Ascension; May 8, 2016
Maybe you remember that my last sermon was about table-talk at the Last Supper. Jesus and his friends had eaten and had completed their ritual for Passover, and they talked. Mostly, Jesus talked to them. Then he started praying, praying for his friends. This is the last part of his prayer; after these words, Jesus went out to the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas took those who would arrest Jesus to meet him. So, these are Jesus' last thoughts before going out to meet his fate: our unity.
That's a subject that's much in the air. Party unity, national unity, church unity, corporate unity, family unity. We aim for unity around an idea or an ideal, around a cause or a purpose; on this Mother's Day it's worth noting that many families find their unity in Mother. My brothers and I know that it's now up to us to keep us together as a family, since our Mother is dead. It takes planning, work, and attention.
Unity: Jesus prays "that they may become completely one." Among Presbyterians, we talk about unity a lot. Recently I was at a gathering of presbytery stated clerks, where we talked about a case of a church in Milwaukee Presbytery leaving the denomination and the Presbytery trying to enforce our policies. The Presbytery lost the case, and had spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The clerks talked about what we can do to enforce our church's constitution and how to use the law to make congregations obey the rules. As they talked, I kept thinking: if our common commitment to Jesus Christ cannot hold us together, then what is to be gained by using the law to force us together?
When Jesus prays for his people to be united, he doesn't pray for us to be one organization, one denomination, or even for us all to think alike. He doesn't pray for us to have a common political agenda, or all to have the same national identity. He prays for us to be rooted and grounded in the love between him and the Father, for us all to know the love of God for us and the love of God for Jesus Christ, and for us all to know the love of Christ for God. It's worth mentioning that he speaks again of glory, which I talked about in my last sermon, and that in the mind of Jesus glory is found in self-giving love, the love he shows on his Cross. We people of God are one as we live in the self-giving love of God.
Here's a story a friend of mine sent me. A man walking across the Golden Gate Bridge saw a woman looking lonely and despondent. He ran to tell her that God loved her. A tear came to her eye, and he asked her, "Are you a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or what?" and she said she was a Christian. "Me, too!" he said. "Protestant or Catholic?" "Protestant," she said. "What denomination?" "Baptist." "Me too! Northern or Southern Baptist?" "Northern Baptist."
He was delighted. "Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?" "Northern Conservative Baptist." "That's amazing! Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, or NorthernConservative Reformed Baptist?" "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist." "Remarkable! Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Eastern Region?" She said, with growing excitement, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region."
"A miracle," he gasped. "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" She answered, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." Whereupon he shouted, "Die, heretic!" and pushed her off the bridge.
I think that one's in the "No comment" department. My growing conviction is that the most important thing we Christians (including Presbyterian Christians) can do for unity is to hold fast to Jesus Christ and Christ's relationship with his Father. And let me add: that does not mean we all need to think or believe exactly the same things about Jesus. Jesus doesn't pray to God, "Make them one by making them all accept the Chalcedonian adverbs describing my human and divine natures" or "Make them one by making them all celebrate Ascension Day the same way" or "Make them one by giving them a dynamic pastor with great hair and his own TV show" or "Make them one by giving them all the same mission emphasis." He prays, "Make them one as you are in me and I in you and they in us."
And they in us. That is, you and I in Christ and in God and in their relationship with each other. Some of you have shared with me some of your experience of God and your experience of Christ and what you believe about that. There is a lot of individuality in this room. We don't all experience Jesus Christ the same way. Good. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but we are not the same. The prayer of Jesus convinces me that we all need to open ourselves to experiencing Jesus Christ, but not necessarily to experiencing him the same way that person over there experiences him. The best way for us to be one with each other is for each of us to focus our attention on Jesus Christ.
You heard the story of Paul and Silas in jail (Acts 16:16-34), which resulted in a wonderful conversion story and the foundation of the Christian Church in Philippi. They didn't set out to convert anyone, though; they were helping themselves deal with imprisonment by singing hymns and praying. They kept their focus on their life in God, their life in Jesus Christ, and that got them through that night in jail. It even kept them there when they could have escaped, and so they saved a man's life and God saved his entire household.
Another thought… there are great benefits to getting this right. I was telling someone the other day about some of the personal growth learning I am doing, and she urged me to talk about it in a sermon. I probably won't do that so much, but today I'll say that one of those things is the benefit of looking to God for affirmation rather than looking to others. All my life I have measured my value as a person by what other people thought of me, positive or negative. If I learn to focus my life on Jesus Christ, then I can find my value as a person in what God thinks of me. Does this resonate with any of you? It is a hard thing to admit at my age, but as I've talked with others I've discovered that I'm not the only person my age
who hasn't figured it all out yet. You younger folks may get a head start on some of us oldsters if you get this now: your value as a person is not in what other people think of you, but in what God thinks of you.
And remember what God thinks of you: Christ has offered himself for you, on the Cross for you, because of your amazing value to God. We can get a start on being completely one and in being rooted in the love between God and Jesus Christ when we get a handle on how completely God loves us.
So there. Don't push the heretic off the bridge. Marvel at the love of God for you, and keep your focus on Jesus Christ. God will make us completely one.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church
Omaha, Nebraska Emo Phillips, told by Glenn McDonald in his daily reflections, April 1, 2016. He said that this joke was voted the funniest religious joke of all time by the website Ship of Fools (http://shipoffools.com/), which bills itself as "the magazine of Christian unrest."  Last Thursday, May 5, was Ascension Day on the Western calendar. I wanted to make some reference to it on the following Sunday.