When we speak of unity in Christ Jesus there are many aspects of that unity that need to be considered. Not the least of these is the relationship of the various individual human persons who are called to be with him. Jesus does not call individuals to be disciples with him on their own. He also calls disciples to be actively involved with each other. This means that unity among Christians does not simply mean fitting into one’s assigned seat. That would boil down only to a matter of meeting the dimensional parameters of a place to sit. Rather, we are called to join Jesus on the way of discipleship — to join the arguing crowd that moves according to his lead.
The scriptures we look to for our model of unity become very important when we consider the role of individuals in relation to that crowd. In the prayer of Jesus before his arrest and crucifixion depicted in John 17 he prays for his disciples and their coming life together after he has left this earth. This is a favorite text cited in many ecumenical documents and loved by many ecumenists. Often times, though, this beautiful prayer is boiled down to a single phrase, “that they may be one,” from the middle of verse 22. Yet, this does not give the full essence of the prayer. Why are his disciples (now us) to be one? The prayer expresses concern that the disciples will give effective testimony to the truth that Jesus is sent into the world by God the Father. Oneness is not the ultimate point of the text. Indeed, when oneness is pressed in a solitary fashion, as it can be by the truncation of this verse, it can diminish our awareness of some interesting themes that become evident when one takes a big picture view of the New Testament — especially the gospels. When we see the disciples together with Jesus they are one in that they have him as their head; but they are not at all one in the sense of being the same.
When I became an ecumenist I found myself feeling uneasy when I heard fragments of John 17 quoted again and again. I am suspicious of theological claims that rest upon small portions of text located in a single book or letter in the Bible. Isolated selections can be made to mean things that may or may not line up with the intention of the author. For something so important to the Christian way of life, as I believe unity in Christ is, it seemed unsettling to have the conception of that unity pinned upon a small selection of words. Indeed, even when other texts were cited, I noticed that most of them contained the English word “unity,” as though they had been selected for that reason alone. Yet, when I read scripture I see teachings of unity throughout the texts. Why are we selecting verses used for theological understandings of unity primarily by means of keywords?
Long before becoming an ecumenist, long before going to seminary or doing advanced graduate study, for instance, I noticed the profound message of the importance of unity demonstrated by the whole of the Gospel of Mark. The disciples in Mark are wonderfully human — even annoyingly human. As Jesus teaches about how to live life centered around love and kindness, they quarrel with one another about seating arrangements and who is the best disciple. He makes his points; and they miss them completely. The disciples in Mark are comical (as are we, when we do not reframe the view to reveal that we are also tragic) in that they never seem to get it. They are not united in what they think. They are not united in what they believe. They are not united in their practices of patience and love for one another. They are, very often, selfish, confused, and blundering. And yet — they are one; because Jesus has chosen them, and, because out of love for him, they continue to follow, and stumble, and grow under the instruction of God Incarnate.(1)
Being a teacher myself, I see this kind of unity in many of the classes of students I have taught. What united them, more than anything else, was the love of God that led them to seek out a seminary education. Jesus was leading their lives. Jesus was the reason why they did not give up no matter how frustrating and unpleasant learning together could be.
Each of us is uniquely created by God and sent into this world. We are sent here to love, to live lives shaped by love, and to learn. This world is a place of doing. It is a place meant for growth.
Mark’s gospel is a picture of Jesus with his disciples looking very much like humans are in real life. We are classmates together. And, Jesus does not just teach by giving lectures (although he does some of that). Much of the time he teaches by way of discussions as we walk along the way with him. We challenge one another and learn from one another. It is unity in the process of living and learning in the company of the One Who Loves Us First.
In my own classrooms when I teach at university, I give a very large portion of class time to having students teach each other. They are given reading assignments and questions to focus their thoughts. We come together, begin our time with prayer and some instructions, and then break into smaller groups to discuss the topics of the day. During that time, I listen. Most students I’ve had are timid. They venture cautiously into the day’s lesson. They know my ears are tuned to hear them; and they are afraid of making mistakes. A few are confident and assertive. They are sure they know the points well and want to make sure everyone knows it. Sometimes arguments break out and voices escalate. During the first weeks of the semester, there may be a few in the groups where there are arguments, who cast a wary glance in my direction, wondering if I will be angry and intervene. So long as the arguments do not become so loud that the other groups cannot hear themselves, and so long as the insults hurled at one another remain reasonably mild, I seldom do more than meet those wary glances and nod or give a slight smile. Sometimes the discussions never contain a single point I hope they will have gleaned from the reading. They can argue about the most amazing things that have no clear relevance to anything. But, listening, I can hear what they do and do not understand. When polite exchanges give way to words driven by passion (and ego), I am better able to learn who they are and how to be more effective in teaching them.
I think Jesus was doing that with his disciples in Mark. He is very much the rabbi — the teacher — when he leads them. And his unruly class is baring its souls; even if they do not know it.
There are many miracles of healing performed by Jesus in the New Testament. But not all of them involve touching the sick or commanding the restoration to life of those who have died. Some of the greatest miracles of healing were performed when he taught; because in bringing together his disciples he not only helped them grow in their relationship with him — he also helped them grown in their relationship with each other.
Jesus brings together people who might never voluntarily spend time with each other. He brings them together with all their differences, all of their boasts and wounds, even all their stupidity. Why does he do this? Why doesn’t he touch their heads and heal their misunderstanding as though it were like a physical disease? After all, doesn’t misunderstanding also kill and maim?
I think stories of Jesus’s ministry like those in the Gospel of Mark show that differences between people, misunderstandings between people, and the challenge of working to love one another as part of being in relationship with one another reveals part of what God finds important in us. It seems that God wants us to be together — but not be at all the same. “Same” cannot, in this sense, be used as a synonym for “one.” In the Gospel of Mark, it is not right thinking or even right doing that saves the disciples. If these disciples needed to save themselves by getting anything right they would never make it. What saved them was that they were students of Jesus who followed him and participated in the learning that was possible in his company. He taught them how to love and he taught them how to live.
Some people will look with suspicion upon anyone who says something they would not have said, does something they would not have done, or even thinks something they would not have thought. Some people want every peg to match up with the right shaped hole. If it doesn’t, then they often charge that it doesn’t belong. They say that people who do not see things as they do cannot be part of the group. But here is the bad news (and also the good news): a disciple is not greater than the teacher — and the teacher decides who is in or out; who is a part of the class or not part of the class. My sense is that the disciples in Mark might not have accepted all of those whom Jesus placed in their company. That’s alright. It was Jesus who united them; not their mutual recognition of each other.
When we say we will not be in a church with people who do not conform to our ways of thinking — when it is clear that Jesus would have had them — through our exclusion of others we are really the ones who are walking away from Christ.
I have said before — and I will say again — I am suspicious of simplicity of answers. As a teacher, I find that simple answers and their simple justifications almost always lead to distortions and falsehoods. We have the whole Bible, with all its nuances, apparent contradictions, and countless challenges to our being comfortable with our own favorite ways of thinking. We were given the whole Bible as a gift from God. It is important to learn from all of it.
And, we were given to each other, because of all the subtleties of personality, the apparent contradictions, and the innumerable challenges to our being comfortable with our own favorite ways of living our lives. We were given to one another as a gift from God. It is important that we look to each other to learn as well.
(1) For excellent commentary on the Gospel of Mark, please see Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, Anchor Bible Series (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002). and Mark 8-16, Anchor Bible Series (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2009).