Have you ever been frustrated that God was not answering your prayers? You prayed earnestly, in Jesus’ name, honestly seeking the Lord’s will to be done in a particular matter, and all you got back from God was … silence. No clear answer came to you, no sign indicated that God had even heard your prayer. For some people, unanswered prayer is a deal breaker. They decide to stop believing in a God who won’t answer their questions. Yet, scripture teaches us to be persistent in prayer, to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), assured that God will answer – even if it isn’t the answer we want to hear.
The apostle Paul describes his own frustration with unanswered prayer in his second letter to the church at Corinth, as he tells of a “thorn in the flesh” he had been given to teach him humility: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,” Paul writes (2 Cor 12:8). When he finally got an answer, it wasn’t the one he’d been hoping to hear. Paul continues, “but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
So, we are in good company when we pray and pray for something, and it seems no one is listening, or we pray persistently for God to act, and it looks like nothing happens. In fact, Jesus himself is still waiting for God to answer a prayer he prayed nearly 2000 years ago, as he gathered with his disciples in an upper room, just before he was betrayed by one of them. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the Gospel according to John, chapter 17, verses 1-11.
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
The setting of this prayer is the upper room, on the night before Christ’s arrest and crucifixion. Jesus has been pouring out his heart to his friends, encouraging them to carry on his work after he is gone. “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me,” he tells them (John 14:1). “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” (John 15:4). He warns them that they will suffer after he is gone, but he also gives them a promise: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33). And then, with his friends gathered around him, he prays for them. It’s pretty clear that Jesus chooses his words for their benefit – after all, he knew that God the Father didn’t need to have eternal life explained. But the disciples did.
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Jesus does not describe “eternal life” in terms of time, but in terms of relationship. Eternal life is to know God, and to know Christ. And in knowing Christ, we experience his glory. In knowing Christ, we belong to God. Jesus goes on to affirm that we who believe in him belong to God, as he asks for God’s glory to shine through his followers.
“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
Then Jesus goes on to ask protection for his disciples who will remain in the world after he returns to his place at the right hand of the Father:
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Notice that Jesus has already stated that those who believe in him are one with him and with the Father. Here, he is asking for something else. He is asking God to protect those who believe so that they may be one with each other, as Father and Son are one.
He was not asking for unanimity, but unity. Austrailan theologian Andrew Prior writes, “Unity is not about agreement. Too often agreement is about the patron calling the shots. Was not the Nicene Creed hastened to a “unity” because of Constantine’s political needs and some not too subtle threats? Unity where agreement is paramount will forever be at risk of scapegoating. Just get rid of the difficult ones, the odd ones out, and we will have agreement.
“Unity is about loving each other as Christ has loved us. (John 13:34-35) The love of Christ does not kill the ones who disagree; it dies for the ones who disagree!”
This past week, I represented you at the Minnesota Annual Conference Session, where we heard reports of good things happening in the United Methodist Church, but we also heard disagreement on issues that are becoming more and more controversial, and threaten the unity of the Body of Christ. I want to address those issues today, but first, let me give you the good news we heard:
• Love Offering: As of Friday morning, $81,759 had been collected for this year’s Love Offering, and 80% of that will go to Feed My Starving Children to help pay for meals packed through our “Million Meals Marathon.”
• Million Meals Marathon meal packing: Minnesota United Methodists have collectively packed 2,091,077 meals to date through our “Million Meals Marathon.” That’s enough to feed 5,728 children once a day for a year.
• Imagine No Malaria: We have raised $2.7 million to date for Imagine No Malaria. That amount translates to 270,000 lives saved through the purchase of specially treated mosquito nets. The Minnesota Conference has raised more than any other annual conference to date and far exceeded its initial $1.8 million goal. But we have not yet reached the goal we set for First UMC, so be watching for events that are planned for the summer months to help us do that – then I can award the chair of our MOE committee with this lovely “pat on the back” that was distributed at Annual Conference.
• Adam Hamilton teaching sessions: Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas—which has grown to become the largest United Methodist Church in the country – offered three teaching sessions. He encouraged us to “do whatever it takes” to welcome, inspire, and teach those who are hungry for God, and to articulate and share our “God stories” with others.
Legislation: Members of annual conference debated and approved legislation related to homosexuality, reducing our carbon footprint, boycotting SodaStream, and justice in our civil courts.
You can learn more about each of these pieces of legislation on the Minnesota Conference website, but I want to address the items related to human sexuality this morning. I think it is important that you understand exactly what was approved by the conference session, and I think it is important for you to know where I stand on this issue as your pastor, but more importantly, as a follower of Jesus Christ.
- General Conference petitions on homosexuality: Members approved eight General Conference petitions related to homosexuality. Seven of them, which were discussed together, call on the legislative body for the global United Methodist Church to remove all “discriminatory language about homosexuality” from The Book of Discipline, specifically as it relates to clergy. The other one calls for a change that would allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages and for such ceremonies to be performed within United Methodist churches when authorized by vote of the annual conference where the clergy person is appointed or the church is located—or by a two-thirds vote of the church conference where the clergy person is appointed.
