The way of Jesus is counter-intuitive. When Jesus prayed: “…that they may be one, even as we are one” He was not praying about obliterating individuality in His followers. He was not praying about unity as something external and structural.
We talk a lot about unity. But what is true unity? I think it has much to do with honor. There are things in life that unify individuals together. People work at the same profession, attend the same church or school, have the same racial or cultural heritage, work out at the same gym, belong to the same family or have a common hobby. Is that the unity that Jesus talked about?
When Jesus prayed that “…that they may be one, even as we are one” was He thinking about something man-made? For example when one belongs to an organization such as a union the connection is mechanical; wanting to protect the group. Unity based on political needs will surge and ebb with the political climate. Unity based on religious rulings made by a denomination only create an environment of “us” and “them” and even if signed by the members will not truly unite people’s hearts. Iron-clad compulsion is not unity. Ed Noble clearly outlined how it can quickly morph into an environment of judging whether a person is qualified as being “in” or “out.”
Unity should not to be confused with putting together combinations. A manager can put together people in his organization to create a team but those combined individuals may not have unity. Unity initiated by God does not take away individual characteristics but rather honors them. Look at how God created a field of wheat. Each blade of wheat is different. No two are alike. Yet looking at the whole field there is a pleasant unity to it. When God created us in His image, He did not create any two individuals alike. Yet He expects us to be unified even though we think and act differently. How can that happen?
David writes in one poem: “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Throughout history, men have tried to create unity through the mechanism of socialism. Results have always been disastrous. Jealousies, envies, rivalries, wars, banishment are the results. Unity is not about uniformity. Unity is never completely achieved by merely engaging in some common work or thinking in a certain way.
God’s Spirit is the only person that can initiate and achieve a real unity of souls. Unity in the Spirit incorporates everyone’s gifts and focuses them toward a common goal. The Spirit teaches us to esteem [honor] others above ourselves. Unity comes when the people of God decide to take seriously the command of Jesus Christ. When the people of God fail to esteem [honor] one another we fail to demonstrate one of the primary evidences of Imago Dei. Our failure to give up our individualism is to deny godliness. We would rightly laugh at the US Army if different units started fighting each other over how to wear the uniform. Likewise, the world laughs at the different parts of Christ’s body as it contends in rivalry over non-essential forms. The world is waiting for the gospel. Jesus said that the fields are over ripe. In our arguments over dogmas, do we ever stop to consider the stumbling blocks we create for our mission as given by Jesus?
The way of Jesus is counter-intuitive. When Jesus prayed: “…that they may be one, even as we are one” He was not praying about obliterating individuality in His followers. He was not praying about unity as something external and structural. Unity is not by artificial restraints. It is by being faithful in allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us grace; it is a holy work and not a work by us. A durable lasting marriage is the result of two distinct individuals actively honoring the other above themselves regardless of the pain to themselves. As we learn to honor Christ and honor each other over ourselves, we will achieve unity.
When you think of the church, have you ever ask yourself this question: “Are you in relationship with a person or with an organization?” As with any relationship, there is always the opportunity for misunderstanding, hurt, neglect and abuse. Sometimes it is intentional and sometime not. The thing that pushes people away from God is not isolated to just one thing. It is like trying to pull apart a hairball. [Thanks Jason for that illustration!] The problem with religion is that it was a good thing that went wrong a long time ago. It comes down to four basic issues.
With religion there is the issue of “us and them” or whether one is “in or out.” Jesus encountered this when the religious leaders of his day asked “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?” In other words, how come you and your group do not do things as we do them. We are right and you are wrong. You are out while we are on the inside.
Religion can also create the problem of power. Power equals control and is too easily turned into manipulation. How often have you heard a TV evangelist tell their audience that they just send in money they will be blessed by God. I heard one man tell his audience that they would just send in handkerchief to him he would blessed it and return it to the sender; and God in turn would bless them in answer prayer all for a small donation.
The problem of righteousness scale is a problem of trying to keep certain commandment to please either a group of people or to please God. It becomes a thing of judgment if you fail to keep those certain requirements. Who is keeping track of the ‘righteous scale.’ Is it a church group? Jesus made a startling statement when he said to the religious leaders “Truly I say to you that tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.” In Jesus day, tax collectors were the scum of the earth. They were Jewish people who worked for the enemy, the Roman oppressors. They were hated and seen by their own people as traitors of the worst sort. But here’s the point of what Jesus was saying. Tax collectors and prostitutes were generally not proud of their professions. They knew they were not living a life that would be pleasing to God. And when Jesus confronted them they were humble. The people that were not humble or those that thought they were living a righteous life. They were proud of their ability to keep the law and were not of the worse sort, tax collectors and prostitutes. And because of that pride their heart was closed to God when Jesus appeared on the scene. You might want to read the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7. It will give you insight into the difference between prideful righteousness and humility that God seeks.
And then there’s the problem of just simply missing the point. When we’re missing the point we are spending more time obeying and loving what men have set up as the right thing to do rather than loving God and our neighbors. Being legal is more important than loving others. And interestingly enough the world is not becoming less religious but more religious. Jesus told the religious leaders of his day they were setting aside the guidelines of God to follow the guidelines of men. They were setting aside what God wanted in order to keep their traditions.
One reason people adopt following a religion and not a relationship with Jesus has to do with humility. Following a religion and being part of ‘in crowd’ can give us a false sense of security, all in the name of worshipping God. Jesus said “whoever exalts himself will eventually be humble; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” So if you turned your back on religion for whatever reason, that’s a good thing. Now start afresh and go seek out Jesus. Abandon fear, fighting, control, wall building and just simply trust Jesus. He is far superior to religion.