John 17: 20-26
In a few moments when we stand up to repeat the words of the Creed, one of the sentences we shall say is : “I believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.
Now, the word “catholic” just means “universal” or “world -wide”, and there is a “world- wide church” made up of Christians of many different traditions; Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Orthodox, and of course Roman Catholics.
Many people say “catholic” when they mean “Roman Catholic” but if we used our language accurately this confusion just wouldn’t be there.
So in this great prayer which we’ve just heard, Jesus was praying that his followers in every generation after him, would belong to one holy and world-wide church.
In particular, he was asking that we should all be one, united by the teaching of his first followers, the apostles. That’s what one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church means.
Unfortunately, the sad fact is that although all Christians do indeed belong to the world wide church, that one church is broken by our own divisions; by our disunity, if you like.
And this is a good reason for people outside of church, not to take us seriously when we start talking about loving each other.
Why should anyone believe what we preach if we don’t follow the teaching ourselves? Not only do we criticise Christians of different denominations; we frequently fall out in lumps even within our own tradition.
People sometimes stop coming to church when a particular priest is different from his predecessor, and they look for another church where the priest is either more traditional or more liberal, depending on their own preferences. Perhaps we should stop treating the church as a kind of club for like-minded people, and pay a bit more attention to what Jesus said.
It’s important to distinguish between disunity and difference. There’s nothing wrong with difference. Difference is necessary for the health of the Church. St Paul made this point when he wrote to the Christians at Corinth.
When he compared the Church to a real body, he said: “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members yet one body. The eye can’t say to the hand “I have no need of you”. Nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you”.
There are many different ways of telling the same good news about Jesus. Different churches should develop different customs and different ways of worship. All of these contribute to the life of the world wide, or universal church. And this is a very good thing.
But it’s a very bad thing when differences are allowed to turn into divisions. And this can happen so easily. I don’t think that divisions happen because people aren’t committed to Jesus.
I think they happen because people are so committed to their own kind of striving to be faithful to the gospel, that they become blind to the strivings of others.
And then when they eventually open their eyes, they wake up to find that they’re separated. It’s certainly not something which they seek, or at least, I hope it’s not.
I think it comes from a kind of neglect of looking out for each other. A neglect of community, or a neglect of love.
And when this happens, some churches try to abolish difference altogether, whilst others begin not to care much about being separated.
The modern Roman Catholic church won’t tolerate much difference, and in this respect it’s similar in its thinking to the many churches of the Protestant Tradition which keep forming new sects in order to preserve what they see as being the true gospel.
It’s sad isn’t it, because none of us are living in accordance with the great prayer of Jesus.
The real sin of disunity isn’t what happened hundreds of years ago. The real sin lies in what isn’t happening now. For the most part the divisions in the church came about by neglect of love for each other rather than by the deliberate separation into which it just grew. And our sin is the refusal to deal with the mess which we’ve inherited.
Sadly, the divisions of the past, which came from the differences between good people of both sides, are now really no more than quarrels of little mean people, concerned mostly for the strength of their own group.
We need to clear up these, by now irrelevant divisions and at the same time to be warned by them. Because we live once again in age when the real disagreements of good people are leading us into new divisions; into another denial of the one spirit into which we were all baptized.
We need to go back to the good news of the unity between Jesus and God; the unity between the Father and the Son; the unity of love into which our own baptism introduces us. And the result of living together within this unity which cuts across race, gender, or class will be to show all who look at us what it means to be filled with the spirit of the living God, The Holy Spirit of love who will move all of God’s children through the Son to live in the glory of the Father.
For ever. Amen. 0000000000000