This is the concluding installment of my series on Jesus and the Nations, which began with this post. As I said there, these posts had their inception in a devotional series written for the Alpha leadership at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers. As I did there, I conclude this series with a brief reflection on an oft unnoticed aspect of “mission” as I believe the New Testament understands it. That is, for a call that all those who call themselves Christian may be one (“ut unum sint“).
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you 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.”
It is now the end of Jesus’ ministry. At this moment, in the Upper Room before his betrayal and death, Jesus dramatically reenacts for his disciples the summation of his entire ministry by dawning the dress of a slave and washing their feet. Following this startling demonstration, he tells them what is to come, chiefly that he, and by extension they, will suffer. He then comforts them with the promise of the Holy Spirit, and with a reminder that despite the events of the coming day—his trial and execution—he is in fact “the way, the truth, and the life.” All of this forms the basis of Jesus’ commission to his disciples to spread the word about him far and wide. That indeed is how Jesus concludes the evening, with this prayer for their mission.
But how is this prayer really about mission? Sure, Jesus opens the prayer that way, but then he proceeds to go on and on about unity and being one and the like. Seems like he’s praying about something else, doesn’t it? When we conceive of mission, as we often tend do, as exclusively an act directed outward to those who have not heard, it may be difficult to understand what Jesus is praying for here. This prayer itself, however, should caution us from doing that. What this prayer tells us is that the quality of our mission out to the world is inextricably dependent on the quality of our community life inside the church. Why else would Jesus begin this evening with such a striking act as washing his disciples feet? And what else so clouds the quality of that inner life—especially for those on the outside watching—than strife, discord, and schism? It is for this reason that Jesus bases his prayer for the mission of his disciples firmly on the foundation of unity.
We often don’t think of church unity as a vital component of our evangelistic task. Indeed, many churches are pleased to simply gloss over the divided state of God’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Gospel is about Jesus, after all, not his church, is it not? But what does a strife-ridden and divided church say to the world about that church’s Lord? In a secular world, which increasingly rejects the church’s message because of the church’s current state, it says a lot more than perhaps we’d be comfortable admitting. But look what Jesus says here: “may they be one so that the world may believe…” and “may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know…” For him, the world will know God’s love for the world in Christ when they see that love among the community of faithful. To put the matter baldly, we simply cannot engage in mission if we aren’t likewise working to put our own house in order.
As we work in this particular ministry for the church’s outward proclamation, let us not forget that our mission is thus also directed inward in how we love one another. That is indeed what unity is all about, loving one another. So much division in the church is driven by our unwillingness to follow Jesus’ own example of loving submission to the other. In addition to our proclamation about Jesus, what better thing can we offer the world than a demonstration of that proclamation in the way we humbly seek to bring about unity amongst ourselves? This kind of unity is driven by mutual submission and love in service to our Lord, who took on not just a servant’s dress for our sakes, but took on death itself out of love for us. That indeed is what the Gospel we proclaim is fundamentally about. That is why unity and mission go hand and hand. Before we go out into the world, let us find unity for ourselves by submitting to one other, so that the world will know by our love for one another the true transforming magnitude of God’s own love for us in Jesus.
A Collect for Unity (BCP p. 818)
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Collect for Mission (BCP p. 100)
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your Kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.