The celebration of the Ascension of the Lord was Thursday. This is the day the church sets aside to reflect on Jesus’ journey back to the Father after finishing his earthly ministry.
So, Jesus has gone back to his Father.
Our Easter celebration is ending. For Seven weeks we focused our liturgy on the meaning of having our risen Christ living among us. I love the joy of Easter. It makes me feel excited and grateful to be a Christian. Desmond Tutu says we are the people of Easter. Alas, it can’t always be Easter. He was here, He died, and he is risen; and ascended into heaven until he comes again. Hence, the readings for today seek to answer the question of how we live our Christian lives when Christ is not physically present with us.
The Gospel lesson for today (John 17:20-26) and more specifically in John 17: 21 attempts to answer this question. John tells us that Jesus prayed to the Father that his followers live in unity as one, just as Jesus lives in unity with the Father and the spirit lives in God. Jesus prayed that we, the followers, would live in such a way as to be testament to the world; that the world may believe that Jesus was indeed sent to us on this earth by the Father.
So, all week, I pondered what being one in Christ, and remaining one in Christ until Christ’s return means. What does being ‘One in Christ’ mean for our own individual spiritual growth and relationship with God.
How do we answer “yes “to Christ’s prayer for unity for our shared spiritual community and our collective citizenship in this country and the world?
How do we earnestly and righteously address the obstacles to unity? The polarization and other obstacles are confusing and seemingly impossible to dispel.
As you know I am a mediator. I studied conflict resolution for 12 years. I am supposed to be one of the blessed peacemakers. In 2017, at the Washington Conflict Resolution Conference, Kenneth Clocke, one of our mediation gurus, gave a beautiful lecture about the dangers of political polarization. It was a great and memorable lecture. At the end of his 90-minute session he paused and gave us a strong and powerful command. He said, “You are the ones who are now charged with the task of resolving this world crisis. You are the ones who are specifically trained on how to bring people together”. He implored us to be the solution and never let ourselves be part of the problem. We all stood up and applauded this virtuous call to action. I wish I could truly live up to the standard that Kenneth Clocke challenged that day. My heart is in the right place, but most of the time, I am either not doing much or I am obsessing and ruminating on how terrible it is that God’s people are so divided.
What is keeping us apart from being one in Christ in the world?
And what are some of the structures available to us to guide a practice of unity.
I love our fellowship after the service. We have a snack and converse about topics that relate to our common interests, or just random topics that merge into other random topics. It is fun. Of course, there must be occasional disagreements, but respect and desire of unity overrides minor offenses. It works.
Sometimes the best thing to do is simply be polite, well-mannered and kind. Accept our differences because that is the Christian way. However, this kind of respect is special and not always found in every Christian congregation. We have all witnessed, or at least heard about, unhealthy competition and rivalries within churches, gossip and cruelty, egotism, arrogance, classism; and organized coalitions to bring down anyone from ordained clergy, to Sunday school teachers and choir directors.
And Jesus prayed that his followers will remain one in him.
Humans are naturally social, so being in community is primal and evolutionally habitual. Unity is our natural state of being. So why was Jesus so concerned about our ability to be as one, that he actively offered his special prayer for our unity? One idea: Our human survival instinct to be gathered is countered by our many biases, most of which serve to keep us in our own tribes, and compel us to perceive most people as “the other”. Hence, we are victims of the power of “us and them”.
Can we achieve unity without uniformity?
Right now, there is a big conflict in Christian Social Media regarding whether Episcopalians are even Christians. I myself have personal biases regarding many destructive principals of religious fundamentalism. A few of the national issues that divide Christians today include immigration, reproductive rights, death penalty, women in leadership, evolution, climate change, LBGTQ issues, homelessness and addiction. C.S. Lewis provided one answer to how Christians remain divided. He explored the counter force to Jesus’s prayer for unity in his classic book: The Screwtape Letters. In this work Lewis speculates how Satin might instruct his demons to keep Christians from being one in the world. Satin coaches his demons by continuously making people aware of their fears. Satin says to his demon, Screwtape, “Hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful–horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; But Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.”
