Unity in Christ is not sameness in Christ; in our baptism we are made one with each other even as the Triune God is one, a oneness of love not of identicality. And this unity is given by God, made by God, done by God.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, year A; text: John 17:1-11
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Reading a history of 2,000 years of the Christian Church is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Though one starts with the love of God made known in Christ Jesus, somewhat quickly thereafter it degenerates into power struggles and hatreds over faith in the same Christ Jesus.
I recently read such a comprehensive history; I also recently taught a Forum on the Nicene Creed. Today we hear our Lord Jesus pray, on the night of his betrayal, that all his followers would be one, even as the Father and the Son are one. What I read and what I studied for that class would seem to clash deeply with our Lord’s prayer.
Much of the life of the Church over the centuries has been given over to the task of enforcing unity (always assuming the enforcer has the truth and the enforcee does not.) So we have creeds that speak the agreement of the Church on the nature of the Triune God. This is good. But at the cost of a large number of faithful disciples of Jesus being cast out as heretics. The more power the Church assumed, the more forcefully the Church mandated unity. Not too long after the Emperor Constantine made us the favored religion, believers adopted the murderous and violent ways of the world into which our Lord sent us out in love and peace. We started killing each other when we disagreed. Because, you see, unity is what our Lord wants. So let’s give it to him. At whatever cost.
It is often said that it is a scandal the Church is so divided in our time. East from West, Rome from Protestants, Baptists from Lutherans. Denominations and sects proliferate all over the planet. Yet Jesus prayed that we be one. Scandalous.
I wonder. I wonder very much. I wonder if in fact our Lord is actually pleased with at least part of our situation. That is, the part where if some of us see the truth about the Triune God revealed in Christ in one way and others in another, we aren’t fighting a war or burning at the stake to prove who’s right any more. Given the richness of human experience and the variety of the gifts of the Spirit, perhaps our Lord in fact expected that we would no more agree at all times with each other’s theological point of view today than did the authors of Matthew and John, or did the apostles Peter and Paul.
There is still a fundamental scandal, of course, that the many and various groups of Christians by and large can’t stand each other, relatively few are in full communion with each other, and some of them can’t even get too close to each other lest they start fighting.
In short, perhaps the true scandal is not that we have disagreements and denominations, but that we do not love each other. That we sit in our own self-centered theological enclaves and throw potshots at the others; sometimes being good to those who seem to have similar enclaves, but disdainful of those who do not. (Let us be honest: how often do we hear a Christian speak in public who disagrees with us or offends us and think, well, they’re not really Christian after all, not like us?)
In our liturgy I invite our confession of the Nicene Creed with the words of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, from the fourth century: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess the Holy Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” The liturgy says we can only begin to confess our faith if we begin by loving each other.
That would be a good start, would it not?
Jesus prayed to the Father “that they be one, as we are one.” What if what he meant was in love?
The deeply mysterious life of the Triune God is lived between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and according to the witness of the New Testament, is simply and only love. The Father loves the Son who loves the Spirit who loves the Father who loves the Spirit who loves the Son who loves the Father.
Whatever we know about how God is one God, yet three Persons, we know because of the witness of the Son, who lives in the bosom of the Father, that the heart of God for us is love. So the heart of God within God’s own self is also love. Did not the elder already teach us this in 1 John?
Yet that oneness in love does not mean identicality. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father.
Whatever we know about how God is one God, yet three Persons, we know because of the witness of the Son that Father, Son, and Spirit are also not the same. What is revealed to us, what we’ve experienced, is what we know of God, and from the beginning the Church has experienced the difference of each while affirming the unity of all.
This is mystery, so much so that in a couple weeks we will have a festival just to revel in the mystery of the Triune God.
Yet Jesus said, “As we are one, may they be one.”
What if unity in Christ also doesn’t mean sameness in Christ? Just as the unity of the Triune God doesn’t mean sameness? What if being the Body of Christ with many members, eyes, hands, feet, all sorts, means many points of view, many insights, many ways of being faithful followers?
That is, it may be the world desperately needs both Baptists and Lutherans. Romans and Protestants. Western and Orthodox. It may be there are things these sisters and brothers need to teach us that we cannot hear if we do not begin to love them. It may actually be a strength that we’re not mandating by force that we agree all the time.
In fact, it certainly must be that the Spirit speaks in different ways to the children of God baptized into the Triune Name.
It seems to me that we’ve confused the important thing: there is a truth about God in the world that is revealed in Jesus the Son that heals the creation – with the impossible thing: that we can definitively know and own that truth, and worse, defend it.
That is to say, to claim that our unity in Christ does not require sameness is not to say it doesn’t matter what we believe or teach. It means that our unity is in Christ, not in our understanding, and that’s a very different thing.
And if we are like God in our variety, Christ also seems to want us to be like God in the unity of our love. The unity of the disciples of Christ on earth is in the love we have received from God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and enflamed by the Spirit’s gift-giving. Just as the Triune God’s unity is lived in love.
Jesus couldn’t be clearer, much as we close our eyes and hope it goes away: the only sign of our discipleship to the world is our love for each other. What if John 13:35 would be proclaimed to all the world, so that everyone knew that disciples of Jesus could only be recognized by how they loved each other? Would the world see any?
And can we honestly say that we in our own little group of agreement – 61 million Lutherans among 2.2 billion Christians – are enough to bear Christ’s justice and love in the world, without loving collaboration with all the disciples of Christ?
“As we are one,” Jesus said. The prayer is that we are one as the Triune God is one: different, varied, but one in love. Different gifts, different understandings, but one in love.
“As we are one,” Jesus said. What if he really meant that?
Oh, and as long as we’re paying attention to Jesus here, could we notice what he’s doing? He’s praying, not commanding.
The Son is asking the Father in prayer (in the mystery of the Triune God) to make this so among us. That is, our unity in love for each other is not something we can even do, much less enforce. It, like everything else, is gift, grace, empowerment. The Son is asking the Father to send the Spirit (if we look ahead in the prayer) to come and make us holy that we be one as God is one.
So could we stop thinking we’ve got a choice in this? That we have a say? That we are in control, not the Triune God?
This is all simple, it is not new, it is something we confess all the time: in our baptism into Christ we are made one with God and with each other.
That means all the baptized children of God, made one by the power of God working in water and Word through the grace of the Holy Spirit in us. Our unity is not based on our agreement or intelligence or brilliant theology, it is our reality in baptism already.
All we need to hear is that the Spirit is calling us to love each other in that unity, to let the Spirit lead us deeper and deeper into the loving dance that is the life of the Triune God, and that is given us as our dance in this world, that we also become one as God is one.
So that ultimately all will know God’s love. You see, once we start moving to this impulse of the Spirit, flowing in this love for each other as disciples of Christ across all denominations, then maybe we’ll begin to find the maturity we’re going to need to love those of different faiths.
Because I’m quite certain Christ Jesus has that in mind for us as well.
In the name of Jesus. Amen