“Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)
The unity Jesus speaks of here is all too rare it seems to me. I’m tempted to say that’s a rather recent phenomenon, but I know better. Whether it’s in the church or in the world, unity can be short-lived and hard to come by.
I know this to be so for you see, I did a stint as an elected member of a library board some time ago.
I agreed to do this because I have always been a lover of libraries. A visit to the public library was a regular and frequent event for us as children. I can still remember when I went to visit the college I would eventually call my own. I stepped into even that relatively small library and walked into the stacks and felt simply overwhelmed by the possibility of all there was to learn. Today when I walk into the university library in the community I now call home, the smell alone takes back to that moment every single time.
I served a few years on a library board because a member of my congregation knew this about me and asked if I would be willing to serve in this way. I served in this way because it seemed, at the time, like a good way to contribute to the larger community I then called home.
Only the experience turned out to be less than I had hoped —- this my first effort at such public service. For while I don’t doubt that others at that monthly table were also lovers of libraries, those meetings turned out to be altogether unpleasant events marked by hidden agendas and political backbiting and surreptitious efforts to undermine the head librarian. Some of this I picked up on right away. The rest became increasingly evident over time. To be sure, though, many of the motivations and reasons behind all of it will always elude me as I would never be privy to the small town politics that played out behind the more public agenda we shared. I did know this though: unity, or ‘oneness’, was nowhere to be seen.
I never answered the call to such civic duty again. And while the world and I are probably no worse off for my having avoided such opportunities, it is, of course, so much different for the Church — for God’s people — of whom Jesus speaks today. Oh, unfortunately the political reality can be much the same, regrettably. However, the consequences of such for God’s people can be so much more profound.
Indeed, it occurs to me now as the newest member of the library board, I wasn’t so very different from the newest member of many a congregation council. One who, in their case, loves Jesus and loves the Church and wants to make a difference. Only they step into the room and there are things going on under the surface which they can’t begin to comprehend. Some of those things, to be sure, are generations old and even those engaging in them may have trouble articulating their source or meaning. The result, unfortunately, is that some of them will also never agree to serve again. Others will choose to leave the community of believers altogether.
No, indeed, the unity Jesus speaks of now is sometimes nothing like what you and I experience.
In fact, a few years back, I had a visitor on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday afternoon. This guest was not known to me. He came without appointment, wondering if we could visit awhile. As we sat and talked, he began to weep… speaking to me of the congregation he called home which was by then so divided, he didn’t want to raise his children there. “I grew up with that,” he said. “I want something different for them.”
This individual was willing to risk it one more time — looking for yet one more church home where he might glimpse some of what Jesus intends for us in his prayer today. Too many will make the decision to go it alone — never engaging with the Church again. And while I imagine it is possible to sustain one’s belief alone, it surely can’t be easy. For the Church at its best is support to us in times of struggle and loss and hurt. The Church at its unified best enables us to see where God is calling us to live differently in the world — both together and alone. The Church as ‘one’ — the Church Jesus calls us to be today recognizes the differences between us, but calls us still to move forward in what binds us to each other: A common love of Jesus and the world God made.
Now I know there are examples of ‘unity’ all over every congregation I’ve served. I celebrate those, to be sure. Only I grieve still more the energy and hope that is lost when this is not so. I grieve most of all God’s children who are sometimes driven away when that which divides us is greater than that which makes us one.
And so I believe and so I have learned that it is only as we emphasize what we have in common that we are able to bridge that which would divide us. This does not mean we ignore our differences, for that only leads to a false and fragile unity. This does mean that we address those differences standing firm in those truths which we hold together. In recognizing our mutual ‘createdness’, for one. In the acknowledgement that God is God and we are not and the humility which that engenders among us and between us. In a celebration of the gifts that are present in each of us: again, God’s own handiwork. In our mutual love of Jesus. In our willingness to work together to discern what our faith is calling us to in the world. And in the daily acceptance of the certainty that we will not always succeed, but we will always be forgiven and given what we need to begin again. In Jesus’ name.
How about you? What examples of unity among God’s people come to mind when you hear Jesus’ words for us today? Is it easier to think of examples of unity or is it easier to come up with examples of its opposite?
What are the characteristics of the ‘oneness’ or unity Jesus speaks of in this Gospel lesson? What are the clues in the text itself?
Often when I’ve been in conversation with church leaders in conflict I’ve cited my library board experience. I then go on to say that in the Church we have so many more resources at our fingertips to address conflict: to be ‘one’ in spite of what separates us. What might those resources be?