“Our Common Connections”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, UCC
May 22, 2022
John 17:20-26 NRSV
20 ”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 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.
24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to
see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the
25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Please don’t think me too sacrilegious but I would say that after a couple thousand
years this prayer of Jesus looks kind of naïve. Praying that “They may all be one?” I
would argue that it has never happened, and it sure doesn’t look likely to happen
now, despite the efforts of some in this nation working to make us all bow down as
one to their religious and governing vision. There seems to be a disconnect between
people today, at least as much as there was when John wrote these words.
On the other hand, we all need connections in our lives. Even the most hermit-
like among us needs connections, even if it is only occasionally. Jesus’ prayer stirs
us because we all want to connect with others. But questions emerge from this hope
for connections with others: do we only connect with those like us? Is it possible to
make connections outside of our religious, political, racial, gender orientation or
other “silos?” These categories seem to have us all so disconnected right now. What
can we learn from this prayer from 2000 years ago?
This is a prayer by Jesus, for his disciples then and his disciples now. In other
words, Jesus is praying for you right now in this prayer. He is praying for us, for
Coral Isles Church, for Rev. Vertigan and the UCC churches of the Florida
Conference, and for all churches everywhere. He is praying for those who aren’t part
of any church, too. He prays that the world-wide church would model the love that
God has for everyone. The hope is we will model it so powerfully that they will
know that God loves them too, as much as God loves Jesus, the one we call his
“only-begotten Son.” There often seems to be a disconnect here, to my mind, with
the way the church models, or fails to model, that love. Jesus and God have, in the
words of Bob Marley, “one love.” But, we are not one. We do not model the perfect
love of God for the world as Jesus did, and the church is certainly not unified, not in
unity in love or belief or fellowship. But we are connected, by the name, the love,
and the glory of the one who prayed this prayer for us.
Truth is - the writer of John’s Gospel probably included this prayer because his
fellowship, his congregation, was probably struggling with disunity, discord, and
whatever other “disses” you want to name. History is clear, Christianity has never
been of “one mind.” Those who try to make it of one mind according to their
personal preferences are not only doomed to fail. And they deserve to fail. Jesus
gives one standard for the oneness he prays for: love. He prays that God’s love will
be in us and that to the degree we have that love, Christ himself is in us. It is that
love of God that makes for unity that goes beyond uniformity.
As much as I often think the internet and the “un-social media” are the
problem today, the reality is that conflict has always been a human problem. Genesis
tells us that from early on humans had conflict with their Creator and with one
another, enough so that brother killed brother. This is the story the Bible tells from
beginning to end. Humans have conflict. How we deal with that conflict determines
our lives. If we want to be one with others, to at least honor the common connections
we have, we have to start with this message Jesus left us – to let the love of God be
the source of everything in our lives, especially our relationships.
One of the things I love about being part of the United Church of Christ is the
way we have tried to embody this love as a church. We have sought to build
connections on a radical understanding of God’s love for all people and all creation.
The United Church of Christ lived out a hope for oneness and a commitment to
common connections by openly striving to be ecumenical. That’s a big word
meaning to work across denominational lines. We are, in fact, a child of the early
twentieth century ecumenical movement. Our Congregational ancestors merged with
what was called simply, the Christian Church. The other side of our faith history was
a merger of two other traditions – the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church,
two denominations made up primarily of German immigrants. The four that merged
to become two came together in the 1950’s and merged and renamed themselves the
United Church of Christ. That new denomination chose this phrase as its motto and
operating principle: “that they may all be one.” They hoped for a common
connection coming from an earlier motto: “in nonessentials diversity, in essentials
unity, in all things charity.” To make it more plain, the word charity is the Latin
translation of “grace,” which of course means love – in all things “love.”
More than working with other churches, our UCC faith ancestors were the first
primarily European- American denomination to ordain a black man. We were the
first primarily white church to ordain a black woman. We were the first to ordain an
openly gay man. Our churches worked to end slavery and have a tradition of
working for God’s justice to be lived out in our legal system and in our national
policies. And we have, as most of you know, been active and are still active in
seeking to be good caretakers of the Creation God has given us.
