A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003
Easter 7 (B)
1 John 5:9-13
There is a great deal of concern in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion these days about unity. How to maintain unity, especially in the face of increasing diversity, diversity not only on a cultural level, but also on the level of theological opinion and pastoral practice, some of which is divisive?
This passage from John’s Gospel that we just received is often cited in this conversation. In what has become known as “the High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus prays for his disciples that they may be one. It would seem to set this desire of Jesus on the highest of priority levels. And I do not disagree with that. I do believe that our oneness as followers of Jesus is an absolute priority.
Yet the quote of Jesus’ prayer often leaves off the second part. Jesus prays, “That they may be one as we are one.” That, of course, begs the question, “How are Jesus and God one?” The answer is important, vital even, if we are to understand and act on Jesus’ prayer for us, because it qualifies just how we are to be one. And how we are to be one is really the heart of the debate within the Church right now.
Just how Jesus and God are one was, of course, a mater of great debate in the first few centuries of the Church’s life. The debate is the background for the development of the Nicene Creed as we recite it each week, as well as for the doctrine of the Trinity, that uniquely Christian understanding about the nature of the one God.
Now, of course, we can’t say that Jesus had in mind the future doctrine of the Trinity when he made this prayer. But it is the doctrine of the Trinity that can help us unpack what this prayer means for the Church, particularly since it was the Church itself that came to the Trinity as the way to understand the relationship about which Jesus was praying.
If that sentence seemed to go in circles, well, it pretty much had to. The doctrine of the Trinity makes us go in circles. It is, after all, a way to talk about something that is fundamentally mystery and not ultimately understandable. If Christians do not talk in circles when talking about God, they are, in fact, saying far more than they have a right to say.
The Trinity in one paragraph. God is three, yet God is one. One substance, three persons. God is one, yet God is three. Three in one, one in three. To speak of God as one is obviously to speak of unity. To speak of God as three is obviously to speak of diversity. This means that unity and diversity are fundamentally the nature of God.
If this is true then what does this say about the nature of unity, the unity for which Jesus prays. It means at least that it cannot mean the same thing as uniformity. In the Trinity the persons are not the same as one another nor are they the same as the substance itself, the oneness.
So, when Jesus prays that we may be one as he and the Father are one, he is not praying that we all be the same, that his followers be uniform.
What is he praying for? What is it that holds the three persons of the Trinity together? The almost universal answer to that question has always been “love.” It is the force of love that binds the Trinity together. In a sense, it is love that is the substance of the Trinity. This certainly makes sense in terms of the thinking of John’s Gospel and Letters, where Jesus’ new commandment that we heard last week is “Love one another as I have loved you,” and the writer of the First Letter of John said to us two weeks ago simply, “God is love.”
To pray for unity among Christians is to pray for a manifestation not of sameness but of love. Complete care for one another, relationship that is purely just, where your dignity and well-being is my chief goal, and mine is yours.
There is no way to get to this unity without us bumping up against our individual uniqueness and difference, finding ways to express this difference in mutual regard. The road there is rough. We should not be surprised. Why do you think Jesus makes it the subject of his final and highest prayer for us? He knows full well what he is asking and the difficult road ahead.
For the Church to be one as Jesus and the Father are one, we must, paradoxically, seek ways to be different yet to respond to this difference with love. That is the very meaning of justice as a theological term, by the way, which is why something Doug Theuner, the Bishop of New Hampsire, said several years ago is so profoundly true, “Unity without Justice is hardly worth preserving.” It is hardly worth preserving because it is no unity at all, at least not the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed.
What does this have to do especially with us as Episcopalians and Anglicans?
First of all it means that unity among us can only be sought by enhancing our diversity and our difference. That is an almost absolute paradox, isn’t it? And it certainly is potentially difficult, if not at times divisive. But how else will we truly learn to love one another? I believe, in fact, that we cannot learn to love one another if we are not willing to bump up against one another.
It is a natural thing to feel that talking about and even enhancing our differences can only lead to difficulty, even to divisiveness and disunity. It is a risky thing that I believe Jesus asks of us. But I also believe that it is the risk that is at the very heart of God, the risk we call the Trinity.
Second, and perhaps more immediately important is the controversy raging in our Church about human sexuality, particularly the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church.
The current debate is over whether or not same-sex relationship of faithful and life-long commitment should be publicly celebrated in the Church. Before this summer’s General Convention of our Episcopal Church there is a proposal to authorize the development of an optional national rite to do such blessings. Such a rite would then actually have to be approved in three years at the 2006 General Convention.
Just last week, the Archbishops and Presiding Bishops, or “Primates,” of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion met in Brazil and issued a statement that said, among other things, the following
The question of public rites
for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive
controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that
it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is
no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot
support the authorisation of such rites.
This is distinct from the duty of pastoral care that is laid upon all Christians to respond with love and understanding to people of all sexual orientations. . . . it is necessary to maintain a breadth of private response to situations of individual pastoral care.
In the debate within the Episcopal Church, whether we agree with it or not, this opinion matters, as well it should. And it may sway enough people to result in the defeat of the proposal for a national rite. But it should not do so because it is supposedly the only way to maintain “unity.” There will be no unity if this proposal is defeated. There will only be the attempt to impose uniformity, at least uniformity of public practice. This attempt, however, will fail and, in truth, have the opposite effect. We will be further divided.
I seek a Church that lives, and, I believe, flourishes, on the other side of this issue. It is possible to live and thrive having made the decision that gay and lesbian people are equal partners in the life of faith, the public life of faith. Many communities such as ours are already doing so.
Some call the public nature of our existence as this open community of faith “unilateral action” that flies in the face of the unity of the Church. I believe they are wrong. And I believe they are wrong because I believe in the Trinity and I believe in the prayer Jesus made, that we may be one as he and the Father are one. That oneness can only come when we are able to be in full relationship with one another in the fullness of our differences, the place where we can embrace one another in true and honest love.
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