Based on Acts 1:15-26, 1John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19
I am indebted this week not only to our scripture readings but to the insightful writing of theologian Walter Brueggemann. Dr. Brueggemann’s newest book, entitled “Truth and Hope” contains in it a chapter entitled, “Purity, Unity, Miracle: Overcoming Divisions”. In this writing he posits that the goal of discipleship is to, “…imagine what the world would be like if we agreed that YHWH – creator of heaven and earth, covenant partner with Israel, and father of our Lord Jesus Christ – were a decisive player in the life of the world and in the life of the church….” What would our world look like if we, as a unified Body of Christ, imagined and then lived into such a world. With that unified power, would anything be impossible for the Body of Christ to accomplish?
Jesus prayed that we all could be one, just like He and God were one – two persons but one divine essence. Yet, the Church, both institutional and local, finds itself allowing worldly fears and anxieties to dissolve it into factions (e.g., conservative/progressive, black/white, Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox). At our most divisive, we have forgotten that our call (our vocation) is to be a unified “community of praise that exalts the God” rather than exalting our preferred group. Dr. Brueggemann posits that we will not have true unity of mind and heart until we can find in ourselves the ability to “allow, honor and hear voices quite unlike our own”. No unity of purpose under Christ until we seek out and “expect to be impacted and transformed by those other voices”.
Our scriptures this week show us once again that God sends us to serve, but God does not send us alone into the evil world. The Holy Spirit is with us in the world, guiding our steps and protecting our mission. Christ yearns for us to be one in ministry and service, and one in community and faith – a unity that we discover through the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power in our lives. Sent to serve, we are sent not only with the power of the Spirit, but also with the power of unity with one another. Embracing this unity with both the Holy Spirit and one another opens a path to the “complete joy” that Christ prays we may one day know. Before we go any farther, let us go to God asking for God to heal us so that we might go forth in unified power to transform our world…
The reading from Acts comes right after the Ascension of Jesus. Peter speaks about the need to restore the Disciples to their full number of 12 after the defection (and subsequent death) of Judas Iscariot. They know that the number 12 reflects the fullness of the Tribes of Israel and thus is an important marker for carrying on the work of Jesus in the world. During this time between when Jesus ascended and when the Holy Spirit came upon them, it was incumbent upon the Disciples to be devoting themselves to prayer as a unified whole. Thus, they chose two Spirit-filled men, Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus and Matthias, one of whom would become an Apostle with the other 11. After a time of prayer and discernment they cast lots to choose the replacement and it came up Matthias. They were now whole again and could await the coming power of the Holy Spirit in unity.
The writer of 1John is giving testimony concerning Jesus so that all who heard the letter would be unified in their understanding. The testimony is that “…God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life….” Note that in John 17:3 Jesus states what eternal life is saying, “…And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent….” Thus, having the unified belief in Jesus the Christ is the key to eternal life here on earth and for all time.
Jesus is praying for His disciples as we pick up our reading in the Gospel according to John. Jesus prays that God would protect those that God had given to Him after He returns to God. Jesus prays that all disciples might be one as God and Jesus are one. That God’s protective power might be poured out on all of them as a defense against worldly evil. Jesus prays that they will continue His mission in the world. In verse 20 Jesus adds, “…I ask not only on behalf of these, but on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….” Jesus prays that God’s unified power would protect all believers down through the ages from the divisive power of worldly evil.
The early Jesus movement was known as “The Way”. We read in the Book of Acts about a unity of vision and purpose where every believer shared all that they had with everyone else in the movement. There was a power that was available to them through the Holy Spirit that enlivened them to share the good news according to Jesus the Christ with all whom they met. They exuded love for all people, especially for the marginalized, oppressed and neglected in the world around them. This welcoming and unconditionally loving attitude drew people to the movement by the thousands. How did we get from that unified power to where we find ourselves today?
One issue was that the Church became involved in worldly politics in the 4th Century when it became the primary religion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Further divisions followed in the spilt between East and West in 1054 and then in the Protestant revolution of the 16th Century. The Body of Christ became divided not only into 11 larger bodies, but into many smaller and nowadays “non-denominational” Christian expressions. Once someone had a different viewpoint or theology and attracted enough followers, they caused issues in the larger group. Dr. Brueggemann notes, “…Our usual response to such divisions, locally or in larger judicatories, is to win, to control offices and budgets and programs in ways that lead to tacit excommunication of those who think otherwise. The capacity to be so right as to impose unity-cum-excommunication arises from a heavy moral conviction that can be held together by a piety in which the only unity that can be entertained is a unity of like minds….” To be clear, friends, what he is speaking of here is NOT our unity in the mind of God through Jesus! Rather he is talking about our tendency to want to surround ourselves with those who think like us.
The unified power of the Holy Spirit comes to us when we are open enough to dialogue with those who we consider “other” – who have minds unlike our own. Consider who that is in Madison County, Virginia. Who are we not hearing speak to us about the pain which lies underneath their anger, guilt, rage, hate, frustration or indignation? In our desire to be correct about our interpretation of scripture which forms the basis for our arguments about who can and who cannot be in the Body of Christ with us, what voices in the text are we leaving out? Walter Brueggemann offers the following, “…in the Old Testament it is the traditioning presence of J and E and most especially D and P that provide voices that are deep in dispute with each other. That Old Testament reality, moreover, has its counterpart in the New Testament offer of four Gospel narratives because the early church knew from the outset that no single Gospel narrative from no single local congregation could possibly get it right. It takes a village; it takes a series of villages; it takes a cacophony of voices to tell the truth….” We, in our learned state have forgotten the wisdom of the Jewish rabbis that there will always be another rabbi with another reading and interpretation. We would do well to not be so certain of what we think we know, especially when that knowledge further divides the Body of Christ.
I asked in the opening of this reflection to imagine if we Christians could unify not under some arbitrary misunderstanding of scripture but under the mind and heart of Jesus the Christ. Can you imagine the unified power that we would have working with God to finally eliminate the social injustices and inequities that are cemented into our institutions (including the Church)? Can you imagine if we found our way back to unity in the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance, what transformations could occur? After all, do you really believe that there is anything too difficult, marvelous or impossible for God? The unified power of the Holy Spirit will return to the Church of Jesus when we put behind us our divisions and commit to being one as God and Jesus are one. May the Almighty love of God heal our divisions and make it so, amen!