Monday, May 17, 2010

What is the Unity that Jesus Wants?

The Gospel for the 7th Sunday of Easter is John 17:20-26

“…that they all may be one…”

Jesus’s prayer for his Church presents a goal that is as elusive as ever. We could picture him praying this prayer for his global network of Christians, numbering in the hundreds of millions, but divided into thousands of denominations, each a movement decidedly (even stubbornly) away from its nearest likeness, its closest relative.

And we can picture him praying his prayer over each and every one of those thousands of differently-named, differently-defined, differently-cultured denominations because—oops, there’s another one!—they do keep dividing.

And within each of them, he’s praying for the unity of each congregation and local community bearing his name, for that’s the most intimate location for the world to see and know (in his own words) “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Here’s a possibly heretical thought: Perhaps the unity Jesus seeks isn’t at any of these institutional levels of the Church. If it is at those levels, wouldn’t he feel mighty defeated by now? If it is at those levels, wouldn’t unity require conformity that would be more legalistic than life-giving? Can we really picture the Holy Spirit, the one who blows where it wills, confining and homogenizing believers to adhere to one set of beliefs printed on a page (or a hundred pages)?

What has evolved in the nearly two thousand years since Jesus first offered his prayer is Christianity’s stunningly diverse range of belief and practice. Why would we think that Jesus does not delight in this diversity? If evolution is part of the delivery system of God’s astonishing gift of life, would Jesus argue with its outcome?

What is the unity that Jesus wants for his followers?

Do you remember the time when Jesus was asked which is the greatest of the commandments? From that moment we get his great summary of the law: You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind and heart and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That he would stake the whole enterprise of religion on this mandate to love, introduces us to our unity.

And that mandate isn’t complete until he adds his final lesson, taught at the Last Supper when he washes his disciples’ feet and says to them, This is how I love you; you must love one another as I have loved you.

As we hear it today, the unity he wants for us is that the same love with which God the Father treasures him may be in us, and that he, Jesus, may be in us.

Aren’t there moments when you feel that unity?

As differently-opinioned as we are, when we say a creed together—and I find especially when we say the Iona Creed that we will recite today—we speak in one voice with a confidence that sometimes make me catch my breath.

And I won’t soon forget the whoosh of response when so many of you rushed to lay hands on one of our company, last Sunday, surrounding her with a love that she’s still talking about, days after her surgery.

We are united in our anguish over dear friends who are fighting back against cancer, and we experience the unity of our love for them shaping our prayer for them, and our support of them.

How many other heartfelt intimate experiences of unity ring true to the prayer of Jesus, that the same love with which God treasures him should dwell in us, as Jesus meets us within those experiences?

A family united in tender celebration as the first anniversary of the death of one at their center brings them together…

A study group united by their enthusiasm for their adventures in learning…

A team of leaders working together for the good of a community, considering differing viewpoints not to exclude but to include wisdoms and insights that the community needs…

Different generations gathering for food and song—common denominators, food and song—and finding provided a menu (both in food and in music) that gives everyone some of what they want because of its familiarity, and opens everyone to what’s not familiar, but they discover they can love it anyway… (Yes, that’s a commercial on behalf of our next Singing Supper!)

The unity Jesus wants for his Church is the unity he gives, and God gives, the very love that is between them, binding them as one. That treasuring love is the Holy Spirit, whose great festival day, Pentecost, will be ours to celebrate, next Sunday.

This unity is given to us to hold our minds and hearts and feet to the fire of the love that binds us to each other, and to God-- the love that is our highest privilege and our deepest responsibility.