John 17: 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Who was it who first explained to you the gospel of Jesus Christ? From whom did you first hear that the Son of God entered our world, took on our flesh, lived for us, died for us, then rose again, to conquer death and sin? And all for love? Do you remember who it was who first told you that? Even if you don’t, it still goes to show how God approaches us in the form of a story, a good news story, but still a story that we must tell each other. God could have drawn or written the good news story—the gospel— in the sky or on a giant mountainside, like the four faces on Mount Rushmore, so that we could each take stock of it for ourselves and by ourselves. But salvation is not a do-it-yourself project that we accomplish in the privacy of our own homes. We have to embrace it for ourselves, but it doesn’t come to us by ourselves. Nor will it leave us by ourselves. It comes to us in relationship, and it puts us in relationship. I invite you then to marvel with me this morning about the amazing fact that God comes to us in such a way that we have to come to each other.
Therein lies the beauty of the gospel, and therein lies the rub. The beauty is in the fact that it speaks to our built-in human hunger and desire for relationship, community, unity, to know and to be known in love. And it works through this hunger and need. For somehow in this universe there’s this drive, this force for union, driving us and things together, a force that you see in everything from subatomic physics to the gravity of planets, to marriage, family and friendship, to neighborhoods and, of course, churches.
That’s one of the reasons why I believe in God: because of the miracles that happen in relationship. For example, consider how it is that whenever we share our joys, they increase, yet whenever we share our sorrows, that starts to cut them down to size.
Then there’s the healing effect of union and communion. In too much solitude, or too much of the wrong kind of isolation and loneliness, all sorts of dark and evil things can fester within the soul. That’s why I have a spiritual director, so that all of me is an open book to somebody. Otherwise, secrets and fears and sorrows can take on lives of their own and overwhelm and enslave us, unless we step outside of our selves and name our sorrows, struggles and secrets to someone who can also step outside of their selves and hear us, not with judgment, nor with fear, but with love, with help and with hope that we can rise to our best selves. In such moments and encounters its as though two souls, or two spirits, have become one, but with the power and wisdom of three or more. Such experiences I call “unity,” or “union.” They are not just nice whenever we can get them. They are vital to our survival. That is both the necessity and the miracle of “unity.”
Such moments and relationships of unity are not so much mystical as they are missional. We just heard Jesus pray that we might display the gospel, and prove the gospel to a skeptical world, through this kind of love for each other. “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me,” he prays. Our Ace in the hole for witness to the world is the love we show for each other.
That’s what this sermon is about: unity. That’s also what the Central Plains Mennonite Conference gathering last weekend was about. For each of the last three years, the themes of our regional district conferences have been based on this prayer of Jesus for the unity of his church. This year’s Conference theme reflects the missional, or evangelistic side of our unity: “Guided By the Spirit; To Let the World Know.”
Now, Jesus has this in common with us: the experience of as-yet unanswered prayer. To all the world it looks as though his prayer for the unity of his disciples is still largely un-answered, given all our squabbles between Christian denominations, and our squabbles within Christian denominations.
One reason this prayer remains unanswered is because, while we need such unity and community as what Jesus prays for, we also fear it. And that’s the rub, the hindrance to the gospel that I mentioned earlier. As Father John Powell put it in his book, Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? well, its because we’re afraid that others won’t like what they find when we do tell them who we are. We’re not always sure we like what we find inside ourselves. And if we do like what we find, then we may be afraid to let someone in so close, so deep, that they might change us. Just as much as we want to know and be known by others, to love and to be loved, so we want to be, and to protect, our true, God-created selves.
This tension between our drive toward union and communion, and our need to be our true, God-given selves, can spark all kinds of crazy-making. I saw it happen this week at the corner of 8th Street and Nicollet Mall when a fight nearly broke out at the bus stop.
“Good morning,” said one man to another.
“Get outta my face! Leave me alone!” cried the man he greeted.
“Just tryin’ to be friendly, Man!”
“What’s wrong with you? Why can’t a man be left alone around here?”
From there it escalated to un-repeatable words at higher and higher decibel levels. Fortunately, the bus came and the second man stalked off around the corner. As I got on the bus, I heard the other man behind me say, “I was just tryin’ to be friendly, and see what I get?”
“What you got had more to do with him than with you,” I told him. “You still done a good thing.”
With that we see how pain and fear drive us apart, apart from each other and apart from our very own selves. Such fear and pain can only be healed and addressed in relationship, but they also make relationships more complicated and difficult. So how do we manage this juggling act of being and becoming the unique and wonderful persons we were created to be, even while we can only so in relationship, connection and community?
