I just don’t know what the future is going to hold. I’m writing this reflection in early April. We are in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown. We had a bad storm last night that prevented our family’s evening walk and playing in the backyard. So we’re even more stir-crazy than usual. We spent the night in the basement huddled up listening to tornado sirens and the wind buffet the house. And this morning, we are all more than a little standoffish.
As sometimes happens when I read these lectionary passages, I feel like they are speaking directly to our situation. In this week’s readings, there seems to be a common theme of the people of God praying for and experiencing unity. Whether we remain separated physically, or we soon start to reemerge from isolation and start to reencounter each other, that need for unity across the body of Christ will continue to be as urgent as ever!
In the long series of Jesus’ prayers toward the end of the Gospel of John, unity is a recurring theme. After asking God to glorify him, Jesus prayed for his disciples. At the close of this lectionary passage, he asked God to protect his disciples, “in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). There’s a lot to unpack there! The name that God has given Jesus is a form of יהושע which we translate as “the Lord saves” (see Matthew 1:21). The first three letters of the divine name יהוה provide the first letters of Jesus’ name. Because the divine name is part of Jesus’ name—the Lord saves—it makes sense for Jesus to ask God to protect the disciples in God’s name, that God gave Jesus.
Whether we remain separated physically, or we soon start to reemerge from isolation and start to reencounter each other, that need for unity across the body of Christ will continue to be as urgent as ever!
Then Jesus goes a step further—he says somehow that divine protection will make the disciples one as Jesus and God are one. That is some heady stuff, echoing John’s introduction describing the Word being with God and being God. Jesus was praying for human unity among his disciples that would be the same as the unity between Jesus and his Father. Are we Christians characterized by the self-giving love, mutual identification and shared purpose that we ascribe to the Godhead? Jesus expects us to be, and prays to God that it might be so!
This radical unity among Jesus’ followers seems to have been the norm, for at least a little while. After Jesus ascended to the heavens, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room that served as their headquarters. The description of what life was like as they waited for the Spirit to come on the next pilgrimage feast only a few days later is breathtakingly beautiful:
Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers (Acts 1:13-14).
The core disciples were all there. And they had come together with Jesus’ mother and siblings, and many women. And they were all of one mind, constantly devoting themselves to prayer. Somehow, Jesus’ prayer from the night before he was killed was answered: his family and followers were one, they were safe (for the time being), and they were seeking God together. Looking ahead to next week, the empowering gift of God’s Spirit would allow for a radical unity of message and radical equity of access across national and linguistic lines. But even before the Spirit arrived, Jesus’ people were all together, radically unified and of one mind.
That’s the kind of unity I want in my family, instead of us being salty toward each other after too much time cooped up without recharging our introvert batteries. These days as we deal with the isolation/forced family togetherness of the COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, I’m taking solace in the words of 1 Peter: we “know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering” (5:9). We’re all in this together, even if we are not all together right now. And as we [re]encounter each other, let us remember the prayer of Jesus, that God would protect us and that we would be one as Jesus and the Father are one.