Until That Day…

There are times it takes someone from the outside to point out what’s wrong.

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.”[1]  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 break off and start a new group who thinks just like us.  That’s exactly what’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now.  If everything goes according to plan, we will split over the issue of sexual identity inclusion.  Some churches have already fled, not even bothering to wait and instead choosing to sue the denomination in court.  How Christ-like does that seem?  And how do you think it looks to those on the outside?  Did you know that there are approximately 41,000 different Christian denominations?[2]  41,000!  I didn’t know we could disagree so fundamentally on 41,000 different things.

And of course, we’re right and they’re wrong…whoever “we” and “they” are.

Neither side is willing to compromise and both believe so firmly that their way is the only way.  That reality hit me square in the face one day at a Greek food festival of all places.  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 in the South.  Like any church festival, they had lots of crafts, trinkets to buy, and exhibits about the church and in one of those exhibits was a big poster board showing a timeline of all the major different Christian denominations.  It was fascinating!  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 a prayer for the Body of Christ, then AND now.  Jesus is thinking of us, of you and me, when he says this prayer. 

The image in the Greek church I was at was much more colorful and the words “The ONE TRUE CHURCH” were MUCH bigger.

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.– John 17:20-23

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; 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 11 or 12 in about a one-mile radius of our church.  In the East and South San Jose area, there are at least 16 United Methodist churches nearby.  If we worked together instead of apart, can you imagine the resources we could pool together?  The number of volunteers we would have available?  The power and energy and talent of our combined worship?  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? 

There are about 11 or 12 churches in a one mile radius of our own

Most people aren’t even aware of other churches in their area.

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, we stick with it.  But it can also blind 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 each one was created, it made a lot of sense.  One was an historically Japanese church 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.  The other was a primarily Caucasian church with a smattering of different people who over time decided to join. 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 visitors.  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. 

The wonderful people of Palm UMC in Dinuba – united and stronger

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 also 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..

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; 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.”[3] God uses messengers of all types to communicate to us, if we only listen.   

[1] From an article in Christian Today 2006 – http://in.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=2837

[2] 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.

[3] http://in.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=2837

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