I watched a TV interview the other day with David Cameron, the new Conservative Party British Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, his Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister. It’s an unlikely coalition between the ultra conservative Tories and the left-leaning Liberal Democrats but the two men - both of them young, cheerful-looking men with attractive families - were standing side by side outside no. 10 Downing Street, trying to assure the country it can work. ‘Nick’, one cheeky reporter called out, ‘how do you feel about the fact that during the campaign David was asked what was his favourite joke, and he said “Nick Clegg”?’ The two of them spun around and stared at each other in mock horror as if to say ‘what have I got myself into?’ - laughing it off rather well, I thought - but at the same time the cheeky question and the vaudeville response seemed totally serious.
How are they going to make this work? The gloomiest political commentators are saying the Brits will be back to the polls within a year, the most cynical are saying the Lib Democrats have sold out their principles for a taste of power, but realistically probably everyone knows that what the country really needs is stability, constructive compromise and a focus on the common good. Political rivals need to learn to trust each other, to work together despite differences or even to use their differences creatively to come to a deeper sense of what unites them. It’s a big ask.
‘Be one’, Jesus tells us. ‘Just as I and my Father are one’. This, also, is a big ask. Interestingly enough John, the writer of the gospel, is putting this prayer for unity onto Jesus lips in order to talk some sense into his own community, a Jewish Christian community late in the first century or perhaps early in the second that is going through some intense conflicts. These early Christians were in the process of going through a painful divorce from Judaism, finding themselves separated from the worship of their fellow Jews in the synagogues and also torn apart by internal arguments. Christianity at the end of the first century is in a state of flux, without a clear sense of identity, torn apart by doctrinal differences and competing leaders. And in the gospel John writes for his community he emphasises Jesus’ prayer for unity. And so it is appropriate that we read this and reflect on it in the week that all the major churches set aside as the week of prayer for Christian unity.
It’s always seemed to me that the community John is writing for is in a similar situation to the Church in our present day, having lost a clear sense of direction and purpose, degenerated into competing groups and disconnected from a wider culture that follows the gods of individualism and consumerism. We hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and we are saddened by it, if we are sensitive, because we know how fragmented and competitive we really are.
And yet I wonder, also, if we also miss the full force of the demands that Christian unity makes on us.
The first problem arises, I think, when we mistake unity for the end, or outcome, of Christian life, rather than its starting point. We understand, in other words, that if we love and forgive and follow Jesus’ commandments then the outcome will be unity. We’ll all see eye to eye if we keep at this long enough. But the reality is the other way around. The oneness Jesus prayed for isn’t just a matter of human beings learning to be nice to one another, it is a matter of human beings learning to live out of the centre of God’s own life which is the unity of Father, Son and Spirit.
The point is that the unity that exists from before the creation of the universe between the Father and the Son, which is expressed in their mutual self-giving in the Spirit, is the same love by which the Church exists. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realise [achieve]; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
The second point is that the unity of the Church must be visible and material, not just a quiet agreement on matters of doctrine or a shared but largely private faith, but the shared witness of lives lived in accordance with Jesus’ example of forgiveness and love, a coherent proclamation of the gospel both in words and in actions that point to the same reality of God’s love. What unity doesn’t mean is that we will all think the same or that we will never argue, what it means is that our shared life comes out of the community of love that is the heart of God, which means that above all we are committed to remaining in life-giving relationship.
The Church lives in the out-of focus double-vision of a world in which the restoration accomplished by the death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord is both a present reality and a future promise. In the same way the unity for which Jesus prays is both the ground of who we are and the indictment of what are not. The Church is both the promise of a healed and fulfilled cosmos which, as St Paul remarks, is groaning as if in labour as it waits for the children of God to realise their true being - and at the same time a microcosm of a divided and hurting world. We mistake our defensiveness, our self-preoccupation and our lack of engagement with the world around us, for the unity Jesus is praying for. We mistake narrow-mindedness and judgmental attitudes for unity. We settle for being a community of the like-minded, rather than a community that recognises the Holy Spirit in diversity, and encourages those with different perspectives, different gifts and different dreams.
Our readings from the Bible this morning actually show this in action. When we read the story of Paul and Silas’s encounter with a slave girl who makes a tidy profit for her masters by being able to tell the future and perceive realities most of us miss, it is easy to interpret this simply on the level of the clash between superstition and truth, or to focus on the miraculous jail-break that enables the apostles to continue spreading the word. But theologian Kate Huey asks us to slow down a bit, to notice, firstly, that this girl is not only possessed, but a possession, not free on any level. Far from challenging the powers that keep the girl in subjection, far from reacting compassionately to her situation, Paul reacts simply because he is annoyed at being heckled. That’s what Acts tells us. He's focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn't seem to be at the top of his agenda. Paul finds her distracting, even if she is proclaiming the truth. Huey points out that after Paul performs his off-the-cuff exorcism, the story moves on to how much trouble he and Silas find themselves in. But we never find out what happens to the girl. Does she remain a slave? What sort of life will she have now that she is no longer profitable? Paul and Silas never do invite her into the freedom of faith that he earlier offered to Lydia or will later to the jailer. It’s a minor irritation in the text but it gets us thinking - what slave girls do we encounter in our everyday lives - what distractions do we react to with annoyance when we are on a mission? Because it might actually be the annoyances and the distractions that are drawing us back into the heart of the compassion that Jesus prays might define us. What needs to be changed about us, so that we might be driven not by our own agendas, but by the self-giving love that is at the heart of the Trinity?
In the reading from Revelation we stumble over a verse or two that is such an irritation to lectionary writers that they routinely leave it out of the Sunday readings. ‘Outside are the dogs, and the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters’. Right at the heart of John of Patmos’s inspired vision of the City of God, the transformed creation that Jesus’ resurrection makes possible, is the rhetoric of exclusion. Bible scholar Bill Loader points out the word ‘dogs’ - a standard put-down for Gentiles and Samaritans who lived outside the Jewish Law - a word that we also come across in Mark’s gospel when Jesus encounters a Syropheonician woman and, at first reluctantly, reaches out to include and feed ‘the dogs’ as well as the children of Israel. In the Revelation text the sense of comfort and triumph for those inside the city of God seems, however, to be at the expense of those who are excluded and dehumanised. No doubt in the transformed creation there will be no violence or immorality - creation will be free to flourish as God intended - but the point is the unity at the heart of the Trinity is not closed or inward looking but pours itself out in love for the whole of creation. The unity at the heart of the Church makes us, not a closed and self-serving community of the like-minded, but a community of inclusion, a community of welcome and hospitality, a community not withdrawn from but engaged with the needs of a world broken and divided by sin.
What needs to be changed about us, so that we can be that sort of community?