Text: John 17:20-26
Other texts: 1 Corinthians 12
Regarding unity, Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth: “The body is not one part but many. … If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? If they were all [the same] part, where would the body be?”
It is the absurdity of the metaphor that makes it effective—imagine a body made up only of ears, a body made up only of eyes. There is a unity among the people of God—just as there are many parts, Paul says, but one body. But unity does not mean we are duplicates.
Yet we are not independent. The ear, Paul says, cannot complain that, because it is not an eye, that it is not part of the body. There is no ear that is not part of a larger body. A body is not a democracy. A body is not a federation. A body is one thing, made by God. This making, this creation, defines us, and it also defines God. We are creatures. God is creator.
We just overheard Jesus pray in the Gospel of John. This passage is the last part of a long section called the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for the time when he will leave them. A time coming soon for them, for in the next passage in John, Jesus is betrayed and arrested. And he has prayed for them, that though they are in the world, they may be cared for by God. Now he prays that his followers might be one. Not just his disciples, but all those—meaning us—all those who through the word, the story, have come to follow Jesus, that they—we—might be one.
This sounds nice. In a kind of sentimental way, we all think unity is good. Yet this powerful petition by Jesus to God the Father has been used to argue on the one hand for increased ecumenism and cooperation among faiths and on the other hand for increased isolation and the erection of barriers between faiths. Evidently it is not clear to all what or whom Jesus is praying for.
What makes us one? Do each of us feel at one with our neighbors in these pews? We do not share doctrinal unity here. Even in a small community—Faith, this single church—is a church of disparate views on God and Jesus. On the way we are called to serve in the world. On how we enact Jesus’ teachings and commands. Is that OK? Can we still say that we are one?
Who makes up the “them” that Jesus talks about? “I pray,” he says, “on behalf of these”—meaning his followers at the time—“but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” How wide a net is Jesus casting? All Christians? People just learning about Jesus? How about baptized people who have recently become full of doubts? How about Christian denominations with which Lutherans are in theological conflict? My energetically evangelical sister once prayed that my other sister—who is a pastor, a Lutheran pastor—would become Christian. Did her wish conform to or conflict with the spirit of Jesus’ prayer? Maybe “be one” really means “be like us.”
Who is the judge of Christian unity? Perhaps it is the various Christian institutions. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is the people whom Christians serve, people in need and suffering who receive God’s grace from followers of Christ. Or who are denied it. Is our declaration that we are Christian sufficient to make that so? Or is it that our actions as declared Christians confirm or refute our claim to be?
Jesus calls for unity of some sort among his followers over all time. If we are in fact one, as Jesus hopes, what distinguishing characteristics would enable someone to know that? That is, how could they tell whether one of us is like another? To be one, to be unified, there must be something we all share. Do we, and if so, what is that?
There is. And we do.
Jesus describes in today’s reading what we might call a chain of spirit. A series of links. Or maybe a conduit of spirit. Or maybe better an ecology of spirit. Which relates and connects God the Father, Jesus, and us. There are two aspects to this.
First, God is in us. God abides in us, as John says throughout his Gospel. You, Father, are in me, Jesus says. And I, Jesus, am in them, my followers. The glory that you gave me, Father, I, Jesus gave to them. The love of the Father for me is in them.
It is clear that people saw God in Jesus. He spoke with the authority of God, he forgave sins, he hung around with the prophets, demons recognized him. It was more than that Jesus was a good, charismatic, powerful personality. It was that God was clearly in Jesus somehow. When you know me, Jesus said, you know the Father. God is in all of us, but God was more revealed in Jesus. Jesus was transparent. You could see through Jesus to see God inside of him. Theologically, we say that when we see Jesus do something we see God. Jesus, as one scholar said, draws aside the curtain to reveal God.
Jesus is in us as the Father is in him, he says, so that—for this reason—we may be made one in the same way that Jesus and the Father are made one. I do this, he says “so that they be one, as we”—Jesus and the Father—“are one.”
So, the first way that people might tell that followers of Jesus are in unity—are one, share some special characteristic in common—is that they are transparent to God that is in them. More or less, we have to add, because we are rarely if ever as transparent as Jesus was. This is not such an odd concept. You know that when you see someone who is especially compassionate and self-giving—saintly, you might say—that God seems visible in them (and working through them).
You might have known, also, when it seems like God is in you and working through you.
The second part of the ecology of the spirit is that we are in God. You, Father, have given them to me. May they be with me, Jesus says. They are in us, Jesus and the Father, he says.
So the second way people might tell that followers of Jesus are one is that they are not alone but with other people. And as important, that they act as if that was true.
We are all part of the body of Christ—as Robin said the other week, this is more than a metaphor. We make up the body of Christ in the world. People not only see Christ within us, but the image, the character of the Christ they see is revealed by the followers of Christ, by us.
We are each one of many. We share the habitation of God. We are not just individual souls being spiritual, or even being good. We are no less connected, being parts of the body of Christ, than the eye that Paul talked about is from the ear, the hand from the foot. We are none of us more valuable than the other. We are no less responsible for one of us than for another.
The unity of Christians is an ephemeral gift. We are sometimes opaque to God in us and it is therefore sometimes hard to see God in us. That does not mean that God is not there. We sometimes act as if we could do without our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are sometimes mean and indifferent. That does not mean they are not in God with us. Our unity is sometimes fleeting, but it is persistent.
Paul finishes his instruction to the Corinthians saying this: The eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you! And the head cannot say to the feet, I do not need you! … If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Because God is in us. Because we are in God. Because we are one.