Struggling With Unity


Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

John 17:20-26

Prayer of the Day: O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I 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 17:21-23.  

Jesus prays that his disciples will be one. He would have his church prefigure what God intends for all people, nations and tribes. The day will come when “God is all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28. God smiles at the border walls, frontiers and barbed wire we erect to protect our sovereignty-because God is thinking of how much fun it will be to knock them down. Those who cry “America first,” and all others throughout history who have pounded their chests boasting of their empires, most of which are now relics of past history, are living in the past. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in God’s future where there is but one Sovereign and one kingdom encompassing all peoples of every nation, tribe and tongue.

Of course, that does not comport with the church as we know it. The “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” is as much an article of faith as the Incarnation and the Resurrection. What we see is a church that has been riven with divisions from its inception. We are divided on matters of doctrine. We are divided by nationalist loyalties that, sadly, are larger than our loyalty to Jesus. We are divided by the fault lines of class distinctions, disparity of wealth and racial identity. We have allowed these differences to become larger than what should be our common commitment to Jesus. Instead of a counter-cultural alternative to human life as it is lived under the worldly machinery of violence and oppression, the church is often simply a microcosm of that world.  

While I lament this state of affairs, I have to confess that I am part of the problem. There are plenty of Christians with whom I have no desire to be one. I don’t want to be associated with a community of faith that rejects my daughter’s ministry because she is a woman. I don’t want to be one with a community of faith that rejects the families of my LGBTQ+ friends and family. I don’t want to waste my breath trying to talk to Christian communities that swallow hook, line and sinker the crackpot conspiracy theories churned out by right wing crazies. It is hard enough maintaining a semblance of unity among people whose understanding of the Christian faith is roughly the same as my own. I am part of a community that has struggled and still struggles with accepting the ministry of women, welcoming gay, lesbian, transgender and nonbinary folk and recognizing the need for dismantling white supremacy. I have no desire to take any backward steps in order to refight those battles all over again, especially when we still have so much further to go. The advice of Anita from West Side Story is appealing to me: “stick to your own kind.”

But Jesus, not Anita, is Lord of the Church. His prayer that we might all be “perfectly one” controls, unappealing as it may be to my tastes. That means we, that is, I have to try overcoming our divisions. To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t even know how to begin this task. I Know that trying to conduct a dialogue along the contours of our differences is unlikely to be productive. Nothing either of us has to say is likely to move us from our entrenched positions. We have reached a degree of polarization in which we find ourselves in tribes, like minded in groups insulated from one another and receiving our news, getting our socialization and obtaining religious training from completely different sources. We cannot even agree on common facts, much less find common ground.   

Perhaps, then, at least when it comes to dialogue, we need to focus less on issues and more on the individuals with whom we speak. Maybe we need to adopt a more inquisitive and less apologetic posture. Instead of responding to an argument with a counter-argument, we might try asking, “how did you come to that belief?” As a good friend often reminds me, no one is ever only one thing. There is a story that goes with each person. There are events, traumas, triumphs and failures, fears and hopes that bring us all to where we find ourselves. And somehow, all of us who bear the name “Christian” find ourselves associated with Jesus of Nazareth. If there really is a way forward to unity for this fractured mosaic of institutions, gatherings and individuals we claim to be Christ’s body, then it must be found in our common humanity where we encounter the Word made flesh and try to make sense of him.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that differences can be swept under the carpet or that some “middle ground” can be found. We may not be capable of healing our rifts. But by listening, by learning one another’s stories, by opening our hearts to one another, we give the Holy Spirit an opening. And once the “God factor,” is introduced into the equation, who can predict what the outcome will be?

Here is a peom by Emiy Dickenson describing the way we might begin to dialogue toward oneness within the Body of Christ.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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