Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Yet-Unanswered Prayer

You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness. (Ephesians 4.4-6; The Message)

According to John’s gospel, just before going to Gethsemane where He’ll be taken from the disciples, Jesus prays for us. “I ask not only on behalf of these,” He prays, perhaps glancing around the table at His closest friends, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one.” He repeats this request twice—three mentions of “oneness” in all—and then concludes, saying, “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.” For several weeks, it appears that Jesus’s prayer is answered. The disciples prove amazingly resilient. In 50 days’ time, they somehow absorb Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Pentecost finds them exactly as Jesus prays that they’ll be: together, in one place, with one purpose. The Holy Spirit—God’s great binding force—falls on them and fills them and the Church’s work begins. But the disciples quickly discover there’s a huge difference between sitting together and working together. In short order, they’re fragmented into various schools of thought about what it means to be a Christian, what that requires, and how it works. It’s been that way ever since.

Ironically, this concept of “oneness” is the Early Church’s major bone of contention. Is the Jesus movement an exclusively Jewish sect? Or can everyone join? Even after God definitively reveals the answer to Peter (“Everyone”), it takes a while for the rest of the Church to get onboard. Once they get that worked out, a new question of “oneness” rears up. This issue isn’t so easy, as Church leaders try to understand what it means relative to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For centuries, the Church engages in battle over the Godhead, and much of its dissension arises from Jesus’s prayer. Are God and Jesus One? If so, how does Jesus’s dual role, as human and divine, fit into that? And what of the Holy Spirit? Early Church theologians can’t decide what they’re looking at: one God, two Gods as One (with the Spirit as a sort of amorphous helper), or Three in One. The debate gets so heated that Christians turn on one another—some going so far as to murder fellow-believers with differing opinions—and, to this day, the deepest schisms in Christ’s Body directly result from the “oneness” controversy.

Paul sees this coming and, in his letter to the Ephesians, attempts to thwart it. “You’re on the same road,” he reminds us. “You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.” One faith: it’s the glue that holds everything together. As Paul sees it, that we believe is more important than what we believe. Jesus prays two things for us: that we will believe in Him and be one with God, with Him, and each other. It is raw faith—not how we refine it—that holds us together. Names we slap on our church doors don’t matter. Varying baptism techniques are irrelevant. Most of all, debates that subvert Christian unity are useless. We are permeated with Oneness, Paul says, with power that joins us together through raw faith.

It’s estimated that there are over 30,000—30,000-plus!—distinct “brands” of Christianity in the world. So we must ask ourselves, “For what?” More than that, we must realize it is we—with our cravings for certainty and compulsions to be right to the exclusion of everyone else—who stand in the way of Jesus’s yet-unanswered prayer. When we make raw faith the common denominator, liturgical nuances and doctrinal disputes lose their grip. We’re traveling the same road in the same direction. Either we honor Christ’s desire and travel as one, or we end up with 30,000 nils. Either we see Christianity as an all-inclusive circle, or we grind it down to a giant zero.

No comments: