We are one

By Jim Vitale

Are we one?

When you take a look around our world do you see unity? I don’t need to say much about our current political landscape. It’s hard to see how we could be any more divided than we already are in this country. But what if we look to the church? Are we one?

Did you know there are at least 200 different protestant denominations in the United States alone? Global estimates indicate there are tens of thousands of protestant denominations worldwide. That doesn’t seem terribly unified. But what if we look at the Lutheran church specifically? Are we one?

Well, there are over there are over 40 different Lutheran denominations in North America alone. And plenty more worldwide. That doesn’t seem terribly unified. But what about our particular denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Are we one?

The ELCA formed in 1988 and by 1991 a group of congregations and pastors was already considering breaking off. And in 2009 roughly a million Lutherans (one quarter of the whole denomination) left the church. That doesn’t seem terribly unified, either.

But what about our individual congregations? Are we one? Well you’ll have to answer that for yourself, but I’d be willing to wager you’ve had your fair share of people leave the church over one disagreement or another.

And if you think all this division is a new thing, it’s not. Our denomination is based on a tradition of fracturing. It’s in our DNA. In the early 1500s, Martin Luther became the first person to successfully break away from the Catholic church. It’s literally in our name: we are “protestants,” we protest. And when we don’t like something, we leave.

And if you think that was a new thing, well 500 years before that in 1054 the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches formalized their split from each other.

And if you think that was a new thing, go back to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians written around 75ad. There Paul is struggling to keep that fledgling Christian movement from fracturing into several different denominations.

Are we one? I don’t think we could be one if God himself superglued us together.

And yet that is exactly what Jesus prays for in John 17:6-19. This passage is part of a long prayer Jesus prays on Maundy Thursday. It spans multiple chapters and in it Jesus seems to pray for just about everything. A lot of it is astounding but the part that astounds me is the second half of verse 11. Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus asks God to make his disciples one just as Jesus and the Father are one. That means that Jesus believes it is possible for you and me and all Christians, maybe all people, to be as unified with each other as God the Father and God the Son.

I think maybe Jesus has a screw loose. Or maybe he knows something I don’t. But Jesus’ own apostles weren’t even one with each other. They spend so much time bickering with each other, and as we hear in our reading from Acts and our reading from John, one of them even betrays Jesus to death. Are they one? Hardly! It seems impossible that they ever would be. Jesus’ prayer for unity is almost laughable and, in the face of Christian history, maybe even embarrassing.

Are we one?

At the beginning of this post I spoke of all the ways Christianity is fracturing. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about all the good work people are doing to try to repair the divisions within the church. The ELCA is deeply committed to ecumenical partnerships. We are full communion partners with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church of America, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church. We belong to the Lutheran World Federation which seeks to bring unity to the global Lutheran church. Next year will mark 60 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue for the sake of unity. Theologians have pointed out all the ways Martin Luther’s theology resonates with Eastern Orthodox theology.

We are working so hard to repair the damage. And are we succeeding? Are we one? It’s hard to see much progress and, if you’re anything like me, at this point you’re feeling totally depressed at the state of things. Fixing the divisions within your own congregation feels impossible, let alone repairing the damage to global Christianity, or our nation, or our world. It all seems impossible. And we despair of it ever happening.

And that’s exactly where God wants us.

Are we one? By our own reason and strength, no way! Look around. Of course we aren’t one! And if Christian unity depends upon us, well it ain’t ever gonna happen. But as Lutherans, this shouldn’t come as a shock. Our whole theology is centered around the fact that we cannot save ourselves. We are not saved by our own works no matter how good they might be; we are saved by grace. Our salvation is a gift. We cannot earn it. And any attempt to succeed on our own tends to drive us to pride, not to God. It is our failures, our moments of weakness, our despair that drives us back toward faith, toward trusting that our salvation, our lives, our souls rest in God’s gracious and merciful hands.

Christian unity isn’t anything we can accomplish. Rather it is something God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit has already accomplished. Luther preached that we are not saved by our good works, but rather we do good works because we have been saved. The same is true of Christian unity. We do not seek Christian unity because it is our responsibility to achieve it; we seek Christian unity because God has already achieved it. Our unity, our oneness is the truth. It is the reality. Now we just need to live like it.

Are we one?

Yes! A resounding yes! Despite appearances, we are one because of what Jesus has done for us. Author Madeleine L’Engle says that Jesus’ atonement for our sins is best understood not as some blood sacrifice or payment of debt but rather just as the word says. It is at-one-ment. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has made us one with God and it is has made us one with each other. Jesus brings us at-one-ment.

Jesus’ prayer for unity is not lunacy or a pipe dream; it is a statement of truth that is already a reality. Because of Jesus we can look at Christian unity not with despair but with hope. When we seek relationship with other Christians, instead of asking “how do I create unity with these people?” we can ask “how has Jesus already made me one with these people?” It may not always be easy to see, but in Christ the unity is already there. Our task is to look for it and respond to it in grace, mercy, and love.

Because we are one. Amen.