Just this last week, two men met to take an oath of office to serve as elected leaders of their country – one as leader of the government of Northern Ireland and the other as his deputy. That wouldn’t be such a remarkable thing, except that just a few years ago the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness, as leaders of
It’s a remarkable step. Both Paisley and McGuiness find themselves opposed by factional colleagues who distrust the idea of sitting down with former enemies, and you have to wonder what the cost has been for each of these men, how much of the ideals and ideologies they have for so many years held dear have each of them had to set aside in order to work with one another for the sake of the country they both love?
Each year in the Anglican Communion this Sunday, the last Sunday of Easter, is set aside as the day of prayer for unity. It’s a bitter irony. Landing on my desk this week, the national Anglican newspaper, The Market-Place, led with a front page article about the top-to-bottom fracture in the Episcopal Church in the US and Canada. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola made a lightening trip to the US earlier this month to install his own bishop as the head of a breakaway faction called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) which he hopes eventually will be recognised as the real Anglican Church because he says the existing Episcopal Church has drifted away from traditional Anglican teachings by its refusal to discriminate against gays and lesbians both in ordained ministry and in the pews. I think this is really sad. It’s a move that makes the future of the worldwide Anglican Communion even shakier, a move that makes trust and cooperation between Anglicans of different cultures and different theological, political and social backgrounds even harder to aspire to. Lest we think of that sort of stuff, ‘only in America’ – or even, ‘only in Africa’ – consider the atmosphere of distrust between our own Diocese and the Diocese of Sydney when we suspect them of plotting to plant churches and clergy among us that follow their hardline evangelical views. Right inside our own Diocese we have seen sectarian movements that have divided congregations, distrust between Anglican congregations and clergy who see themselves as evangelical and those who see themselves as progressive. These are brand-names we put on ourselves that put us out of communion and out of fellowship with one another. Not only do we find true ecumenism impossible to practically aspire to, we find it impossible to agree on what it means to be Anglican.
So, what’s this unity that Jesus is talking about, and why does it elude us even though we long for it?
It’s not just a Christian thing, is it? It’s the underlying principle of just about any form of human activity - families, football teams, business empires and armies all know that if they’re not working together, if each of their members don’t give up some personal autonomy and focus on the shared goal then they’ll fall apart. Unity is about mutual protection and survival, about cooperating to achieve something as a team that individuals can’t achieve on their own, about the paradox that we can only find a personal sense of purpose and identity when we sacrifice something of our personal space for the good of a group. Unity is a good thing because it’s how human life works best.
But Jesus doesn’t just pray for unity for his followers because it’s a good thing, he prays that we will have unity because that’s what God’s own life is like. As human beings made in God’s image, we flourish when we work the same way God works. Jesus doesn’t know about the doctrine of the Trinity, that’s going to get invented a few centuries later, but he tells his disciples, ‘as I and my Father are one, so you also must be one, because that’s how your lives will reflect the life of God’. This is what we mean when we talk about the mutual love of the Father and the Son that is expressed in the Holy Spirit. The God that we can best understand as a community of love, is reflected in us when we allow our lives to go with that same flow of divine love, with the mutual – that is, two-way flow - always moving, always enriched by the permutations and new expressions with which it gets reflected back from the one we love – love that is creative and dynamic because it is a reflection of God’s own Trinitarian life. According to the later reflections of theologians, the fullness of the Father is poured out into the life of the Son, and the life of the Son is poured out in love for the Father, and the result is the Holy Spirit which is the pouring out of God’s life into the life of creation. Unity, then, becoming one with God and with one another, means letting go of some personal space, but it also means receiving back again that which is richer and fuller than anything we could ever have when we keep it all to ourselves.
Unity then is not an added extra for Christians, it is at the heart of the matter. But what it doesn’t mean is sameness or uniformity. There is room for diversity in our responses to the Gospel, there is even room for disagreement. In John’s gospel itself we hear the pointed comment that the beloved disciples outruns Peter; Paul’s letters also preserve the evidence of fundamental disagreements in the early church. We do need however to question the motives of those who talk about unity – in some places John’s Gospel and the Johannine letters talk about unity in a way that suggests everybody else should just agree with us. Or else there’s the sort of unity we have left when everybody else has been excluded. That’s not real unity, the sort of unity that comes out of God’s own life and recognises the God-given beauty of diversity. Unity with integrity that respects difference – affirming all that we can agree on but at the same time recognising the need to disagree with respect, even to oppose one another where necessary but without prejudice, without stereotyping or breaking off the relationship that we understand as life-giving – that sort of unity is shaped on God’s own life. This God-shaped sort of unity is organic, holding together even under tension because it is grounded not just in our understanding of what matters, but our understanding of who we are.
There still might come a time when communion between God’s people is stretched to its limit and beyond. Practicing unity with integrity automatically excludes agendas that are ungenerous or refuse the demands of inclusiveness. Practicing unity with integrity should never be confused with the false and toxic unity that comes from avoiding conflict at all costs. It can be hard sometimes to decide the difference between those things we need to let go of for the sake of unity, and those things we dare not compromise for the sake of that same unity – maybe the guiding principle needs to be that true unity is never self-serving, always oriented towards the needs of others.
Which brings us to the point that Jesus is leading up to. Practice unity, he tells us, not for your own sakes but for the sake of others. Unity is not just a good way for us all to get along together and have a cosy Church, but the only way for us to fulfil the Church’s fundamental reason for being, which is to proclaim the gospel. If we don’t have that unity, then we’re not actually being truthful, because our life together has stopped being grounded in God’s own life. If you can’t do it for yourselves, Jesus tells us, at least do it for those who will come after you. When Jesus says that to his disciples he is talking about us, the ones who have come to belief through them.
On one level this just sounds like practical advice. Get your act together, Jesus is telling them – and us – or else your best efforts at preaching the gospel are going to sound hollow. Fair enough. But then we realise that this too is grounded in the dynamics of God’s own life, the mutual love of Father and Son that is too exuberant ever to be confined to a mutual admiration society but extends outwards to encompass all of creation. That sort of unity doesn’t know where to stop, if we open up our lives to that source of love and unity then who knows where it’s going to lead. Only that sort of unity, focused not just on ourselves but on the community around us, unity based on the outgoing love of the God we know as the Trinity of love, is powerful enough to sweep aside all our differences. Ultimately, only the love of others, not just the love of one another, can be powerful enough to unite us.