'That They May Be One' or, 'Unity, Jesus-Style'

August 8th, 2017

In the past few years, several denominations have invited me to speak to gatherings about church unity based on John 17. Because it makes perfect sense to have a Baptist, of all people, hold forth on church unity. Baptists refer to church conflict as church growth! So I can’t say there’s ever been more unity after I’ve left the gatherings, but I’m always happy to try.

Numerous denominations have split and have done so in an ugly, destructive way. Many of us who are not Methodist are watching, praying for, and rooting for the Methodists to exemplify a still more excellent way to do Christian community in the midst of serious disagreement and conflict.

Unity in John 17

Read John 17. In Jesus’s prayer, he focuses on various aspects of unity. And John is not the only one in the New Testament who cares about it (see, for example, Eph 4:1-6; Phil 2:2-7; 1 Pet 3:8; Mark 12:28-31). Why is unity important to them? What do they mean by it? What are the promises and pitfalls of trying to make their dream of unity a reality here and now? Note that in each instance, unity and love go hand in hand.

Jesus’s prayer for the disciples occurs in the section of the Gospel that scholars call “the Farewell Discourse,” which includes chapters 13 through 17. The word one (heis, mia, hen) appears in the Fourth Gospel thirty-two times from start to finish, five of which are in chapter 17. See how the author has prepared us for what’s to come in John 17 by reviewing John 1:3-5; 10:16, 27-30; 11:50-52; and 12:32. Since our author is Jewish writing in a Jewish context, it is essential to know that the Shema (Deut 6:4) is fundamental to the worldview of this Gospel.

A crucial word about John 14:1: There Jesus says, “Let y’all’s heart not be troubled.” The NRSV says “hearts,” but that is wrong—the word is a singular heart followed by a plural possessive (yours, plural). The community shares one heart; to translate otherwise is to miss the point entirely and undermine a driving theme of the Fourth Gospel (and, one hopes, of doing community). The reader of 14:1 recalls John 1:18 and 13:23, where we see, in the first place, that Jesus is in the bosom (kolpos—that soft, warm place on the chest that is a seat of intimacy, whether it’s a lover or a child resting there) of God and, in the second place, that the beloved disciple (who is never named, intentionally, in the Fourth Gospel) is in the bosom (kolpos) of Jesus (NOT reclining NEXT to Jesus).

The prayer is divided into three parts to highlight three aspects of unity. First, verses 1 through 8 contain Jesus’s prayer for his own glorification. This portion emphasizes Jesus’s unity with the Father. Second, verses 9 through 19 contain Jesus’s prayer for his disciples. Here we hear that Jesus acted in unity with God and did his work so that the disciples might benefit from it. Now those disciples are to act in unity with Jesus so that future believers will benefit. Third, verses 20 through 26 contain Jesus’s prayer for future believers. Now we are to act in unity with the disciples so that the whole world benefits. Always, the life of the cosmos is in view. I say cosmos instead of world because the Greek word is kosmos and includes all that they could imagine in the first century; our cosmos is larger than theirs, such that “world” is too small a word for what John is getting at with respect to God the creator. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus works for integration/unity at all levels: the self (e.g., see Peter in ch. 21); the community (Farewell Discourse); the world; the cosmos.

So What?

How do the call to unity and the work of unity relate to us?

I. The Call to Unity—Risking Our Lives with and for Each Other

Why should we engage the call and work of unity? First, when we do, we thrive as individuals and communities because we are living the lives we were created to live, SPIRITUAL lives that are, by design, EMBODIED and COMMUNAL. We have big words for it, like incarnational or ecclesiological, but they just mean that we are very much a part of God’s created order, and the job is not to distance ourselves from the messiness of it all but to jump in full force. When you do, we’ll wash your feet with a basin and a towel. We are called to live real, authentic, vulnerable life together. It’s what Jesus expressly wants and prays for. We should do what Jesus wants; also, when Jesus prays for God to do something, it’s bound to happen, so why slow down the process?

Second, we please God by fulfilling the charge to do greater works than Jesus himself did, as Jesus declares in 4:12. Not “think greater thoughts,” mind you, but “do greater works.” See the prologue and John 3:16, where we hear that God created the cosmos, redeems it, and sustains it. Shouldn’t we be in the same business?

What are the obstacles to this unity? There are as many reasons to avoid unity as there are people reading this. Competition; a theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance; we are too busy; we don’t want the same things; it feels like compromising our principles; we don’t like conflict; we thrive on conflict. There are millions of reasons not to pursue unity, and we all have them. The bottom line? It’s complicated, and it may cost us something. No matter—if we have a hundred reasons why we can’t, the Bible has a hundred examples of how we can.

