Holy Week Reflection: True Unity in the Body of Christ

“We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together for a common goal.”

In this year of heightened political tensions in the U.S., the subject of unity has been weighing heavily on my mind. Unity sometimes seems like a pie-in-the-sky concept. Is it even attainable?

Differences of belief in political and religious matters are well known obstacles to unity. That fact is more obvious during any presidential election year, but I don’t remember a more contentious election environment than this one.

Speaking from the perspective of a Christian minister to people of varying political persuasions, I truly dislike the current political climate and all the rhetoric. I don’t like the fact that political issues often undermine unity within congregations. Perhaps it is no coincidence that churches are experiencing increased tension and disunity at this time, too. Having served in churches for the past 20 years as a staff member and having been involved in church life for 90% of my time on earth, I can say that congregational unity is incredibly difficult to achieve in any long-term way. But, imagine how difficult it would be for us to manage unity within, say, TWO congregations. Then, following that line of thinking to its end, imagine unity among all followers of Jesus everywhere. Sounds impossible, eh?

It may sound impossible to maintain such radical unity, but disunity was not Jesus’ desire for us, the Church.

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be [one in us], so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21, NRSV)

I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. (John 17:20-21, The Message)

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was extended beyond their time in history. He prayed also for those of us who would believe based on witnesses who have continued to carry the story and traditions of our faith throughout history. Beyond us, Jesus’ prayer for unity extends to all believers of all eras.

“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind.”

Any Church-lover will tell you that the Church (universal) is in a state of transition. It is my personal belief that the transition is not toward anything destructive, but is instead a transition toward unity. In the midst of all of our current denominationalism, “worship wars,” tensions between small churches and mega-congregations and other divisions based on personal preferences and interpretations, I believe that God is impressing upon the Church our goal toward unity.      unity

If dividing ourselves into like-minded groups of people (by way of differing denominations of believers) was something believers did to achieve some measure of unity, then why hasn’t it worked? Why doesn’t unity automatically happen in a group of (supposedly) like-minded people? My opinion is that denominationalism hasn’t worked in attaining unity because it is not Jesus’ desire for the Church.

We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together toward a common goal.

A key word in this picture of unity is “respect.” This one very important virtue is sorely lacking in our society. Spending a very short time reading through online comments – related to just about ANYTHING – will demonstrate just how comfortable many of us have become with disrespecting others. Yet, we witness daily how quickly disrespect can escalate into something more violent. In order to understand what makes another person feel respected or disrespected, we must genuinely care about him or her. Once we are made aware of something we are doing that is considered disrespectful, then we have to stop doing it. Married couples learn to maintain unity this way … or they don’t remain married. Some families are able to maintain unity while respecting each other’s differences. It requires a commitment to stay together in peaceful times but also through conflict. Our commitment to unity rarely goes beyond the nuclear family, but we must extend that commitment into our church community. It’s a commitment based in love – love that unites God, others and self.

During this Holy Week, the faithful will reflect on the tensions Jesus holds together between love and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness, death and new life. May we also reflect on the prayer of Jesus for us and our calling toward oneness of heart and mind, even in the midst of our intense diversity.

Hard to live with

My youngest child is like so many others in that he speaks, unfiltered, whatever is on his mind. “Why do you have to be so hard to live with?!” he cried after I issued his punishment for the crime of disobedience. What he did wasn’t terrible – he simply chose not to listen to me until he was ready – and his punishment wasn’t earth-shattering, either. (Although, to a 6-year-old boy, losing a few hours of Wii is close to earth-shattering.) The point of my response wasn’t the level of severity of his bad behavior and the point of his response wasn’t the severity of the assigned punishment. It was the principle of the thing – on both counts. I insist on respectful obedience from my children and he persists in trying to do things his own way and in his own time, regardless of what I say. So, who’s harder to live with? I dealt with it by laughing. You know, that “Silly boy, it isn’t ME who is being difficult, but your own choices that are creating difficulty for you” laugh; the “You’re the one being stubborn, not me” laugh.

This may be easier to resolve in parent-child relationships since there is a power differential. But what about stalemates like this in adult relationships? Are there times when we are less-than-gracious when we should offer someone the opportunity to express their individuality? Well, of course.

I am not a big fan of campaign season in the political realm. I dislike the negative ads and the boasting ads equally. If there was a party called Humble Integrity, I’d probably join that one. As it stands, there isn’t one remotely close to that. [Ok, I came up with the cool acronym: Humble Integrity Party = HIP!] As a HIP candidate, I would do all my campaigning via Facebook, Twitter, and blogging. Oh wait – maybe that is how I would do it as a member of the DLCP (Don’t Like Crowds Party). . . Let’s face it. I’d never be a suitable candidate for political office.

Not too many of us risk having our lives dissected, chewed up, and spit out in the national forum. Our family has a way, though, of exposing to us the things we either deny or would otherwise like to keep under wraps about ourselves. Marriage is the great revealer of life areas in need of personal growth. Our level of stubbornness is revealed in how we respond to the knowledge that we need to grow enough in an area to demonstrate grace. If we can humbly apologize and seek to let go of our personal agenda (which is often linked to nothing vital), then we become much more pleasant to be around. If we disregard the revelation and dig in our heels to ensure no one “runs over us”, then we might be setting ourselves up for a lot of head-butting.

So, with that in mind, and to avoid running the risk of being known as a head-butt-er (or any variation of such), let us be mindful of the grace that is ours through Jesus. I would rather be known as someone who is hard to live without than hard to live with.