St Mark’s, West Frankfort & St Stephen’s, Harrisburg—John 17:20-26
I trust it will come as no shock to you if I were to say that sometimes Christians don’t get along with one another, right? I know it’s hard to believe, but sometimes there is conflict among those who claim to be followers of Jesus. Before becoming a bishop and getting involved with 35 different parish communities, I was individually involved with eight others, over my entire adult life, either as a layperson or a priest. And so I know about conflict it churches. It happens within local congregations. It happens between congregations within a diocese—I could tell you some stories about such conflict and disunity right here in the Diocese of Springfield. It happens between congregations and the rest of the diocese, or the leaders of the diocese. It happens between dioceses and provinces, what we call “national churches,” In the last decade, we’ve seen five dioceses vote to leave the Episcopal Church, and then engage in years of litigation over real estate and bank accounts, and some of those cases are still unresolved. And, as we know, there is historic conflict between global fellowships and communions within Christianity, defining the thousands of different brand names under which Christians identify themselves. And the number of those different brand names, different labels, is not just in the thousands; it’s in the tens of thousands. And then, to cap it all off, these tens of thousands of Christian brand names exist in a social and cultural environment that is more challenging every day. In western society, we’re seeing rapidly-growing secularization, the rise of the “nones”—those who profess no religious connection of any sort; while, in many parts of the developing world, militant Islam is an ever-present threat.
So here we are, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, that awkward moment between the Ascension of the risen Christ back to the “right hand of the Father” and the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s power being manifested on Pentecost—here we are, in a vulnerable moment, painfully aware of the conflict and division that infects the Church at every level, and we are gobsmacked by this from the seventeenth chapter of St John’s gospel, as Jesus prays for his disciples:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
It turns out that, right in the context of our unsavory divisions, Jesus thinks that a faithful Church is a united Church. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love … we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord”—you could probably sing most of the words to that song with just a little bit of prompting, right? Unity is the sign that we are faithful to the gospel, faithful to the Lord, and unity, in turn, is expressed in love. And love of the sort that is the sign and seal of unity is supposed to be exemplary; it’s supposed to define the landscape of our life together as Christians, as followers of Jesus.
In his extended prayer, which we find in John 17 and is known as our Lord’s “High Priestly” prayer, Jesus goes on to reveal the reason, the underlying purpose, behind his request that his followers remain unified. It’s not just for the sake of good feelings. There’s something much more serious at stake. Jesus prays
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The whole purpose of the unity of the Body of Christ, then, is “so that the world may believe.” Unity is a matter of missionary strategy—“so that the world may believe.” This is so much the case that the Father and the Son are willing to share their very glory with those who believe. Schism sticks a knife in the heart of mission. Schism at any level, conflict or disunity at any level, whether it’s a local and temporary spat between the Altar Guild and the Choir in a parish, or at a worldwide and historic level between two or more of the “brand names”—schism bears false witness to the unity that exists between the Persons of the Trinity. You know, it’s not hard to find debates between Christians about whether schism should be tolerated for the sake of theological truth, or whether heresy should be tolerated for the sake of unity. What we learn fro our Lord’s High Priestly prayer, however, is that this is a false dilemma. Schism is heresy. Division among Christians is heretical because it communicates a falsehood about God, about the Trinity. It says that the communion that exists between the Persons of the Trinity can be broken. It says that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit can be pulled apart from one another. They can’t of course, but our conflict and division makes it look like they can. That’s why schism is heresy.
We cannot do this in and of ourselves, we cannot maintain our own unity. It does not lie within us; that much should be plainly evident. Such unity we have is not directly ours, but reflected, derived from the essential unity that exists between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. We are “one” only insofar as we demonstrate that unity. You may be familiar with a very important icon that many western Christian communities have borrowed and imported from its Eastern Orthodox native territory. It depicts the three “angels” whom we read about in Genesis, who visit Abraham and deliver the news that his aged wife will nevertheless bear a son within the next year. Abraham prepares a meal for them, and this icon shows them seated at his table for the meal. All three of them hold a sort of scepter, indicating equal royal authority. And all three incline their heads toward one another, a sign of mutual deference. Because, according to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, you can’t depict God artistically, this icon has entered the Christian spiritual tradition as a kind of surrogate image for the Holy Trinity. It reflects the mutual deference in love that we see within the Trinity.
Mutual deference. Apparently, that’s what unity looks like. Jesus’ acknowledgment of his unity with the Father in his prayer—“Just as we are one”—points to such mutuality, such intimacy, such reciprocity as the defining characteristics of oneness within the Church—locally, regionally, and globally.
And the outward and visible demonstration of this sort of unity is in what we’re doing right now, what we come together for every Lord’s Day, to share in the reading and hearing and proclaiming of God’s holy word, and to celebrate the mystery of our redemption in the sacrament of the Eucharist. So, unity is not somehow the end product of our trying really hard and working really hard—which is not to say that we shouldn’t work for it, just that, in the end, it has to be a God thing. What we can do effectively is to celebrate the Eucharist, because Jesus promises to show up and reveal our unity whenever we do so.
Of course, the Eucharist is also the most evident sign of our disunity, which is more than a little bit ironic. That which is supposed to unite us is where we feel our divisions most painfully, when believing disciples who bear nothing but goodwill toward one another are prevented by accidents of history from coming to the same table to be fed the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet, it as appropriate that we feel such pain at exactly that point. It should motivate us to double down on working through what divides us, of finding ways to be mutually deferential to one another, and leave behind the heresy of schism.
What we can do at a practical level is focus on the grassroots: We can allow ourselves right here and right now to be shaped, formed, chiseled, molded in the Eucharist and by the Eucharist. We can come together time after time after time after time to hear God’s word read and broken open, to offer ourselves at the altar and to receive ourselves back transformed. We can practice mutual deference in love within this community, right where we are.
If every local Eucharistic Community does that—assuring that, right here, at least, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” is an undeniably true statement—then that creates a toehold for the Holy Spirit to take it viral. Alleluia and Amen.