“That they may be one, as we are one.” — John 17:22
Over the past weeks we have been “cherry picking” our way through the first letter of John, reading from chapter 1 here and chapter 3 there; from chapter 4 here and from chapter 5 there. This “cherry picking” is understandable because the letter itself is not a model of coherence. Unlike John’s Gospel—which came from the same early Christian community as did 1 John, and in which each and every word seems to have been thought through, weighed and intentionally chosen—the first letter of John seems “from the hip,” as it were: more emotional, with less concern for a formal cohesion; more—perhaps—defensive.
That said, there is a word in 1 John, the frequent usage of which may serve as an element of coherence. In I John this word appears again and again and again. In past weeks we have heard:
- “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” (I John 5:1–6)
- “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:7–21)
- “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” (I John 3:1–7)
- “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (I John 3:16–24)
By my count, the word “love” (including “beloved”) appears in I John 32 times—a high frequency for a letter only five chapters long.
Given the frequent use of “love,” one might think that the Johannine community was an extremely loving community. “Of course they would be!” we might say. “Didn’t Jesus pray—as we just heard in today’s Gospel—‘that they all may be one?’” But… there is another word used frequently in John. In past weeks we have also heard:
- “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:1–2:2)
- “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:1–7)
- “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”
By my count, the word “sin” appears 17 times in 1 John.
And John repeats many other words, too; intense words normally saved for strong statements. Words like “the devil” (used twice), “deceive” (3 times), “antichrist” (3 times), “hate” (4 times), “light” and “darkness” (5 times each), “truth” (7 times), “lie” and “liar” (9 times), and “commandment” (10 times).
The closer I look at 1 John, the more I see a community that was not all love and roses, that had yet to attain the one-ness for which Jesus prayed. The more I look, the more I see a community in which there were stark differences and strong feelings, not just competing points of view but even polarized camps. John’s community had strong divisions over:
- Whether or not Jesus was truly divine (4:15; 5:1; 5:10)
- and—at the same time—whether or not Jesus was truly human (4:2).
- They disagreed as to the extent that Christians are to be “of” the world or separated from it (2:15–17; 3:13; 4:5–6; 5:4)
- They argued about sin and who was doing it, and what exactly sin was. Is sin hating one’s brother (2:9)? Is it “the desire of the flesh?” Or “pride in riches” (2:16)? Is it seeing a brother or sister in need and yet refusing help (3:17)?
- They disagreed as to what exactly it means to love. Does it mean to keep God’s commandments (5:2)? Does it mean to give one’s life for another (3:16)?
- And what exactly are God’s commandments? The letter says only that his commandments are to “believe” in the name of Christ and to love one another (3:23).
- And—perhaps most significantly—the community had a sharp division over who possessed truth. Was it those who have seen and heard what “was from the beginning” and who had been “anointed” (1:1–3 and 2:18–28)? Was it those who did not sin and who “walked just as Jesus walked?” Was it those who did not hate (2:7–11)? Who confessed Jesus’ humanity (4:1–6)? Who confessed his divinity (5:1–6)? Who had the testimony of the water, blood and spirit in their hearts (5:10)? All of the above?
The divisions in John’s community became so great that the community split— “They went out from us,” John says (2:19). The letter’s strong language, it’s lack of formal coherence and its defensive tone (“We declare to you what was from the beginning…” “They went out from us…”) come from a community that had just experienced a major family fight and was hurting, disappointed and confused. The letter shows a community trying to reassure itself that it still knows something about love, that it has not lost touch with truth, that it still knows how to walk in the light, that it is yet faithful.
We all have experienced situations in which there are strong differences and strong feelings, in which people divide into “we” and “they,” in which there are accusations of “sin” (or similar), and those adamant that it is they who are right. Though 1 John was written nearly 2,000 years ago, its circumstances are yet familiar.
I wonder if the beautiful prayer we hear Jesus pray in this morning’s gospel is a response to the strong differences within the community. In this prayer—“All mine are yours, and yours are mine;” “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost;” “That they may be one as we are one”— John emphasized that they all belonged to God; that in the end they were one just as God is one. And John reminds them that they are the ones who now have God’s word, that they are the ones who now bear Jesus’ truth, that they are the ones who have been appointed and sanctified and who are to go out into the world. Their unity matters.
Dorsey McConnell, formerly the Rector at Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, and now the Bishop of Pittsburgh, tells of visiting a Baptist colleague in that colleague’s study. The pastor took down a hefty tome from his shelf: “This is the directory of all the Baptist churches in the United States,” he said. “It was printed last year, and already it’s out of date. Some of the new churches not included here are new church plants, intentionally started by the Convention. But the majority of these ‘new’ churches are churches that split off from old churches because they couldn’t get along.” “What Satan does,” said the pastor, “is divide and divide and divide.”
The beautiful prayer Jesus prays in this morning’s gospel is a prayer, not just for John’s community, but for us, too. Jesus prays for us to be one, to live reconciled with each other, so that he may send us into the world. Reconciliation takes a lot of courage and a lot of practice. The practice of reconciliation—be it on church-wide level (like the Episcopalians talking to Methodists, for example), or on a local level (like our relationship with St. John’s) or on a personal level with each other here in the parish, or even more personally with others in our own household—the practice of reconciliation is key if our energies are ultimately to be focused outward rather than inward, if we are to truly to be one and to be sent into the world, as Jesus prayed. And to live reconciled—to be one as Jesus and the Father are one—is not only a great witness in our polarized world, but is also extraordinarily satisfying to our souls. Yes, reconciliation is a lot of work, but I pray that we may know a spirit of forgiveness, and may have the courage to practice reconciliation, in our families, in our parish, and in the world. Because our unity matters.