those ties that bind, that you nurture instincts of patience and forbearance with one another.
|quilts for Lutheran World Relief|
For I would guess we’re all in this for the long haul…not just the search for a new senior pastor in this congregation, that is, but committed to walking with Christ for the length of your days with all the Christian followers on earth. As such, we’d probably rather be known for the distance we’ll traveling, and not the speed…
a distance symbolic of the path of the quilt behind your back to a village somewhere in south Asia…
a distance that reaches out in service to neighbors…
a distance that spans human hearts that are estranged by fear and mistrust…
a distance that involves passing the faith down to yet another generation, and the generation after that, and the generation after that…until Jesus, who is surely coming soon, returns.
May we be one, as God the Father and God the Son are one in love, in forgiveness, in word and deed.
And if you’re dying to wear a bunch of matching T-shirts as we do it, then I happen to know a place where we can get some.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.