My sons and I aren’t serious sports fans. Still, we get excited when we hear our teams are doing well. But it’s tricky because my eldest and I root for different teams. He’s a Cincinnati Reds fan, like his mom, while I celebrate Cubs wins and ignore the losses. The problem is that we live closer to Cincinnati than to my beloved Chicago, so there is redder than blue on baseball days. I’d love to celebrate the game with my son, but we just aren’t on the same team. This week’s lectionary readings are about Jesus teaching his disciples that they are, surprisingly, all on the same team.
In the Acts lesson, the conversation is framed by a question from Jesus’ disciples. After the resurrection, is Jesus finally going to dispense with all peacemaking and anti-violence to overthrow the wicked Romans (who tortured him to death, let the reader remember) and restore the kingdom and political independence to Israel? I imagine the resurrected Jesus sighed deeply before telling his disciples that it is not for them to know the times appointed by God the Father. Jesus simply won’t be co-opted into the Jews vs. Romans struggle.
Instead, Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive power from the Spirit. This power won’t help them wage a war of liberation against imperial Rome, at least not as they imagine themselves doing. Instead, the Spirit will empower the disciples to witness to Jesus’ love, death and resurrection in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and, eventually, all the world. There is no us vs. them in the kingdom of heaven. They will start this campaign of witnessing by simply sharing food and praying together with Jesus’ female followers and his natal family (Acts 1:14). All those who followed Jesus were of one mind as they prayed and sought to tell stories of the man they had known, loved, witnessed being murdered, and then met again in his resurrected body.
As a historical footnote, the outworking of inclusive witness that refused to pit one people against another would eventually come to threaten the Roman Empire after all. The early Christians were dangerous precisely because they treated women, babies, slaves and the poor as humans—indeed, as citizens of a kingdom of heaven. The disciples witnessed to Jesus in the Roman Empire and in the Parthian Empire, refusing to see the world in terms of us vs. them. They put Jesus above the many ways that humans were (and are) divided.
There is room for disagreement and different visions in the body of Christ. But there must be unity of purpose and mission.
In his long speech in the Gospel of John, Jesus describes how unity among humans isn’t the only goal of his work—he also strives for unity among God and humans. The disciples finally understand that everything Jesus gave them, his words and teaching, were first given to Jesus by God. Everything that God knows and treasures up (with the exception of a few bits of future knowledge, it seems) God shares with Jesus. And everything that Jesus knows and treasures belongs to God. Jesus prays to return to sharing God’s glory that had been his since before the creation of the universe, which he set aside temporarily for his earthly sojourn. Jesus deeply longs to return to the unity that he shared with God throughout the eons.
Finally, Jesus prays that the disciples will be one just as he and God are one. This is striking to me, and one of the most meaningful passages in the Gospel of John. The same absolute oneness and primordial unity that Christians theorize for the Trinity, Jesus prays for his disciples and followers. Jesus, the Father and the Spirit are fundamentally all on the same team, as one God. What would it look like for us, who have been claimed through the waters of baptism and nourished by one holy meal, to be one body of Christ in the earth?
Whatever else, it would not mean uniformity. Peter, Paul, James and others disagreed about how to advance Jesus’ mission. Even Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that God might change the plan and remove the cup of suffering that he was about to undergo. There is room for disagreement and different visions in the body of Christ. But there must be unity of purpose and mission.
God’s mission is to love the world, not to condemn it (John 3:16-17), and to reconcile all the universe to Godself, saving all of creation from the powers of sin and death. How can we join together, to be unified in purpose and empowered by the Spirit to join God’s mission of redemptively loving the world? The first step must be refusing to see the world in an us-vs.-them lens.