According to C.S. Lewis, keeping the Christians fearful will lead to self-righteous hatred. Hatred is Satin’s goal. When hatred takes over. Jesus’s prayer for unity is not realized in the world. Satin wins.
The truth is, a divided Christianity or Church is a stumbling block to the continuation of the work of Christ. John calls us to acknowledge that Jesus’ prayer is fundamental in fulfilling the mission of the church in the world.
Last week, The Podcast ‘Hidden Brian’ explored the neurological, psychological and biological differences between conservatives and liberals. Some fun facts. Both liberals and conservative like dogs. However, Conservatives are more likely to have pure bred dogs and to tend to have a favorite breed, while liberals statistically own mixed breed dogs. Conservatives are more likely to be uncomfortable with poems that don’t rhyme; Liberals not care. Liberals are afraid of things that conservatives do not worry about and vice versa. And we tend to get annoyed at each other for not sharing our preferences, perceptions and fears. This feeds our ‘us and them’ bias. And it fuels hatred.
So, why can’t we all just get along. Why can’t we work together? Why is it so hard to be of one mind and to fulfill Jesus’s prayer?
You know…like ants.
The communal working together ethic is often analogized by the admirable dedicated group focus performed by an army of ants. Ants do get a lot done in their little lives. Incredibly, together these little guys and gals can carry 20 times their own weight because they single mindedly work well together. But we are nothing like ants. For one, our brains are not only different, but way bigger.
Experts estimate that an ant brain consists of 250,000 neurons. That number pales in comparison to the human brain, which is believed to contain over 86-100 billion brain cells. And, compare ants trailing along with their leaves and twigs to our human diversity of talents and abilities; interests and preferences.
Unlike an ant colony, we human experience a complicated world of pandemonium and misdirection. Scientists who study ants have discovered signs of empathy between individuals within the colony, forms of language to communicate direction or potential danger, and adaptions in behavior when faced with threat of disease inside the colony. This is impressive but compare that to our 150 known cognitive biases, 340 documented phobias, 5000-6000 human languages; and even the diversity of countless cultures among the English-speaking peoples of the world.
To paraphrase John Medina, author of the New York Times bestseller "Brain Rules" and professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine: It is astonishing, that there is no real proof, that given the diversity of our various brains with all their uniquely individual neural connections , that we can all agree on anything, much less the color ‘red’. There is no proof that we all see the exact same thing when we imagine the color ‘red’. No one knows.
Unity is complicated. We have our own opinions, judgements, stereotypes, prejudges, preferences and basic believes of right and wrong. So, Jesus knew what we were up against. And as C.S. Lewis points out, so does the enemy.
Therefore, to achieve this unity for the sake of Christ we must begin to confront our biases, stereotypes and prejudices for three reasons.
One, this is what God calls us to do. This is what Jesus prayed for us to do. Jesus prayed that our behavior in the world would be the proof the world needs to believe that God sent him to save us. This is one of those times when our actions and attitudes speak so much louder than our words.
Secondly, the future of the church depends on our figuring this out. Biases, stereotyping and prejudices lead to corruption of the Word of God and turn away those who would believe. Division will block our chances of being one in Christ. Polarization is the ultimate trap, set to keep us from fulfilling Christ’s prayer, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one”. We are called to mission. We are called to be better than the rest. Jesus is praying that we will be role models for the kingdom of God. Knowing this we no longer have the luxury of yielding to the gratifying endorphin rush achieved by hating others who don’t think like us. We don’t get to be self-righteous about our own rightness. Even if you are right. The slave girl was right. That didn’t make her any less annoying.
Third, Unity and love is our call to the Holy Spirit to be here with us until Christ returns. Addressing and challenging our obstacles to living in Unity with Christ facilitates our dynamic prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of those around us.
We are called to love and serve each other because we love and serve Christ and want to know God. We are the future of the church in the world.
Today is the last Sunday of Easter. I enjoyed having the risen Jesus here with us for seven weeks.
Jesus left us again, but this time he left us with the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us how to fulfill his prayer, until he comes back to claim us. Amen.
Some paragraphs copied and adapted with permission from Fr. Dolphyne’s homely for this day.