What the Conference approved was a set of petitions to bring before the General Conference in 2016. The next steps, according to Bishop Ough, will be for a General Conference committee on Book of Discipline language regarding homosexuality to consider the petitions, and determine if and how they may come before the General Conference. My guess is that there will be other legislation submitted for consideration on this topic, and the Minnesota Conference petitions may be considered as part of a larger group of petitions. The debate surrounding United Methodist policy, as spelled out in the Book of Discipline, has become heated and increasingly divisive in recent months, and there are at least two groups who are actively working to break ties with the United Methodist Church over this issue. One group threatens to leave unless we affirm same-gender marriage, and another threatens to leave if we do. In the middle of this struggle, with emotions high on both sides of the argument, it can be difficult to hear Christ’s prayer for unity. It is hard to imagine how we could ever be one, as the Father and Son are one.
At one point in the debate on Friday, Bishop Ough was asked to state his personal opinion on same-gender marriage. He declined, saying, “I am not going to interrupt your debate with my personal views.” I think he did the right thing. A Methodist understanding of the episcopacy does not vest the bishop with responsibility to tell us what we should think on controversial matters. We each need to prayerfully discern what scripture teaches us, and then determine how best to order our own lives so that we can live faithfully into our calling as children of God.
One problem we run into when we read the Gospels to learn how Jesus would have us respond to same-gender marriage, is that Jesus never directly addressed the issue of homosexuality. While he often attacked the way Levitical law was interpreted and practiced, those attacks were most often directed at Sabbath observance and treatment of the poor, the sick, widows, and children. Jesus did address issues of sexual immorality, and those issues became even more prominent in the early church, as Christianity spread into parts of the world where pagan practice covered a broad spectrum of understandings about appropriate sexual behavior. But even when Jesus did speak to issues of sexuality, it was to offer grace and forgiveness.
So here we stand, well into the 21st century, aware that the church has too often allowed the culture around us to dictate our response to questions of morality, and also aware that the church has just as often drawn the net too tightly, refusing grace to those who need it most.
Jesus was well aware of the influence of the world on his followers, and his prayer addresses the tension of being “in the world but not of the world.” Throughout John’s Gospel, kosmos refers to a world that is hostile toward God. A few verses beyond those we heard earlier, Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (14-16).
As I listened to the debate at Annual Conference, I struggled with the deep pain I heard in voices on both sides of the issue. I also struggled to understand how Christ’s own body, the church, could have allowed our focus to move from developing spiritually mature disciples of Jesus, toward a preoccupation with human sexual identity. I remembered Jesus telling a bunch of Sadducees, “You still don’t get it.” “In the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage. They will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25).
I must remain a pastor in good standing with the Evangelical Covenant Church, in order for the Methodist Church to recognize my credentials, and allow me to remain your pastor. That means I cannot perform same-gender marriages, nor can I allow such ceremonies to occur in any church I pastor. So far, both denominations I serve use nearly identical language to address this issue. Even if legislation changes the Book of Discipline to allow same-gender marriage, it will only be at the discretion of congregational charge conferences, and it will require a 2/3 vote. This will place the burden of decision on each congregation. We must be prepared to thoughtfully, prayerfully discern how we will decide on this matter, should the General Conference approve such legislation.
You need to know that I cannot perform a same-gender wedding., but I can, and do, deeply love people of every possible sexual orientation. If you want to grab a cup of coffee with me some time, I’d be happy to talk with you about my views on helping people of every sexual orientation to find fulfillment as children of God. I long for the day when each of us can say that our primary identity is not based on our human sexual desires, but on our spiritual status as redeemed participants in the Body of Christ. I believe that every time we choose to label ourselves in any way other than “God’s beloved child” we fall short of the Kingdom of God.
Christ’s prayer for unity has only one goal: that the world would know God has sent Jesus into the world. This has little to do with denominational polity, sexuality, or crafting some kind of compromise to keep us all together. It is about sharing this one message: Jesus is the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. This must be our focus, as followers of Jesus.
We read earlier today, in 1 Peter 5:8, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” I am convinced that Satan would like nothing better than for us to be distracted by debates over what the Book of Discipline says about homosexuality. Satan would like nothing better than for all our energy to be spent arguing with one another, so that we have no energy left to share the good news that Jesus is Lord, that he died for all, and that grace abounds for those who will claim it.
I, for one, do not intend to let Satan get his way on this one. I think there is much to be gained by discussing how we, as a church, want to live out our calling to offer hope and healing to a broken world. Part of that discussion needs to include how we minister to people whose primary identity has not yet become “faithful follower of Jesus Christ” – whatever their primary identity currently happens to be. Let us do that with grace and love for one another, so that the witness we bear points others to Jesus, and Jesus alone. Only then can Jesus finally expect an answer to his prayer that we might be one, even as he and the Father are one. Only then can the Kingdom of God become fully real. Only then can we gather around this Table, offer one another Bread and Cup, and rejoice as we hear once again the reminder that, because we who are many partake of the One Loaf, we have been made one in Christ Jesus. Amen.