by Ellen Sims
text: John 17:20-23
It’s appropriate that on the day after Corey and I have returned from the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, the lectionary assigns as our Gospel reading the passage in John that includes the UCC motto: “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). Not surprisingly, those who planned our annual meeting took advantage of that assigned lection to use John 17:21 as this year’s theme for the annual meeting, changing but one word. Instead of “that THEY may all be one,” which is Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, they offered, as OUR prayer, “that WE may all be one.” May our ongoing prayer be “that we may all be one.”
But Jesus’s last prayer for those he’d brought together was, in part, a prayer that they would remain together in unity of spirit and purpose—but not in uniformity of dictums and doctrines. That prayer was not only a prayer for them but also for us today to be united within the Spirit of God: united in our work together, yes, but also united within the consciousness of a reality of oneness that should always outweigh the illusion of separateness.
Christian theology invites us to look for and recognize and live into God’s unity that encompasses all. Seeing an ultimate unity is a spiritual task that may be challenging for activists who always believe we’re including those left out but who sometimes—-we have to admit this—-separate ourselves from those who disagree with us. If we consider God to be a force that connects us and draws us together, our response to Jesus’ prayer is not so much to create a unity among us as it is to recognize a fundamental unity that already exists within the divine matrix we call God. We ARE connected. We ARE brothers and sisters. You and I and Republicans and Democrats and starlight and acorns are part of a comprehensive unity we’ve named God. If we can ever fathom that inextricable interdependence, we would have a healthier planet, a kinder humanity. If we can ever recognize that my fate is bound up in yours, we would love each other as we love ourselves. Imagine how this world would change with that realization and response.
John’s beautiful Gospel is, for some progressives, their least favorite of the Gospels. That’s because after hearing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke a very humble, edgy Jesus invite his followers to a life of service, the Johannine Jesus sounds arrogant: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5 3). “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25 6). “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6 7). The other gospel writers depict a down-to-earth Jesus. But what social justice activists might miss without John’s gospel is John’s mysticism and Jesus’s prayerfulness. Without spiritual practices that unite us with others and foster self-care and prayer (a certain type of prayer perhaps different from we’ve been taught) we progressives can twist Jesus into a mere 21st century political activist. Most importantly, we can miss the point of it all if we do not cultivate unity and recognize ourselves as living within that which we call God.
Sounds arrogant again, doesn’t it, to claim oneness with God? Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart embraced the immanence of God this way: “God’s being is my being and is the being of all beings. My me is God.” How can that possibly be? Locating God within us is an experience of spiritual union, not a claim of power. Richard Rohr reminds us, “Jesus tried to teach his first disciples that he had transcended the notion of God being “out there”–in the temple, on a high mountain, separated from certain people.” Instead, Jesus’s mystical experience of the divine taught him his own divinity, which he wanted his followers to experience, also. It’s not that John’s Jesus is self-vaunting; he’s instead trying to express the possibility/reality of oneness in God. Even though we see evidence of destructive divisiveness all around us, Jesus asks us to live into a unitive universe.
But we resist the notion of our oneness with God and one another. We have trouble accepting that we are created in the image of God, despite that foundational biblical concept (Genesis 1:27). We also struggle to accept the unity we should see in/experience with our brothers and sisters in Christ, or we misinterpret unity as uniformity and “lack of diversity.
Returning to Richard Rohr again: The dualistic mind, upon which most of us were taught to rely, is simply incapable of the task of creating unity. It automatically divides reality into binary opposites and does most of its thinking inside this limited frame. It dares to call this choosing of sides ‘thinking’ because that is all it knows how to do. ‘Really good’ thinking then becomes devising a strong argument for our side’s superiority versus another country, race, group, political party, or religion.
It seems we must have our other! We struggle to know who we are except by opposition and exclusion. Eucharist was supposed to tell Christians who we are in a positive and inclusionary way. But many [have used it to allow only certain people access to God’s Table. Instead, the Eucharist} is made to order to remind us that we are all one body of Christ. Even those in ‘other flocks’ (see John 10:16)—-other religions or no religion at all—-are still part of the one body of God, which is, first of all, creation itself. . . . Unitive consciousness—-the awareness that we are all one in Love-—lays a solid foundation for social critique and acts of justice. I hope we will let God show us how to think and live in new ways, ways that meet the very real needs of our time on this suffering planet.” https://cac.org/one-in-love-2019-06-02/
John’s lofty Christology has been understood to deify Jesus, but John emphasizes that within each of us dwells divine Love, which is the realest power and life’s ultimate goal. The Jesus revealed in John’s Gospel shows us that learning to love makes in us a home for God, which is a home that contains the whole world. In his “farewell address” from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Then he says that, though he must leave them, God’s spirit of peace remains for them. So we needn’t be afraid. Love creates in us a place where God dwells. Peace walks forth with us as we invite others into our home. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: You Who Welcome All, dwell among us as a community, that we may love more deeply. You Who Are Our Truest Home, dwell in each of our hearts, that we may live out of our own sacredness and our union with all. That WE may all be one is my prayer for Open Table and for our world. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen