On Being At One
In recent days the terrorist bombing at Manchester targeting a group including children is a stark reminder of just how nasty the terrorists can get. Two thousand years after Christ walked the dusty paths of Palestine, are we really much closer to becoming one in his name?
And don’t ever assume all the faults are on the other side. I was checking through last month’s casualty figures in Syria and noted to my surprise that the UN figures for civilians killed in Syria attributed more deaths to the US led coalition of nations bombing cities and towns in Syria than was attributed to either ISIL or to the combined Government and Russian bombing raids. Should we even need to point out civilian families are civilian families in any city and children killed or maimed are mourned just as keenly in Syria as in Manchester.
And so we turn to the words of Jesus – and this week we find the account of the ascension.
At first glance with all those words about achieving glory, today we seem to find John is making Jesus sound awfully other worldly and disconnected from real life problems, yet before we get to thinking about the implications of his words we need a quick reality check.
A number of scholars I follow, suggest that here John, or at least the author responsible, is almost certainly using a standard Jewish ploy of putting last words in a respected leader’s mouth in such a way as to pick up main themes in that person’s life. I find it quite reasonable to suspect at times the New Testament writers were creatively imagining the words Jesus might have spoken, and the sort of issues he would have needed to address, to give his life perspective.
I know this would worry some who have been brought up with a literalist acceptance of the Gospel yet there are three inescapable difficulties in assuming John simply reports accurately on what it is known that Jesus said. First when the text of John is examined, when it comes to the words of Jesus there are disagreements between the Gospel writers as to what was said in the same settings, (e.g. last words on the cross) and difference in the order and sequence of events including a basic disagreement as to whether it was a one or three year ministry.
Secondly the changes in style of Greek in the gospel of John suggest evidence that some parts were added later (different authors?).
Thirdly even if these words were recounted by John “the beloved disciple” since the majority of commentators put the date of writing at more than fifty years after Jesus was off the scene, it is a tall ask to expect even a disciple to have a total recall of words spoken so long ago.
However, what we can be absolutely certain is that this passage contains some sections that are most helpful as reminders to anyone prepared to follow the teaching of Christ in a modern setting.
When for example we find his saying of his disciples that “7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you”, it is clear that anyone following the Gospel accounts would be aware that what Christ taught was consistent with his actions. He taught compassion, servant-hood and forgiveness and demonstrated that these were practical possibilities.
Now we get to the key phrase that I find resonates with my impression of Christ is when he reminds current or aspiring disciples 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. In other words his gospel is definitely not claiming that Jesus is in a position to do our work on our behalf and nor should the required action be remembered or admired as another worldly action. Our required actions are something to be lived by us because we are still in the world.
Think about it. If Jesus is no longer in the world but we as his aspiring followers are in the world. In other words, an act of terrorism or even an act of bombing in retribution by our side can’t be passed off as something that Jesus will sort for us on our behalf.
Now there is a thought. How did the young man who saw himself as a terrorist doing the will of Allah know that the people of Manchester cared for him as a neighbour? Would it have been different here?
Following through John’s version of the words of inspiration we are reminded that Jesus came bring the gift and challenge of life in relationship. Because John consistently used the metaphor of God being love, we find ourselves recalling the challenge to relationship with our neighbours, and even with the concept of love itself representing our God.
Just as the Son challenged those he met into this form of duality of relationship, the implicit message is that disciple-hood means carrying the same attitudes, and the same challenges to those we meet.
Here we need to be very honest. While there is plenty of evidence that new converts are often prepared to throw themselves into the challenge of following Jesus example, his injunction to be one hasn’t worked out too well in practice. Forget for a moment our failure to accept refugees of different faith. We can talk blithely of the Ecumenical movement and of being one in Christ, but try to get mainstream Churches to accept one another’s communion, styles of worship or even the other’s ordination and it seems well nigh impossible. At low points in Church history Churches have even resorted to violence to try to force others to their particular version of what it means to be following Christ.
And what of individual Church congregations when it comes to being at one? Our local Methodist Synod asks two questions of each congregation at the start of process of matching presbyters with new parishes. Is your parish an inclusive parish. Almost invariably the answer is “yes”. Second question….. would your Parish accept a homosexual presbyter? The answer is often “no”… Not that inclusive?
Telling potential followers that they should be one as we are one deserves some inward reflection, particularly when some of our biggest denominations are traditionally reluctant to yield even a little authority. Issues like acceptance of women priests, acceptance of homosexual clergy, like recognition of authority models and even acceptance of different forms of baptism all happen to divide rather than unite, which when you think of it makes something of a nonsense of claiming to be extending love to one’s neighbour.
Perhaps reflection about how far the various branches of the Church have strayed from this part of the gospel would benefit if we were to reread such dark periods of Church history to send us back to this part of the gospel teaching with new understanding for its significance.
This is no new situation. As the early Church came into being, strong rivalries between different interpretations about what Jesus means, and which theologians to accept were common. Paul refers in several places between rifts between the rival groups and the date of John’s gospel places the writing in the very midst of these emerging struggles. It is easy to see that as the writer was recording that particular section of today’s passage that he was trying to bring his hearers back to the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is unfortunate that then – as now – there was no real understanding that the call to relationship actually matters, and its neglect risks making a nonsense of that which Christianity sets out to be.
Given that many of the troubles in a political sense occur because communities throughout the world focus on real or at times even imagined difference, if the Church has anything at all to offer, if it turns down the unity option at the very least it must be able to model how such differences can be recognised without endangering acceptance of the other.
We lose the right to offer assistance in matters of dispute if the ill-feeling between different groups merely mirrors our own inability to accept others, or for that matter when our ability to be peacemakers is hindered by our own vested interests. Arms deals do offer cash rewards to the nations involved. One of the US coalition, Saudi Arabia have just signed up for a substantial arms deal that will make their bombing in Syria and Yemen much more effective. Civilians will suffer. Whether or not this is balanced by what President Trump calls “Job, Jobs, Jobs” is surely a question for US allies including our own government. It is difficult to be seen as legitimate peacemakers when our own inability to show peaceful intent to our neighbours is so often compromised.
Perhaps we should be bringing the lack of oneness even closer to home. Officially we welcome newcomers to this country. So how come new immigrants who struggle with the language are often left isolated and cut off from social contact in our neighbourhoods.
You may be uneasy about putting politics so overtly into a Bible reflection, yet surely the whole point of following Christ is that it should speak to real lives, political realities and actual relationships.
Let me quote you something from Bill Loader’s commentary on today’s passage. “Unity is not a strategy of convenience and economy here nor just a strategy for marketing …….It is not a cleverly ambiguous ecumenical declaration which papers over differences. It is rather an extension of John’s understanding of what eternal life (or salvation) means. It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a relationship”.
If, as Jesus is reported saying, that we should be one, and when we look at how we are doing and find we are not one, I would assume that what we do from that point is up to us.
We come Sunday by Sunday to affirm that we follow our Jesus and his teaching. We presumably see ourselves as offering compassion and our willingness to be one with one another is measured in part by the way we treat fellow followers of the faith and our treatment of political and religious neighbours. If Jesus’ injunction for oneness is a legitimate and important part of his teaching, and if honest self evaluation of what we do concludes at least in part it is not being followed, in a democratic society I would suggest we have an obligation to insist that we treat this as a challenge.
Those hearing or reading these words may be able to suggest what the next step(s) should be.