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Is God a Christian?

May 20, 2007

Clay Nelson

Easter 7     John 17:20-26


Into each of our lives come times of great stress. All that matters seems to be coming unglued. We ask, “Is all the hard work to count for naught? What good can come from such travail?”


Such moments invite reflection and prayer – a common human tactic to seeking meaning in the meaningless that so often seems to derail us. Today’s gospel reading is Jesus’ prayer at such a moment. His arrest and execution are imminent. It concludes a long night of reflection with his disciples about what it is has all been about and hopes for where it might lead. His hope is that we “all might 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.”


We don’t have time today to examine why this prayer is not Jesus’ prayer, but trust me, it isn’t. It is the church’s prayer in the second century, or at least that branch of it to which the writer of John’s Gospel belongs. It was composed at least 70 to 80 years after Jesus is purported to have said it.


However, it was written in a time of stress. Things were precarious for the infant church. It was having an identity crisis. After beginning as a branch of Judaism, it had been essentially kicked out by the orthodox. The lingering resentment shows in John’s anti-Semitism. In addition the church was accurately seen by the Romans as subversive and as a result was being regularly persecuted. The world from their experience was a very hostile place and survival of their faith perspective was still “iffy” at best. To make things worse there were serious tensions within the community about who Jesus was and what he was about and what was required to be one of his followers. Hard to imagine isn’t it?


This prayer, heard in that context, is about survival. Probably from the moment we were endowed with consciousness we knew survival depended on others. It is the first lesson we learned at our mother’s breast. To survive meant having friends, knowing who they were and being united with them for mutual help and protection. If that community of people we could count on was threatened or fractured, personal survival was at stake.


Jesus’ prayer for unity amongst his followers has all this as a subtext.


Two millennia later it is still an issue – this passage is frequently used to call for Christian unity – a goal that has always been and will be an impossible dream. Thank God, if unity means conformity.


When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the church lost its quality of being subversive. It was now part of the system its own structure came to resemble – the emperor’s court. It learned quickly that power is required to bring conformity, for such unity is required to maintain power.


Conformity is at the heart of the church’s needs for creeds and dogma. It quickly began setting rules for who could be baptised, who could receive communion, who could get married, who could get ordained, and who could rule with its blessing.


Conformity is achieved by using the power of the community to coerce the individual. This was true long before the church. It is grounded in believing that individual and community needs are natural enemies. From the community’s perspective, individuals are loose cannons whose needs are a threat to its own.


But is this really the case?


In truth, humans are social animals. Community is essential to us. All we know we learned from community. The community’s traditions, books, rituals, language, institutions and ideas define us and engage us. Community is the source of a full range of human experiences: love, family, entertainment, art and science among them.


The problem isn’t an individual’s opposition to community, but some communities are a hazard to our individuality. Some are not hospitable. These are made up of bad customs, bad laws, bad habits, bad people and bad theology.


No, the real problem for unity in a community is that it is made up of smaller, often competing, communities. We, as individuals, then choose amongst them.


The question then becomes how do we choose?


There is a story that is illuminating.


Wycliffe Hall, an Evangelical theological college at Oxford is in a serious conflict that threatens its excellent reputation. Why is a college with only 100 students and 13 faculty members newsworthy? While hardly a hotbed of liberal theology, faculty and administration are in conflict over issues that divide the worldwide Anglican Communion: theology, Scripture and homosexuality. But ultimately it is a conflict over individual freedom versus the community’s goals. The faculty is accusing the administration of bullying and intimidating its members who don’t toe their aggressively conservative line. As a result a number of popular faculty have exercised their individual freedom to remove themselves from this community by resigning.


What this brings into focus is that “we, unlike other animals, need to watch over our communities, make sure they are suitable and not corrupt. And this watchfulness, just to start with, involves individual responsibility. To abandon a corrupt tribe is something an individual does as an individual, not as a member of some other tribe.”


Just as community is vital to the individual, a community needs to remember individuality is vital to it. What merit a community has is based on how well they nurture us as individuals. Those that stifle us are corrupt and need to be either repaired or abandoned.


Many Americans, myself amongst them, feel much of the corruption there is due to someone considered by many a good Christian man – Jerry Falwell. As the world knows, he died this week. Sadly, not before his racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic beliefs grounded in his interpretation of Scripture, did their worst. He is credited with creating a powerful community called the Moral Majority. It is rightfully credited or blamed, depending on your politics, for America’s present dismal place in the world. For him, the non-conservative Christian world was the enemy. Playing on people’s fears and worst instincts was fair play to conform the world, or at least America, to his vision. He saw himself on God’s side. His view begs the questions: Is God a Christian? And if so, is God a member of the Moral Majority?


Falwell, might well point to the church’s prayer in today’s reading to support his assertion that the answer to both is yes. Jesus and God are one the prayer says and those who are one with him will see God’s glory. As an inheritor of the disciples’ mantle it was his Christian responsibility to bring all to Christ.


Fortunately, Falwell is not the last word on the subject. While this prayer is the church’s prayer, the person of Jesus creeps into it, the Jesus who preaches the power of love to transform us is there. The Jesus who resists conforming to a community bent on stifling him and us can still be heard. The Jesus who nurtures love not hate, life not death, freedom not enslavement still offers us a choice.


No matter how much the church has sought to silence him, Jesus, remains a loose cannon. Like God he cannot be claimed by any who would imprison us against our will, even if they are Christian. It is the love we call God that unites us, not our conforming to religious beliefs.

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