Sometimes it takes someone outside of our group to speak truth to us.
If you haven’t heard of E. Stanley Jones, he was a very influential Methodist preacher and missionary, best known for his work in India. Of his many friends was a man you might know by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, that Gandhi. Together they had many conversations about Christianity, and in one of those conversations, Jones turned to his friend and said, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” To which Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.” It’s hard to refute Gandhi of all people. Plus, it’s true. There are so many ways we fall short of the Christ-like way we should treat one another. It’s particularly noticeable in how often we disagree. Instead of working things out, we just break off and start a new group who think just like us. Did you know that there are approximately 41,000 different Christian denominations? 41,000! I didn’t know we could disagree so fundamentally on 41,000 different things.
Of course, we all think we’re right.
That fact hit me square in the face one day when I was on the search for some mighty gyros. When I was attending seminary, there was a Greek Orthodox church I would drive by every morning to get to school. And once a year, they had a festival where you could get the best baklava, spanakopita, and gyros this side of the world. Like any church festival, they also had lots of crafts, trinkets to buy, and exhibits and in one of those exhibits was a big poster board showing a timeline of all the major different Christian denominations. There was a line for Roman Catholics, Baptists, even Methodists. But running throughout all of these was a huge, big, fat one labeled “Greek Orthodox Church – the One True Church.” Maybe they thought it was a selling point, but instead it came across as arrogant as if all other Christian beliefs had no validity. But that’s part of the problem. Our pride gets in the way of our efforts to unite. We focus far too much on the things that divide us instead of the things that unite us. If we would only focus on what we hold in common we could accomplish so much together. That was and always has been the hope of Christ, that the Children of God would be united as one. We can hear that hope in Jesus’ prayer to the Father after the Last Supper. The other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), skip this prayer entirely and instead go right to the Garden of Gethsemane, but this one is specifically for a prayer for the Body of Christ, both then AND now. Jesus is thinking of us, of you and me, when he says this prayer. Hear now the Word of the Lord from John 17.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
If we could unify as one church, we would be so much stronger.
But our divisiveness keeps us from being as strong as we could be. Imagine what it might be like if we were able to put aside our differences and instead unite in a common cause. Imagine all the different projects we could do if we were together instead of apart. Doing a quick Google search for churches in the area, there were over 20 in about a one-mile radius of our church. And that doesn’t include any of the Methodist churches which never even showed up in the search! What if we did what most businesses would do and consolidate our churches and turned the property left behind into affordable housing? Or homeless shelters? Or feeding centers? If we sold even a fourth of those properties, we could probably feed everyone in Berkeley for a year. Or start our own cooperative business venture and help employ local residents while using the profits to fund a variety of ministries to fight racial injustice, homelessness, and poverty. There is no end to what we could do together. Imagine the energy, vitality, and excitement we could generate by being united. What a powerful statement we would be making on behalf of Christ. “…that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Isn’t that what it is all about, sharing the love of Christ with the world?
Most people aren’t even aware of other churches in their area.
If I asked you to name three of the other churches in a one-mile radius of ours, most couldn’t do it (unless you were looking at the graphic I just posted). It’s not that we don’t care or we don’t like them, we’re just blissfully ignorant of the church landscape. Once we find a place where we fit in, that’s what we stick with. There might be other churches that are closer, but we like what we like and we stick with what we like. But it also blinds us to the possibilities. When I was serving in Dinuba, I was caring for two churches, both were filled with God-loving, wonderful people, but both were struggling financially. They were literally about half a mile from each other. It didn’t make a lot of sense why these two Methodist churches weren’t together. When they were formed, it did. One was an historically Japanese church like ours, whose original mission field were Japanese immigrants to the area. And there were a lot of them. They had services in different languages and had different cultural needs. But over the years, while there were some differences in culture, they were no longer separated by language and it had been that way for decades. Visitors would often ask me, “Why haven’t these two churches merged?” And there wasn’t really a good answer. Both were struggling. Both could use the energy and vitality that comes from having more people in worship. Both could use the cost savings from insurance and utilities to operate and maintain only one facility. Yet, neither had even considered that option before. Today, they are one church and doing well. They were able to fix up their church building, doing some much needed repairs and making the place look even more appealing to guests. They found a way to incorporate both of their traditions and honor their past while looking to the future. And they are still wonderful people doing God’s work. Now there are more of them to do the work together.
There’s nothing wrong with small churches.
In fact, most churches are small community churches that serve the needs of their local area. And it allows for more intimacy, more nuance, and we hope deeper relationships. But we should do more to work in cooperation with one another. To utilize the strength of being united even while maintaining our individuality. One of the reasons I love the Methodist church is because of our connectional system. It allows us to do more together than any one church could do apart. We give a certain amount of what we receive to the greater United Methodist Church and with that, they are able to fund churches all over the globe, give scholarships to seminary students, provide relief work when natural disasters occur, fight against racial injustice, and encourage people to come and know Christ. For literally pennies on the dollar, we are able to do all of this and more together.
Today is World Communion Sunday.
It is a time for us to reflect on who we are as Christians and what that really means to us. It is a time for us to reflect on all that we have in common with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe and to pray for them and with them for the furtherance of God’s kingdom. It is a time to lay aside our differences and remember who we are as God’s children. John Wesley once said, “…to all opinions that do not strike at the heart of Christianity, we think and let think.” It is time for us to do that today. We must remember at all times that we are to love one another. As Christ told us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We have a long way to go my brothers and sisters. We have a long way to go.
There is so much work to be done in the world.
But if we work on it together, who knows what we can accomplish?
Until every child has a home, a meal, and a loving family, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until every woman gets paid for her work and not by her gender, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we stop polluting our airways, our waterways, and our byways, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until racism, ageism, and every other “ism” is eradicated, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we first take the plank out of our own eyes, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we are all one in Christ Jesus, united as one people, our work as Christians is not yet done.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our work is not yet done.
We leave this morning as we opened, with the words of a non-Christian, Mahatma Gandhi, speaking to us about us. “To live the gospel is the most effective way – most effective in the beginning, in the middle and in the end. Not just preach, but live the life according to the light… If, therefore, you go on serving people and ask them also to serve, they would understand. But you quote instead John 3:16 and ask them to believe it and that has no appeal to me, and I am sure people will not understand it…the gospel will be more powerful when practiced and preached.” God uses messengers of all types to communicate to us, if we only listen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 From an article in Christian Today 2006 – http://in.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=2837
 Accessed 9/28/2020 – https://www.learnreligions.com/christianity-statistics-700533#:~:text=Number%20of%20Christian%20Denominations.%20According%20to%20the%20Center,Christian%20denominations%20and%20organizations%20in%20the%20world%20today.