Grab a dictionary—or more likely—google it. The word unity.
Here’s the definition:
- the state of being one; oneness.
2. a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.
3. oneness of mind, feeling, etc., as among a number of persons; concord, harmony, or agreement.
And now, let me tell you a story.
I was sitting at a table. This tends to happen when you have a meeting.
It was a group of leaders in a local church and I was an associate pastor. I can still see their faces. We had been participating in an urban/suburban partnership with some other churches. I worked in an Anglo-European church. The other churches in this partnership were made up of people who were African-American, Korean, and Puerto Rican. But I was sitting around the table with the leaders in the church where I was serving. And they were frustrated. They are confused. And I was hearing about it.
How come when we do pulpit exchanges only a few of them come here to our church?
Didn’t we have a strong contingent go to their church?
How come they don’t appreciate our grand, amazing organ? Don’t’ they know how much it costs to maintain it?
I think my brain turned off about 5 seconds into the conversation, but when I woke up again, I found myself asking them:
Did you participate in the summer camp with all the kids from our various churches?
Did you go to the lunch after worship at the Black Baptist Church?
Have you ever tried arroz con pollo at the Puerto Rican church?
Too busy, apparently.
Then I am sitting at another table for another meeting. There are religious leaders of various religious backgrounds: Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Mormons, Sikhs, Secular Humanists, and Hare Krishnas. They are trying to agree about a statement they will make together about the rampant gun violence in Philadelphia and beyond. They want to say something. But they cannot come up with the right words. Just when it seems like they can do it, someone points out a phrase she is uncomfortable with. Then another person wants to change a punctuation mark. And we’re back to the beginning again.
I have a lot more than two of these stories to tell.
Maybe you do, too.
This word [and idea] of unity can be a sore spot for those of us who have sat at those tables and suffered through those meetings. If you’re like me, you’ve hoped for cooperation and shared values, only to encounter stubbornness and lines drawn in the sand.
So back to this important concept of asking questions as five-year-olds do:
WHY do we still talk about and strive for unity?
Is unity even possible?
I wonder what you think about that question. Maybe you’ll comment here so we can learn from each other’s perspectives?
In the meantime, let me share with you some thoughts about why I think unity—both the word and the concept, can be redeemed.
So that means we have to start with saying what unity is not.
And that brings me back to this John passage that is part of Jesus of Nazareth’s farewell-bon voyage-arrivaderci-hasta luego-sionara-speech. Often people picture Jesus standing on some huge rock or mountaintop, lifting his hands in holy prayer position and begging his Abba-God to help out all those Christians out there in the world.
Sometimes we create committees, task forces, ecumenical teams, urban-suburban partnerships, multicultural exchanges, and interfaith cohorts. And we think that this is unity.
Perhaps there are some in the Christian tradition who still think that if people agree to a doctrine or dogma or sign a paper that says they believe a specific thing—this means that they are unified.
You see—we get unity confused with uniformity.
But John’s Gospel story presents another perspective.
Unity is about knowing.
Knowing is about being in relationship.
Relationship is about connection.
Unity is therefore about relationships and how they connect us.
And in John’s Gospel, there was no grand scene with rolling, white clouds and Jesus extending his hands to the heavens for a beautiful prayer.
Jesus of Nazareth prayed this prayer, said these words, in front of people.
And he wanted the people to hear what was said.
Because he was saying to to them.
One might go so far as to say this was a “wishful thinking” kind of prayer.
You know what I mean?
I mean the kind of prayer at another kind of table [the dinner table], when your little sister [with one eye opened and the other closed] says:
Dear God, thank you for this food that we are about to eat and thank you for telling my brother to stop kicking me under the table and for also inspiring him to share his toys a little bit more and to stop making faces at me when I’m singing in the show choir at school and also, God, thanks for helping my mom to understand that my math teacher is out to get me and that my friend Rebecca isn’t such a bad kid—she’s just going through a phase.
It’s a wishful thinking prayer of Jesus—one that isn’t really true yet.
Even his own disciples [followers] were not “one” in the way that he hoped.
They were a scattered, scared, and separated lot.
They were losing their connection.
Remember that this story was written long after Jesus’ death. So the intended audience would have already had that information.
So they need to remember.
This is a prayer, a conversation, around a table, after a meal, and with friends.
It’s an unexpected answer to a common question:
What is eternal life?
The answer may be surprising to some of us.
Eternal life is defined as knowing.
For those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, life for them was knowing their Creator and knowing their teacher Jesus.
But please remember that knowing God in John’s Gospel is not about doctrine or belief. Knowing is being in relationship.
Knowing is about connection.
And those who followed this Jesus were overhearing a prayer said about and to them.
And the prayer said: be one.
I think this is significant and relevant, if we choose to listen.
And so I ask: for you, what does being one with other humans mean?
Notice I did not say what does it mean to be one with other Christians, or people like you…
I’m asking, what does it mean for you to be one with others in this world in which you live?
What does it mean for you to be connected to God and to be connected to Jesus [if you identify as a Christian], and then to know others, and to be connected to them?