Sermon – May 11, 2014

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyI Am

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“I am the gate. / Whoever enters through me will be safe— / you will go in and go out and find pasture. / The thief comes only to steal / and slaughter and destroy. / I came that you might have life / and have it to the full.” — John 10:9-10

In a recent article the Rev. Dr. Martin Copenhaver, who will start a tenure as the President of Andover Newton Theological School June 1st, he addressed what might stand in the way of religious unity. Religious unity— or as the motto of our denomination The United Church of Christ has it (quoting John 17:21)— “That they may all be one.”

To address religious unity, Marty— I feel comfortable calling him Marty; I’ve met him— to address religious unity, Marty started with a shaggy dog story, an old joke. I rarely apologize, myself, for telling shaggy dog stories or old jokes but I should probably apologize in advance for the Rev. Dr. Copenhaver.

Marty started by saying what stands in the way of religious unity are not great differences but small ones. He told the old story of two people who had just met and were trying to discover the similarities and differences in their religious backgrounds.

One of them asked this question: “Are you Protestant or Catholic?”

The other one replied: “Protestant.”

The first one cracked a little smile and said, “Me too! What franchise?”


“Why that’s great! Me too!”

“Well,” said the second one also smiling just a little now, “we all know there are many of flavors of Baptists. Are you a Northern Baptist or are you a Southern Baptist?”

A little wary but certainly more hopeful the first one responded “Southern.”

“Oh, gee! That’s great. Me too!”

Given these were Baptists, the two spent some time making comparisons as to where their sympathies found a real home. Finally, the first one asked, “Are you Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or are you Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

With a cautious tone the second one replied, “Why, I am Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 and proud of it!”

The first one’s eyes lit up like they were on fire. “I knew it! I knew it! Die, you heretic!” (Slight pause.)

I need to note this kind of phenomenon is not limited to Baptists. Yes, in the United Church of Christ we pride ourselves on openness to faith traditions that are very different from our own.

However, at times we can be, if not critical at least not knowledgeable, even about a United Church of Christ nearby. For example, a church in Elmira in our Susquehanna Association is out of the Evangelical and Reform Tradition.

And the pastor at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Greene comes out of the E & R tradition. After being ordained for over 20 years, Greene is the first church in the Congregational tradition that pastor has ever served.

But most of our churches and our contacts are Congregational. So, we know about Congregationalists. But how much do we know about the E & R tradition, a part of the United Church of Christ? Do we know that when the U.C.C. was formed in 1957 the E & R churches had Bishops?

Do we know E & R churches had to give up their Bishops? Why? The agreement of union called for a Congregational structure, less top-down than having Bishops would allow and less top-down than normal for those churches in the E & R tradition. (Slight pause.)

It seems to me whether we’re talking about churches or nearly any other topic, most of the time we want to and like to distinguish ourselves as different, even if those distinctions are cut very thin. Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon, “the narcissism of small differences.” [1] (Slight pause.)

Perhaps when we do this thin slicing what we are doing is protecting our turf, our territory. Perhaps there is some pride involved. Perhaps there is some insecurity involved. And let’s face it, it often seems we to want to be simply… tribal. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Gospel according to the School of John: “I am the gate. / Whoever enters through me will be safe— / you will go in and go out and find pasture. / The thief comes only to steal / and slaughter and destroy. / I came that you might have life / and have it to the full.” (Slight pause.)

More than any other Gospel John addresses Christology. And the “I am” statements of Jesus appear only in John.

Now, let me unpack that $64 word for you— Christology. Christology is the study of the nature and person of Jesus, especially as that relates to the nature and person of Yahweh, God.

As I have said here before, when Jesus asks “who do you say that I am” those who first heard that question understood the actual question being asked was this: “how does the person Jesus, who we claim to be the Christ, the Messiah of God, fit into and fit with the concept that God is One.” Christology tries to study the relationship of God and Jesus.

That takes us to a simple basic: monotheism is the primary premise of Judaism. God is One.

So, if you are a Jew living in the First Century, how do you explain Jesus? Is Jesus something extra, another god? Is Jesus simply a wise Rabbi, a great teacher?

I think this passage helps us understand Jesus and probably helped those who first heard it understand Jesus. You see, Jesus is not making a self-comparison to the gate— I am the gate.

Nor is Jesus making a comparison to any of the other descriptions found in John— I am— comparisons to Bread, Light, a Door, a Good Shepherd, the Life, the Way, the Truth, the Vine. The important part of these sentences, the important part of these comparisons is not the object of the sentence. It is the subject and verb— “I am.”

You see, if we listened to these words with First Century ears, we would recognize right away that with the words “I am” Jesus is referring to Yahweh, God. And Yahweh, the name of God in Hebrew, is a form of the verb “to be”— “I am.”

So, Jesus claims “the gate” as a metaphor of self description and then says (quote:) “I came that you may have life and have it to the full.” Therefore, we also need to realize in the Jewish tradition the way people in the First Century would understand this— in te Jewish tradition God gives life and gives it to the full. Put another way, Jesus is here addressing a relationship with God.

That brings me back to what Freud called this phenomenon of “the narcissism of small differences.” As far as I can tell a lot of churches get caught up in what might loosely termed doctrinal differences. One of my favorites is when someone asks: “Have you found Jesus?” I sometimes want to say, “I did not know Jesus was lost.”

But the theologian in me also wants to say, “Did Jesus somehow become detached from Trinity? Has the Holy Spirit also gone AWOL?”

In all seriousness, asking someone about finding Jesus is narcissism. The question does not point to Jesus and does not point to the individual being engaged. The question is self referential and points only to the person asking the question.

In fact, the person asking the question appears to be seeking affirmation of what they believe. More troubling: the question, itself, separates Jesus from the Trinity.

I want to suggest the claim that Jesus is the Messiah does not separate Jesus from God or from the Holy Spirit. The point of Trinity is that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are inseparably intertwined. And that is, you see, both the impossible reality and the incredible truth: God is Trinity. (Slight pause.)

Well, Jesus— part of the Trinity— clearly taught God includes everyone. The God of Trinity makes no claim that some are unwelcome, unclean, unacceptable. The narcissism of small differences has no place with the God of Trinity. (Slight pause.)

True story: just last week I heard someone say one person was related to them by blood but another person who had married into the family was not related by blood. Now, in this day of DNA testing and genome decoding, being related by blood and not being related by blood is meaningless. DNA testing and genome decoding proves this: we are all related. (Slight pause.)

In several minutes, when we have the Prayers of the People, you will be invited to pray for the girls held captive in Nigeria. [2] Why? After all, they are in Africa. We are in North American.

According to reports, they are mostly Muslim. We are Christians. It’s likely I could slice this very thin, exercise the narcissism of small differences.

But, to quote John 17:21, we are all one. And so we pray. We pray not knowing the outcome. We pray believing God treasures each of us. We pray because we are one, relying on the mercy of God— God who is “I am”; God who is Trinity. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly… We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.’”

BENEDICTION: Let us rejoice for Christ is risen. This service of worship is over but our service in the name of God continues outside these doors. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.


[2] A full list of the names of all the girls was included in the bulletin. 96 names were unknown. Each of those was listed separately with this: “Child of God, Name Unknown.” Each person present was asked to pray for one or two of the names on the list.


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