We have a beautiful, evocative Scripture lesson this morning: Jesus, at one of his last times with the disciples, praying that all may be one, unified. Isn’t that wonderful. Well, last Saturday, I was one of 80 or so that gathered in our Fellowship Hall to hear Jim Atwood speak about gun violence and gospel values. He was tremendous and the crowd was all charged up and unified. I believe that all departed one-in-the-spirit that something needs to be done to bring about sensible gun laws; ready to take on Wayne Lapierre. We have theology, data, and a majority of Americans on our side.
However, there are some who shudder at these words.
We probably all are in unity in celebrating racial diversity and wanting to be a more inclusive church to those with varying abilities. But I wonder what the feelings would be if the Session declared that the next program staff-hire cannot be a white person? Or if we re-arranged the furniture or starting building campaigns to make sure we were accessible to everyone? I suspect that will cause some tension.
I think that scripture, when all is said and done, lays out a perfectly good vision for universalism: Love wins, everybody gets in. I am absolutely sure that the Bible welcomes LGBT members to church leadership positions. At Forest Hill Church these declarations are hardly shocking – we are probably pretty close to being one in agreement on these issues.
Well, perhaps at Forest Hill, but the number of Presbyterian churches leaving the denomination because of pastors and churches like ours is not diminishing.
This congregation split in half several decades ago when the session took a stand on integrated neighborhoods.
I would say that one-ness and unity are NOT the givens in church and nation as we continue to be divided on just about everything. And we have television networks making sure that we stay that way.
However, the unity and oneness that Jesus prays for is not for a unity of opinion about specific doctrines, not for an agreement about theology, not for a unanimity about a social or political agenda. It is self-evident that doctrines, theology, and social and political issues do not bring unity expect to those who already agree with each other. Those with whom we disagree we seek to convert, convince or crush – although, what usually happens is silence and disengagement. People who disagree hardly talk; it’s too awkward. It is better that way – to remain in our silos of common interest and opinion and stay with people who are just like us.
But Jesus’ prayer is about another kind of unity. It is not about agreement with one another, Jesus prays that you and I actually experience the oneness that he has with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. So, it is not a “head” thing but a “heart” thing.
And it is THIS oneness – being one with, in Jesus’ words, “the Father [or Mother]” that you and I can really experience.
It is the common experience of love of Christ that unites us and sends us forth to be living witnesses so that the world might know the love of God through Jesus.
The emphasis is no longer on convincing, converting or crushing but on witnessing, shining, and being; letting folks be drawn to the source of our deepest experience of being loved, of experiencing the love of Jesus Christ.
I will never forget being in worship in Ethiopia – cinderblock walls and no windows – so the loud hymns and praise could be heard for quite a distance – and I remember seeing young and old flock to that church as if drawn by a magnet.
That is quite a mission and quite a challenge. This passage agitates me deeply as the Gospel of John almost always does.
And this agitation leads me this day to say – without backing off in any way of the prophetic challenge for justice, and Jesus’ challenge to be inclusive – that our main mission is to give people an experience not data. It is NOT an either/or but a both/and.
I want to continue to cultivate a community where disagreement reveals our places of common concern. I want to continue to cultivate a community where folks come and say “look how they disagree!”
You know that story – the pagan seeing the Christians in a first century village, caring for the sick, the orphan and the widow and saying “Look, how they love each other.”
So it seems to me that what we need to be doing more of here, without diminishing our emphasis on social action and justice, is equally encouraging one another to develop the deep spiritual relationship with Christ who is the source of unity.
I am reminded of the words of Elton Trueblood: “Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of rapid social change. The Church, if it is to affect the world, must become a center from which new spiritual power emanates. While the Church must be secular in the sense that it operates in the world, if it is only secular it will not have the desired effect upon the secular order which it is called to penetrate. With no diminution of concern for people, we can and must give new attention to the production of a trustworthy religious experience.”
I think this is what Jesus was praying about. If everyone in church agrees, that is boring. If everyone in church is talking about their experience of grace, of power, of hope, of joy, of concern – then we have something.
The unity that Christ prays for is witnessed when we move beyond our fear and actually ask the person with whom we disagree: “Why do you feel the way you do?” And for Christians we should be asking each other all the time; “So what is your experience of Jesus?” We ask these things out of deep interest, curiosity and love.
This happens all around: in “Faith Leader,” really, in any small group where people are drawn to share things of the spirit, to reveal secrets, and pray together. Of course it can happen on work projects and mission trips BUT the deep sharing that creates deep Christian community is not always something that just happens.
Evelyn Underhill in her book “The Spiritual Life” writes: “For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the center, where we are anchored to God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of God’s reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of God’s will.”
This is what Jesus is praying for his disciples to experience – the anchoring of our life to God, a life soaked through and through by a sense of God’s reality and claim.
And so it is with humility that we enter the fray of living and into the reality of disagreement. We cultivate the soil of prayer, we stay connected to the vine of Jesus, and we risk the spiritual work of self-revelation, reminding ourselves always that we are beloved children of Christ – first, not because of merit, not because of knowledge, not because of data, not because of opinion, but because we are “soaked through and through by a sense of God’s reality and claim.”
It will be direct experience not data alone that will give us something to offer the world that reveals God’s glory and therefore changes hearts and minds.