This Sunday, we’re beginning a new sermon series called, The Summer Games. I need to give some props to my colleague Jeremy Lawson. This was his idea and he’s done a similar sermon series. I liked it because there was a spirit of play to it. Summer seems to be a good season for play. The church can use more play, even (if not especially) in our theology and study of the Bible.
I have noticed that my kids laugh all the time. There’s a part of me that wishes that I still laughed like they do. Life gets suffocatingly serious as you get older. Maybe that’s why Jesus pointed to children as the example of what the Christian faith looked like: innocent, joy, laughter. My hope is that this series will offer a touch of play as we learn how to deepen our relationship with Christ.
My oldest daughter loves to play games. I try to teach her the games from my childhood. Chutes and Ladders. Memory. Checkers. Go Fish. Our favorite game to play together is UNO. A lot of people ask me whether I let her win. No participation trophies in the Zant household. In fact, I have a bad habit of slamming down the last UNO card like a gladiatorial combatant to declare victory. I have been known to take a victory lap around the kitchen.
But of course, the goal of the game “UNO” is to get rid of your cards by matching them up. When you get down to one card, you shout “UNO” before your competitors. Of course, the goal of the game is to get rid of your last card, but the real challenge and excitement is being able to call out “UNO” first.
Let’s be a little playful here. Let’s have a round of “UNO” with Jesus and his disciples. In today’s scripture, Jesus is praying for his disciples. This section of John is often referred to as the ‘farewell discourse.’ Jesus is giving final goodbyes and instructions for the disciples. In his prayer, he prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” His prayer for them is to be one, “UNO” with God and each other.
The unity of the disciples would be a witness to the trinitarian unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no discord in the trinity. They work together. Jesus prays that his followers will be able to experience that unity, that sense of oneness. Jesus is concerned for those who have not yet come to believe. If his disciples can witness to mutual love and care for each other, they will provide witness to others about God and God’s community of faith.
But consider the opposite. Implicit in Jesus’ prayer is that when his disciples hurt each other, bicker and mudsling, they are hurting the Christian witness towards non-believers. Jesus prays for their oneness, their unity. It’s easier said than done.
Let’s continue with our game of “UNO” with the disciples. It’s Peter’s turn. At this same gathering Jesus told Peter that he would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows. But Peter doesn’t believe it! In fact, he scolds Jesus. That night grew dark. Jesus was arrested and being interrogated by the religious authorities. A young servant girl said to Peter, “You’re one of Jesus’ disciples. I know you!” Peter looked at his cards and he played the the only card that he thought could turn the direction of this story. He chose the “reverse” card. “I don’t know him!” He denied Jesus three times. Like Peter, we feel the pull of sin at work in our lives, which is why unity is so hard! We’re imperfect people. We get things wrong all the time.
Thankfully, God gives the church the patience and love it needs to show forgiveness. After his resurrection, Jesus would offer Peter forgiveness on a sea shore three times and ask of Peter to set loose others who were bound by sin. Our world seems to be on edge most days, poised in a defensive posture. But what would it mean to show patience with one another especially when there’s hurt? That would be a true witness. Later in his life, even hot-headed, impulsive Peter would write about patience.
Peter wrote, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9).
The story goes that an economist once read these words and got very excited.
“Lord–is it true that a thousand years for us is just like a minute to you?”
“Then a million dollars to use must just be a penny to you.”
“Lord, would you give me one of those pennies?”
“All right. Wait here a minute.”
God can be playful too. To find unity in Jesus means we’ll need to show the same patience towards others that he has shown us.
As we continue to think about oneness and unity, let’s draw the next card in our “UNO” game with the disciples. The card we sometimes play from our deck is the ‘skip’ card. When there is disagreement or uncertainty, often times we like play the skip card. Let’s skip over it. We avoid it. I’ll be honest. I tend to like the skip card. It’s the path of least resistance. The problem is that skipping over moments of tension doesn’t do a lot to bring us to a place of unity.
What passes for unity these days is often silent avoidance. We worry if there’s a bit of disruption that somehow there’s not unity. We just sort of keep quiet because we feel that Jesus wants us to be unified. Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever get worried that if you voice your disagreements you’re not being faithful?
But I don’t think that’s the kind of unity Jesus meant. For Jesus, unity didn’t mean avoidance. Think about Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was alway stirring up his followers with challenging words. He brought up hard conversations about loving your enemies. He argued with Peter when Peter threw his temper-tantrums.
Parents, I have a question a for you. Do you ever feel pressure to have calm and peace in the house and you can’t achieve it? Have you ever had your preschooler hit you and kick you when you choose the wrong swimsuit for them to wear? Me either. I imagine you understand the guilt that bubbles up when there is disruption. We want to avoid it. We try to play the ‘skip’ card. But avoiding it does not bring the oneness that Jesus desires for his people.
The more excellent way from the Bible is to speak the truth in love. That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 4:15. He would go onto to say that when we speak the truth in love we grow in every respect and mature as the Body of Christ. Having meaningful conversations about heartfelt and passionate matters give the Body of Christ an opportunity to grow and mature. Avoiding them only furthers masks the division. The operative word is love. Love is the fulfillment of the commandments. If Christians can disagree in their conversations with a spirit of love, we can witness to the world a more excellent way. If we disagree with rancor and shouting, we may well drive others away.
Lastly, the way we abide in such love is to abide in a relationship with Christ. In John 15:5, Jesus teaches his disciples, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” To abide in Christ means to have an active relationship. We tend to it. Through prayer, we connect to the heart and we experience that love. Through devotion time in the morning and in study of the scriptures, we find our hearts being warmed and experiencing the love for which we have long.
St. Augustine published his prayer to God when he wrote, “My heart is restless until it rest in you.” I find myself feeling restless at times. If I take an analytic look at why I feel that restlessness, I usually find it’s because I have not made adequate time for my devotion with God. I have learned not to shame myself. It’s hard when the bus comes for the kids at 7am for school. But our hearts need to be filled with love and such love can only be found through an abiding relationship with the source of love. In that devotion time, we can experience the mutual unity and love shared between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s where I find home and it’s where we find the capacity to love.
This Sunday, we have a youth choir from a United Methodist church in Tennessee coming to sing. There are 48 of them in total. Please say a prayer right now for the chaperones! I must say I was impressed with their theme for their tour. This year’s tour will take the group to many of the historical points of the Civil Rights era including: The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Selma. The group will also walk the historic bridge in Selma. They’ll visit Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, home of Dr. King. My hope is these youth will learn the valuable lessons about the brave men and women who waged peace for Civil Rights. The lesson they continue to teach me is to change laws, you also have to change hearts. Time and again, Jesus taught his disciples that message. To show true glory and might is to choose love in the face of hate.
I’m reminded of a story from one of Dr. King’s sermons. He and his brother were driving at night to Chattanooga. His brother was driving. The drivers that night were quite rude. They wouldn’t dim their lights. So King’s brother A.D. said angrily,
“I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.”
And King looked at his brother quickly and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.”
And therein lies the key to unity and the Christian witness. The Civil Rights movement not only changed laws. The Civil Rights moment changed hearts as people witnessed the power of a divine love. The Christian witness is to choose love above all else, just as our savior did when he went to the cross. But to do so means we return time and again to our source of love, Jesus. Those quiet times with the Lord helps us renew from the weight and weariness of the world. To achieve oneness is to abide in the love shared between trinity, that holds together the stars and that embraces with arms wide enough for all of us.