Sunday, June 5, 2011

Monkeys and Unity

Thanks go out to Jimmy Spencer Jr., and his book "Love Without Agenda" (which you can download and read for free!) for help in focusing my opening premise.

This was a tough one to wrap my brain around, because I see the call for Christian unity in Jesus' prayer, and find none, anywhere. That I am posting this sermon and not curled in a fetal position trying to untangle the knots in the narrative is thanks to Lyndon Marcotte, who pointed out something obvious and game-changing in the text.

Finally, a shout-out to the dozens of folks on Twitter who offered their insights on the John passage. My favorite was Rebecca Haller's.

Oh, and here's how to open a banana from the "wrong" end.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

John 17:1-11
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.3And 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In his book, “Love Without Agenda,” my friend Jimmy Spencer Jr. talks about a revelation he had while watching the National Geographic channel.

It was a documentary about monkeys and, as monkeys do, they were eating bananas. Jimmy’s world was turned upside-down by one monkey who took a banana and, rather than holding the banana to peel from the stem, he turned it upside down. Jimmy thought the monkey was stupid. What kind of monkey doesn’t know how to open a banana, for cryin’ out loud?

Then the monkey pinched the end, and effortlessly extracted a perfectly peeled banana.

It turns out, of course, that the monkey wasn’t wrong. Rather, because Jimmy had always only seen a banana peeled from the stem, in the same way that we’ve all always seen a banana peeled for as long as we can remember, Jimmy assumed that there was only one way to peel a banana. But there are at least two, and both do what they need to do quite well: they produce fruit.

I read our Lectionary texts, and I can’t help feeling, just a little bit, like Jimmy Spencer Jr. did when he watched that monkey. I read Jesus’ words as he speaks to his friends for the last time before his Ascension, and when he prays in John 17, and it’s like I’m reading it for the first time.

I read Jesus’ words promising that the Holy Spirit would give the disciples – and yes, by extension, you and I – power to spread the Gospel message of love, hope and restoration to the entire world. I read Jesus’ prayer, stating clearly that eternal life is defined as knowing God the Father. Then I read this: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

“So that they may be one, as we are one.”

There are, according to some experts, well over thirty thousand Christian denominations in existence right now. Within those denominations you’ll find people divided over specific issues of theology and polity, divided over political affiliations, divided over football loyalties… whose definition of “one” is Jesus using?

Rather than enjoying the catalyst of the Holy Spirit to spread a unified message of love and hope, all it takes is a quick surf through the channels on the TV or a Google search of religious websites and weblogs to see that Christians are using most of their energy in an effort to prove their particular doctrinal and theological position right. We may be many things, we Christians, but we are not “one.”

Danielle Shroyer points our that “We don’t have to get to Martin Luther, or even to the East/West schism of 1054, to know that Christian unity hasn’t lived up to Jesus’ prayer for us. Peter bailed on Jesus and his friends just a chapter later. Paul and Barnabas parted ways halfway through the Book of Acts. And us? …We aren’t one as Jesus and the Father are one. We spend most of our time competing with one another, finding scapegoat enemies on whom to blame the world’s problems, and yelling. We’re running a repetitive grinder of anxiety in our collective stomachs.

“If Jesus is praying on our behalf for us to attain a higher, more lofty sense of togetherness, we sure haven’t listened. So what does that say about us?

“What does that say about Jesus’ prayer? For all those who were taught that their heartfelt prayers would be heard and answered, it is quite problematic to see the Son of God’s unanswered prayer staring us in the face. What does it mean when even Jesus’ prayer isn’t answered?”

I have struggled with this question, personally, for decades. I’ve taken part in efforts to try and get Christian denominations of many different stripes to work together, to ignore their differences, to join forces to address one issue or another. Time and again, I’ve come up against resistance, refusal, rejection, and failure. And though I am and will always remain absolutely convinced that Jesus is God, and the Scriptures are the written Word of God, I confess that I have, at times, wondered if Jesus’ prayer here really wasn’t answered… I’ve wondered if Jesus got something wrong.

Left to our own devices, we are like the monkeys that Jimmy Spencer Jr. saw on the national Geographic channel, only we’re fighting over the best way to eat a banana, some peeling it from the stem, some pinching the other end, some splitting it in the middle, still others deciding that Kevin Spacey had it right in K-PAX, and eating it whole, peel and all.

