Sunday, October 2, 2011
by Ellen Sims
“That They May All Be One”
John 17: 17-23, 26
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. 20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. . . . 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (This text, and not the lectionary Gospel reading, was chosen for World Communion Sunday, which our congregation celebrated in a new setting, thanks to a new ecumenical partnership.)
Mark Twain once told this story: “I built a cage, and in it I put a dog and a cat. And after a little training I got the dog and the cat to the point where they lived peaceably together. Then I introduced a pig, a goat, a kangaroo, some birds and a monkey. And after a few adjustments, they learned to live in harmony. So encouraged was I by such successes that I added an Irish Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Jew, a Muslim from Turkestan, and a Buddhist from China, along with a Baptist missionary that I captured on the same trip. And in a very short while there wasn’t a single living thing left in the cage!”
Unlike Twain, I’m much more optimistic about religious unity these days, partly because of the relationships I’ve developed through our local Trialogue conversations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews—and most recently because of the relationship we are developing with St Luke’s, our newest local ecumenical partner. The denomination in which I was raised valued independence and individualism above most other values, so I came late to ecumenism, late to interfaith dialogue, and late to an appreciation for the idea that religious unity need not mean uniformity and need not be achieved through coercion and at the expense of individual conscience. But nowadays, as a minister in the United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org), I wonder how any Christian in our increasingly pluralistic culture would not want to work toward making our unity in Christ a more visible reality.
However, let me be clear, friends, that a call for Christian unity is not a call for Christian supremacy. As Mark Twain’s parable suggests, the unity the world needs is not among Christians only but also among people of different faiths or no faith at all—and indeed—among all creatures—dogs and cats and kangaroos, too. Our oneness in and through the Christ teaches us an essential oneness with the All in All. I name now a unity fuller than Christian unity lest some hear parochialism in these verses. We aim for Christian unity as a starting point, just as we hope to live in harmony within family bonds as a starting point for living in harmony outside those family bonds. As my friend, Rabbi Donald Kundstadt wrote in an article appearing in yesterday’s newspaper, there are indeed “many paths to God.” If “we can master the essence of divinity, an unselfish love of our neighbor, the only response can be acceptance of all our brothers and sisters, religious or nonreligious, of any possible order or denomination.” That is “the same love so needed in our fragmented world today.”[i] Amen to that! Many paths—to oneness.
Therefore, we are aiming for Christian unity not as a way to circle the wagons to create an “us versus them” mentality–but to recognize that in Christ we already share what Paul called “the mind of Christ” –however different we may seem. And surely that is a foundation for broader unity. You can attend a family reunion and celebrate your bonds with relatives without in any way detracting from the relationships you have with friends to whom you’re not related by blood. On World Communion Sunday we especially focus on our unity with Christians from all time periods and in all places—even as we pray for the unity of all people. If Christians united by the love of Christ can’t see that connectedness, what hope have we of other connections?
According to John 17: 21, Jesus prayed for his disciples—and all future disciples—“that they may all be one.” “That they may all be one” is the motto of our denomination. . The new relationship between Open Table and St. Luke’s is but one of the more recent evidences of ecumenical partnering between the UCC and the Episcopal Church. Both belong to the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and, along with 8 other denominations, the Churches Uniting in Christ(CUIC) now working for full communion with one another. How wonderful that we can work for those aims on a local level.
It is within this context of Jesus’ call for unity that we accept the gracious invitation from St. Luke’s to begin worshiping in this beautiful setting on Sunday evenings. We, a new church, birthed less than two years ago, are blessed to find kindred spirits among our Episcopal sisters and brothers—who so beautifully embody God’s love and welcome to all. How fitting that our first worship in this space just happens—if such things ever really do “just happen”—on World Communion Sunday! What better moment in the church year to inaugurate a relationship to help Open Table mature to its next phase of congregational life and will allow St. Luke’s to maximize the faithful stewardship of its gifts. Although the parishioners of St. Luke’s have a standing invitation to worship with Open Table at 5:00 on Sunday evenings and will occasionally receive specific invitations to special events Open Table might plan, we will largely be invisible to one another most of the time. In fact, we hope not to intrude into the smooth functions of our host church. However, I suspect there will be serendipitous blessings to surprise us all in the coming year as both congregations discover, for instance, ways we might join hands together as we join in God’s work in this world. Although Open Table is the smaller and younger congregation, there may be unexpected ways we might assist in St. Luke’s ministry to our community.
