“Unity in the Church – Is This a Joke?”

~ John 17:6-26 ~

Scandals, divisions, splits, fights, even wars – the church is in shambles! Christianity is a mess! Unity? What a joke.

The Southern Baptists are reeling from a devastating report of ongoing sexual abuse and coverups. The United Methodists are well on their way to splitting in two over the issue of gay ordination. The local synod of Lutherans is awash with accusations of institutional racism and abuse of power at the highest levels. Indeed, the bishop of the synod has just been asked to resign. One of the largest mega-church groups in the world, Hillsong, is losing churches daily due to sex abuse issues by pastors and leaders. One of the primary motivations for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church to bring back into their fold the Ukraine Orthodox Church whom it believes has gotten too “Western.” So, war? Sure!

And lest we, as Presbyterians, shake our heads and cluck our tongues over all this we should be reminded that our history is replete with scandal and divisions. We’ve had to publicly apologize for the history of abusive practices at Presbyterian-run schools for Native Americans. Locally we are still working through the sexual abuse harm perpetrated by the former director of Cameron House.

And divisions, splits? Back in the 1800’s Presbyterians split between North and South over the issue of slavery. A hundred years ago a group of Presbyterians broke off from the main denomination when it could not force it to adhere to their theological agenda, called “The Five Fundamentals.” What became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church actually invented the term “fundamentalist.” In the forty’s a group split off from the Southern Presbyterians because of perceived liberal trends, that being the Presbyterian Church of America. The Northern and Southern denominations merged back together in the 70s but more splits were to come. In the 80s a bunch of churches left to form the Evangelical Presbyterians over the issue of ordination of women. And then, just recently, a bunch of churches left over the issue of gay ordination to form the ECO.

What a mess, indeed. 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 tried against all odds to proclaim that oneness, that unity. But all for naught. Divisions came and came and came again and continue today. Christian unity? Is this a joke?

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.

This Community of John was the setting for the Gospel of John. In other words, the gospel is not just a story about Jesus but is also an autobiographical story of this particular faith community named after John.

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 was also known as John.

So, early on, the Community of John 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 Community of John 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 Community of John 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 same 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.”

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 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.

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.

They even had issues with the “apostolic” churches, of Peter and the others. The community saw itself distinct from those churches as seen in 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 Community of John.

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 called 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 were 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 was, “love one another” but not necessarily anyone else. Unfortunately that is how the Community of John 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, later the church catholic took in its gospel and adopted its view of the divine Jesus. But the community it was written for didn’t make it.

But let me say this: much harm has been done around the question of the divinity of Christ. In the 4th and 5th centuries tensions were rife over the question of how Jesus and the Father were related based on this prayer in John’s gospel. Excommunications, splits and, yes, even war. But the fact is that the early church was not settled on this question. What mattered most to those early Christians was what it meant to follow Jesus, to live out his moral philosophy, to practice the way of Jesus. Sure, what you believed was important but that was secondary. Before Christianity turned creedal (believing a set written-out doctrine), it was far more important how one practiced their Jesus following.

Today I’d much rather have people seek to live out the moral philosophy of Jesus of love and justice, personally and socially, politically and economically, and still be entertaining lots of doubts and questions about who Jesus actually is. Checking off all the theological boxes but not living out Jesus’ ethic does not make one a follower of Jesus.

Unfortunately, being able to check off the theological boxes is what defines what a Christian is or isn’t for many in the church today. You don’t have to actually practice what Jesus taught as long as you have the right theology. So, unity is based on believing the right stuff not on practice. This is concerning.

Think of where this kind of unity is death-dealing rather than live-giving. Think of people and communities who have suffered harm and injustice and are told they must forgive and reconcile with those who have harmed them without any regard for restitution or reparations. Think of how people who dare speak up about injustice and oppression are told to keep quiet lest they rock the boat or stir up unrest. I admit that I am sometimes tempted to keep quiet, to not rock the boat, to not stir things up too much out of a pretense of concern for “unity.” But I must stop such thinking. That is the kind of unity that is death-dealing.

Jesus’ prayer is not a call for this kind of unity. It is a call for unity, yes. But not a unity at the cost of being complicit in harm done to the vulnerable and oppressed. In the name of love, compassion and justice our highest concern should not be maintaining unity. Rather our highest priority should be transforming our present world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, just as we saw Jesus doing.

There is a time for unity; there is a time for disunity. May we have the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

Comments are closed.