Jesus offers, "I pray that they may be one, even O God as we are one." If we were to judge Jesus' ministry based on the effectiveness of this prayer, that the church is one, would we have to wonder if he was a failure? For in what period of the church's history has it ever truly been one, truly without conflict, without mistrust of one another, and without political intrigue? Certainly not today.
We see denominations talking about schism, about withdrawals of funds from national offices, and in our Episcopal Church some calling for bishops from other regions to minister in America due to the judged theological unfitness of the local bishop.
Has Jesus lost touch with reality? Perhaps he's spent too much time in the desert sun?
And what about the evangelist who gives us this prayer from the lips of Jesus? Was the evangelist's church any more fit, any more pure or without tension than ours?
And what about us? Is the expectation of unity in our church realistic? In the Episcopal Church, we are grappling with issues of authority and discernment. We are grappling with the reality that very faithful people find themselves in very different places theologically and experientially. Is there reason to think we can be one in the midst of these differences? Or are we, as some suggest, simply living out a charade of two churches living under one roof? Or can we truly be one if these kinds of differences exist?
Perhaps a look at the context both of Jesus and the evangelist will help us to see how he can conceive of unity amid an atmosphere of his own conflict and even violence.
It is getting dark for Jesus. Certainly by now he must know there is something ominous in the wind. The streets of Jerusalem must be rife with rumors and speculation. Thomas has already complained that to go to Jerusalem is as good as a death sentence. The air of the city is dense with emotion.
And in the midst of this darkness, Jesus sticks with what he knows best--his faith disciplines, his faith rhythms and rituals. To be in Jerusalem at this time is dangerous for Jesus, and yet he cannot stay away. He must be present to observe the Passover in the city. How many times have I entered the Eucharist in the context of something disturbingly complex, thinking, "Well, at least here, I have some sense of what to expect, at least in the rhythms."
Is this perhaps where we find Jesus? Not at all sure what the days ahead hold and fairly certain it is not good, yet knowing the only way he will make sense of these days--the only way he will not run from them--is by abiding in the rhythms and the disciplines. Could he be saying, "I'm not sure what God is doing." And yet the community has always found these rhythms able to provide the context in which God is seen and discerned. It is in the context of the meal that Jesus is able to conceive and speak both of the unity he knows with God and the unity of his friends for which he yearns.
Even at this meal he is aware of the division in his own ranks. There is no solid unity gathered around the table, and it will soon be evident when they are all scattered into the night's darkness. He is aware not only of Judas, but that the others are still not grasping what his life is about. From Peter he hears, "You will not wash my feet." From Thomas he hears, "Show us the Father." Even at this last discourse, they have not understood. They are not one, prompting Jesus' response, "Have I been with you all this time and yet you still do not see?" It is the table, the rhythms and the disciplines, which provide a context for Jesus' hope and prayer.
And what about the church of the evangelist? Certainly at the time this gospel is gathered, the church has much division over ritual, moral practices, and who is fit to be a leader. Sounds like our church today. The evangelist is not unaware that the church seems to be anything but unified, and yet we are offered this prayer as if it were a matter of fact -- "that they may be one even as we are one." The evangelist offers to the church the notion that any hope for unity finds its place around the table and in the rhythms. We, one with God as Jesus is one with God. We, one with each other as Jesus is one with God.
Again, if we were to judge this prayer by the state of the church today, might we have to wonder if Jesus was a failure? Which also leads me to wonder: What did Jesus understand as that which makes people one with one another? Where do issues of ritual practice, theological position, and the judged moral fitness of leaders and followers come into play? Certainly, there is import in all of these. Certainly, Jesus was not about empty ritual that did not change hearts. Certainly, Jesus had things to say about how the law was twisted to suit self-interests. And, certainly, Jesus had things to say about leaders who took advantage of their office and whose practice was an abuse to the community. These are not unimportant for Jesus. It is obvious that integrity was part of Jesus' heart and soul. And it is also obvious that issues of integrity are often the very things which keep us apart.
So, how do we juggle the need for unity and integrity? Kosuke Koyama captures this tension when he writes, "Holiness, in its fundamental nature, separates itself from the unholy and the profane. Yet love expresses itself by coming to the unholy. There the holiness and the love of God are in tension, but united. This tension-filled unity is at the heart of the Christian faith. The Holy God in Jesus washes the disciples' feet."
How many theories of atonement--theories of how God chooses to be in relationship with us--talk about God's holiness and our sin as unable to be one in unity? God can't look at us because of our sin. And how many people have suffered under the church because of its trying to live this kind of truth, offering the notion, "We can't accept you because we are holy and you are not"? Is that the foundation for holy war? We are pure. You are not. We must distance if not eliminate you.
