“That they may be one.”
We might be tempted to say, “Who are you kidding, Jesus? It didn’t happen in your time, did you imagine it would ever happen in ours?”
But Jesus told his followers that they should be one in this world, in their culture and their time. It goes along with Jesus always reminding them that the Kingdom of Heaven is here – not something that will come in the next world. So, this may be one of the most puzzling verses in the gospels, and Jesus says it several times, in several different ways. He says it always as a very positive statement, not as a question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they became one as you and I are one?” He says it as if he expects this to happen. He says it as if he thinks we understand what he’s talking about.
Either Jesus is wrong, or we’re wrong. Well, let’s take a vote on that!
How many of you think Jesus doesn’t quite understand the penchant for human beings to be divisive?
Now, how many of you think we may be misunderstanding what Jesus means when he calls us to unity?
It’s pretty much a guarantee that Jesus knows what he’s talking about. It’s probably our misunderstanding of “unity” and “respect” that is at stake here. We may not even understand truly what it means to “be one as Jesus and the Father are one.” It’s hard enough to understand the vagaries of human nature, as evident in our lack of understanding of people and cultures who are different from us. How can we ever understand the theological implications of the unity within the Trinity? And we are supposed to emulate that?
In a 1997 edition of the magazine Christian Century, the Rev. Dean Lueking wrote an article that put this conundrum very well:
“Nevertheless, that they may be one still haunts as well as inspires. It is wearisome, deadly wearisome, to endure church battles that split not once but repeatedly. The blight of triumphalism, of power games, and the obsession with always being right still throw up huge, offensive roadblocks against Jesus’ prayer. Such sin drags us back to the Upper Room, to dull disciples among whom we now sit, to the grief of our Lord over our tearing apart the seamless robe of unifying love in which he would wrap us.”
Lueking is focusing on the tearing apart from our own church battles. Jesus included not only those, but also the tearing apart of cultures, peoples, nations, every bit of our human existence. Oneness with God means being at one with all God’s gifts: cultures, peoples, nations, every bit of our human existence. To tear apart one bit of our gift is to put a tear in the beauty of oneness with God and oneness with each other.
If we begin just with our problems of division as churches, we see how quickly we destroy what we often hear called “unity within diversity.” In our churches today we speak often of the importance of working ecumenically – respecting differences in things such as theology, liturgy and tradition. But in some denominations, ecumenism means that we all hope those who are different will “come home,” so to speak, to rejoin our way of doing things so we can all be the same.
Being the same is not the basis of unity. Love is the basis of unity.
When St. Paul said there was no more male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, he certainly didn’t mean that men and women morphed into some other form of human being or that Jews and Greeks would suddenly become one new nationality. He meant that each of us in our uniqueness would look with love on all the other precious creatures of God. He meant that we would see beauty in the gifts others have and join together to build the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps Jesus was praying that we would be able to worship God in many different ways, many different liturgies, and many different traditions – that our unity would be in the fact that we share our love and praise of God with others and invite them to seek our God with us.
This kind of love is hard when we put barriers in place to make sure those who join our particular brand of religion, so to speak, all behave just as we do. These barriers can be like the unspoken rules about who is of the right social class to join us, or as obvious as ignoring those of a different race or culture.
To the division we find in church, we must add the divisions we find in many other places of our lives. Watch any news program today and we find ourselves immersed in the evils of war, poverty, fanaticism and greed. We’re becoming used to seeing horrific killings brought right into our living rooms from across the world. How do we feel when we see this? Are we horrified enough to go right to prayer, not only for those being killed, but for those doing the killing? Or do we immediately lump those doing evil with every other member of their tradition? Do we pray that those doing evil will somehow be guided toward repentance? Do we do pray enough for each other when much smaller aggravations happen in our church lives?
The love that exists among the Trinity is not a stagnant, complacent love. It’s a love that not only draws the Trinity into one, but also burns outward to include all creation. Jesus offers this love to be our reservoir of strength and truth, that sacred place where we gain the words and guidance we need as we build God’s kingdom here on earth.
If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we’ll hear that the same vibrant, outpouring love that is God, is there for us. All we need to do is believe it and then let it guide our words and actions.
Who knows? One of us might be called to do something public – to write, to join an activist group, to lead others in helping those less fortunate, to get involved in challenging harmful political issues. Others of us will lead by our prayers and our lives lived through love.
We can do this if we are willing to be transformed by God’s grace. Transformation also comes through the love of the Trinity for us. Next Sunday, Paul reminds the Romans that the Spirit prays for us in sighs too deep for words. There is a well of strength for us who work in the world that will never go dry. Imagine how we would live if we really believed and acted on the fact that God’s Spirit prays for and through us even when we have no energy or understanding ourselves. There could be no greater gift.
Then the following week, on Trinity Sunday, Paul tells us that we are adopted children of God and heirs with Jesus. We will also read that wonderful imagery of Isaiah where the angel touches his mouth with the burning coal and he steps forth when God calls, answering, “Here am I: send me!”
All this is our heritage. These gifts are ours if we only believe it and open our hearts and minds to God’s guidance and strength. It’s pretty powerful stuff, all these things we learn in scripture, and it’s not just words of history or good thoughts. Jesus is the manifestation of God that we may see and touch the One who loves us.
We are called to love. In our baptism we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to make the Good News known to all. And we begin all this by sharing the breaking of the bread, given for all without exception.