The real problem isn’t Scripture, the real problem is us – Christians as a whole. One may conclude, then, that what we need is a reformation, a revolution, a sea change in the way everything is done!

That was the original idea behind the Emergent Church movement when it started years ago: to deconstruct the idea of church, of faith of Christianity, and reform it. Yet, as much as I enjoy participating in Emergent Church discussions, conferences, and activities, I am beginning to see many of these movements within the Emergent Church develop much the same structures and patterns they strove to destroy. They have their favorite groups, their favorite authors, their favorite special identities… It is, it seems, human nature to want to be right, to be best, to be first, and to be unique as long as it is unique like everyone else…

…and we’re back to arguing over who can peel a banana best.

So maybe revolution, maybe reformation is not the answer. Perhaps the late philosopher Ivan Illich had it right when he said that “neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step…. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

I want to suggest to you this morning that the problem isn’t with Jesus, or with Scripture, or even with the story we have to tell or the Holy Spirit which God has given us as a vouchsafe, a comforter, a teacher and a catalyst. Like that great theologian and philosopher Pogo once said, so many years ago, “we has seen the enemy, and he is us.”

Looking closely at our Gospel reading this morning, what is it in that last sentence of the Lectionary text that Jesus is praying for? “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Do you see it? Jesus is praying for God’s protection over you and I, for the express purpose of us becoming one! In other words, God provides the protection, and we do the work! We make the effort, we bridge the gaps, we become one!

There is no magic formula, no special interpretation of Scripture, no universally authoritative interpretation that will make a cohesive unit from the thousands and thousands of denominations, and the hundreds and hundreds of splinter groups and factions within those denominations, not to mention the people who still count themselves as believers, but who gave up on church a long time ago.

What if we spent less time being right, and more time being one? What would that look like?

Unity and love in the body of Christ is far more important than being right. It seems for the last century the major thrust of Christendom is about who’s right and has the answers. We’ve lost something when we fail to love one another and love others who may be difficult to love. Can we really call ourselves Christians just because we believe certain things and go to special places, if we don’t truly love people?

Jesus said, in this same section of John’s Gospel narrative, that people would know that we are his followers not because we had the right doctrines, or followed the correct theological teachings, not because our eschatology was properly Scriptural or our understanding of the Trinity or the Lord’s Supper was accurate, but because we love one another!

It’s time to put down the stones we wish to throw, and begin making people inside and outside the Church feel loved, wanted, believed in, and hoped for. It’s time to begin bringing out the best in one another rather than the worst.

What if we spent less time being right, and more time being one? What would that look like? What if we spent less time praying about being right and more time praying about being one? What if we spent less time condemning those who are different than us, and more time praying for the grace to love those who may be difficult to love? What if we spent less time pointing out where others fall short, and more time praying for opportunities to show God’s love to others, whether or not we have the chance to explain it, or be noticed for it, or take credit for it?

What if we could sing this, and mean it?

“We are one in the Spirit, we are on in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are on in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Let us pray.


  1. Thanks, John. You have, indeed, turned this passage upside down for me and allowed me to see it, again, with fresh eyes. I'm still not ready to embrace this passage, but you've helped me make some peace with it!

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks, John. You have, indeed, turned this passage upside down for me and allowed me to see it, again, with fresh eyes. I'm still not ready to embrace this passage, but you've helped me make some peace with it!

    Thank you!

  3. John, this is an incredible message. You know being on Twitter and seeing the movement of Christians trying to break free from the traditional idea of the church has been inspiring. At least I know that there are others out there who don't quite fit the image of what a Christian is supposed to be. We are all ill-formed and have fallen short of the glory, etc. Like all revolutions, however, eventually they do fall in line with the very tenants they hate. Ultimately, so many within the ranks just become reactionary and lose sight of the initial goal: creating a space for others to have a voice. The Left side of things soon becomes just as preachy as the Right. The movement then has defeated itself in favor of their own dogma. Like you said, we all want to be right. Everyone struggles with this. What to do? As far as the details, I don't know. But, I do know that we are supposed to love one another and not some bullshit love, either. Real, down and dirty agape love. The kind that shakes you to the core. The kind that scares the hell out of you.