I don’t want to press the unity point too far because our relationship isn’t anything like a merger. Although our theology and inclusive social values are compatible, they are not identical. Instead, we will respect and celebrate some differences in theology, polity, and liturgy. We are not answerable to one another’s stances on social issue or theological interpretations, if they diverge. In the most technical sense, Open Table is renting from St. Luke’s. Of course, the rental fee is extremely modest, so in many ways St. Luke’s is our benefactor. Besides, we like to think of our monthly contributions as donations to a ministry here that we feel good about supporting. We already feel that, despite the difference between our size and age as congregations, we are being treated with respectful mutuality. We feel that. We appreciate that. We will thrive in such a welcoming, enlivening, respectful atmosphere.
I’ve been speaking about Christian unity in congregational or denominational terms—in terms of how one group of Christians relates to another group. But I want to make this idea of unity in Christ more personal to you. What does it mean for you as an individual to be part of that oneness for which Jesus prayed? How do you envision your unity with fellow beings and with that Ultimate Reality we call God? How do you perceive it? How do you live it? Sharing “the mind of Christ,” as Paul put it, is not about having identical thoughts and practices and beliefs and opinions and doctrines. Rather, we share the mind of Christ by recognizing our essential connectedness and belovedness and “glory” through God in whom we live and move and have our being.
I’m not sure I know precisely what happens first in this dance of unity: Do we first live in united human relationships, which then move us into greater unity with the Divine—or the other way around? And what about an internal sense of oneness? Is that the first—or the final step on the path to unity? To paraphrase a song from the 60s, is it: “Let there be unity on earth and let it begin with me”? Perhaps a “oneness” with others and God derives from a sense of oneness within. An integrated person is one who sheds those false and fragmented pieces of her life. A person at one with herself knows who she is—and that, chiefly, is a beloved child of God. Maybe really claiming and trusting that identity, really living as if that is one’s essential, pared-down self—changes everything—and moves us into greater union with God and with our sisters and brothers. Because then we can recognize the beloved identity in others. Maybe there is no set sequence. Maybe this spiritual process is ongoing and recursive and all movements toward unity affect our love of God, of neighbor, and of self.
As Jesus said, according to today’s Gospel reading, we can take on “the glory” (verse 22) that God gave Jesus and that he gives us—so that we may be one.” Jesus continues to explicate this beautiful spiritual truth: “22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Oneness in God through Christ produces love; it does not erase individuality and diversity of thought and belief. As the good rabbi also said in yesterday’s paper, “A world filled with the conviction that God demands only one path for everyone, everywhere, is a world guaranteed to be filled with hatred and violence.”
As another good rabbi said in today’s Gospel reading, knowing ourselves through the Source of Love opens us up to oneness that produces love that produces oneness.
This multi-faceted unity is not a formula for becoming Stepford Christians—all our precious oddities removed. Jesus’s prayer that we become one is not a desire for forced assimilation into a Star Trek-ian collective of shared consciousness. No. The Gospel writers instead teach us that love can incorporate difference and be all the richer for it.
So hear the good news: God’s love is a glory that is shared with us—and that we extend and enrich as we love others, especially those different from us. In Jesus we are one—united selves, united Christians, united creatures from Love’s Very Source. Amen.
[i] Kunstadt, Donald. “World needs belief that there are many paths to God” Mobile Press-Register 1D, October 1, 2011.