How Small Must We Become to Be Perfectly One?

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Prayer of the Day: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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 17:11

This verse is frequently cited in support of ecumenism and by all the many Christians who decry the fractured state of Christianity. The church’s lack of unity surely is a cause for dismay. I have no doubt that our divisions and the narrowness of mind and heart that perpetuate them grieve the heart of Jesus. But I also believe that the oneness for which Jesus prays far exceeds the unity of Christ’s Body-though the two are related. The oneness of the church is not an end in itself. Judas (not the one who betrayed Jesus) asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus responds, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23-24. The whole point of this indwelling of Jesus with his disciples is “so that the world may know that [God] sent me and ha[s] loved them even as [God] loved me.” John 17:23. For this reason, as the Father sent Jesus into the world to save and not condemn it, so now Jesus sends the disciples into that world as his ongoing life for the sake of the world. John 20:21. Thus, the ultimate goal is not church unity, but the healing and reconciliation of the whole cosmos. The church’s unity is to bear witness to God’s ultimate desire for the whole universe.

John’s gospel has frequently been viewed as long on Christian community and short on Christian witness. That, however, represents a failure to grasp the Evangelist’s firm belief that “being” equates with “doing.” The constant refrain throughout Jesus’ discourses in the gospel is “I am.” Yet precisely because of who Jesus is, his life and work bring him into conflict with the false values of the dominant imperial culture. His teaching, his healing, his confrontation with religious and political authority and, finally, his crucifixion flow out of who he is: God’s gracious Word incarnate and living in a sinful world.

So the question posed to us is this: are we living out of who we are as the resurrected presence of Jesus in the world? There is no question that our churches are active in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and advocating for justice and peace. But does all of this flow out of who we are? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus points out that not everyone who calls him “Lord” is actually doing the will of his heavenly Father. On the last day when these supposed disciples are revealed as “evildoers,” they protest, “did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” Matthew 7:22. Jesus replies in words that are truly chilling, “I never knew you.” Matthew 7:23.

It is worth pondering whether our works, however admirable and important they might be, are grounded in knowing and being known by Jesus-something that is all important for Jesus according to John’s gospel. As with most questions of this kind, the answer is probably a mix of “yes” and “no.” Clearly, there are many pastors, lay ministers and teachers whose work is deeply rooted in their faith in Jesus and their longing for his gentle reign. Too often, however, the church’s mission to be Christ for the world takes a back seat to the services expected from its members. Most protestant churches are essentially voluntary organizations. Whatever our mission statements might say about our existing for the sake of the world, membership in a church typically comes with a bundle of rights. These include the right to vote at public meetings, the right to hold office and the right to be married, baptized, confirmed and buried in the church. In short, the church exists for the sake of its members who tend to see it as “my church.” Small wonder, then, that there is often little interest in partnering in mission with other local churches which are frequently viewed as “competition.”

We have a tendency to blame the rank and file for this lack of ecumenical vision. But I believe we must all take our share of responsibility for uncritically appropriating the voluntary model of organization and the modernist assumptions that come with it. Just as the American founders are said to have sought a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” protestants have created a “church of the people, by the people and for the people.” But is that the church Jesus wants? As children of the Enlightenment, we have an unshaken belief in democracy. We assume that in the open marketplace of ideas, the best thinking and the ablest leaders will rise to the top with the result that the wisest and most equitable public decisions will inevitably be made. But government of, by and for the people has not consistently delivered such beneficent results. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas recently pointed out, there is only one example of democratic rule in the Bible. In that one instance, the people chose Barabbas over Jesus. It was the people who put the Nazis in power and the people (with a little help from the Electoral College) who gave us Donald Trump. Why, then, should we assume that a people’s church will give us anything better than a people’s government?

It is not my purpose to undermine the government of the United States or propose a new and improved program for governing the church. As a people who confess regularly that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, we should know full well that institutional reform, however beneficial it might be, cannot give us a church-much less a civil government-free from selfishness, lust for power and corruption. But since we find ourselves in a time when our existing ecclesiastical institutions appear to be coming apart at the seams, we have an opportunity to think in new ways about what comes next. What should a church that can no longer sustainably provide full time pastors for every congregation look like? How does a church unable to maintain a sanctuary continue to be a visible presence in its community? How do church communities experiencing decreased support from their denominational structures maintain and nurture their oneness with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?

Sometimes I wonder whether perhaps we don’t need to shrink before we can grow. Maybe our many congregations need to shrivel to the point where they cannot go on without one another. Maybe our churches need to become so weak and isolated that they can no longer afford to allow historical denominational divisions and mistrust to divide them from their neighbors within the Christian family. Perhaps the church needs to become so poor and marginalized that no one will be tempted rise up to a position of power and control within it. Maybe when the church becomes so small, so weak and so poor that it has nothing to offer but Jesus, Jesus will finally have the church for which he prays in our gospel lesson: a church that is perfectly one even as the Trinity is perfectly One, calling a fractured world into that same redemptive oneness.

Here is a poem by Cathy Song seeking something like the perfect oneness for which Jesus prays in our gospel.

This Wonderful Opportunity

May all beings, seen and unseen, be well, happy, and peaceful, including ourselves.
May there be peace in the world, peace in our hearts, peace in our minds.
May we use this wonderful opportunity of  human life to awaken.
May we be grateful for wisdom and compassion,
this infinite boundlessness that surrounds us,
waiting to be used by us, to open our hearts and minds
so that we may see things as they truly are,
how brief our lives, how dependent upon others we are,
and so with each act may we bring wholesomeness, humility,
and the courage to do no harm, not least of all to ourselves.
As we journey through this life may we move deeper into insight,
and see things as they truly are,
this wonderful opportunity to awaken.
May we be grateful for the teachers in all their guises who appear before us.
May we love those who are hardest to love, including ourselves.
May leaders who will work for the peace of the planet step forward,
and may we support them.
May those who have gone before us rest in peace, rest in comfort, rest in joy,
and may we remember to remember them.
May the next life be a happy one.
May we cultivate in our hearts, in our minds, here and now, here on earth,
generosity, a land of plenty for all.
May our wish for peace spread like a mother’s soothing hand
and reach the distressed, fevered places of the world
and protect each child the right to be fed, to be sheltered, to be schooled.
The right to go to sleep without fear.
May we journey safely, work contentedly, and return home to loved ones well and happy.
May the path of forgiveness and acceptance
be the path of peace,
and may we find it.
May we use this wonderful opportunity to awaken
and together find true happiness, open spaciousness without borders.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2019). Cathy Song (b. 1955) is an American poet who has won numerous awards, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She was born in Hawaii to Ella Song, a Chinese-American seamstress and Andrew Song, a Korean-American airline pilot. A bright and inquisitive child, Song showed an early interest and ability in writing and literature. She wrote her first novel at eleven years of age. Song developed an interest in poetry during her high school years and subsequently graduated with a bachelor in English literature from Wellesley College. She went on to earn a masters degree at Boston University. She is currently a teacher in her homeland of Hawaii and married with three children. You can find out more about Cathy Song and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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