The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/5/08
Text: John 17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

This is a special day in the life of the Church, World Communion Sunday, the one day in the year when Christians around the globe agree to come together in celebration of the Lord's Supper. This is a most symbolic day because it says something about the Church of Jesus Christ that is not readily apparent on the surface: this day says that, no matter how divided the Church appears to be by denomination, by doctrine or by politics, the Church really does have something that unites it.

Unfortunately, World Communion Sunday is a relatively new event in the history of the Church. It began in 1936 - not very long ago considering that the Church has been around for almost 2,000 years now.

I say "Unfortunately" in light of that passage of scripture we just read, those verses in the 17th chapter of John that have come to be known as Jesus' High Priestly prayer, Jesus' intercession on behalf of those disciples who had gathered there with him in that upper room and for those disciples who would follow along down through the centuries of history. He was praying for kings and commoners, for ministers and layfolk, for priests and people. He was praying for Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. He was praying for Billy Graham and Robert Schuller and Pope Benedict. He was praying for you and me, our children and grandchildren, asking that we be kept safe (:11), that we have joy (:13), that we be preserved from the power of sin (:15), that we might be fit to serve God (sanctified) in the power of truth (:17), that we might eventually live with him (:24), and that we might be filled with love (:26). But there was something else.

That "something else" is the one thing that, I hope, struck you as you heard that scripture read: within the space of just a few sentences, the Savior repeats one particular thought four times. Four different times he uses the same words - "that they may be one." Here was Jesus' last will and testament, offered only a few hours before his crucifixion, a concern for the unity of the Church that was so overwhelming that he would say the same thing four times. But yet it took over 1900 years for those of us around this planet who call ourselves his disciples to even begin to make an effort as tentative as World Communion Sunday to show that there really is something that unifies the Church.

Now admittedly, we might have to do some hard looking to come up with anything that shows the Church as even remotely united despite what we affirm in our creeds from week to week about believing in a "holy, catholic (or universal) church." On the surface, there is nothing universal about it. Across the parking lot we have the Methodists and the Church of Christ, down the road in one direction we have the Episcopalians and the Catholics, in the other direction we find the UCC's and more Catholics and Methodists, to the north we have Baptists and Independents. And, quite frankly, until relatively recently, each individual group appeared to take great pleasure in taking potshots at all the other groups. Fortunately, there is less of that these days than in the past, but there is not much question that the wounds are still there. The result is a collection of sects and denominations that want to claim to be ONE CHURCH despite a mass of evidence to the contrary.

What about it? What is it that makes all these disparate groups want to claim to be a part of THE ONE CHURCH? Why would we even want a World Communion Sunday? What is it that we claim unifies us. Well, the most obvious answer would seem to be Jesus. "Where Christ is, there is the Church." Is that really true?

Think about it. In the Gospel record we read that the scribes and the Pharisees were where Jesus was, but they surely could not be equated with the Church, nor would they have wanted to be. You see, they wanted a religion of rules and regulations as the way to righteousness before God, and that was not where Jesus was. So despite their physical nearness, we really cannot say that they were where Jesus was.

Think of another situation. Of all the people we read about in the pages of scripture, none could be thought of as being more where Jesus was than the disciples. But one of them, Judas, ended up betraying him to the cross. Could Judas be equated with the Church? Of course not. Many think that Judas did what he did because of his disappointment that Jesus refused to lead a political revolution against Rome. But again, that is not where Jesus was. And again, physical proximity was no guarantee of any togetherness.

Think about it from the opposite standpoint. Where did Jesus say that he was? Well, in Matthew 18, he says, "where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (1) Jesus says he is in Christian fellowship. In Matthew 25, he talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the sick and then says, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (2) Jesus says he is in the poor. At the very end of Matthew's Gospel, we read what has come to be known as the Great Commission: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (3) Jesus is saying that he is with us as we seek to evangelize the world. In the 22nd chapter of Luke's Gospel we find recorded the story of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples and the familiar words we use every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper: "And he took bread and gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them saying, `This is my body which is given for you.'" (4) Jesus is saying that he is with us in the celebration of the sacrament. Those are just a few passages that happen to come readily to mind.

The point is this: if we want to say that Jesus is the one who unifies the Church by his presence, if we want to say "Where Christ is, there is the Church," we had better be clear on where Christ himself says he is.

What, then, does that mean for us on a Sunday like this one? Does it say anything to us about whether or not the Father actually answered Jesus' prayer for the unity of his disciples through the ages? Does it say anything to us about our affirmations in the creeds about a universal Church? I think it does. Just using those few passages we mentioned a moment ago about where Jesus said he would be, we can see that there is far more that unites all these disparate Christian groups than divides us.

Jesus said he would be with us in Christian fellowship. Do the Methodists believe in fellowship and practice it, or the Baptists or Catholics? Of course they do, just like we Lutherans and Presbyterians do. Jesus said he was with us in those in need. Does the United Church of Christ believe in and make an effort to care for the sick, the naked and the hungry, or the Mennonites or the Assemblies of God? Of course they do, just like we do. Jesus said he would be with us in our efforts at evangelism. Do the Pentacostals believe in and practice sharing the gospel with the whole world, or do the Wesleyans or the Covenanters? Of course they do, just like we do. Jesus said he would be with us in the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Are millions and millions of Christians, regardless of denomination, gathered expressly for that purpose this morning? Absolutely. As I say, if we believe that "Where Christ is, there is the Church," we find that there is far more unity in the midst of our Christian diversity than we might readily have noticed.

One final consideration: what kind of "oneness" was Jesus talking about in his prayer? Was it organic oneness, the kind that would say that there should not be any denominations or sects at all? Probably. After all, the only Greek work in the New Testament that could be translated as "denomination" would be better translated as "schism" or "heresy." So saying, faithfulness does not preclude diversity. The unity for which Jesus was praying was a unity of love and purpose. As Father and Son are united in love and united in the mission of "reconciling the world to" themselves, as Paul said, (5) so Jesus would have his disciples to be equally united in love for one another and united in furthering that mission of bridging the gap between God and creation. That is what Jesus meant when he prayed "that they may be one."

As I said at the outset, this is a special day in the life of the Church. It is special because it causes us to focus on what unites us as Christians, regardless of denomination, and forces us to downplay the things that we have allowed to come between us over the centuries. Considering all the strife and division in the world, any day that brings people together is a special one.

But it is special for one more reason: as we celebrate our unity around the Lord's table, we can use the opportunity to examine some of the causes of division among us and then take up the challenge, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to seek ways of overcoming those divisions so that, one day, even a casually observing world will see, that Jesus' prayer was answered - that by the grace of God, Jesus' disciples really are one. Then we will sing with new meaning:

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;
And they'll know we are Christians by our love. (6)


1. Matthew 18:20

2. Matthew 25:40

3. Matthew 28:19-20

4. Luke 22:19

5. II Corinthians 5:17

6. Peter Scholtes

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