By The Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
Isaac Asimov once told a hilarious story about a Rabbi Feldman who was having trouble with his congregation; they couldn’t agree on anything. The president of the congregation said, “Rabbi, this can’t continue. There has to be a conference, and we have to settle all areas of dispute once and for all.” The rabbi agreed.
At the appointed time the rabbi, the president, and ten elders met around a magnificent mahogany table in the conference room of the synagogue. One by one the issues were dealt with and on each issue, it became more and more apparent that the rabbi was a lonely voice in the wilderness. The president of the synagogue said, “Come, Rabbi, enough of this. Let’s vote and allow the majority to rule.” He passed out slips of paper and each man made his mark. The votes were collected and the president said, “You may examine them, Rabbi. It is eleven to one against you. We have the majority.”
Offended, the rabbi rose to his feet and said, “So, now you think because of the vote that you’re right and I’m wrong. Well, that’s not so. I stand here,” and he raised his arms impressively while looking heavenward, “and call upon the Holy One of Israel to give us a sign that I’m right and you’re wrong.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when there was a deafening clap of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning that struck the mahogany table and cracked it in two. The room was filled with smoke and fumes, and the president and the elders were hurled to the floor. Surrounded by rubble the rabbi stood erect and untouched, his eyes and smile flashing with triumph. Slowly, the president lifted himself out of the rubble. His hair was singed, his glasses were hanging from one ear, his clothing was in disarray. Finally he said, “All right, eleven to two. But we still have the majority.” (1)
Unfortunately, we all know that not everything that is done in the Church or in the name of the Church is always done for the glory of God. We know that at times in history, the Church has ignored the Will of God in order to have its own way. As a consequence, there has been discord and disunity in God’s Church. This disunity is apparent in the numbers of denominations that we have.
At first it was just a family squabble. One group put Scripture above Church structure and called for change but they were rejected, so they protested. So, then the one family became two: the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. But once the squabble started, it snowballed. It wasn’t long before the Protestants began disagreeing and became disagreeable toward their brothers and sisters in the faith. And there was disunity in the body of Christ.
I. THE LORD’S PRAYER:
That doesn’t sound anything like this prayer which Jesus offers for the disciples, does it? This prayer recorded in John’s Gospel is a prayer for unity. It has been called the real Lord’s Prayer because it’s one that Jesus prayed for His disciples. It is the Lord’s prayer for His companions and His Church. It was the first prayer for Christian unity. Jesus prayed that His disciples may be “one.”
This idea of Christian Unity is one of the major emphases in the Promise Keepers movement. It’s one of the seven promises that men make, that they will work toward breaking down the barriers to racial and denominational unity. A group of the men sent me to the Promise Keepers Pastor’s Conference held in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Max Lucado was one of the speakers. In refering to this Rev. Lucado said, “On the last night of his life our Master did not pray for the health of the disciples; for the success of the disciples; even for the happiness of the disciples. He prayed that they would get along with each other.”
In other words, our Lord’s prayer was for unity between His disciples and unity within His Church. So, how do we accomplish that? How do we bring about and work toward unity?
II. IT STARTS WITH US:
First, it has to start with us. We can’t wait for anyone else to start. We have to be proactive. We have to take the first steps. We have to stop doing and saying those things that lead to, cause and perpetuate the disunity amongst us. We have to be the first to act.
Max Lucado said that one day his wife brought home a monkey. His daughters were thrilled but he wasn’t; he had all kinds of questions. Where was the monkey going to eat? His wife said that it was going to sit at the table and eat with them, just like the rest of the family. Then he asked her where it was going to sleep? And she told him it was going to sleep in their bed. Then he asked, “But what about the smell?” And she said, “Oh, he’ll get used to you, I did.”
Then Dr. Lucado went on to say, “Before you comment on the odor of someone else, check your own odor first.” That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Unity has to begin with us. And it has to begin with our personal relationship with Christ. We have to be one with Christ, first. Our lives have to be knit together with His life through faith. And it has to begin in our Church. As a congregation, our lives have to be knit together in love, through Christ.
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III. WE HAVE TO PULL TOGETHER:
A. Second, in being one with Christ, we have to pull together. At a Midwestern fair many spectators gathered for an old-fashioned horse-pull (An event where various weights are put on a sled hitched to a horse and pulled along the ground). The grand-champion horse pulled a sled with 4,500 pounds on it. The runner up was close, with a 4,400 pound pull. Some of the folks wondered what they could pull if they were hitched together. Separately, they had totaled nearly 9,000 pounds, but when hitched and working together as a team, the winning horses were able to pull more than 12,000 pounds. Almost three times what either one of them could pull, alone. (2)
Imagine the powerful force we could exert as a congregation, as a denomination and as the Church in the world, if we all “pulled together as a team.” You see, we can’t accomplish as much if we’re going in ten different directions. We have to have a common goal and a common purpose. When we have that common purpose; that common vision, that common goal, then we can do almost anything. Especially when that goal or vision is God given and God driven.
