Posts Tagged ‘unity’

Unity not uniformity

June 1, 2019

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into union with Godself and with one another. Amen.

Ten days ago Archbishop Phillip shared with us the letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion. The letter urged all Anglican Bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged the differences of opinion that led a number of conservative Bishops to organize their own conference in 2008, but encouraged them to attend the next Lambeth Conference to ensure that their point of view was heard. Already four Primates of the Anglican Church have announced their intention not to attend. Last Sunday the ABC news reported that a large proportion of the Uniting Church was planning to secede from the Uniting Church Conference citing in particular the Conference’s making same sex marriage a matter of conscience for individual ministers. During the same time period in New Zealand a group of Anglicans formed their own, separate Diocese under the umbrella of the GAFCON and for at least a decade, Anglican Bishops have been ordaining clergy in Dioceses that are not their own, and parishes have been aligning themselves with Dioceses to which they do not geographically belong.

All over the world, and in a number of denominations, the church is being torn apart by differences of opinion – primarily over the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage but also in relation to the role of women and the interpretation of the bible. Claiming the high moral ground, the conservatives argue that the liberals have compromised the gospel, a gospel that they believe demands that we adhere to clear, unchanging moral guidelines. Liberals, on the other hand, claim that the gospel demonstrates God’s inclusive love and point to Jesus’ willingness to break the rules to make that love a reality in the lives of those who were marginalized, excluded or limited by those rules.

The issues on which we differ are not always clear cut, but are complicated by such things as local culture, history and the ownership of property. The world wide Anglican communion, which has held together since the Reformation, is now straining at the seams.

Today’s gospel comes towards the end of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prays for the disciples who must carry on in his absence. Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected from the ‘evil one’ but more importantly he prays that the disciples might be one, as he and the Father are one: ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:20,23). Unity among the disciples, in fact among believers generally, is so important that Jesus repeats the prayer within six verses.

‘May they be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ In Jesus’ mind unity is a prerequisite of mission. A unified community is itself a witness to Jesus and Jesus’ union with God. A unified community does away with the need to proclaim dogmas, to demand adherence to a code of behaviour or to insist on one or another interpretation of scripture. Unity among believers is sufficient evidence of the presence of Jesus among them and of the union between Jesus and God. According to this point of view, creative outreach programmes, exciting, modern music and Bill Graham style evangelism campaigns would all be redundant if those who profess to believe in Jesus could only live in unity with one another.

The question then becomes: “what is unity?” Is it uniformity or is it mutual respect? My money is on the latter. It seems to me that scripture is anything but prescriptive and, even if it were, none of us are able to travel in time back to the first century to learn exactly what Jesus said or what the various writers of the New Testament meant when they recorded Jesus’ sayings. We can’t ask Paul to explain his ideas, nor can we really get an accurate sense of what it was like to be a believer in first century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean.

Unity is not related to the minutiae of Christian practice but to the broader picture of faith. What Christians have in common is our absolute confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the risen Jesus who is present with us and in the Holy Spirit who directs and inspires us. It is our relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – that unites us. This being the case, we do not have to force others to think in exactly the same way as we do rather we, and they, could learn to trust that we are all doing our very best to submit our lives to the God who revealed Godself in Jesus and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who is the perfect example of obedience and faithfulness.

If the different parts of Christendom learned to trust and respect each other, to believe that we are all in our own way striving to develop our relationship with the risen Christ, trying to be open to the presence of God and anxious to align ourselves with the direction of the Holy Spirit, the antagonism between the warring factions would diminish and even disappear.

No one truly knows the mind of God and it is the utmost arrogance for any of us to presume that it is we, not someone else who has the first claim on God’s truth. Instead of trying to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, perhaps it is time that we started to mind our own business, to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ and to allow others to do the same. If our primary focus was our relationship with God -Earth-maker, Pain-bearer and Life-giver – we might stop worrying abut what others do and do not believe and use the time and effort to concentrate on ourselves – on our own behaviour, our own attitudes and our own weaknesses. If our central concern was the building up of our own faith, we would not be obsessively concerned with externals – who can marry whom or who can be ordained – but with the deeper issues of vulnerability, humility and our dependence on God.

Jesus prayed that we might be one so that the world might believe through us. If we seek to draw others to the faith we must find a way to end factionalism, to cease competing as to who is right and who is wrong, and to seek, not uniformity, but the unity that comes from our shared faith in the Triune God revealed by our Saviour and Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Fusing our will to the will of God

May 7, 2016

Easter 7 – 2016

John 17:20-26

Marian Free


May we be one with Jesus, as Jesus and the Father are one and may our union with Christ result in our union with one another. Amen.

