“Unity by Reduction”

~ John 17:6-26 ~

We live in a very divided world. There have, of course, been divides between peoples for centuries. But divisiveness seems to have increased exponentially in recent years. It’s not just that divides exist but that the lines seem to have hardened. We seem to all have retreated into intransigent camps trying to hold out against other camps of intransigents. Blue vs red; urban vs rural, the coasts vs. the middle, conservatives vs progressives – there seems to be no prospect of finding common ground.

This seems to be especially true with religion (and you all say, “duh”). As I wander around the religious blogosphere these days I find theological and sectarian divisions running rampant. Gone are the days, it seems, of ecumenical and interfaith goodwill and accommodation. Now it’s snarky, vitriolic diatribes and argumentation. I suppose it is more a characteristic of anonymous posting on social media that encourages such nastiness but it only increases the divisiveness that is our world today. The religious divides are wide and intransigent.

So, we probably shake our heads in disbelief when we encounter Jesus’ words today, “that they may all be one.” This long, rambling prayer of Jesus here in John 17 is the iconic “Christian unity” passage. “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world will know you have sent me and have loved them,” Jesus prays. And ever since the church has struggled to make sense of these words. The church has tried against all odds to proclaim that oneness, that unity. But all for naught. Divisions came and remained. Christian unity? Forget about it!

Yet, on closer analysis, I don’t think these words of Jesus, as presented in the gospel of John, were meant for the church writ large. They weren’t meant to encourage ‘all’ Christians to be unified in some universal sense. Indeed, they weren’t even meant to convey the idea that we should all love one other so that “they will know we are Christians by our love” – to echo a popular 60’s Jesus movement song. No, this prayer was written to and for a very select group of Christians called the Community of John, or as scholars describe it, the Johannine community.

This Johannine community was the setting for the Gospel of John. So, the gospel is not just a story about Jesus but is also an autobiographical story of this particular faith community named after John. Or, to put it another way, the story of Jesus we find in the gospel was shaped to tell the story of the community; sort of a condensed history, if you will.

The community began as many other groups in the first decades of the church, as Jewish Jesus’ followers worshipping in the synagogue. However, this particular group developed somewhat separately from the other Jesus’ groups that took their lead from Peter and the other apostles. Instead, they looked to a founding figure which the gospel calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Not John the apostle, but someone else who eventually came to be known as John.

So, early on, the Johannine community was part of the Jewish synagogue. That is, they saw their faith in Jesus as a continuation of and in the context of Jewish faith. Their beliefs were not radically different from Jewish beliefs. To them Jesus was the Messiah who had come and promised to fulfill the hope of the Jewish faith.

But somewhere along the line, probably after 70AD, things went sideways. Disagreements arose in the synagogue. It appears, as the story is told, that the Johannine community was expelled from the synagogue, their religious home. This had a profound traumatic effect on the group. It is in the midst of this crisis that the writer of the gospel started pulling together the threads of the community’s history and interpreted them to address the needs of a now isolated group. In this, the major themes of the gospel took shape.

As the 1st century came to an end, the Johannine community became more and more isolated, not just from its Jewish roots but from other Christian groups as well. And to make matters worse, internal squabbles developed threatening the unity of the group. The letter of First John, which was written at the same time to the community, emphasizes this threat to unity. Probably by 110AD the gospel of John was completed. Certainly not written by John, and not written by the supposed “Beloved Disciple,” but by leaders in the community in an attempt to tell its story and keep them from splintering apart.

Thus, the Gospel of John, as we have it today, is a narrative of Jesus shaped to tell the history and theological importance of this community. That is why it is so different than the other gospels. All of the encounters Jesus has with individuals in the gospel are meant to describe a particular historical or theological point of the community. All of the long, rambling monologues of Jesus fill out the theological concerns of the group. It is a story written in isolation from those other gospels to tell the story of this single community named after John. And this prayer we encounter today was written to appeal to the community to hang tight; stay unified, be “one.”

But the end result was an appeal to what I call “unity by reduction.” If you keep separating from those who believe differently than you, you’ll end up alone. And even then, the threat of further splintering is always present. How does a community experience unity if excluding anything and everything that you disagree with is your main operating principle? The Community of John is a prime example. The gospel tells the story.

