For better or worse, the Christian Church is a family, with God as our universal Parent, with attributes we see in earthly parents – both mothers and fathers; with Jesus as the older brother into whose care God has placed us; and with the rest of us as a huge number of brothers and sisters that he sometimes has to help and sometimes has to manage and sometimes has to keep in line, but whom he always loves. He loves us for the sake of his Father and for our own sake.
You can hear that love in the prayer that John says Jesus offered on the night that he was betrayed. Jesus knew that he had needed divine help to fulfill his purpose, and that it was his unity with the Father that had sustained him and would see him through his suffering. He prayed for them, for us:
“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.” [John 17:9-11]
Jesus knew that the disciples would face terrible trials, and although they, like him, would be brought to know God’s full glory through their troubles, they did not know that, at least not yet. To get to that point, they needed to be in clear solidarity with God and with one another.
Mind you, he was praying for a group that was not unified around everything. Matthew had been a tax collector, with a record of working with the Romans. Simon the Zealot had been part of a group dedicated to driving the Romans out of Judea by any means necessary. There are stories in the gospels about how James and John alienated the others by bragging. I won’t go into how people looked on some of the women that Jesus allowed or invited to hang out with them. What held them together wasn’t ultimately their close ties of friendship, but their focus on and love for Jesus. He was at the center of things, and as long as he stayed there, they would hold together.
We haven’t always done a great job of keeping our eyes on Jesus, though. We’ve let a lot of things divide us up into our separate groups. I say that as someone who, like any clergyperson of any stripe, has a vested interest in maintaining that certain beliefs and certain ways of doing things are the right beliefs and the right practices. I am not Eastern Orthodox: I think it is downright harmful when people are expected to worship in a language that they do not understand. I am not Roman Catholic: I do not think the clergy have an exclusive right to pronounce absolution of sins, but that all Christians are obligated to announce that pardon and forgiveness are the free gift of Christ to all who simply and sincerely turn to him. I am not a Baptist: I believe that God’s grace is given without respect to our ability to understand what’s going on. I am not a Calvinist: I do not believe Jesus’ atonement for our sins is limited to those whom God knew ahead of time would take the offer, and I do believe that God’s grace is out there waiting for us, preparing us to respond freely when we do take him up on a new life.
I am not, however, prepared to say that anyone who loves Jesus is outside his embrace, and pray not to be separated from anyone whom Jesus calls his own. That has been, in fact, one of those identifiers of the Methodist movements from the early days when John Wesley, a priest of the Church of England to the end of his life, was learning about faith from the Moravians and translating the hymns of German Lutherans into English and studying the Greek Fathers. You do not have to give up the particulars of your own belief and practice to honor the profound faith that is in other traditions. So Wesley wrote of one whose spirit is open to the catholic, that is the “universal”, presence of Jesus:
“while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, --his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit.”
Despite all of our divisions, the Church at its best has always held onto this sense of unity that is not necessarily external and administrative, but a unity of heart centered on Jesus and his love.
That reality is experienced from within the family of faith. There are glimpses of it wherever Christians of different persuasions work and worship together. It’s present when we hold our community Lenten services or serve meals together at St. Peter’s. It’s there when the weather becomes dangerously cold and a Code Blue is called, so that volunteers from many churches head over to Sacred Heart to open the doors to the homeless. It’s there when the Clinic offers medical care, or when Meals on Wheels delivers a lunch. It’s what happens when I go away for a day or two and I call Doug Hagler from First Presbyterian and say, “Could you be on call if there are any emergencies?” or when David Bryant asks Jillian Miller to play because he’s sick. It’s there when our youth and the confirmation class from St. John’s Lutheran pray together about gun violence, or when Sister St. Joseph speaks about Francis of Assisi at the blessing of the animals. It’s beautiful to behold.
Unfortunately, it’s not always what the world sees. And that is why, as we celebrate during Epiphany the gifts offered by the Christians of different nations, today we give thanks for a gift from Canada. In 1925, almost a century ago, Canadian Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists came together to form the United Church of Canada (and, for the record, when the United Methodist Church formed south of the border in 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren who were in Canada joined them at that point). They did it out of conviction that the world needed to see their internal unity in an external fashion. They put the motto on their new seal: “Ut omnes unum sint”, Latin for “that they may all be one”, which was Jesus’ prayer for the disciples:
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” [John 17:11]
In their foundational documents, they express their purpose in joining together as being a declaration of unity to the world at large. They said:
“We acknowledge one Holy Catholic Church, the innumerable company of saints of every age and nation, who being united by the Holy Spirit to Christ their Head are one body in Him and have communion with their Lord and with one another. Further, we receive it as the will of Christ that His Church on earth should exist as a visible and sacred brotherhood, consisting of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, together with their children and other baptized children, and organized for the confession of His name, for the public worship of God, for the administration of the sacraments, for the upbuilding of the saints, and for the universal propagation of the Gospel; and we acknowledge as a part, more or less pure, of this universal brotherhood, every particular church throughout the world which professes this faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him as divine Lord and Saviour.”
It was a way of bringing to the external sight of the world the internal vision that Jesus set forth for them, and for us.
So it is that, for the occasion of their union, William Merrill wrote a hymn that we also sing sometimes, and that we will sing in a moment. It says,
“Not alone for mighty empire,
Stretching far o’er land and sea,
Not alone for bounteous harvests,
Lift we up our hearts to thee:
Standing in the living present,
Memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving
Praise thee most for things unseen.”
 See Ted Campbell, “Wesley’s Use of the Church Fathers” at https://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://search.yahoo.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1364&context=asburyjournal
 John Wesley, Sermon 39: “Catholic Spirit” at https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-39-Catholic-Spirit
 “Doctrine: Article 15 ‘Of the Church’” in The Manual, 35th Edition (United Church of Canada Publishing House, 2010). Found at https://commons.united-church.ca/Documents/Governance/General%20Council/40th%20General%20Council%20(2009)/The%20Manual%202010.pdf