Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Cheap and Costly Unity

"... so that they may be one as we are one." (Jesus, John 17:11)

While reflecting on last Sunday's Gospel passage (John 17:1-11) it occurred to me that unity and union, with God and with each other, is costly. And in the same way that grace is costly - although humans have a tendency to seek the cheap version - so too unity has its costly and cheap versions. The union Jesus looks toward comes at the cost of his life. It is costly, and our discipleship of him is costly, just as the unity in Christ we seek is costly.

Iain McKillop, Jesus' High Priestly Prayer in
John 17, from a series of 7 paintings
 focusing on that last night and Gethsemane.
A reason why unity in Christ is costly is because it does not end the quest for unity prematurely. Human societies feel safer when identity and unity are attained and can then be protected and enjoyed. What I like to call mutual back-slapping (the kind of human unity built on mutual affirmation within narrow parameters of behaviour or belief, and applies to most human organisations, associations, sporting clubs) stops too early in its quest for union. Prematurely ending the quest for unity is why mutual back-slapping doesn't have the capacity to go very deep, and when it meets conflict, has the tendency to paper it over. Moreover, while it might appear that mutual-backslapping groups are relaxed about diversity, this relaxed attitude is because the diversity is not actually part of the unity itself. (Cf 1Cor 12:4-11)  The hard work of including diversity and 'the other' isn't carried through. Community built on mutual back-slapping also falls easily into its alter-ego of the attack-dog, pointing the finger at the 'accused', forming a temporary but false unity on the ostracised.

Churches are called beyond this kind of tribalism (both the mutual back-slapping society and the attack-dog gang are tribalistic). Jesus reminds us of the cost of unity (see John 11:45-53) but also its provisionality. It is because the work of the Spirit in uniting the human race is not yet complete that churches are asked to hold themselves open to including the outsider, and work to make difference a foundation of their community.

This is exactly why unity is costly. Unity grounded in diversity changes the community as it stands, and makes the life of that community less comfortable. When the current unity of a congregation is considered provisional it means that congregation is saying that it expects, even wants, its current identity to change. New people will mean a new identity, both for the existing members of the community and those joining it, requiring both some personal and group dying.

When unity and its cost is understood like this much of the New Testament focus on Christian disunity (e.g see 1Cor 1:10-31; chapters 5-8; 11:17-34; chapters 12-14) and the confusion to identity that new members (Gentiles) bring (to faithful Jewish Christians, see the Gospel of Matthew; Acts 15:1-21; Galatians 2:11-14) becomes understandable. Whether it comes through the personal call to die with Christ or a community's call to die to its current secure identity, union in Christ comes at a cost and humans tend to resist that call.


  1. OMG
    You haven't actually got so far ahead of yourself that you can blog again
    And not before time
    The packing assessor came today...all will be well!

  2. Not exactly what we had...as we had Confirmation. the candidates testified...excellent, even the Abp was moved....and he preached about Patrick White...and he touched the candidates.
    Very profound stuff....why does God do this just as you are moving?

    see also my more simple version of why unity is costly

  3. Unity and union with God and with each other is costly because it is about relationships.
    Relationships are to be valued and enjoyed above everything else in life - first our relationship with God and then our relationships with others (Mark 12:28-31).
    Too many people find personal relationships annoying, exasparating and tiresome and so often relationships are abandoned.
    To have a relationship with God, with others is to share life;
    expressing joy when we are happy, showing gratitude when we are blessed, complaining when we are feeling let down, crying out when we feel abandoned, supplicating when we are need, raging at injustice, lamenting hardness and delighting in goodness.
    This all looks pretty costly to me.