That’s where true “unity” comes in, the kind Jesus prayed for. Notice that he prayed that his disciples “might be one,” just as he and the Father are one. He did not pray that “they might be one and the very same person.” He prayed for unity, not for uniformity. Nor for conformity. This true unity can only happen between distinct and unique selves, and not between clones, nor two parts of the very same thing.
But isn’t that what we usually think of as unity? That either I’ll convince you and conform you to myself, or you’ll convince me and conform me to yourself so that we no longer differ nor disagree on anything? Then, if that doesn’t work, we’ll make nicey-nice and just avoid our differences and disagreements? Or we’ll just agree to disagree, and therefore limit our conversation to the weather or sports? Until we can’t stand it any longer, that is? And then all hell breaks loose. Literally.
The good news is that there was surprisingly little of that during the conference last weekend in Henderson, Nebraska. Oh, our differences were apparent over the usual matters: how former Northern District Conference Mennonite Churches used to do things as compared to how former Iowa-Nebraska Conference Mennonite Churches did things, before the two conferences became today’s Central Plains Mennonite Conference. But you know, I hear less and less of that every year.
And there was some news related to our differences of practice and opinion around sexuality. Because of that difference the small St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship left the Central Plains Conference to join another regional district conference. So, there was a litany of prayer and release for them. We also heard the news that Faith Mennonite Church intends to bless same-sex unions. So, the conference will have regional meetings later this fall with representatives from local churches to give their counsel on the matter. Yet even there I discerned an underlying unity, in that most people preferred love and healing over exclusion. Often our disagreements are not so much about what we want to accomplish, but over how we want to accomplish it.
Another observation: the growing edge of the conference is definitely Hispanic in language and culture. Three new churches were admitted to the conference, all of them Spanish-speaking. That I find wonderful. But it also means that there are different ways of doing things. So it is with the Cheyenne Mennonite churches of Montana, who usually send a big delegation every year. There were only two, a father and son, there this year. I’ll tell you why in a moment.
For such differences and more, one might think that unity in a conference of fifty-eight churches is impossible. If unity is just a state that we achieve and maintain, then unity is indeed impossible for everyone, anywhere. But hold on. I can testify that there were moments of unity—call them breakthroughs to true community. One major reason why our Cheyenne Native partners were woefully under-represented this year is because of the wildfires out west. Many homes in the vicinity of Ashland, Montana, on and off the Cheyenne Reservation, were being destroyed that very weekend. That, just at the time that the church in Ashland is growing and filling the sanctuary to overflowing.
During a break in the proceedings, word got to our conference minister that someone was willing to cough up $15,000 to help the Cheyenne Mennonite church in Ashland, Montana, ifit could be matched. So, at another break, matching funds were pledged to bring a total of around $42,000-plus in donations for the Ashland community. On top of that, Mennonite Central Committee is now gathering funds and relief kits for Cheyenne Natives who have lost their homes and livelihoods to the fires.
When Shana Peachey Boshart began to lead us in a prayer of thanksgiving and consecration for this gift, she could barely make it through, so close was she to tears. On top of that, the conference ended with an invitation to hold next year’s annual meeting in—you guessed it—Ashland, Montana, on the Cheyenne Reservation. For all the driving they do to get to conferences in Iowa, Nebraska or Minnesota, its about time the rest of us returned the favor. As Joe Walks-Along, Jr., shared the invitation, he too could barely get through the welcome, as his voice broke and tears filled his eyes.
In such moments, all the differences among us paled in comparison to all that unites us, especially our common human need for connection. So far I have failed to experience or to maintain such unity as a constant steady state in any of my relationships. But in such times as I have mentioned, I have experienced unity as a gift. Or even as an underlying reality that breaks into all the differences that are only surface deep by comparison.
For the unity that Jesus prays about is rooted in the very nature of God, who is one. Like every other Jew, Jesus could pray the great confession of Moses: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.” And yet he could also talk about his relationship with His Father through the Holy Spirit. I don’t find the word, “Trinity” anywhere in the Bible. But if I didn’t believe in the classical Trinitarian confession of the ancient Christian creeds, I couldn’t make any sense of Jesus’ prayer to his Father, “that they might be one, even as you and I are one.” So somehow, all the harmony, community, unity, variety, diversity and relationship in the universe is rooted in the very nature of the One Supreme God. Having said that, I’m way in over my head.
Maybe, in the end, whenever we talk about unity, what we’re really talking about is love. For Jesus summed up his prayer for our unity with this request: “that the love you have for me may be in them.” That’s unity, according to Jesus: when we’re united to each other by the very love that unites God to us. Such love draws us toward each other, even while it makes us respect each other for the unique, priceless and un-repeatable persons that we are. For to love each other is not to be each other. It is to belong to each other, to be there for each other, come what may.