Taking two things and making them one has a number of advantages. The result of the combination can create a stronger, more durable or more flexible product. Natural fibres mixed with synthetics have all sorts of properties that the original did not have – longevity and stretch among other things. Carbon, added in various amounts to iron creates a stronger, harder metal (steel) that performs better under stress. Flour, butter and sugar can be mixed in a variety of ways to produce both savoury and sweet dishes that are vastly different from the ingredients that go to make them up. Given the correct circumstances, non-animate elements can be joined together to create something that is completely different, but which is often more useful and functional than the individual elements alone.

It is a different story with human beings. No matter how much a couple is in love, and no matter how well-adjusted the members of a family are, there is no magic formula that can turn a couple or a family into one person. True, some are better at being on the same page as others, but ultimately they remain separate beings, with distinct personalities. On a larger scale it becomes even more complicated to create agreement and uniformity. The bigger a group the harder it is for them all to think and act alike. As our political parties continually demonstrate even a shared ideology does not lead to uniformity of opinion or a common view on policy.

We hear in today’s gospel that before Jesus died, he prayed for his disciples – that they might be protected (in a world that will hate them); that they might be sanctified in the truth (in a world that is not); that they might be with him and see his glory and finally that: “they may all be one”.

The Jesus of John’s gospel experiences the world as a hostile place as we hear in the very first chapter:  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:10,11)[1]. Obviously, Jesus believes that the disciples will experience the same rejection and antagonism that he himself experienced. Just as Jesus did not belong to the world, so the disciples do not belong to the world. Given that the disciples are both in and not in the world, it is not surprising that Jesus prays that they be both protected from harm and equipped for the work that lies ahead of them. Nor is it surprising that Jesus prays that they might see his glory and be with him that his presence might give them hope in difficult circumstances.

But what does Jesus mean when he prays that the disciples “may all be one”?

In recent history, this verse (17:23) has been used in a number of ways to promote church unity – both in the ecumenical sense[2] and as a weapon to prevent dissension (for example with regard to the ordination of women).  Did Jesus expect that the disciples would somehow become indistinguishable from one another, or combined in some way to form something completely new, or did he have some other idea in mind?

I suspect that the answer is a little of all. Jesus hoped that the disciples – while remaining individuals – would be united in love, but I believe that the prayer goes further than that and shows us how that might look in practice. In fact, Jesus adds a rider to the prayer that helps us to understand how the disciples might achieve the oneness for which Jesus prays. He asks that: “the love with which you (God) have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

A consistent theme of the fourth gospel is that of Jesus’ unity with God. Jesus claims over and again that those who have seen him have seen the Father, that he is in the Father and the Father is in him, that he and the Father are one. In other words, from the opening verse “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”, the author of the fourth gospel is clear that there is ultimately no distinction between Jesus and God.

What is astonishing is this – that here in Jesus’ prayer and elsewhere, Jesus suggests that this extraordinarily intimate relationship is one that the disciples (we) can share. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so the disciples (we) can be one with Jesus and therefore with God.

Jesus is praying then that in his absence the disciples might be able to share the intimate relationship that he has with the Father, that the disciples might be sufficiently willing to allow themselves to become fused with God such that people no longer see them alone, but the presence of God in them. It is this, as much as any effort on the disciples part that will enable them to be as one. When their own needs and desires are fused with the will of God, there will be no place for dissension with one another, for the will of all will be the will of God and they will be one as Jesus and the Father are one.

Today some outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that the church is a body at war with itself. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples (ourselves) appears to be largely unanswered. It will continue to go unanswered until you and I and the church as a whole submit ourselves wholly to God and allow ourselves to be overtaken by and absorbed into the divine. Then and only then will we share the intimacy that Jesus shares with the Father, and then and only then will we truly be one.

[1] On the other hand, the world is the place that “God so loved” (3:16) and the world into which the disciples are sent (17:16).
[2] Today marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Being one

May 11, 2013

Easter 7 – 2013

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of Jesus our Saviour whose unity with God he calls us to emulate – in our lives and in our relationships with each other. Amen.

It may or may not be the right way to approach things, but I see confirmation classes as my one opportunity to introduce the candidates to a broad understanding of the Christian faith. In my mind this includes an understanding of the Bible, of church history, of the prayer book, the practices of the Anglican Church (the church year and so on), the mysteries of the physical building of the church, including the peculiar furniture, the meaning of the clothes we wear and the things we do and of course, spirituality – how to connect with God, prayer, meditation and so on. In order to fit that into six to nine hours I have developed some very concise summaries.