One other thing I am proud of is that our understanding of the church’s mission
has grown to better embody the hope “that they may all be one,” while honoring
diversity. While our ancestors originally understood “missions” to mean going out to
other peoples and cultures and “converting” them to a Western European lifestyle and
forms of belief and practice, we have repented of that. We now seek to work side by
side with the people in the places we serve throughout the world. Our mission is to
show the love of God by respecting other customs, nationalities, and cultural realities.
All this is, for me, a powerful way to honor our “common connections” with others.
Instead of seeking unity or oneness by destroying differences and demanding our
ways be the basis of our relationships, we seek to honor others in their diversity and
the Biblical promise that they too are “made in God’s image.”
I’m trying to use this understanding to better deal with the disconnection with
so many people over politics, religion, freedom, and responsibility. Many people use
a hostile approach to all these things and my automatic response tends to be just as
hostile. But I am hoping to learn to stop and reconsider that they are made in God’s
image just as I am. I was reminded of another way to practice seeking connection
rather than disconnection when someone has a hostile attitude. I need to work on
remembering what I learned in martial arts. That’s right, I am a dangerous man. I
am a purple belt in tae kwon do. Alright, let’s be honest: I am more in danger of
harming myself if I try any of those jump kicks I learned way back when than I am a
danger to others. But that’s not the point I am trying to make.
Rev. Cameron Trimble, who I so often find comes up with reflections I grow
from, recently wrote, [ Piloting Faith, May 19, 2022 ] something that reminded me of this.
As in my training, “the practice of aikido, [is] a form of martial arts intended only for
defense and never for aggression.” It takes hours of practice but “at the level of black
belt, the movements of aikido become nearly invisible. The aikido practitioner
becomes an elegant, balancing force to the opposing force. She comments that “it is
the dance of transformation.”
The transformation comes in understanding that, “The practice of aikido is
grounded in compassion, backed by strength. It uses the physical momentum of both
practitioner and opponent as leverage to neutralize a threat. Aikido practitioners
never seek conflict, but when conflict comes, they recognize the opportunity to
transform it into learning.”
“Aikido teaches us that conflict remains if we treat one another as opposing
forces. When we “other” our enemy, we give them power. Seeing them in us, their
fear in our fear, generates a way out, protecting both the victim and aggressor. When
we feel the life force of our enemy, feel their movement, feel their rage, feel their
pain, then we can meet them with compassion even as we redirect their harm.”
She says, “I think of aikido often as we stand in opposition to so much
injustice today. We can become exhausted by the fight for equal rights, the fight for
black and brown lives, the fight for LGBTQ+ equality, the fight to protect the
environment, and the fight for women’s freedom to make their own healthcare
decisions. The conflicts seem endless and the oppositional energy oppressive.
The great peacemakers of our time knew this dance. Martin Luther King Jr.
met the oppression of racism with the dream of beloved community. Nelson Mandela
met the evils of apartheid with the call for truth and reconciliation…. Jesus met the
domination of Empire with the revelation of Love.
These “meetings” transformed the world because they “refused to dehumanize
the ‘other’ They used the force of the oppressor to unveil the fault of their actions.
They addressed the harm without retribution and offered a path to repentance and
belonging.” Her advice feels helpful. She writes, “As you feel an oppositional fight
rising in you, draw on your inner spiritual aikido to help you meet the challenge and
transform it for good. The whole world depends on it.”
We do have many common connections. We have them in our faith, and in our
denomination. We are connected to others, even those who oppose us and consider
us “enemies.” But I believe the One we strive to follow said, “pray for your enemies
and bless those who curse you.” It is not an easy way, but it is a better way. It honors
our connections even when others would sever them.
We do not have to be naïve or sacrilegious to seek to hold onto our common
connections, to strive to be one with all. Let us strive to remember that even when
we would rather sever those connections, God intends us to be one, as God is one
with the Christ. In our deepest souls we long to be one with God and with others.
May God’s grace allow us to find the spiritual strength to seek the common
connections God has given us. God is with us in this struggle. AMEN.