The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/3/99
Text: John 17:6-23
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

World Communion Sunday. A tradition since the winter of 1935 when a group of ministers met to study the spiritual needs and possibilities of our church in the midst of the Great Depression. They called for a Worldwide Communion Sunday the following year on the first day of November, the month in which "Armistice Day" also happened to be celebrated: November 11th, commemorating the end of World War I. Wonderful symbolism: worldwide communion supercedes worldwide conflict! Excellent!

One might wish that communion could overcome conflict AT LEAST in the church. Sad to say, the way one denomination or tradition celebrates the Lord's Supper as opposed to another remains to this day as one of the chief causes of division among Christians. And I know as sure as I breathe that that makes God GAG! It is a scandal and a shame.

Several years ago, there was a convention of clergy gathered at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta under the auspices of the Promise Keepers organization.(1) Between 40- and 50-thousand preachers were in attendance. (What's that you say? A lot of hot air in one place? Hmm.) To be sure, I disagree with some of the Promise Keepers' positions, but two of their basic emphases I wholeheartedly applaud - one is an end to racial division in our society (and especially in the church); the other is an end to denominational division within the church. They are adamant, as I am, that the church of Jesus Christ is ONE CHURCH, and these artificial units known as denominations are problematic. As I have told you before, the only words in the Greek New Testament that could be translated as "denomination" would better be translated as SCHISM(2) or HERESY(3).

One of the speakers at the three-day event was the well-known devotional author Max Lucado. Max described the church as God's boat, a vessel with one purpose - to carry us safely to the other shore. This is no cruise ship, it is a battleship. We are not called to leisure, but to service. Each of us has a different task. Some are concerned with those who are in danger of drowning, snatching people from the water. Others are concerned with the care and feeding of the crew.

Though different, we are all the same, for each of us can tell of a personal encounter with the Captain who bid us come aboard and follow him. We crossed the gangplank of his grace and found ourselves here.

And so here we are on one boat, with one Captain, and one destination. And though our battle is fierce, the boat is safe for our Captain is strong and the gates of Hell will not prevail against this grand vessel. Of that there is no concern. This boat will not sink.

Max says there is concern, however, not with the strength of the boat, but with the harmony of the crew. You see, when we first came on board we assumed that everyone here was just like us. But as we have wandered these decks we have found a few curious converts. Some wear uniforms we have never seen. Some sport styles we have never witnessed and we stop them and say, "Why do you look the way you do?" To which they respond, "We were about to ask you the same question!"

The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the diversity of opinions. There is one group, for example, that clusters every morning for intense study. They promote rigid discipline and wear somber expressions. "Serving the Captain is serious business," they say. It is no coincidence that they tend to congregate toward the back of the boat, the STERN.

There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in a certain posture for prayer. They believe you can only talk with God on your knees with head forward - that is why they can always be found on this vessel near the BOW.

Still another group has positioned itself near the engine. They occupy themselves with studying the nuts and bolts of this ship - they are only comfortable if they can grasp the details. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, inspired by the wind in their hair and the sun in their face who insist, "It is not what you know, it is what you feel."

Some think once you are on the boat you can never get off. Others say, you would be foolish to go overboard, but the choice is yours. Some believe you were recruited and subsequently volunteered yourself for service on this boat. Others believe you were destined for service before the boat was ever built.

There are those who address the Captain in a private and personal language, while others think such conversation is gibberish. There are those who think the officers should wear special robes and others who think there should be no officers at all.

Then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the Captain is honored and his instructions read. All agree on its importance, but some want it loud while others want it quiet. Some want ritual, others want spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate, others want to meditate so they can celebrate.

The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out between sailors. There have been times, incredible as it may seem, when one group even refused to acknowledge the presence of any other group on the ship.

Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board this boat. "Life is rough out here on the choppy seas," they say, "but, I would rather face the wind and waves than get caught in a fight between those sailors."

Can there ever be harmony on the ship? That WAS the dream of the Captain. On the night before his crucifixion he prayed, "...THAT THEY MAY ALL BE ONE. As you, Father, 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. 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." Four different times in that prayer is the plea, "THAT THEY MAY BE ONE."

As Max Lucado wrapped up his message to the ministers, he invited his audience to think of some denomination or Christian group they had previously insulted or denigrated or put down, and then go find a member of that group and apologize. It was upset-the-apple-cart as folks climbed over one another to respond. There were hugs and handshakes, a marvelous moment of forgiveness and grace.

At the conclusion of the convention, the plan was to have communion together. Sounds good...until you remember that the celebration of the Lord's Supper has been and sadly remains a major bone of contention in Christ's church. Some preachers left early, unable to overcome theological barriers. Sad. But the word from those who stayed, as they responded to the movement of the Holy Spirit, was that the walls of resistance began to crumble. Differences in the way one group or another understood the ceremony became less significant. They began to realize that what united them was far more important than what divided them. As the chorus has it,

We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord.
We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, By our Love,
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.(4)

The church - God's battleship. And now you and I are invited to the Captain's Table along with crew members from around the world. We will not all understand what we do here in the same way. But, you know what? So what! That's what! As our Presbyterian forebear, John Calvin said hundreds of years ago, "I would rather experience it than understand it."

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, By our Love,
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

That love is nourished, nurtured, and deepened at the Table. Jesus says, "Come..." and be blessed.


1. February 13-15, 1996

2. See I Corinthians 12:25. schisma - a split or gap ("schism"), lit. or fig.:--division, rent, schism. Strong's Hebrew-Greek Dictionary

3. See Acts 24:4. hairesis - a choice, i.e. (spec.) a party or (abstr.) disunion:--heresy [which is the Greek word itself], sect. Strong's Hebrew-Greek Dictionary

4. "We are One in The Spirit," copyright 1966 Peter Scholte, F. E. L. Publishing

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