“That they be one as we are one”

by Chris Gehrz

As every year, our faculty at Bethel University ended its annual pre-semester retreat this August with a time of worship. Our campus pastor shared a brief meditation on one of my favorite passages in Scripture, John 17, which records Jesus’ prayer not long before his crucifixion. Every time I read it I’m struck again that Jesus spends so much of the prayer asking that those who follow him be unified — not just his disciples in that historic moment but “those who will believe in me through their message,” including you and me!

Not just unified in human terms, but unified in something like the community of the Trinity, which we glimpse as Son prays to Father: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22-23).

How on Earth (literally) is the Church to achieve this? I generally celebrate ecumenism and lament its absence, but not even the best moments in the histories of the National Council of Churches, National Association of Evangelicals, the World Council of Churches, or Lausanne movement, ought to be mistaken for truly realizing this goal of being “one as we are one.”

All the same, if unity is not yet realized, it can be glimpsed now. There are tastes of “I in them and you in me” to be had in the church, and most of them occur in utterly routine, unremarkable activities that take place in relatively small gatherings. We experienced at least three such activities as part of our faculty retreat.

COMMUNION. This summer I read Lauren Winner’s account of her “mid-faith crisis,” entitled Still. The significance of the Eucharist looms large for this Anglican priest. This sacrament is central to several chapters, none more memorably than in her story of serving the elements to an elderly couple in upstate New York. After the wife took the bread and wine, her husband intincted his wafer, then handed it to his spouse for her to consume in his place. Winner learned later that the man suffered from a disease that left him unable to eat much of anything (“He lives on Ensure and lemonade”). In the midst of her own divorce, the eucharistic beauty of this quiet moment left her astonished:

I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.

I’m not sure I felt quite that degree of intimacy with my colleagues as we shared in the Lord’s Supper together. But here, as in my own church, I felt a profound gratitude for this sacrament, that — among its many mysteries — helps knit together the broken body of Christ into a communion.

SINGING. Just before we went up for the Bread and Cup, we sang “Let Us Break Bread Together.” That by itself would have warmed the heart of the spiritual-loving Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but all the more because we sang the tune in unison, an ancient form of Christian worship that the martyred German pastor praised in his book on Christian community, Life Together:

The purity of unison singing, unaffected by alien motives of musical techniques, the clarity, unspoiled by the attempt to give musical art an autonomy of its own apart from the words, the simplicity and frugality, the humaneness and warmth of this way of singing is the essence of all congregational singing…. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word: this is singing in unity….

All true. But if I ever were to disagree with someone I admire so intensely, the harmony singing that Bonhoeffer so strongly criticized in Life Together is at least as truly “singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word.” It is also singing in unity — but the unity of a differentiated body.

Indeed, I might go so far as to suggest that “unisonality” pushes us towards viewing unity as “uniformity.” Whereas singing in harmony recognizes that differences exist within a body of Christ whose parts are distinct, but complementary. When we opened our retreat by singing the hymn “We Are God’s People,” message and medium were merged as altos, tenors, and basses supported sopranos in singing the words of Covenant pastor Bryan Jeffery Leech: “He wills us be a family / Diverse yet truly one.”

SERVICE. I shouldn’t omit the conclusion of that verse: “O let us give our gifts to God / And so shall His work on earth be done.” For as much as Communion and singing bring us together, the Body of Christ does not gather for its own sake, to stay cloistered in sanctuaries (this may be especially important to remember during something called a “retreat”). And so, at the end of the first day of our time together, we packed into buses and relocated to one of the warehouses owned by the organization Feed My Starving Children, which packs and sends food around the world. Their staff reminded us that we are Jesus’ hands and feet, both encountering and representing him as we together packed meals that would soon board a plane bound for Haiti.

As I boxed the packages sealed by the young plant biologist and retired missiologist to my left and right, such minor differences as academic discipline and age (and gender and theology) dissolved into common purpose. And even if this was only a foretaste of it, I better understood that the “complete unity” for which Jesus prayed was intended to bring about a world-changing result: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

Chris Gehrz is a professor at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn., and member of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton.

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