But this prayer occurs here, on this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, for a good reason. The Ascension reminds us that we no longer have the bodily presence of Jesus in our midst to guide us. Even though Luke tells us the disciples were joyous at the Ascension, there is still a change in how they will relate to Jesus in a different way. His absence is felt. This prayer reminds us that Christ is still with us and still interceding for us to the Father. We can fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus is now gone and his time is somehow “over” and then the Holy Spirit comes and that’s what we are waiting for. That idea is the heresy of modalism condemned as heresy as early as 262 by Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, and addressed in the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Christ is still active and present to the Church through the sacraments and continues to pray for us – both as a community and as individuals.
While this prayer is long and rambling, there is one point which kept coming up as I prayed with this passage – “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus is praying for our protection and that we may be one. The latter sounds like a pretty impossible thing, doesn’t it? How can we possibly be “one” when we don’t see eye to eye? How can we be one if we disagree?
Back in seminary, I did an independent study course which evolved into a research paper contrasting the concept of unity with uniformity. The backdrop was comparing the current controversies over sexual orientation and LGBT inclusion in the Church with the Reformation era Vestments Controversy (yes, we Anglicans actually argued about liturgical clothing … think of it as “What Not to Wear: The Reformation Edition”). I realized I bit off more than I could chew with this paper, and it really has the beginnings of a doctoral thesis, but what came out of it for me was this idea that unity and uniformity are really two different ideas which sit on a continuum. In light of our reading, I’ll share with you my ideas on this … and as Rod Serling used to say, they are “submitted for your approval” – see if they resonate for you.
On the one end of the continuum, there is unity. The way I experience this is quite mystical. It is the idea that a group of people are brought together for a common purpose and in so doing that gathering incorporates and celebrates the diversity of its members. St. Paul spoke of this in his metaphor of the Body of Christ being made up of many diverse members. The Church, as an entity, has a common purpose – our final purpose is Divine union, both individually and corporately. This kind of unity is witnessed in stories like Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch that we heard a few weeks ago. This new Church made space and included people like the gender queer eunuch who had historically been excluded! Women, people with disabilities, the gender queer, Gentiles … people who otherwise would not have been brought together suddenly found themselves part of this mystical Body of Christ – finding a mystical unity which could withstand the tension of their diversity and even celebrated it as the gathering sought Divine union in Christ.
On the other end of the continuum, we find uniformity. We often confuse uniformity with unity because they share the same goal – bringing together a group of people for a common purpose. Uniformity differs from unity, though, in that uniformity does not have a high tolerance for diversity. Uniformity will sacrifice diversity for the sake of the common goal. Uniformity can be characterized by similarity of ideas and beliefs, modes of dress and behavior.
Human life is lived somewhere between these two poles, regardless of which groupings we consider. Each of the ends has its strengths and weaknesses. Unity embraces diversity but can also be very inefficient because of that diversity. Embracing unity can leave us stuck and unable to accomplish anything because we struggle to find common ground. Uniformity, on the other hand, is quite efficient but it will tend to cast out and exclude those who don’t fall in lock step with the group ideals. Every group, whether political or ecclesial, falls somewhere on this continuum.
Under stress, humans will tend to move towards uniformity to get to a resolution of whatever is causing the anxiety. We see that a lot in our political landscape – the pressure to “toe the party line” and make sure what you say conforms to the party’s “talking points.” When humans are less anxious, they will move back towards unity and an embracing of more diversity.
We see this in the various expressions of Christianity too. Some denominations land closer to the uniformity end of the spectrum and others towards the unity end. Many of you here at Grace have come from churches which lie more towards the pole of uniformity. An example of this is how the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod exclude from Holy Communion anyone who does not belong to their church. I have debated Roman Catholic priests on this topic because the official teaching from the Pope and Magisterium states that the Eucharist is a symbol of Christian “unity” and because we are “not yet one”, those outside the Roman Catholic Church may not receive Eucharist. I suggest this is an attempt to disguise a demand for uniformity as unity. I’ve posed the question that if the Last Supper is the pattern for Eucharist (with which we agree) and if the Eucharist is a symbol of “unity” (with which we agree) then why was Judas not excluded from the supper? He clearly was not at “unity,” as they define it, with Jesus in that moment. Jesus, even knowing Judas would betray him, dipped the bread in the dish and handed it to Judas! I have yet to find a Roman Catholic priest who can give me a reasonable answer to my question. I suggest it is because this is a case where “unity” and “uniformity” are being confused. If Jesus had demanded “uniformity,” Judas would have been excluded and driven out of the group. But Jesus did not demand “uniformity” – his inclusion of Judas was that mystical “unity” which could even embrace the deep pain of betrayal … and that is a truly scandalous Gospel!
There are times when people come to the Episcopal Church and get frustrated because we seem to lack hard and fast answers for their questions. This is because we land more on the end of unity on this spectrum than uniformity (although we do like to dress alike and color code our clergy shirts). It can be maddening for some when they ask about whether we believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation and I reply, “Yes … and we even make space for those who see it as memorial only … and even for those who really don’t know what they believe but know there’s something mystical going on. We call that the ‘Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist’ … but we don’t spend a lot of time defining it.” We make space for a lot here … and that can be terribly inefficient and at times very frustrating.
Jesus prayed that we all may be one as he and the Father are one. We can do it but it will be imperfectly and our efforts will swing between these two poles of unity and uniformity throughout our earthly days. But in the end, Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” becomes the most important ethic on which to move into union – both with each other and with God.