This is why the Pharisees have so much trouble with Jesus. He is living amid the profane. He is enjoying the company of the so-called impure. You can hear them say, "If he were holy, he would see this clearly and not associate with those kinds of people." Now the Pharisees are not horrible people; they are simply stuck on the notion that the holy and the profane cannot be in relationship. They cannot grasp the holy tension of a God who is holy and whose love drives this God to be with the unholy.
And to further complicate things, we see in Jesus one who is constantly turning upside down notions of that which is holy and that which is profane. He breaks Torah and eats with supposed sinners. He upholds the shrewdness of tax collectors and judges those whose ritualistic observances made them the most holy. Perhaps what Jesus has shown us is that being one is less about possessing something externally and more about a process of living with God and living with one another. In the process, holy and profane will often be confused. In Jesus' parables, they are often exchanged. In living with Jesus, what we believe to be holy and profane will continually need to be offered up. For Jesus, unity is about integrity; and yet, his integrity seems to be more about integrity of relationship than integrity of convictions.
Now God is passionately just, and Jesus decries injustice passionately. God is passionately moral, and Jesus speaks passionately about morality. Yet for Jesus, the highest morals seem to have their context in one's ability to be in relationship with others. For Jesus, any morality lived in disconnect with other human beings was not morality. For God, it is not a matter of morality or relationship. Jesus saw no way to separate the two.
So how can the church live in this tension of unity and integrity? How do we take relationship and holiness seriously?
E.C. Hoskyns writes, "It must not be supposed that the unity of the church is to be attained by a long history of human endeavor. Rather the unity of the church is a unity based on the common sharing of the Word and sacraments, in which the act of God in Christ is made ever present." It is only as we feast on the reality of a holy God who comes into the profane that we can imagine living that way ourselves. It is only as we feed on the tension of the holy and profane that we can live lives as intimate as God in Jesus.
It is no coincidence that the evangelist has this prayer for unity coming in the context of a meal and accompanied by the words of the WORD made flesh. Our unity is made possible through common feasting on the WORD.
In the mid-1980s, I was in seminary and we were having a visit from clergy from the then Soviet Union. A spirit of expectancy filled us with anticipation of their visit. We were looking forward to the conversations with those whose faith was being lived in a context quite different from ours. Our expectancy soon turned to cynicism as we began to learn more details of the visit. Our time together would be heavily scheduled and would not allow for conversations without the presence of officials of the Soviet state, meaning to us KGB, the Russian secret service. It soon became clear that nothing spontaneous was allowed for in this visit. Many of us, being children of the cold war era, defaulted into snide remarks about which interpreters, and perhaps even clergy, were the KGB agents. Our times together were stiff. Questions about living out faith in a context of a state that did not officially acknowledge them were skirted around. As the visit began to come to its conclusion, I and many others mourned for an opportunity lost and felt anger for a spirit quenched.
Our last act together was worship in the seminary chapel. The decision had been made that we would celebrate a service of Anglican Morning Prayer rather than the Eucharist. This was seen as an opportunity for our visitors to experience something unique to our church. I was further disheartened. I felt we had lost another chance for some commonality, some common symbols and ritual which transcended nation or language. Not caring for the decision, I found myself going to the service out of obedience and not yearning, but then something spontaneous erupted. In the service, we sang the Kyrie in Latin. When the words of the chant began to swirl around the chapel in a manner I had not experienced before, a common spirit emerged in the voices of those whose primary languages and experiences were vastly different. What arose was a common spirit--a unified language that no amount of planning, state presence, or cold-war cynicism could inhibit. In that ever-so-brief moment, we were one, as are God and Jesus. The gathering around common word opened us all, lifted us, and took us to a place of relationship we had not had before. It was certainly a tension-filled moment of the holy and profane coming together around a common word.
The gathering around common word and meal opens us to see the holy and profane in relationship. It allows us to glimpse a unity that our typical experience says is impossible. "I pray that they may be one even as we are one." Is Jesus dreaming? Is the evangelist out of touch? No, their discipline of rhythms and meal have allowed them to glimpse the unity of the holy amid the profane. They have experienced this tension-filled reality of God where unity and integrity, relationship and conviction live in inherent mutuality.
In Jesus' words, we hear that to live as God is to live in such a unity of relationship that we are not able to separate ourselves from each other. "I pray that they may be one even as we are one." May we find in God the food to live in this tension-filled oneness.
Let us pray. O God, grant us so to be joined together in your Spirit that we may know you as you know us and live in the unity that is your life. Amen.