‘That They May All Be One’/Acts 2:42-47 John 17:13-25 –
“If grace is true, there may come a time when I no longer want to be called a Christian.” Phillip Gulley, co-author of the book, If Grace Is True, made a similar statement toward the end of his book.
I think I’ve reached that time when I am considering a new label…. So, let me explain.
Last week, we talked about the first part of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples in John 17. Today, we come to the second part, and combined with this part, the Acts passage about the early church’s witness in their community.
The phrase that the United Church of Christ holds up as its defining slogan, comes from that second part of Jesus’ address:
“My prayer is not for these disciples alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that they may all be one…. I in them and you, [O God], in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Now, if we believe the Jesus Seminar’s scholars, their view of the whole chapter 17 is this: Jesus did not say this; it reflects the content or perspective of a later generation of believers. For the author of John’s gospel, that later generation — 60 years later — faced a different audience and challenge than the first generation. With the spread of the Jesus followers across the Mediterranean world, the early church faced opposition from traditional Jews who denied these followers were a sect of Judaism, and from the Roman world that accused the new religion of disloyalty to the Caesar, the Savior of the world…. Cut loose from both of these cultures, the church was adrift and in search of an overarching philosophy behind its claims about this Jewish rabbi.
Enter: the gospel according to John – Ch. 1, v. 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek “logos,” translated here as “the word,” was more than a word — it was a philosophy, a worldview, a belief that there was one unifying principle at the foundation of the world. The author of John was saying, in effect: “Jesus is the unifying principle we’ve been searching for.” “…through him all things were made…in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”
Uniquely abstract among the 4 gospels, stories and sermons equated Jesus with the metaphors of Light, Life, the Door, the Shepherd, the Vine. Jesus was no longer just a man, he was a symbol…he was now the Christ, the Savior, the source of all and the Way: the mindset and the means that would restore all people. The Logos.
When I think of his abstract-ness and us of metaphors for Jesus, I would consider the author of John the original father of progressive theology. Is he saying: It’s not about the human Jesus, but the message he gave, the philosophy, the “good news”…and yet the man embodies the message. The Word, the Logos, the unifying principle, was with God and was God.
So the unifying principle was Jesus, the human symbol of the Logos, the Way, the Message. Are all the stories in this gospel, then, not about the literal man, but about the man as message? The man as metaphor: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Then, we tie this prayer in with the book of Acts, written before John’s gospel as a history of the early church. And the church is described in chapter 2 this way:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This description of the church was before Jesus followers were called “Christians” – before that, the movement was called “The Way.” If Jesus’ Way was the unifying principle, could there be any more graphic depiction of unity than this paragraph? So, the author of John sees this being lived out 60 years later as the way of life that “earned the good will of all the people” and that “added to their number.” So in John’s gospel, this Jesus will “later” pray: “that they may all be one,” …….unified in living out the unifying message. The message of Love lived out in personal sharing and public justice. Listen again to my paraphrase:
Always together, had all things in common; from those with more was distributed to those with less, as any had need, eating together with glad and generous hearts…having the good will of all the people. So that’s why many were added to their number. They were living out the unity, the inclusiveness and the generosity of Jesus message.
But…some scholars describe this passage not as a literal description of the church, but as an idealized portrait of what the church wanted to be, or could be at its best. Like us, they were not there yet, but they wanted to be. Could that be why John’s author, years later after seeing this ideal lived out in a few places, put these words into Jesus mouth:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that they may all be one, Father, just as you are in me
and I am in you.”
Didn’t the author want to put authority behind this way of living in unity? The Logos, the unifying principle of life, the way of living that reflects our source and the means that will unify and ultimately save us.
So, all this is whyI need to explain why I may be coming upon that time when I, like Phillip Gulley, no longer want to be called a Christian.
To put this into modern business parlance, Christians have ruined the “brand.” The brand is now so sullied, that Christian no longer describes one who is like Jesus, or like the early Jesus followers who lived that unifying principle in Acts, or that Jesus modeled, and that later gospel authors prayed for. Could that be the reason words like Logos were attached to the Jesus figure…to move away from the historical Jesus to the Message, the Way, the Good News of a whole new way of living together?
So isn’t it time for me to embrace a new label? Don’t I need to discard the ruined brand of Christian and call myself something else? Have I become so disgusted — with what many Christians proclaim as the gospel of “turn or burn,” what many Christians do in their public politics and policy, or the way many Christians exclude gay people and those of other faiths from their club – am I so disgusted that I want to disassociate from them? I really want to…and I am so close to doing so.
But then, I am stopped in my tracks …….. and I ask myself, am I living out the unifying principle that I think Jesus modeled? Am I following the unity of selfless sharing that the earliest Christians demonstrated? Am I portraying as radical a way of life as the theology I profess? Am I a living example that the Christ, the Message, the Way has risen in me?
And the answer, unfortunately, is No. So how am I so different from “them,” the ones I judge as misguided? Yes, I give to UCC’s charitable and justice programs that embody the active faith I believe in…that counts for something and I am grateful for that. Yes, I am open about including gay people, those of other faiths and those with no religion at all. And that shows something, and I’m glad our church stands for that.
But is the way I live Monday through Saturday really very different, as different as Acts 2 or as Jesus prayer? Am I “earning the good will of all” and causing souls to be added to our radical lifestyle because it is so fair and good? …….. Not the last time I checked.
So, I sincerely want a different label, a new name, to distinguish what I believe from what other Christians believe. But I am not yet living a life so different.
So, I should be called a Christian still…because in my actions, I am more like them than I am like Jesus. In my actions, I am more like those I disagree with than like the ideal described in Acts 2. That doesn’t mean I can’t change a few things. In fact, I can…if I really want to.
But to change my label, I had better wait…
until I earn a new name.