Jesus prays in John’s Gospel, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:11).
We are called to be united as the community of faith; yet we look around us and see much disunity and division in congregations.
One of the congregations I served in North Carolina had had a split in the 1890s. It involved hurt feelings and loud meetings and even a synod president threatened with arrest. After the dust settled there were three congregations where for the previous 150 years there had been one.
Most of us agree that we want unity; we desire oneness. We lament the divisions and debates that drive us apart. We do not want to be divided, yet all too often, we are.
Why? In the face of our Lord’s command and our desire, why do we so frequently find ourselves at odds with each other?
The witness of Scripture is pretty clear on two points here:
1) Our disunity springs from seeking to do things our own way.
2) The path to unity and oneness lies in seeking to do things God’s way.
Time and time again when the people of God lose their focus on God, trouble ensues. This trouble is not punishment from God; it is the natural result of we who are, essentially spiritual beings failing to attend to necessary spiritual things.
It is in unity with the holy, the divine, the spiritual that we find wholeness within ourselves and unity with each other.
The words atone and atonement have an interesting history in English. We generally speak of “atoning” for our sins as somehow doing something to earn forgiveness, or performing some act of penance or restitution to make up for the bad that we have done.
In theology, “atonement” has become the name for the doctrine of what God in Christ accomplished by his death upon the cross.
What’s interesting is that the English root word doesn’t exactly mean making up for or paying for one’s sins or mistakes or crimes. The root word means “reconciliation.”
It comes from the Middle English “atonen,” “to become reconciled” and from the early French “at on,” “in harmony” “at + on = one” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p.56).
How do we achieve unity, oneness, harmony with God and with each other? Well, it seems obvious it begins with Christ and the cross.
Jesus stood among his disciples at the Last Supper and prayed that they might be one.
Then he went out and did something about it. He reconciled, he harmonized, he “at-oned” us.
Christ made us one with God and one with each other.
My favorite professor at the Lutheran seminary in Columbia, S.C., Dr. J. Benjamin Bedenbaugh defined God’s act of reconciliation as “God hugging the world to himself in an embrace of love.”
(Classroom lecture, Spring 1983)
God has made peace with us and, by extension, between us. If we are one with God, then we are also one with each other. Many people today talk about being spiritual without being religious. Among the many things that are meant by that is a wrong-headed privatization of faith, a “me and God are just all right,” kind of individualism. This will simply not do if we are to live fully as Christians.
We have a need to be with each other within the body of Christ, the church, if for no other reason than without it we cannot learn to love and to be loved alone. It is within the daily bump and grind of life together, of living, working, playing and praying together as the people of God that we find out what it means to be genuinely forgiven for our failures, praised for our efforts, appreciated for our virtues, prayed for in our sorrows, helped in the midst of our troubles, and loved in spite of ourselves.
It is only within the community of faith that we learn to be genuinely loving, praising, forgiving and helping toward others. We need each other in order to learn and to practice what it means to be Christian, to each other and to the world.
God calls us to do all that we can to be agents of at-one-ness. It begins within the community gathered around word and sacrament, then spills out the doors into the streets, walking out with arms and hearts wide open, seeking to embrace the world with love of God.
- Who are the ones that God has given us from the world?
- Who are we to pray for, protect, love and minister to?