12th May 2013, St Matthew’s, Reading: John 17: 20-26
Here is a conversation I heard recently – anonymised to protect the reputation of those concerned and ever so slightly embellished.
James: I was wondering, Jim, why you left St Justice down the road and joined St Compassion’s.
Jim: Well, James, St Justices’ has nice stained glass windows but I just couldn’t get on with the congregation there.
James: Oh, and why was that?
Jim: Well they are very nice people at St Justice’s but their services are very odd.
James: In what way?
Jim: Well the men all wear ties and the women all wear hats for a start. And for another thing they just can’t seem to see other people’s point of view.
James: Over important issues?
Jim: Oh yes : really important issues such as the synoptic question.
James: Oh, we’re not like that at St Compassion’s. We’re awfully tolerant of one-another’s views here and we don’t care what we wear.
Jim: Tolerance: hmph! That’s called being wishy-washy at St Justice’s.
James: Well here at St Compassion’s we call that being bigoted. We feel that churches like St Justice’; should be expelled from the Church of England.
So: was it right for Jim to leave St Justice’s for St Compassion’s? Well of course it is OK, at times, to change churches. But then was it right for Jim to criticise St Justice’s when he joined St Compassion’s. That seems more doubtful. Was James being over-hasty in describing the congregation at St Justice’s as bigoted? Wasn’t he being a tad intolerant himself? Of course we don’t know all the full facts of the situation but even so this conversation feels wrong somehow. It is surely not how Christians should behave.
The conversation illustrates the way Christians can be intolerant of one another but today’s sermon is not about tolerance, it’s about unity. Unity is much bigger, much more important than tolerance of one another’s views. When we all declare, as we do at our communion service: ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread, ‘we are – of course -saying something much more important that that we agree over the synoptic question or whether we tolerate one over’s different views over that question.
The synoptic question is by the way the question of which of the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, was written first, and much ink has been spilled over it. Of course I am using the synoptic question as a ludicrous example of a question over which Christians disagree. For the synoptic question: you can substitute currently controversial questions around women bishops, gay marriage, etc. or old questions like transubstantiation, substitionory atonement, evolution v special creation etc. etc. etc.
And so to the main subject of this sermon: unity. In this sermon I want to pose three questions: the answer to the first is fairl long but to the second and third is quite short.
First: What is unity but also what is it not?
Secondly: Is diversity disunity?
And thirdly: What is the relationship between unity and community?
I’ll try and answer these questions before coming back to the conversation that I began with and to explore whether thinking more about what we mean by unity might affect how we talk to, and about, other Christians.
So my first big question: What is unity and what is it not?
Unity is one of those things we as Christians aspire to and pray regularly for. We are right to do so. Jesus prays for unity in the reading from John’s gospel that we have just heard. In that reading John is recounting a prayer that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper. But we might not be clear about what unity is precisely.
Firstly and most importantly unity for Christians is unity with God and not just, or even mainly, unity between Christians. So for Christians unity has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension. The great promise of Jesus, in his sermon to the disciples at the Last Supper, is that we can have unity with God the Father though him and though the Holy Spirit – the vertical dimension – but also that because of this unity with God we can hope for unity with one another - the horizontal dimension. If you only remember one thing from this sermon today please remember that unity with God is more important for us than unity with one another, because it is impossible to have true and abiding unity with one another unless this is grounded in our relationship with God.
Secondly unity has two aspects: oneness and togetherness. We are unified when we are one body rather than two, three or more different bodies. To become one body we need to come together rather than move apart from one another. For example we are one body when we come together in one place, at one moment in time, to share in one bread. Jesus, in our reading, prays for both oneness and togetherness. In Chapter 17 verse 21 he prays for oneness – he prays that those who believe in him ‘may all be one’ But in verse 24 he prays for togetherness: that ‘they (the disciples)…may be with me (Jesus) where I am’. It is clearly possible for a group of people to be one but not together or together and not one. Both oneness and togetherness are important for unity.
Thirdly unity is primarily a gift to be prayed for rather than something we can make happen. At the Last Supper, Jesus prays to his Father for the gift of unity for his disciples – and not just the disciples – those ‘who believe in me though their word’. The world often sees unity as something that can be got by our own efforts. It’s often assumed that we can achieve unity if we work hard enough for it. And of course we are not powerless in this regard. We can, to a degree, do things to increase our chances, if you like, of unity with God and one another. We can pray for a start and we can endeavour to be united with our fellow Christians. But at the end of the day it is God who gives us unity.
