That They May Be One
A Post-Election Prayer for the Church
In 2016 we saw something that we had never seen before: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. As momentous of an occasion as that was, it may be a neglected footnote in the almanac of 2016 compared to the presidential election. A title on the North Side and a Trump victory has garnered the same reaction: “We’ve never seen anything like this.” Some are excited over what they’ve never seen, while others remain fearful of the unknown.
We’ve seen upsets before. We’ve seen the Electoral College winner lose the popular vote before. What we have not seen is the kind of fragmentation that is the current state of our union. The divides have been there for quite some time, but these two nominees have exposed the fractures. As we look across the gaping fissures that have suddenly erupted, the divides between the powerful and powerless, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the marginalized are wider than previously suspected.
The country seemed bitterly divided in 2000 as Florida courts decided what election officials were to do with “hanging chads.” The philosophical divides that were present then have been exacerbated by the pain of 9/11, a global war on terror, a debilitating recession, and a widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
To measure the impact of this election one might need a seismograph. There are two disturbing and opposing aftershocks that continue to be felt. On the one hand, opponents of the President-elect are protesting in major cities. We’ve seen this in developing countries, but not here. On the other hand, a small number of supporters of the President-elect feel emboldened to insult people of other ethnicities and bully undocumented immigrants.
So, what is the Church to do now? As we look at the immensity of the divide in our country, it would be easy to throw our hands up and say, “How can we make a difference?” No one comes to the Church for a check. We don’t have money to throw at this problem. We don’t have a seat in congress. How can we bring healing?
Our cultural influence continues wane, especially when many Evangelical leaders attach the transformative message of Jesus to one side this divide. Perhaps a better questions is, “How can we not make it worse?”
Even with all its shortcomings, the Bride of Christ still has something to offer. Jesus paradoxically inaugurated a kingdom of love and compassion by a divestment of power and influence, not a consolidation.
Before we fall into the trap of believing the task is too great, our influence is too compromised, and our resources are too small, let’s pause to imagine our world without the Church. Can you imagine the abolition of slavery without the Church? Can you imagine a civil rights movement without the Church? Can you imagine a nation trying to cope with the horror of 9/11 without the Church? Can you imagine grieving families who have lost loved ones in service to our nation without the Church? Throughout history, God has used the Church to accomplish great social change, to mend deep wounds, and to bring together groups of people who might otherwise be divided. We have a great task ahead of us, but God has used us to do it before, and He will again in these days.
This means we must not be enticed by political power and influence. Eventually we will learn that the Gospel will never be fully embodied in any party or candidate. A divided nation is yearning for a Church that is pastoral and prophetic, but not political. For us to be the agents of God’s restoration and reconciliation, we must be one. This was Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before he went to the cross:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 23 I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20–23)
This is the last prayer Jesus prayed for his disciples, and it’s a prayer the Father desires to answer today in the wake of this election. The end of the prayer focuses on those that will believe in the Gospel after the resurrection. He’s praying for the outsiders…for those who will believe in the future. I doubt the disciples fully understood what a “wild card” kind of prayer this was. Jesus envisions the largest ethnic divide of that culture, i.e. the divide between Jews and Gentiles, being bridged by the Gospel. I cannot overstate the chasm between these two ethnic groups in the first century, but let’s just say it was YUGE.
If the Church is to offer anything to a divided nation, we must wrestle with this question: Do we have a vision of the Church that is this big? We believe on paper that the Gospel is available to all. However, the story of Israel teaches us again and again that what is written on “tablets of stone” must also be written on our hearts. Are we prepared to share life with someone who is politically and socially our opposite?
I fear that sometimes we don’t want a vision of Church this big because we desire uniformity and not unity. Uniformity is just easier. It’s just easier for birds of a feather to flock together. If a bird doesn’t like your flock, they can flock somewhere else.
There is no room for this kind of homogeneous migration in Jesus’ prayer. We generally pray for things that require divine intervention, and all four Gospels demonstrate there were plenty of uniform groups in the first century: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and others. They had found their flock.
Jesus doesn’t ask the Father to create another sub-culture. He is asking the Father to complete what was started when he chose ordinary yet socially diverse people to begin the Church. There was nothing “uniform” about them, but Jesus asks the Father to perform a miracle in “bringing them to complete unity.”
Do you believe in miracles?
Tell Me Your Story
One of the largest fissures to be exposed by this election is the divide between urban and suburban. It’s a divide between city life and rural life. The heartland and the coasts aren’t seeing eye-to-eye right now. Manhattan doesn’t understand Mayberry, Mayberry doesn’t understand Manhattan, and neither want to try. If anyone needs to try, it’s the Church.
What would happen if the country mouse and the city mouse switched places?
I spent a week in Chicago this summer. It wasn’t the first time this “country mouse” had been to the city, but it was the first time I had navigated an urban jungle like Chicago with a family.
My friend told me something would happen as I rode the Red Line Train from the South Side to the North Side. When I entered on the south the train was mostly African-American, but as I worked my way toward the north, the train became more diverse with people of Asian, Hispanic, and Middle-Eastern descent.
I noticed several mothers who were carrying bags of groceries and were trying to direct their children on and off of the trains. The thought of grocery shopping for the day and herding my young children on and off a mass transit system completely stressed me out. I heard several different languages on the train, and sat beside a lady wearing a hijab and later a man wearing a yamaka.
It dawned on me that the Red Line Train may be the best context for understanding Jesus’ prayer for the Church, and thus the world. Jesus prayed that everyone on that train would believe and that they would be one. If this prayer is ever going to be answered, we must do a better job of understanding the story of everyone on that train. Understanding the story of the other is the first step towards unity. The Church needs to spend a day on the Red Line, a day at the welfare office, a day with a migrant worker, and a day in a crowded emergency room. We need to do more listening than talking, and the conversation should begin with, “Tell me your story.”
I think the city mouse would be interested in the story of the country mouse as well. Perhaps we could sit down and try to understand why so much of the American electoral map by county is red, with these little accents of blue in the counties of major urban centers.
Would You Like to Dance?
As Jesus closes his bold and audacious prayer, he gives us a glimpse into the mysterious nature of the Trinity:
Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:22)
Although the prayer doesn’t specifically mention the Holy Spirit, his presence is implied. The Church has longed to understand this unity between the individual members of the Trinity. Our best attempt to describe what binds them together is selfless love. Each person of the Trinity gives and reciprocates this love to the other. The best picture of this love is Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross. The Early Church had a term for this perpetual reciprocation of love: perichoresis. It literally means “circle dance.”
This may be a strange way of thinking about God, especially for people in my theological tradition who are widely known to have two left feet. This is terribly unfortunate, but I’ve been to a few Nazarene wedding receptions over the last few years, and I’m happy to report we’re starting to get our groove back.
A few weeks ago I was at a family wedding in TN, and the only thing better than the “shrimp ‘n grits” at the reception was watching both families tear it up on the dance floor. It got pretty crazy when the deejay played Sister Sledge’s, “We Are Family.” I generally keep it pretty tame on the dance floor as anything more than a side-to-side shuffle becomes an embarrassment to my wife, but it was hard to hold back. There was joy, freedom, and genuine love in that place.
For a moment, we all forgot about the presidential debate that had just happened or what was leading the headlines. Even the father of the bride forgot about how much this was costing him. We just danced.
And then I saw perichoresis. My son, his cousin, and my wife’s parents were in a circle, holding hands, and dancing the night away.
When Jesus prays for us to be in him as he is in the Father, he is inviting us into this circle. As we come into the circle, we are called to love as the Trinity loves one another. Those who dance in the circle must be ready to welcome others.
Is there anyone else in the world more equipped to love in this way than the Church? I don’t believe so, but this love must not be mingled with partisan politics. The Kingdom of God must not be carelessly hitched to a political party. This only produces uniformity for some but never the unity of all.
Sometimes to discharge our civic duty we must choose the “lesser of two evils,” but in advancing the mission of God there must be a better way. Jesus never called the Church to reflect the least amount of evil to the world, but the most amount of love. Jesus’ prayer for unity is answered when the Church loves well.
How do we love well? We dance! We say to the rich and poor, the citizen and alien, the privileged and marginalized: would you like to dance? As the music plays and the dance goes on, the Church must always be aware of who is being excluded from the dance. The dance floor must be shared with all. The day that the Church excludes anyone from the dance will be the day the music dies.
This invitation to dance may well be the only thing we have to offer a divided country, but it’s what Jesus prayed for and that will be enough…for now. The best is yet to come!