We don’t have an hour or so this morning for me to share with you my Cook’s tour of church history, so I will try to make it even more compact – a Twitter version if you like. (We will have to forgo my very crude maps which accompany the virtual tour.)

In short, we know from what history books we have, and from the Bible, that Jesus lived from about 4 BCE to about 30 CE. Jesus so changed the lives of some people that they began to form communities and to worship him while still attending the synagogue. About twenty years later a fellow named Paul changed his views about this sect of Judaism and not only joined it but became one of its fiercest proponents. His letters to the churches which he founded are our earliest written records of the church.

Paul’s letters record, the struggles experienced by the early community as it worked out how to be the church as we know it today. A major problem for these early believers was that Jesus had left no instructions, written no creeds and established no dogma. Apart from choosing disciples and possibly putting Peter in charge, Jesus had established very little in the way of church structure. This meant was that the first believers had to work out on their own how to organise themselves and how to define who they were and what they believed.

In Paul’s time a major issue of concern was how to include the Gentiles into a sect that was an off-shoot of Judaism. There were at the time, no councils or forms of government,  no canon law and no theological schools to help resolve the issue. The earliest communities were, by and large, self-governing. Though they looked to Jerusalem on some questions, there were no regular meetings and groups of believers were basically left to their own devices.

Over time, especially after the church had separated from Judaism, formal structures of governance began to develop. In the pastoral letters we can see the emergence of bishops and deacons. Bishops began to assume leadership of a number of communities within their geographic area and were the theologians and guardians of the faith. However there was still no overarching body, no one Bishop to create unity of belief and practice. This created a great deal of tension as the Bishops struggled for dominance. Bishops of significant cities – Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople all wanted theirs to be the leading church in the Mediterranean and themselves to exert the most influence within the church as a whole.

Constantine united the church theologically by calling the Nicaean Council to resolve the issue of the nature of Christ, but there was still no one over-arching government. Bishops governed independently of each other. In the seventh century a Synod in Spain added a line to the creed which was considered heretical by many (We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son). This phrase – which implies for some that the Holy Spirit is in some way inferior to the other members of the Trinity – and the Bishop of Rome’s claim to universal papal primacy eventually caused the eastern church to break away from Rome in 1054 and to become what are known today as the various branches of the Orthodox Church. The Crusades and the sack of Constantinople served only to increase the schism.

In the West, the church continued for centuries under the governance of Rome. It was only in the 1600s that Luther’s ninety-nine articles revealed the simmering tensions that lay under the facade of unity. All over Europe and then in Britain, groups and even nations rejected the teachings, practices and dominance of Rome and began to establish expressions and practices of the faith which they believed were closer to the teachings of Jesus. These were tumultuous times during which those who dissented were often subjected to torture and execution. It is no wonder that religious tension and mistrust continued up until at least the 1950’s. As late as the 1980’s some of my Protestant friends would so in hushed tones: “Would your parents let you marry a Catholic?”

Sadly, there was no time when the church was truly one, that said there has been a wonderful change in the last one hundred years as a concerted effort by Christians of all denominations has attempted to break down the barriers that divide us and to come to an understanding that while our emphasizes and practices might be different, we share a faith in Jesus Christ whom we believe to be God incarnate.

In today’s gospel we read part of Jesus’ final prayer: that his disciples might be one as he and the Father are one. Throughout this gospel Jesus has stressed his unity with the Father. His hope is that the disciples share the sense that there is no divide between themselves and God, and, as a consequence have no divisions amongst themselves because God in and through them is working for unity.

Like all institutions, the church is flawed because it is human. Individually and collectively, we find it difficult to allow our lives to be completely subsumed into the life of God. As long as we resist, we will fail to achieve that unity shared by the Father and the Son. As long we as individuals and communities continue to go our own way the church at a global and at a local level will be divided.

All is not lost. Through 2000 years, God has used the frail and fractured body of the church to keep alive the faith. God has used the church to care for those in need, to stand up against oppression and to bring healing and hope. God has used our differences to create a wealth of tradition, worship, symbolism and practice so that all kinds of people can find a place to call home in one church or another. God has used the church to raise up people who are shining examples of that union with Godself that Jesus prayed would be sought by us all.

It is not easy to be so secure in ourselves and in God’s love that we do not need to compete or to prove ourselves better than, more knowledgeable than, more holy than others. It is not easy to be so content that we are willing and able to submerge ourselves into the life of a community. It is not easy, but it is what we are called to do – to build lives of prayer and faith such that being one with God is our sole aim and so that our lives truly reflect God’s presence in us. When we are in complete harmony with God, it will be impossible not to be in harmony with each other.

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