II. The Work of Unity

To achieve unity, we must confront two problematic kinds of theology: 1) a theology of scarcity and 2) a theology beholden to dualisms.

Theology of Scarcity or Abundance?

A theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance is displayed in chapter 12, where Mary (not Magdalene) anoints Jesus’s feet with the expensive nard. She holds back nothing as she engages in generous, Psalm-23-worthy hospitality, not counting the cost. Like the Samaritan woman who leaves her water jar, she knows that her life and her security do not depend on grasping and hoarding but in spending and being spent in service of abundant life, confident that God will continue to provide. She does not buy into the death-dealing, erroneous, zero-sum mentality that tempts us, whereby we assume that if someone gains, we lose, since “there’s only so much to go around.” Story after story in our scripture insists otherwise. In addition to modeling God’s excessive love in Christ and faith in God as provider, Mary also exhibits the beauty and power of vulnerability. What she does in chapter 12, intimately, tenderly wiping (ekmasso) his feet with her hair, Jesus will do one chapter later as he wipes (ekmasso—the only other occurrence of the word) the feet of the disciples with a towel. Note that Jesus calls us into that life by commanding his disciples to do likewise. That means us. Unity, it turns out, depends heavily on radical hospitality.

Sometimes it’s easier for Christians to offer hospitality to those outside their church or denomination or religion. But with the Farewell Discourse, Jesus pulls them inside to practice unity up close and personal. Washing feet, lying on each other, eating with those who are likely, if not certain, to betray you in some way. For unity to work, we must DO life together—I mean the most basic, dirty, scary, intimate parts of it. We have to be vulnerable and honest. That means we are going to get our toes stepped on and we are going to do some embarrassing things. We are going to have to learn how to forgive and be forgiven.

Notice that before they can be truly transformative agents in their world, they must first become unified on some level. Notice that for some this is easy and they welcome change and don’t know why anyone would have a problem with it. Others feel fear or grief and need more time to adjust. Others are resigned, like Thomas! At 14:31, Jesus says “Rise, let us be going!”—the slogan for those ready to move quickly. But then Jesus talks for three more chapters; he gives them details and time and prayer before moving into action.

Unity is the will of God and the gift given by and through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Unity is possible if we depend on Jesus, who wills this very thing for us.

Overcoming Divisive Dualisms

Yes, Jesus took them aside to form them and teach them how to do unity, how to do life together, but he never intended for them (or us) to stay sequestered. He’s only preparing them to go and do life with the world, the way he does. He crosses every boundary known to his time. Sometimes he seeks it out (as with the Samaritan woman); sometimes he just engages as he goes, but he’s done the prep work to be fruitful in the encounter. The disciples’ holy imaginations are hindered by dualisms. They grieve deeply because they cannot imagine how Jesus can both leave them and still be present with them. Mary Magdalene tries to hold onto him physically because she can’t imagine how he can both ascend and remain present. How can he have a body that both walks through walls and retains the idiosyncrasies of the Jesus they know? How can his body both be powerfully, miraculously resurrected and still bear the wounds of his assault?

How do we move from either/or to both/and in our own contexts? What dualisms still inhibit us? You will have your own list, but a few that I’ve seen in the past week include: sacred/profane, body/soul, white/black, faith/works, disabled/nondisabled, charity/justice. The biggest one, of course, is US/THEM. All of these are false, some even destructive, dualisms that keep us acting more like Judas and less like Mary. Maybe it’s time to embrace the both/and as we seek to respond to the call and work of unity.

A cord of three strands is not easily broken, Ecclesiastes insists, so how much more so a cord of four strands: believers are unified with God, Christ, the Spirit, and each other. Therefore, we are strong and equipped to do greater works than Jesus. There’s no reason we can’t just as effectively demonstrate and reveal God’s love for everything in God’s cosmos as did Jesus. This is an empowering word, to be sure; it’s also a challenging word because we cannot pretend to be waiting for something God has yet to provide before we get on with the work at hand; we can’t wring our hands and say, “If only. . . .” To be sure, the road will be rough enough that Jesus felt the need to offer prayers for our protection as we go; we know, then, that we are in good hands. We have all we need to testify to God’s love in ways that will bring abundant, eternal life to all of creation. So rise, let us be going. I pray God’s blessings upon you as you go out in unity to be agents of deep and unifying change.

(This essay is based on chapter 12 of my new book Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel [WJK, 2016].)

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