That They May All Be One
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A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on June 25, 2017 (Third Sunday after Pentecost/60th Anniversary of UCC)
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. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20â€I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. – John 17:14-23
Today is the 60th anniversary of the United Church of Christ â€“ the denomination to which Holladay Church belongs.Â Many of you may not know a lot about the UCC, so I thought this would be a good occasion to give you some background about its history and its beliefs.
Let me begin with some church history leading up to the United Church of Christ. The early Christian church in the four centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection could probably be better described as the early Christian churches. There were many different communities with different beliefs who didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Some were mostly Jewish; some were mostly Gentiles; some were mixed. Some believed that Jesus was human, but not divine; others believed he was divine, but only appeared to be human. Some believed Jesus had passed along secret, divine knowledge that only faithful church insiders could know and understand. There are sects mentioned in the Bible about which we know very little because we do not have any records about them.
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that Christianity should be the official religion of the Roman Empire, and he took steps to clarify what the Christian church believed and taught. He convened councils of some of the most learned and faithful men (sorry ladies) in the Empire to decide important matters of belief. Some of the early Christian creeds were a product of that effort. The Nicene Creed is a product of the Council at Nicaea in 325. They helped to define the “official” Christian church. For example, Jesus Christ was declared to be both fully human and fully divine. Dissenting beliefs about Jesus were declared heretical.
For more than a thousand years, this “official” Christian church held great power and authority. It had two headquarters or centers: Rome and Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In the 11th century, the Roman church and the Eastern church split in two: The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches.
The Roman Church had authority over Western Europe as the only true church until the 16th century — the time of the Protestant Reformation that began 500 years ago. Since then, the Christian faith in Europe and America has split into hundreds of different denominations, each with different beliefs, governance, and leaders — and almost all of them claiming to be the true church of Jesus Christ. The followers of Martin Luther started a church named for Luther. John Calvin had his own ideas about how a church should be organized — the Presbyterian and Reformed churches began. King Henry VIII of England started a church with himself as the Head.
Now there are so many different brands of churches, I can’t keep them straight. There are at least 3 different kinds of Lutherans. I couldn’t tell you the difference between the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. I think there are more different kinds of Baptist churches than there are Baptists.
In the mid-20th century, there was a movement among some Protestant Christian churches that saw this fragmentation as contrary to the prayer of Jesus himself — “That they may all be one.” And so, there was an effort to heal those divisions by uniting denominations. The United Church of Christ was officially formed in 1957 by the union of what once had been four different denominations: Congregational, Christian, German Evangelical and Reformed.
The UCC tapestry also includes some other threads — like historically Black churches and educational institutions that were started with the help of Congregational missionaries after slavery ended in the United States. And Pacific Island congregations in Hawaii, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, that had been started by Congregational missionaries to the islands.
This church — Holladay UCC — was originally started as a Community Church with church members from several different Christian denominations. In 1953, it was one of the only Protestant Christian churches in this part of Utah. But the young church received guidance and assistance from the Congregational Christian churches — two of the denominations that became part of the UCC — and when the United Church of Christ was founded in 1957, this congregation soon decided to affiliate with the UCC.
One of the things that makes the United Church of Christ different from many other branches of the Christian faith is its congregational polity. That means that each local congregation is autonomous; we have no higher authority than the local congregation. We have no bishops. We are not bound by the dictates of the national offices of the UCC. We are free to decide how to worship, who to call as pastor(s), how to raise money, how to spend it, and how to carry out our mission.
This means that it is hard to pin down exactly what a UCC congregation is like and what they believe. They can be very different. But it also means that we have not been torn apart as a denomination by taking stands on controversial social issues, as many other churches have been.
As one example, in 1985 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (the national gathering that takes place every two years) passed a resolution encouraging UCC congregations and other settings of the church to declare themselves “Open and Affirming” (ONA). This is a designation stating that they are welcoming of all persons, specifically including lesbian, gay and bisexual persons, assuring them that they are affirmed and welcome to take part in the full life of the church — including serving as leaders and even ordained ministers. But this resolution is not binding on UCC congregations; each is free to decide whether to take this step or not. Holladay UCC became ONA 18 years ago in 1999. But at this time, only about ¼ – 1/5 of UCC congregations have declared themselves Open and Affirming. There are some congregations who left the denomination when the UCC became ONA. But it has not split the denomination.
We are also unique in that we are a non-creedal church. We have no set of beliefs one must affirm in order to be a member of the church. So you will find UCC churches all over the political and theological spectrum — from progressive churches like Holladay UCC to much more conservative and traditional churches.
I don’t know anyone who makes the claim that the United Church of Christ is the one true church. I think it’s just the best approach that I have found.
We don’t always agree. We don’t always get along. The four different strands that make up the UCC have different traditions and beliefs, and that means there are unresolved tensions. But we have been hanging together for 60 years. We are not held together by common belief, but by covenant. We believe and publicly affirm that we need to be together and work together, and we dedicate time and financial resources to maintaining that relationship. It is an ongoing challenge to maintain.
But our sense of mission has changed. The effort to unite together with other denominations has waned. We have partner and cooperative relationships with other Christian denominations –“ mostly closely with the Disciples of Christ and now the United Church of Canada. But efforts to officially unite have stalled.
What is perhaps more radical, and more important in these times, is that our national church is partnering with other religious groups in some of their justice efforts — joining with Reformed Jews, some Muslim groups, and Unitarian-Universalists. We are not all followers of Jesus, but we are working together to help bring shalom to the world: peace, justice, wholeness, mutual respect.
In fact, one UCC congregation — Countryside Community Church UCC in Omaha, Nebraska, has sold its old church building and is now building a new worship facility that will also be the home of Jewish and Muslim communities. Imagine that — three different religious communities worshiping and working together in one building.
At 60 years, the vision and mission of the United Church of Christ have changed to meet the needs of a changing world. Our new vision is to help bring about “a just world for all.” Exactly what that means and how we make it happen will require some discernment.
But let me do something that usually isn’t done when we talk about the United Church of Christ. Let me probe a little more deeply into Jesus’ prayer in the gospel of John, and not just lift out one verse, insisting that it summarizes all that Jesus was about — even if it is our UCC motto.”
That they may all be one” is not just about joining together with our sisters and brothers in faith, even if they understand it a little differently. It is to be united with Jesus Christ and with God, and with all our ancestors in the faith, and with those who will come after us.
We are one in no longer being a part of this world. We still live on this beautiful, fragile earth. But we no longer accept uncritically mortal definitions of what it means to be human, or to be successful. We do not accept all the ways our culture tries to divide people. We no longer use the violent methods of getting our way. We are the heirs of a strange wisdom that is seen as foolishness by many people, but is also the source of a strange power.
Instead, we are a part of the Realm of God. We are the bearers of God’s truth — truth that is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That truth is that we are loved by God. We are sent into the world — which is John’s word for the population of non-believers — to witness to that love that makes us one. It gives us dignity, and glory, and protection from all shamers. To be a part of the United Church of Christ is to insist on that for ourselves, and for all people in this world.
Happy Birthday, UCC!
Robert J. von Trebra
(If you would like to learn more about the United Church of Christ, visit our website at www.ucc.org)