So, have you chosen a side, yet? Do you know where you’re going to stand—what you will fight against and why? It doesn’t really matter what argument or issue I might be referencing. We’ve all got an opinion about something—something that we are for, but more likely, something that we are against. We’ve drawn our line in the sand—declared our allegiance—chosen a side.
That’s what our world feels like these days. Everyone is divided—over lots of things. Everyone seems to have a passionate opinion on just about everything. Mark even mentioned the other day that only a year ago, his Facebook feed was filled with rants about Obama. Now it’s filled with rants about Trump. Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you for or against gay marriage? What about immigration? What about languages spoken in the public schools? What about welfare and Medicaid? What about health insurance, in general? What about minimum wage? What about hearing about social justice from the pulpit—again? What about the summer worship schedule? What about the kitchen renovations? What about our prison ministry? What about which hymnal we use? What about which liturgy we use? What about traditional or contemporary worship? What about women in the pulpit?
Have you chosen a side, yet? Do you know what it is you are against and why?
Now, of course, that’s a dividing question to begin with. It assumes and even encourages division. But it tends to be where we start our conversations. What is the difference between Lutherans and Catholics? What is the difference between ELCA Lutherans and Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans? The underlying question, I think, is really—what makes us think we are better? How do we compare? Who is winning? And where do I stand in the midst of those divisions?
And how do people typically respond when confronted with someone who stands opposite them on an issue? We argue, don’t we? We defend our position. We challenge, coerce, confront, and convince. We try to convert others to our way of thinking—because we’re right and they’re wrong. Otherwise, we wouldn’t think the way we do.
It’s all quite logical. And it’s destructive.
The last time this country seemed to be even remotely unified was during WWII. We had a common enemy. We had a common purpose. And as long as we can land together on who or what we are against, we seem to do quite well. Never mind the Japanese internment camps or the denial of German death camps or the absence of Civil Rights for African Americans. Most of America was together in defending our way of life and in responding to the events at Pearl Harbor.
We’ve not been on the same page since then. We’ve not been able to agree on whom to be against since then. We’ve not nailed down a proper scapegoat since then—though we’ve tried a variety of groups of people, from homosexuals to illegal immigrants to Democrats to Republicans. We are a divided nation—we are a divided people—we are a divided church. And a divided church is not the Church.
This is why Jesus’ prayer over the disciples in John’s reading today is so important. Now, it’s unlikely that there was a scribe in the upper room, writing down Jesus’ prayer, word for word. No, John penned this gospel account over 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection. I imagine the prayer we heard today was, in large part, John’s prayer and John’s hope for the Church of his day. I imagine that Church—like all groups of people—struggled to be united in the shadow of their diversity.
In fact, even Paul and Peter opposed each other on whether or not Christians should first become Jews. Paul did a complete 180—going from persecuting Christians for their new understanding of God to insisting that that Christians didn’t even need to pass through the Jewish process, first. Peter disagreed, understanding the Jewish faith as the foundation on which Christianity must be built. But despite their different theological approaches, they agreed on the main thing: Jesus is Lord. Everything that doesn’t serve that foundation isn’t worth pursuing. They were united on what mattered most.
And that is the core of Jesus’ prayer—that we are united in heart and mind just as the Son and the Father are united. He is praying that, at the end of the day, we are still focused on the main thing and not on the things that divide us.
He is praying that the oneness of purpose and will shared between the Father and Son also be present in the Church—the very Body of Christ. He is praying that what is most important remain central to who we are and how we live and how we treat each other. That central thing—real and eternal life—is relationship. It is relationship with God, relationship with the Christ, relationship with each other. That is the only way we can be the Church.
I don’t know about you, but when I feel threatened, the last thing I do is want to be in relationship with my perceived threat. And the first thing I do is find someone who agrees with me. I don’t engage the threat—I look for reinforcements. I don’t seek understanding—I seek like-mindedness. I don’t want to hear the story behind the threat—I only want to tell my story. Because I am afraid that in hearing another’s story, mine will be invalidated. I’m afraid that opening my heart to another viewpoint will prove me wrong. I’m afraid that anything other than uniformity (not unity) will be a compromise I cannot live with.
But I’m learning. I’m learning to engage in conversations I’d rather avoid. I’m learning to listen for understanding rather than to formulate my argument. I’m learning, slowly, that unity (not uniformity) is a blessing that is made possible only through the Holy Spirit. I’m learning that having a common enemy only forms superficial community. But having a common hope goes much deeper. A common hope grows roots that establish a foundation for community the likes of which we have yet to see—community that branches out, producing diverse and glorious fruit.
United in common hope, we can still have our differences. We can still approach worship, community, and politics in our own unique ways. But united in a common hope, we can do so without being against each other—without being divided.
One of the best examples of this is the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha. On one campus, the three Abrahamic faiths gather over a common respect for one another and their expressions of worship. Here is their understanding:
As we move forward to relocate our respective places of worship to a shared Tri-Faith commons, we have made the following agreements:
- We agree to foster an environment of acceptance, respect and trust-building towards each other.
- We do not proselytize to each other.
- We seek and create opportunities for communities, groups, families and individuals to gather, meet, interact and learn from one another.
- We look for opportunities to understand differences and build on commonalities among each other.
- Each participant has an equal voice.
- We engage in open discussions, with sensitivity to other participants.
- We do our best to amicably resolve all conflicts.
- Each faith group will own, design, and maintain its own place of worship—and have total decision-making power over it.
Another great example is the common ground we have work hard to establish with the Roman Catholic Church. We continue to grow closer to a common table. We have expressed and receive forgiveness for the brokenness and hurt of our pasts. And this year, we get to celebrate the life we have together in Christ as we commemorate together 500 years of Reformation.
This is the power of the Holy Spirit—to make one those who differ, to bring together those who disagree, to create the Body of Christ, the Church, out of the broken and diverse lives of God’s beloved Children. A church divided is not the Church. But the Church united is the very love of God.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church