That they all may be one

Daily Reading for May 4 • The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday After Ascension Day

The good news of God is trapped in competitive Christianity. Yes, we know we are supposed to reach out with the gospel. And surely we are meant to spread Christ’s love throughout the earth. But, there are too many steeples to keep painted. Too many church lawns to be mowed. We spend ourselves in maintenance! Let’s take a case in point. A few years ago there was a town in West Virginia—a little more than five thousand people. Yet they had twenty-seven churches there lined up in a row. So when the Presbyterian church bought a new mimeograph, every church wanted a new mimeograph. And when the Methodists picked up an opaque projector for their education program—a kind of opaque projector lust spread through the community. But, that same year, you could take a plane to New York City and drop in on a tiny church down near the Brooklyn Bridge. In four city blocks near the church there were ninety thousand unchurched people living in housing projects. Yet a denomination closed down the tiny church because it didn’t seem to be self-supporting. Why? Because we had to keep twenty-seven churches competing for the American soul somewhere in West Virginia! Free enterprise may be a swell idea when you’re selling hamburgers—fast-food stores cluster—but when it comes to serving Jesus Christ, ecclesial free-enterprise simply scuttles the gospel. So we cling to our separate steeples, and the work of God suffers.

Now mark this: We don’t seem to be able to change. We can’t seem to break out of the pattern, can we? Somehow we are locked into denominational loyalties. Maybe it’s because we have to belong. Or maybe, deeper still, our own identities are at stake. Look, we know it’s wrong. Did not Jesus Christ throw back his head on the night before the cross and pray that all his disciples be one? . . . And, yet, we aren’t. There are buildings involved and cash down and jobs at stake (every denomination has a power structure) and—well, what can you do? Some years ago a statue was on display in a Pittsburgh art gallery. It was a Crucifixion: Jesus Christ stretched on the cross. The only trouble was that he was disconnected; his arms didn’t join his shoulders or his head on his neck, and his legs were not hooked onto his torso. Jesus Christ was broken into pieces. The title of the sculpture? “Denominationalism”! Can the dividing up of Jesus Christ be anything but sin? No. Yet, we seem to be helpless. Somehow we can’t seem to let go of ourselves.

From “The Churchless Kingdom of God” by David G. Buttrick, quoted in Best Sermons 3 edited by James W. Cox (Harper & Row, 1990).

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