Acts 16:16-34; John 17:22-26
When we pray, we pray for little things, like a parking space at Christmas time. And we pray for big things, like the news that our cancer is gone. And we pray for really big things, like world peace, good government, and unity among nations.
In our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for really, really big things: that his followers would be one, as he and the Father are one. The concept of oneness does not mean all people would believe exactly the same things about Jesus. Rather, it means we are united in our belief in Jesus.
We like to think that at least in the first few years after Jesus’ resurrection there was a consensus on who Jesus was and why he came to earth. But from the beginning, there was not consensus. From the book of Acts, we know that the disciples were not united in how to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The four Gospels tell different stories, emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings, because they were written by different authors and for different communities.
As the numbers of believers expanded, especially as they expanded from Jews to Gentiles, the challenges to remain one also expanded. Who is Jesus to us? What did his coming to earth mean? Who is welcome in the Christian community, and how do we welcome them? Must new believers eat a Kosher diet? Must the men be circumcised? Peter and Paul began by agreeing, then disagreeing on how to admit Gentiles.
The story from Acts highlights a series of events that happen in Philippi, perhaps soon after Lydia was baptized and invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home. A slave girl has a spirit of fortunetelling, which her owners have been capitalizing on. They have made a lot of money because of her.
She begins to tag along with Paul, using her “gift” to proclaim that he speaks for the Living God. Eventually, Paul tires of what feels to him to be harassment, and he cures her, removing the spirit that enables her to see into the future. Of course, her owners object at the loss of income, and Paul and Silas are arrested and jailed. They spend their time in the cell praying and singing praise songs to God.
When an earthquake opens the jail cell doors, the jailer is afraid the prisoners, Paul and Silas, have taken advantage of the earthquake and escaped. He is terrified he will lose his job, his reputation, and perhaps his life. He raises his sword to kill himself. But Paul and Silas tell him they are still there in jail. They tell him about Jesus, and he becomes a believer and he and his household are baptized.
Note that in Acts, converts are not questioned about their motives, or put through 3 years of catechism classes. They do not need to give away all they own. They do not have the Apostles’ Creed to define what they believe. They do not have Luther’s Small Catechism. They only need to profess a desire to follow Jesus and they are baptized.
In Acts, we discover a diverse group of new believers: the Ethiopian eunuch, Tabitha/ Dorcas the maker of clothes for widows, Lydia the seller of Purple, and the Philippian jailer, among many others.
With so much diversity, it has always been a challenge for the Church (capital C) to really be one. The farther we get from the cross, the harder it is to see each other as one. We tend to create “us and them” about everything. The more different we are, the more it challenges us to see each other as Jesus’ sheep in the same flock, or as Jesus’ children in the same family.
It is so easy to find times and events and issues where we have found our differences more important than our similarities. Using some recent examples, I’d include
· the War in Viet Nam
· the Civil Rights Movement
· the call to end legal abortion
· the influx of refugees and other migrants
· gun ownership
And so many more.
We tend to take sides in these matters, and whichever “side” we take, someone we know and love will be on the opposite side. We even claim Jesus is on our side, and quote a scripture passage to reinforce our point of view. It is too easy, in our determination to be right, to forget that Jesus loves the people on the “other” side, that he is one with them, too. We forget that Jesus prays for all of us, no matter what side we are on.
So, what can we do about this taking of sides? … We can begin by remembering that we are all children of the same God, sisters and brothers of Jesus, filled with the same Holy Spirit.
I have been talking with the Council members about the principle of Believing the Best. When we believe the best about others, we remain open to hearing their point of view. We do not assume the worst about them. Instead, we accept that they have good motives, good intentions behind what they are saying and doing.
When we believe the best, we may change our minds about some issue, or at least become open to understanding a different point of view. When we believe the best, we may need to agree to disagree. When we believe the best, we are open to accepting that we are all beloved children of God. When we believe the best, we seek to become one, united with one another and with God. When we believe the best, we are open to loving each other as Jesus loves us.
This week, I encourage you to consider believing the best about someone with whom you disagree. Think about the “other” side of an issue you feel strongly about. I suggest you don’t start with big topics like immigration or abortion, but choose something smaller, like whether you prefer iced tea or cola, or the left or right side of a Twix candy bar.
In your “believe the best” conversations, remember that the person with whom you disagree is also a beloved child of God. Remember that you are one with God, one with Jesus, and one with your conversation partner. Remember to pray for and with the person who seems to be on the opposite side of whatever you are talking about. Remember that Jesus is praying for you both, and for all of us.