Democrats and Republicans. Israelis and Palestinians. Catholics and Protestants. Citizens/Immigrants. Hawks/Doves. Male/Female. U of L/UK. Tastes great!/Less filling!
It’s the way our world’s set up isn’t it. Structuralists recognized this in the middle of the 20th century. They observed that the way we define reality is through a system of binaries—which is a fancy way of saying that we tend to define things in language in twos. And one of the things is viewed, depending on who you are, as good, while the other is viewed as as bad. I only know what dark is, for example, by thinking about it as an absence of light. Night isn’t a thing on its own—it’s that time of the day when the Sun takes a nap on the other side of the world and the light goes with it.
Look at what we do with white and black—just colors, right?
Think about how we use them in everyday speech. White as . Black as . White = pure. Black = evil. Just by the way we carve up language, value is attached.
You can do the same thing with other words. Structuralists, and their heirs, the Post-structuralists, argued that all speech is thereby rendered political. That is to say, speech is constantly establishing power relationships—almost always in ways that fly beneath the horizon of our awareness.
Males are rational. Females must therefore be irrational.
Males are reasonable. Females are emotional.
Males are strong. Females are the weaker sex.
Males are leaders. Females are followers.
Males are stoic. So females are hysterical.
See how it works?
You may not buy into all that postmodern stuff, but what’s at the heart of it is the realization that humanity is prone to dividing itself along an infinite number of lines.
To put a finer point on it, not only do we tend to divide over a wide range of issues because we disagree on so many things, but the fact that we disagree on so many things is inescapable.
Think about the common refrain heard on almost a daily basis: “The nation is so divided right now—hyper-polarized.”
Unfortunately, language is at the heart of this division. It too often sets things over against one another. Our ways of using language aren’t nearly as straightforward as we like to think.
Is it “freedom fighter” or “terrorist?” It depends, doesn’t it?
Is welfare a “social safety net” or a “government handout?” It matters.
Is it “healthcare reform” or a “government takeover of healthcare?”
Words have force, and the one who gets to choose which words get used gets to wield an enormous amount of power.
One of the rules of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, forbids insurers from issuing “unreasonable premium increases.” That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Who in their right mind would argue for “unreasonable rate increases?”
The problems arise when people try to sit down and hammer out just what constitutes “unreasonable.”
Another provision makes it necessary that a certain percentage of the money spent on premiums go toward “true medical costs related to patient care.” There’s a lot riding on what some of these words like “true medical costs” and “patient care” will wind up meaning.
What is a true medical cost?
What is a true medical cost?
And what can reliably be defined as care for the patient?
Passing healthcare reform, it turns out, was only one battle in an ongoing war that doesn’t look to end anytime soon.
War. Whether it’s verbal, cultural, familial, legislative, racial, conventional, biological, or nuclear—war seems to characterize humanity’s default posture. Jesus knew that. Just a few verses prior to our passage for this morning, Jesus prays:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask that you protect them from the evil one (17:14-15).
Some commentators argue that this mention of the evil one is a reference to the possible persecution of Christians at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel.
If read this way, Jesus’ prayer for unity for his disciples takes on a new urgency. Jesus, here in John, recognizes the penchant for humanity to foster division and enmity. The world, according to Jesus, is characterized by hatred and violence, which he will soon see up-close, perched perilously on a rough-cut piece of lumber.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t pray to God to take his disciples, as he says, “out of the world.” Instead, he prays that they will be protected and sanctified, as he is himself sanctified—even though he will not be protected.
All of which we might have expected. Keep them safe. Make them holy. But then Jesus sets down what appears to be a non sequitur; he says something that doesn’t seem to follow. He opens our passage for this morning with an odd request of God, one not just for the disciples he’s with, but for the disciples those disciples make; which is to say, he prays for you and me—“that they all may be one.”
Now, at first glance, that doesn’t seem so outrageous, really. That request makes a certain amount of sense. Help them hang together, God. They’re going to need each other more than ever pretty soon. Things are going to get tough. And, Lord knows, two heads are better than one, right? Strength in numbers, and all like that. That makes sense.
But that’s not what he’s saying.
Jesus prays that his followers might be one not for their sake, but for the sake of the world—which is, as we’ve said, fundamentally divided. He prays for unity for those who follow him, first as a sign to the world that he is who he said he is.
If the world is ever to take Jesus seriously, in other words, it has to quit seeing us as fence-builders, as constructers of barriers, as those more willing to exclude than include.