B. Right now, we have a dream and a vision for this church that is so big that we have to depend upon God to accomplish it. We have seen glimpses of the vision. God has planted the seeds in our hearts and now those seeds are just beginning to sprout. A lot of work has gone into preparing the soil. A lot more will be going into the cultivating of the soil and caring for the plant so that this seed might grow and bear fruit in the form of our finalizing the purchase of and paying for the new property. And then seeing the work of the Building Committee bear fruit as it plans for a new building.
But in order for us to accomplish our dream we have to have faith. We have to trust and depend upon God. And we have to pull together. We have to call upon Christ and live out the love of Christ in all that we do.
In a Family Circus comic, little Billy was praying. He prayed, “Make me good. And if you don’t get through to me the first time, please keep tryin’ ’til I answer.” (3) That should be our prayer. As Jesus prayed for our unity we should continue to pray to be reminded. We should pray because we’re not called to do it alone. We’re called to pull together to serve God through Christ. “Make us one, Lord. And if you don’t get through the first time, please keep tryin’ ’til we answer and begin to pull together.”
IV. WE HAVE TO KEEP CLIMBING:
A. This idea of unity starts with us. We have to pull together and then we have to keep on climbing. The secret is not giving up.
Unity isn’t easy. Most of us have never learned how to disagree in love. Or how to love those with whom we disagree. We’re like the poet who wrote:
“To dwell above with saints we love,
That will be grace and glory.
To live below with saints we know;
Well, that’s another story!”
Unity isn’t easy. But Jesus not only prayed for it, He modeled it for us. Remember when the disciples came to Him complaining about the people who were preaching and doing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name but weren’t part of the crowd of disciples. They were ready to run them out of town or call down lightning upon their heads. Jesus told the disciples not to stop them and said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.”
Christian unity is not determined by whether we agree with each other about every interpretation of scripture or doctrine or form of church government. Christian unity IS determined by whether we love one another, and whether we reflect the love of God in Christ for the world. There will always be that which separates Christians from Christians and denomination from denomination. But we can still affirm and celebrate God’s love for us all and our love for one another. In the ways of love, the ways of mutual respect; understanding and acceptance, we can be “one” in Christ.
B. A Canadian by the name of Ashleigh Brilliant draws cartoons to go with pithy sayings called “Pot Shots.” There is one I really like. Two people with walking sticks in hand, are climbing a mountain in knee-deep snow. The caption reads: “Keep Climbing Upwards! You may never reach the top, but it’s definitely in that direction.”
We have to continue to work toward unity and understanding – between each other, between the races, between cultures and between denominations. We may never reach it, but by working toward it, at least we’ll be going in the right direction.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, in a fashionable Richmond church, members of the congregation were invited to come to the altar to receive Holy Communion. After several rows of worshipers came and left after receiving Communion side by side, a black man walked down the aisle. A tense silence gripped everyone. No one else got up to go receive the bread and wine, although many had not yet received Communion. The black man started to kneel alone.
Quietly, a tall, graying man with a military bearing stood up and strode down the aisle to the black man’s side. Together, they knelt. Before the preacher could continue, people realized that the person kneeling beside the black man without showing any distinction was General Robert E. Lee. Although Lee said nothing, everyone knew he had shown his faith through his act of joining that lonely black worshiper at the altar. (4)
Lee’s example is an example for all of us. We have to work toward breaking down the racial, cultural and denominational barriers that divide us as Christians. We’re called to let go of past hurts that have separated us from one another by turning them over to God and offering those who have hurt us forgiveness. And in seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt.
We’re called to demonstrate our unity in Christ through love. It has to start with us. We have to pull together. And we have to keep on climbing. No matter what the vote: Christ’s prayer and Christ’s command is still that we be one as He is one with God and that we love one another as He has loved us.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. ASIMOV LAUGHS AGAIN, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), pp. 31-32.
2. Parson’s Bible Illustrator for Windows
3. May 15, 1996, Bil Keane.
4. Parson’s Bible Illustrator for Windows
–– Copyright 1999, Billy D. Strayhorn. Used by permission.