All of this doesn’t really get to the heart of the question of what unity really is. One obvious thing it might be is love. So is it ‘just’ the love of God for us, us for God and us for one another? That there is a clear connection between love and unity is perhaps obvious. In verse 23 Jesus prays to his Father that he may be one with the disciples and that they may become perfectly one with one another, ‘so that the world may know that thou has sent me and hast loved them’. But this verse indicates that Jesus is praying for unity so that the Father’s love might be demonstrated, so clearly unity is a prerequisite for that demonstration of love and not the same thing.
It is perhaps easier to say what unity is not rather than what it is. And one thing it clearly isn’t is uniformity of belief or practice. Of course there is a relationship between unity and belief? At verse 20 Jesus makes it clear that he is praying for unity for those ‘who believe in me through the disciples’ word’. But what does he mean by ‘believe in me’ precisely?
Clearly ‘believing in Jesus’ is much more than just believing that he existed or that he died on a cross or even that he rose from the dead. It’s clearly doesn’t really matter what we believe in relation to the synoptic question but does it matter what we believe about transubstantiation, substitutionary atonement, etc? Well I don’t think so, but some might. (I am afraid I am not going to explain what transubstantiation and substitutionary atonement are today even if I could) I think when Jesus talks about people who believe in me he means just that. It’s deliberately vague. But in your heart of hearts I think you know whether you believe in Jesus or not.
I am sorry if that makes some people here feel uncomfortable. It would make me feel uncomfortable at certain points in my life when I doubt whether I really believe in Jesus or not. But I know there are times when I really do believe in him and I have come to believe that you can’t make yourself belief things that you don’t. Just as I cannot make myself belief that 1 + 1 = 3 I cannot make myself believe in Jesus. Belief, like unity, is, I believe, a gift. Sorry that was a bit of an aside.
Back to unity and to say that just as tolerance isn’t unity, unity is much more than uniformity of belief – correct or otherwise.
And so to my smaller and easier to answer second question: Is diversity disunity? Putting the question like that makes the answer obvious. When Jesus prays for his disciples to be one he isn’t praying for them to be all the same – in beliefs or practices or in anything else. Jesus’ relationship with each one of us is very different and so unity can embrace diversity.
The best model we have here is the Trinity. God is one but within that oneness there is diversity: the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are different persons with different relationships one with another. But within the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together are one.
My third question is: What is the relationship between unity and community? You’ll notice unity forms part of the word community. Firstly it’s worth pointing out that Jesus’ prayer, at the Last Suppers, is for all the disciples –and not just for them – also those who believe in him through the disciples. Here Jesus is not talking to or praying for one particular disciple.
When he prays that ‘they may also be in us’ he means that he wants them collectively to be united with him and his Father not just individually. Unity – even in the vertical dimension – can never be a matter of just my relationship with God but our relationships with God. We live in such an individualistic age that we cannot very easily see how we collectively can have a relationship with God that is distinct from our individual relationships (and I am not denying that those are important too). Obviously in the horizontal dimension unity needs at least two people to make any sense at all. And Jesus here isn’t just talking about individual relationships he’s asking for unity for the whole fledgling community of the church
But secondly the fact that the unity that Jesus prays for has to be visible enough to challenge the world to believe in him shows us that what he asking for is not just a spiritual union but a unity that can be seen in both its horizontal and vertical dimensions. In verse 21, for example, Jesus prays for unity ‘so that the world may believe that thou has sent me’ So Jesus is praying for a unity that can be seen by others. And now that Jesus has ascended into heaven this surely primarily means the way that Christians behave towards one another. Unity is, then, made concrete in community. Without community we might say we are united but without actions our words will be just words.
So finally even if we haven’t exactly pinned down what unity is, perhaps we know it when we see it.
Moreover I hope I have said enough to show you that unity is not just tolerance of different beliefs and certainly not just uniformity of belief. But still unity, belief and tolerance are connected so how might reflecting on unity have helped James and Jim in their conversation about changing churches? It does seem to me important that Jesus’ desire for unity amongst his disciples should actually mean something practical particularly – but of course, not just - when as Christians we are talking about other Christians. I am not saying that I am at all perfect in this regard. In fact I am regretting saying something really bad about someone only this week but here is a way the conversation between James and Jim might have been better.
James: I was wondering, Jim, why you left St Justice down the road and joined St Compassion’s
Jim: Well, James, St Justices’ has nice stained glass windows but I was looking for something different.
James: Oh, and why was that?
Jim: Well they are very nice people at St Justices’ but they have ways of worshipping and views that are different to mine.
James: Oh well, welcome to St Compassion’s. We hope you will find your home amongst us. But I feel we at St Compassions should do more with the people at St Justice’s,