To the extent that those who claim to follow Jesus have continued the divisions—male/female, black/white, straight/gay, citizen/immigrant, deserving/undeserving—we’ve alerted the world that it need not take us seriously. Christians have sent out the signal to the rest of the world that we’re just like everybody else: willing to declare war on whomever and whatever we can’t figure out how to fit in the tent.
But beyond the practical hypocrisy that our divisions communicate, there’s something more. Jesus has something more important in mind than even our capacity for making him look bad. He prays, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:23).
Now, on the face of it, that line doesn’t seem all that revolutionary. But, what doesn’t get translated in this particular rendering is the completeness of completely. The Greek word here is from the root word, telos. Telos is a heavily loaded word that means the goal or purpose of a thing.
If I were to ask you, “What is the goal or purpose of a chair?” what would you say?
You could say, “It’s a place on which to rest a hamster cage.” Or you could say, “It’s a device for securing hotel room doors.” You might say that it’s a good weapon in a barroom brawl.”
However, if you didn’t eventually get to something like, “It offers a place on which to sit,” it would soon be clear that you didn’t fully understand what was the goal and purpose of a chair.
The telos of a watch is to tell time. The telos of a shovel is to dig dirt. The telos of a follower of Jesus is community. That is to say, we were made, according to Jesus to share community, unity without division. That is how we are “complete.”
Now, I can hear someone object, “That’s unrealistic! There are as many opinions as people. You can’t have unity this side of glory.”
I understand that. The history of denominationalism is nothing if not an admission that people, even people who say they love Jesus, are always in danger of building walls.
But what I’d like to suggest is that that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the word unity.
People, when they say unity, typically mean something else. Usually, what they mean is something like unanimity or uniformity. In fact, though, as my old professor, Michael Kinnamon, is always ready to point out, Christian unity is achieved in spite of our ability to agree—almost never because of it.
In a world so hyper-polarized—by our politics, by our religion, even by the words we use, those fundamental building blocks of language—those who follow Jesus have a chance to live as a sign of a different way of being—a way that depends not on our ability to get everything right before we commit to community, but on our willingness to commit whether or not everything’s right before we dive in.
As Will Willimon is fond of saying, “The church is gathering around the table on Sunday morning with people you wouldn’t be caught dead with on a Saturday night.”
And the beautiful thing about this unity is that it’s not up to us to create. Jesus prays to God that his followers, the ones given to him before the foundations of the world, will be one.
Unity, community is not a moral achievement that owes its realization to heroic individuals who are temperamentally suited to one another.
Instead, unity, community has already been achieved because Jesus asked for it—and we believe that Jesus gets what Jesus wants.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to address the atrocities that occurred during the horrible reign of Apartheid, explained the underlying principle of the commission: “The Act says that the thing you’re striving after should be ubuntu rather than revenge. [UbuntuI] comes from the root [of a Zulu-Xhosa word], which means a ‘person.’ So it is the essence of being a person. And in our experience, in our understanding, a person is a person through other persons. You can’t be a solitary human being. It’s all linked. We have this communal sense, and because of this deep sense of community, the harmony of the group is a prime attribute.”
One of the most famous cases over which Archbishop Tutu presided was that of Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nelson Mandela, who was charged with ordering the kidnapping and murder of fourteen year-old, Stompi Seipei.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission understood that reconciliation is impossible without the truth. Therefore, amnesty could only be extended to those who fully disclosed their wrongdoing. Winnie Mandela’s case took twelve days of gruesome and emotional testimony in the presence of Stompi Seipei’s mother. At the end of the trial, Archbishop Tutu pleaded with the two women to embrace one another—which they did.
In an interview after the trial, Archibishop Tutu was asked, “You were saying that there's something extraordinary in the way Mrs. Seipei behaved. But do you think Winnie actually deserved that embrace from Mrs. Seipei?”
He responded by saying: “Well, you could just as well expect a fish not to swim as expect Mrs. Seipei not to operate in the way that she’s operated. She’s not doing it for anything—it’s that she’s that way, and she wants to be able to put to rest this whole thing. You know, people sometimes are wonderful. You don’t ‘deserve’ grace. Otherwise, it would not be grace.”
And we who are followers of Jesus, we don’t “do it for anything.” We don’t seek to live out unity to achieve some goal. We seek to live out the unity that Jesus prayed for, because we’re “that way,” because living in unity is the completion, the goal and purpose of who Christ has made us to be. It’s the holy band of saints. It’s the beloved community. It is, in a word, grace.
But if we do ever live out the reality Jesus prayed for, a world at war might lay down its arms for a moment and pay attention.
We can only pray.