October 26, 2004

"We're one, but we're not the same..."

"...we get to carry each other, carry each other."

Here's the next in my series called "One: An Extended Look at Christian Unity and Disunity," built around U2's song "One" from their excellent 1991 album "Achtung Baby." To see previous posts in this series, click here. Am I beating a dead horse here? Preaching to the choir? Overusing clich├ęd metaphors? Leave me a comment!
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind--
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they'll be as unified and together as we are--
I in them and you in me.
Then they'll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you've sent me and loved them
In the same way you've loved me.
You know why I think more of us aren't taking Jesus' words in John 17:20-23 (taken above from The Message) at face value? I think it's because secretly, in places we don't like to admit even exist in our hearts, we don't want to be one. Because we think being one means being the same, being like "them." And we don't want to be like them. Oh sure, we like them well enough...but we don't want to be like them. After all, if I wanted to be like them, I would quit being one of us and become one of them, right? Whether "they" are the Baptists, the Lutherans, or the Catholics, whether "they" are the liberals or the fundamentalists or the institutionalists or the emergents, we assume that becoming one with them means becoming like them.

But is that a valid assumption? Certainly God intends for there to be a great deal of commonality in the church--"one Lord, one faith, one baptism"--but what is the Biblical or historical basis for only one liturgy, only one hymnody, only one interpretation of the peripheral doctrines of the faith? Where does God say that he expects us all to be exactly alike in every aspect? Setting aside for a moment the Old Testament example of Israel's internal diversity, a quick look at the "one" passages of the New Testament frequently shows the writers balancing unity with heterogeneity:
There is one body . . . but to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. Ephesians 4:4, 7

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and . . . we each have different gifts, according to the grace given us. Romans 12:4-5, 6
Add to this the example of the early church when it was faced with an expression of the faith that was foreign to its own experience:
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." . . . The apostles and elders, with the whole church . . . sent the following letter [in response]: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things." Acts 15;1, 22, 28-29
In other words, God doesn't expect you to be exactly like us, and so neither do we. In other words, "We're one, but we're not the same."
If being one doesn't mean being completely alike, then what does it mean? If unity doesn't look like the absence of meaningful distinctiveness, then what does it look like? Perhaps, as Bono sings, it means carrying each other.* I think there is powerful Biblical evidence for a unity based in Christ and expressed in cooperation.

Trinitarian theology is rich with this idea. From its deepest, most mysterious roots in Genesis to its more fully formed expressions in the New Testament epistles, the Trinity is presented as the elemental and pre-eminent community, its members sharing one essence yet not identical, all working together at the divine mission of expressing God-love to humankind. In the Trinity there is no competition, only cooperation. In a way that is perhaps beyond our understanding, the Father needs the Son to do the work of dying for people's sins and the Son needs the Spirit to convict the world and empower the church until his return. Their distinctiveness is necessary to accomplish the mission, as is their willingness to cooperate with one another.

And so it may very well be with the church, that temporal expression of the Trinity's distinctiveness and unity, the "eschatological covenant community of love." Our accomplishment of the divine mission hinges not only upon our essential unity, but also on our willingness to live out that unity--and so express it visibly and undeniably to a watching world--in cooperation with one another.

I wonder, though, if in our pride we'll find "carrying each other" like this any more palatable than surrendering our distinctiveness to someone who isn't "like us." Lord, please show us how badly our churches need one another, even (especially?) the ones who aren't like us.

*The photo above is of the statue "He Ain't Heavy Father, He's My Brother" which stands on the grounds of Girls and Boys Town National Headquarters in Nebraska. The statue was inspired by the loving cooperation Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan witnessed among many of the orphans in his care, also the inspiration for the song "He Ain't Heavy" (recorded by The Hollies, Neil Diamond, Olivia Newton-John, and Cher, among many others) and the feature films Boys Town with Spencer Tracy and Andy Rooney and more recently The Road Home with Kris Kristofferson and Charles Martin Smith. It seems that our culture finds this kind of loving cooperation strangely compelling...

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