Somewhere in its history, it appears the community was successful in converting Samaritans to faith in Jesus as we encounter in chapter 4 with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (The other gospels mention nothing about evangelistic efforts to the Samaritans). This probably started to strain the community’s presence in the synagogue. And in his encounter with the woman at the well, we hear Jesus minimizing the need worship in the temple. Adding Samaritans to the community must have aggravated relations with their Jewish counterparts.

For it is in the very next chapter we read about how Jesus’ ministry incited hatred from “the Jews” because he is making himself God. The divinity of Jesus, as one who came down from God, resulted in long debates between Jesus and “the Jews” as they became increasingly hostile. Interestingly, this emphasis on Jesus’ divinity is found nowhere in the other Gospels and even in the writings of Paul. It is unique to the gospel of John.

The story of the man born blind, in chapter 9, tells the story of the community’s expulsion from the synagogue. The Jewish leaders declare that they are “disciples of Moses, because God spoke to Moses. But this fellow, Jesus, we don’t even know where he comes from.” The man born blind, now healed, declares his faith in Jesus, despite the threats of the Jewish leaders. Just as the man born blind was ejected from the synagogue so was the community of John.

The main issue seemed to come out of the community’s “high Christology.” Only in John do we read about a pre-existent Jesus, who came from the Father, that he is not only “Lord” but he is also “God.” Because of this belief they were not only in conflict with “the Jews” but with other Jesus’ followers as well. They were particularly harsh on Jesus followers who did not openly declare their faith in Jesus in order to remain in the synagogue. In John 12 there are a group of Jews who were attracted to Jesus but are afraid to confess their faith in Jesus publicly lest they be expelled from the synagogue.

Then there were other Jewish Christians who had left the synagogues and formed their own groups. Yet even toward them the gospel has a hostile attitude because their faith was inadequate; they didn’t believe in Jesus’ divinity enough. In chapter 6 they are described as saying that Jesus’ words are hard to take and presumably they “broke away and would not accompany him anymore,” it says.

They even had issues with the “apostolic” churches, of Peter and the others. The community saw itself distinct from those churches because of the consistent and deliberate contrast between Peter and the beloved disciple throughout the gospel. Indeed, it’s interesting how whenever there is any cause to question Peter’s devotion in the story, there we see the beloved disciple as a counter point. The beloved disciple is the hero of the Johannine community.

Why this separation from the others? Well, it appears it was about Jesus’ divinity. The community of John always considered their devotion to Jesus to be on a higher plain because they took Jesus’ divinity more seriously. Again, the precise difference between them was the idea of the pre-existence of Jesus, a perspective not found in the other gospels.

This constant scrutinizing of the theology of others inevitably led to scrutinizing those within the group. Making sure everyone was towing the theological line, so to speak, was a constant concern. Interestingly, the way this is expressed is in the appeal to love one another. Over and over, we hear the appeal to love one another. Indeed, it is the gospel of love. First John is all about love. The idea is that theological tensions will be eased if you just love one another.

However, what is missing from these appeals to love, is the idea that we find in the other gospels – to love your neighbor. And especially the command to love your enemies. In a community that lived in isolation from those who are different, loving your neighbor and loving your enemy are dangerous enterprises. It is all we can handle to love one another within the community, especially if there are internal issues threatening the community. So, it would seem the message is, “love one another” but not necessarily anyone else. Unfortunately that is how the Johannine community approached its religious work. But a church that demanded strict adherence to a theological mandate wasn’t sustainable. By the middle of the second century it existed no longer. True, the church catholic took in its gospel and adopted its view of the divine Jesus. And it is a beautiful story about individual faith in Christ. But the community it was written for didn’t make it.

So, what are we supposed to do with all this? Well, I guess we could say just forget about it. Christian unity maybe isn’t really what God wants after all. As neat and tidy it would be if we all agreed on everything and towed the line of theological correctness, that isn’t what being the church is about. Indeed, I think God thrives in chaos. Diversity and inclusiveness are not characteristics of uniformity. A welcoming God welcomes, well, everyone. To be a welcoming church is to allow people to live out their faith journeys in their individual messy ways. To be a welcoming church is to invite the sometimes-uncomfortable prospect of living out our faith journeys with a bit of chaos, some misunderstanding, allowing space for each of us to work it out. Indeed, may we learn to love one another as God loves us, the very messy us. Amen.

Comments are closed.