Sunday, May 20, 2012

One in Christ

In the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus, our great high priest, is praying on our behalf to the Father. In the fifth century, Clement of Alexandria began referring as this chapter as “Jesus’ high priestly prayer.”

One of the key aspects of this prayer is about how we as Christians are called to relate to the world. It’s tempting sometimes to think that a holy spirituality would be completely disengaged from the world. But the Christian goal is not Gnosticism. As Christians we are called to enter more deeply into this world, with all of its necessary complexities and ambiguities at best; and its temptations and idols at worst. 

And so Jesus prays that we might be protected—that we might be kept safe as we engage the world. We are called, with God’s help, to live the Baptismal Covenant by becoming salt and light and yeast for the sake of God's good, but broken, creation. Wherever we go: school, work, play—we are called to remember who we are and whose we are: and to live as God’s beloved people, marked and claimed and sealed as Christ’s own forever.

The challenge comes for us in discerning what faithfulness looks like in a complicated world. What behaviors make us uniquely Christian—in but not of this world? Roman Catholic bishops won’t necessarily agree with Episcopalians on what this looks like. (And for that matter they may not even agree with Roman Catholic nuns on what this looks like.)  In trying to live into Jesus’ prayer, then, conflicts and competing Christian visions are sure to arise within the community. 

For this reason, Jesus goes on to pray that we might be one, as he and the Father are one. This prayer is a kind of mantra for ecumenists. In fact at most ecumenical gatherings it seems like this is the text that gets chosen, this one line from this high priestly prayer that seems to speak directly to Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists and Lutherans and evangelicals: Jesus, our great high priest, asking the Father that we might be one, as he and the Father are one.

Before Vatican II—that is before 1963 and the events that eventually led to the birth of the ecumenical movement—people were shaped by some pretty strong prejudices. Roman Catholics and Protestants did not walk into each others' church buildings, even for weddings or baptisms or funerals. God forbid your Baptist daughter came home and said she was engaged to marry a good Irish Catholic boy! Obviously this took hold and shaped the prejudices of some of us here, and even many of us who were born after 1963 carry some of these prejudices passed on through our parents and grandparents. 

So what does “being one” mean for us today?  Whether overtly stated or not, what this sometimes means is that we think that unity will come from conformity: when everyone else sees the light we have seen. This takes on various forms but I think it’s always underneath the surface in ecumenical conversations. And when this happens, we tend to enter into ecumenical dialogues with a built-in bias shaped by those old prejudices. We’ll all become one when the others see the foolishness of their ways and admit that we are right.
Of course this kind of thinking isn’t limited to the church. Actually it mimics the very world that Jesus tells us we are not to be shaped by. It mimics the same political and social divisions of our culture: we assume unity will come when everyone else finally agrees with us. If only our Fox News relatives would start getting the truth from MSNBC…or if only our MSNBC relatives would start to get the truth from Fox! What a perfect world it will be when everyone around us just admits that we are right! We can just talk and they can nod, and all will be one…as the Father and Son are one.

Ah, but there is the rub. As the Father, and Son (and the soon-to-arrive Holy Spirit) are one. Jesus compares us, the Church, to the Holy Trinity. But the Trinity is not only about being one; the Trinity is also about three-ness. The Trinity is not only about being the same, but about diversity. Father and Son and Spirit are have different roles, different faces even. The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, related to each other by love. So what would it look like for us, as the Church, to be one as they are one? 

A contemporary Irish theologian (Bono) has it just about right, I think, when he sings: 

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other 

I think our unity comes not from conformity of doctrine, or elimination of difference, but in service to each other. In love for one another. The seventeenth chapter of John is set within the same context in which Jesus gets up after supper and takes a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. He tells them that they are his friends and that God loves them all, and he loves them all. And that they need to love one another. 

How are we one? We are one because we get to serve one another. We are one because we get to carry each other. 

I don’t think that Jesus is praying for us to be the same, but rather for us to show the world how we love one another. To be one as the Holy Trinity is one suggests that our diversity is a gift. Like the Trinity (or like a married couple where two are becoming one flesh) distinctive “personhood” is imperative. But each person relates to the other in love. 

 “Being one” means that we celebrate the fact that the Body of Christ is diverse: and having Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal and Episcopal expressions of the Christian faith is a good thing—a gift. We are many, but we are one as we relate to one another in love. 

We are not the same. But we get to carry each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment