Unity was the theme at our regional denominational assembly this year. It was clearly the Mennonite version of a pre-emptive strike, aimed at encouraging people to find common ground in the midst of differing opinions on the issue of homosexuality. And I’m guessing as we delegates made our preparations leading up to this July weekend, we were grateful for the opportunity to spend some time thinking about what unites us.
But once at the conference, an interesting thing happened sitting around my small table as we began our weekend together. We were asked to reflect on this idea of unity and we quickly realized it was super difficult to find something we were unified on, at least if we defined unity as agreement. We were very respectful of each other, very pleasant. But it was also clear, homosexuality was just the tip of the iceberg. Had we had time to let the conversation flow we would have discovered all manner of differences in how we approach worship, on our understandings of what it means to be church, on the nature of God, on the role of evangelization. Mostly this was all unspoken, but each of us sensed how very differently we each understood reality. And so we tried to figure out where the unity, the agreement was. We tentatively agreed we were unified on the priority of love and the person of Jesus, though I suspect if we had pushed these out, many more cracks would have emerged. So what does unity mean anyway?
“Becoming one to be sent in Christ” was our key phrase for the weekend. In chapter 17 from John, Jesus mentions this idea several times. In verse 11 he says, “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” In verse 22 he says, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,” and continuing on then with verse 23, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” What does it mean, “to become one?” If we have so little we are actually unified on, how can we become one to be sent in Christ?
Jesus’ words in verses 20-21 particularly jumped out at me. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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.” Now Jesus is talking about unity that goes beyond the present to embrace our future, those yet to come who will be impacted by our words and actions in the present. How do we seek unity gazing into a future we can’t see clearly? How do we achieve oneness with people who live in the days and years we haven’t yet reached and may never arrive at?
We watched the opening ceremonies for the Olympic games a couple weeks ago. I found it both highly bizarre and highly entertaining. But all the hoopla leading up to the parade of nations was just the prelude for the main event. I find the procession of the athletes quite moving. The cultural flourishes they add to their costumes, the rainbow hues of skin colors, the joy on the faces of the participants, and the way in which differences can be set aside so that historical and political foes can join together to create something so much bigger than their differences.
The lighting of the cauldron was particularly magnificent. In case you missed this televised event, each team carried in it’s own pot or petal. These were arranged in spiral formation. When the parade of nations concluded, Olympic greats from the past handed off the torch to seven young British athletes who show promise and may just compete in a future Olympics. The seven teenagers then jogged around the arena, taking turns carrying the lit torch. When they reached the spiral of pots created by each of the participating nations, all of the kids received lit torches and together they lit the pots on the outside of the spiral. Very quickly the flame took off on its own, lighting each of the pots. Then the pots began to rise and within moments, these individual pots joined together to create the burning fire of the Olympic cauldron.
Unity always seems to be the underlying theme of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, and of the Olympics in general. But clearly, unity in this context doesn’t mean just simple agreement. In fact, what has made the Olympic games such a celebrated occasion is the principle that unity is possible in the face of some of the greatest differences and disagreements of all. So is diversity an essential component of unity?
Many of the women from my church have been having fun in our church basement every Wednesday afternoon. Wynona is our oldest attender. Her collection of quilt blocks is not only impressively large, it is also a totally random collection of material accumulated over a lifetime. And yet, from this diversity we have had a wonderful time allowing creative juices to flow and watching as beautifully designed quilt tops form, one after another. Those who are sewing the blocks together have commented on how random the blocks seem to be put arranged as they work on sewing the first few rows, but then there comes a point in the process where suddenly they begin to apprehend and appreciate the greater design as it emerges.
Using quilt tops as an analogy, unity defined as agreement would most likely be blocks cut from the same cloth all sewed back together. I’ve never seen a quilt top like this. Not only would it seem pointless to cut out blocks and sew them back together, it would also make for a really boring quilt top. But if we understand unity, or oneness, to be a design emerging in the midst of diversity and difference, than I think of all the beautiful quilt tops we’ve made this summer as a tangible image for an intangible concept.
What is unity? As I think about the Olympics, as I imagine quilt tops, I would say unity is flamboyant! It is unpredictable. It is loud and messy and beautiful. It is dissonance finding harmony. It’s never in unison. It is a circus somehow moving in the same direction. It is an unlikely order, or pattern emerging out of chaos.
There’s another essential element to unity as well. When people are part of the picture, dissonance only finds harmony in the face of trust. Feedback following our church assembly indicated people were pleasurably surprised at their unexpected encounters with trust. We might not all have agreed with each other’s opinions, theologies, life philosophies, but it seems we did get a strong sense that everyone there was doing their best to be faithful to a God not one of us can get our head around. Many of us, I think, began to trust the motives, the earnest desires, the longings of our fellow Mennonite brothers and sisters.
Certainly the disciples were a motley crew of individuals coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. They came with their own unique prejudices, assumptions, blind spots. Deep down, they were not all the same, they were all very, very different. But each of them longed, in their own unique ways, to know God. And seeing their own deepest longings reflected in the hearts and faces of their companions inspired an unlikely trust. This trust, in time, forged an alliance that made possible the church. Jesus’ prayer for oneness was realized, in all the messy and unpredictable glory of unity.
As we left the assembly and made our own individual journeys home, home to all the congregations that form our regional conference, this was the whispered prayer that guided our way. “May we become one to be sent in Christ. Amen.”