Thinking About Christian Unity.

18 May
John 17:6-19
This week is the World Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  An admirable title for an admirable goal, I am sure but I am a little unsure what the week of Christian unity was about. You may say it’s obvious. It’s about all the various expressions of the Christian church joining with one another in unity.

But what does that mean? What are we trying to unite? What are we trying to bring together as one? Can there ever be a united Christian church considering the varying doctrines, liturgical practices and church governance present in the world, let alone the history of animosity and bloodletting that has gone on over the years.  I can still remember not being able to talk to Catholic girls on the bus only 50 years or so ago!

The resource material for the week posed two questions:
 Which is the path of unity, the route we should take, so that the world may drink from the source of life, Jesus Christ?
Which is the path of unity that gives proper respect to our diversity?[1]

John, the Jewish mystic provides a path for us to follow in the gospel reading of today. And it all hinges on a basic Jewish mystical concept – that God was and is a permeating presence, not an external being. John Spong suggests in his book Tales of a Jewish Mystic, God was that life-giving power that embraces all those who are willing to accept the vulnerability that love always brings. For John, Jesus was not one who had come and then departed and who would someday come again. Jesus was rather a God presence inviting all to enter who he was and is, to be born of the Spirit and to participate in the eternity of God.

This passage is known as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, a prayer for the church of the Ages in which Jesus would be enshrined as its high priest. Jesus interceded with God on behalf of all who are embraced as God’s body, the Church here on earth, past, present and future. It is a kairos prayer, cutting across all categories of time and peoples to be ever present and ever personal.

Jesus in fact prays three different prayers. He prayers firstly for himself, then for those who had been with him and for those who would believe because of the witness of the disciples.  The primary focus of his prayer is unity but not unity as we would normally think of it. 

It was not a prayer for ecclesiastical unity, a prayer for the institution and its power to exist and to manipulate those within it for its own purpose. The larger the institution, the more the power and the prestige, the money and the influence. We have lived through that stage and have seen the many abuses of power and might that have occurred at state, institutional and personal levels. The recent child abuse expose is evidence enough of how power can be misused.
It was not a prayer for false unity. The Archbishop of Canterbury made this clear at a recent inter-religious conference: “We need to move beyond inter-religious interaction in which we the usual suspects issue bland statements of anaemic intent with which you could paper the walls of Lambeth Palace – and much good would it do you – all desperate to agree with one another so that the very worst outcome could possibly be that we end up acknowledging our differences. … … True friendships and relationships can withstand honesty about differences in values, opinions and religious understandings and a common commitment to mutual flourishing in diversity.”

It was not a prayer for content or doctrinal unity. It is not about right believing, having the right words and formulas in which to package the authorised belief of this or that institution, theologian or teacher. Getting a uniform set of doctrines or creeds has been historically thwart with angst and appear no closer to being resolved that an the force church council. Anyway doctrinal unity is more about excluding ideas and beliefs which conflict with and undermines institutional stability and power.

It was not a prayer for a unity that can be imposed by any external agenda or program. It is not a law and cannot be legislated fore. Like morality and ethics, unity does not come from the outside. Regardless of the range of laws we may impose on what people can and cannot do, they will continue to do as they wish, when they wish and for whatever reason they wish. Legislated morality will never deal with immoral behaviour. That is a decision that comes from with in and will always over rule the law.

It was, is a prayer for unity that is an internal experience and revelation, something that rises up within and infiltrates us from the inside out. It is being in christ – en christos – an idea that permeates Paul’s writings. It is a prayer for the actuality of the vine and branches in individuals in such a way they are united by their oneness with the divine. It is our individual oneness  with God through Christ that unites us, not any externally imposed form of unity.

In 17:3 ‘John even makes Jesus use the third-person name and title for himself to make this point: Unity comes in knowing “the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent”.’ Spong again:  “The word of God comes from God, reveals the meaning of God, and returns to God”.  It is a mystical experience of oneness in  which individuality is not lost but affirmed, security is surrendered and a new being is entered.

This unity already exists. It is the possession of every believer who has seen into the God who is in us individually and in the church catholic. We are striving to bring about a unity which already exists. We already have what we are searching for and are perhaps afraid to acknowledge. Christian unity is the unity which we share in Christ. It is already present. We simply don’t act on it.

We know that there is enough resources in the world to solve the problem of world poverty. How much does it cost to solve world hunger? A price has been set and estimated by the United Nations to solve this crisis – $30 billion a year. It may seem like a large sum of money, but when compared to the U.S. defense budget of $737 billion in 2012, $30 billion seems more attainable.[2] We have what we need to deal with this seemingly intractable problem but we fail to activate it for a range of apparently rational reasons. It will cost us power, control and may in fact allow others to challenge our position in the world.

I would dare to suggest that the same occurs with in the Christian church. To accept that we are already at one with each other means that we have to let go of our finely tuned theological, doctrinally and liturgical positions and begin to focus on the one essential belief that unites us. It would mean saying yes to sharing resources, facilities, leaders, programs and worship in such away that we begin to give form and shape to the kingdom of God, right here and now.

Just a cursory glance across the suburbs of Melbourne shows us that we have much money, people and time resources tied up in replicating the activities of each other. In pronouncing our manifestation of the Christian faith as more hip, cool, relevant, traditional, evangelical or progressive than that found any where else we are diminishing the visible presence of the kingdom of God in our city. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Even the Anglican Communion is again facing a possible split because we are unable to find unity on doctrine, practice and morality.

John says the unity we seek is mystical and is the possession of all who believe in Christ. There is neither Greek or Jew says Paul because we all share the same baptism through the life and death of Christ. What would it be like if we could only grasp this truth? What would the church look like? What would it mean to come together to worship God? Would we have as many Sunday services in Glen Iris/Ashburton as we have today or would we come together as one?

These are uncomfortable questions in an uncomfortable world yet that is the essence of the High Priestly Prayer. Jesus the high priest has made the sacrifice on behalf of all so that we can all be one in God. No longer are there those who are unclean in doctrine, practice or lifestyle, the Christ has come and set us free to embrace a relationship in God and each other. When are we going to make a start or are we always going to be praying for a Christian unity that has already come? Are we so  blinded by our own religious geography that we fail to see it? Amen

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