Unity in the midst of division

June 2, 2019 (The Seventh Sunday of Easter)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

John 17:20-26

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

17:20 “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 in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of boundless grace, you call us to drink freely of the well of life and to share your love. May the glory of your love, made known in the victory of Jesus Christ, our Savior, transform our lives and the world he lived and died to save. We ask this in his name and for his sake. Amen.

I believe one of the hardest concepts to achieve or feel will ever come to reality, is unity.  We live in a world that has so many different opinions and cultures and ever-changing points of view, that it is impossible to think that we would ever achieve or experience unity.

We are bombarded every day with countless examples of just how fractured our world, our nation, our city, the church and even our families truly are.  Red States, Blues States, Traditionalists, Progressives, Skyline, Gold Star, UC, Xavier and the list is never ending.  Division and opinions are not bad in and of themselves but considering Jesus prayer for unity that we read today it seems a long way from ever becoming reality.

Which begs the question, is unity – in our world, in our nation, in our community, in the church – a realistic goal anymore?   Let me begin by stating that unity in the sense that Jesus is praying for is not that everyone believes exactly the same thing or in the same way; living in lock step with one another.  Instead, Jesus is praying for oneness and unity as say a well working team or a healthy functioning body. Where all the parts work together for a common goal.  So, to reframe my question in a more positive way, how are we the church, the body of Christ, called to show unity to a world that is full of fractures and brokenness?

In our passage from John today, Jesus is keenly aware of how important unity is, both for his disciples’ faith at that time, as well as for the future faith of the church.

In this passage Jesus is praying for his disciples and he is also praying for each of us.  It is called the High Priestly Prayer.  Again, we are hopscotching our way through John’s Gospel and we are back in the Upper Room on what we know as Maundy Thursday and we overhear Jesus praying.  It is a prayer that looks to the future. Jesus was praying not only for the people seated around him at table that evening but also for his future followers, which thanks be to God, includes us.  And it is a prayer that focuses on unity, on all being one.

It seems to be an unanswered prayer.

Nearly 15 years ago a journalist, named Bill Bishop coined the term “the big sort.” He in collaboration with sociologist and statistician Robert Cushing co-authored a book of the same title, The Big Sort.[1]  It is the story of how America has become to be a country of cultural division, economic separation, and political polarization.  Bishop and Cushing used demographic data (2004), to show how Americans have been sorting ourselves into homogeneous communities— not only by region or by state, but by city and even neighborhood. Over the past three decades, we have been going far beyond the simplistic red state/blue state divide, we have sorted ourselves geographically, economically, politically and religiously into like-minded communities.

We (Americans) have been choosing the neighborhood, the church and the channel we get our news that are compatible with our lifestyle and our beliefs. Bishop and Cushing concluded that the result of this sorting is a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.   And I add are not interested in learning more about our neighbors with other world views.

Our country — our culture, economy, neighborhoods, and churches— have been influenced by this social sorting that we have knowingly been part of for over the past thirty years. For example:

  • People with college degrees were relatively evenly spread across the nation’s cities in 1970. Fifty years later, college graduates had congregated cities, a phenomenon that decimated the economies in some places and caused other regions to flourish.
  • The generation of ministers who built sprawling mega-churches in the new suburbs learned to attract their stadium-sized congregations through the “homogenous unit principle,” (“a section of society in which all members have some characteristic in common.” Whether or not members of the group can readily articulate it, the common characteristic makes them feel at home with each other and aware of their identity as “we” in distinction to ‘they’).[2] The new churches were designed for cookie-cutter parishioners, what one church-growth proponent described as “people like us.”
  • Businesses learned to target their marketing to like-minded “image tribes,”[3] a technique that has been perfected by social media and used by political parties in their campaigns.

The authors went through dozens of calculations and discovered that following World War II, some communities around the Untied States were busy converging but all that began to change in the early 1970’s.  This cultural shift could have been fueled by the turbulent 1960’s, the Viet-Nam War, Watergate, Race and Gender battles or any number of culture changing movements.  The country began to sort and that caused certain places to boom and others to bust economically, socially and culturally.  The places where educated people moved were getting richer and others poorer.  The places where young people were moving were producing more patents and other areas were dying off.

The authors state that people — especially Americans — abhor disagreement.  That’s why we choose to participate in churches, live in neighborhoods, and join clubs where we can easily find agreement, people like us.  It’s interesting, however, that when pollsters ask about compromise, most Democrats and Republicans believe their side has given enough and now it is time for the other side to see the error of their ways and change.  We all seem to think it’s the other side that’s causing the problems.  So, yes, there’s a lot of talk about the end of partisanship. We just don’t see anybody changing neighborhoods.

Living in politically like-minded groups has had its consequences. People living in homogenous communities grow both more extreme and more certain in their beliefs.  Local governments are becoming more and more extreme.  While, nationally, we see nothing but gridlock because Congress has lost most of its moderate members and compromise has been replaced with conflict.  Division rules the day.  Which begs the question, is there any hope for Jesus prayer in John 17:21 to be fulfilled?

John 17:21, that they may all be one is a familiar verse for us at the Indian Hill Episcopal Presbyterian Church, as we are one of the few dual denominational churches in the country.  We have been together for over 70 years now; we have demonstrated that there can be unity even in the midst of our denominational differences.  We can demonstrate a diversity of the strength of vision points beyond mere differences.

It was the hope of the founders of our church to create a place of worship in this affluent community where people would be challenged not to become conformists, but instead to be exposed to multiple perspectives. We honor our Episcopal and Presbyterian heritages in our different worship services, but we all come together to celebrate as children of God.  We also strive to contribute our time and our talents to reach out to the community at large.  We are challenged to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  We hope that we have an environment to explore social issues and provide opportunities to respond by encouraging each other participate in making the world a better place.

We affirm that there is more than one way to worship God and to love our neighbors.  It is a prayer for community.  Jesus prays that, “all may be one.”  To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole.  According to Jesus there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual “Lone Rangers.”

Within that community the prayer is for unity: “that all may be one.” Does that mean we all have to get along all the time?  Does that mean we all have to agree all the time?  We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not.  We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not.  To become a part of Christ is to become a part of the community; a part of the one.

Jesus’ prayer reminds us that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  Oneness and unity are about love not homogeny.  And if you have been a part of a family, a member of a church, or a community, you know that within that love there can be disagreements and squabbling.  We are human.  But the mystery of faith is that God wanted to be in relationship with us so much that God became one of us.  And in that moment, we were drawn into oneness with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is with God’s help that we can live into that oneness and show it to our fractured and sorted world. May it be so, in your life and in mine.

Let us pray:

[1] (Houghton Mifflin, May 7, 2008)

[2] https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-1

[3] http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0597/turow.html