Unity is non-negotiable

April 14, 2013


Good morning. It’s a pleasure for me to be with you this morning. I have heard about the good things happening here at Hyattsville, and have read several news releases about the remodeling and renovation you’ve just completed. So I appreciate the opportunity to come and see for myself—and to get to know you a bit better.

But I must also admit I was a bit surprised by the invitation. As I’m sure you’re aware, the relationship between your congregation and Allegheny Mennonite Conference, of which I am currently moderator, hasn’t been all that cordial for the past 7½ years. That’s because in November 2005 the delegates of Allegheny Conference voted to put your congregation on “a non-voting participant status” because of your acceptance of persons in same-sex relationships.

I note this upfront, because I’m aware that this situation will color what I have to say this morning. It will also color how you hear me say it.  I also acknowledge this upfront for the sake of those of you who came wondering if I would even dare admit to this fact!

Now we can all relax; our relationship is on the table!

As moderator I want to commend you for the way in which this congregation has been a “non-voting participant” in the conference. You have had delegates at every conference meeting since that action 7½ years ago. You have supported the conference financially. Thank you. I wish every congregation that is supposed to be a “voting participant” in the conference were as conscientious as you.

Unfortunately, the conference’s action in 2005 has made the relationship between us an uneasy one. As the current moderator, I’m deeply saddened by that. So is the conference’s current Leadership Council. That’s one of the reasons we are calling into place a Reconciliation Discernment Committee to work at this relationship.

I know, I know, another committee! Unfortunately, that seems to be one of the few ways an organization such as AMC has of working at issues such as this. While committees aren’t my favorite way of working either, I do trust that God’s Spirit can use this endeavor to bring about reconciliation for both conference and for you as a congregation. We don’t know what shape that reconciliation will take, but as a conference we are committed to working at it.

Because of this commitment, the Leadership Council has been opening all our meetings this past year with the Scripture you heard read this morning: John 17:20-26. I want to read part of it again as a prayer at the outset of our thinking together:

20 “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

22 “I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”  Amen. (John 17:20-13, NLT)

Jesus’ prayer for unity

I’ve always been fascinated with this prayer of Jesus. As I’ve spent time with it, I’ve come to believe this prayer shows the heart of Jesus, what he was most concerned about, his deepest longings for those of us who are his followers.

Why do I say that?

First of all, it is an intimate conversation with the Father, addressed directly to God. It’s not a prayer for the benefit of the disciples, as was the prayer with which we are more familiar. I would agree with William Barclay, who says in his commentary, that John 17 should really be called “The Lord’s Prayer,” rather than the one most of us can repeat from memory.

Second, this is the longest prayer of Jesus’ as recorded in the Scriptures. Now the Bible has other long discourses from Jesus. But this one is a prayer, a conversation between Jesus and God.

Third, note how often Jesus repeats himself:

• there’s his concern for unity: “that they will be one” (v. 21), “so that they may be one”   (v. 22), “may they experience such perfect unity” (v. 23).

• why should there be unity? “so that the world will believe” (v. 21), “so that the world will know” (v 23).

Jesus also refers several times to glory, the glory that he has received from the Father; the glory he wants to share with us, his disciples.

Now if there was anything I learned as an editor for more than 30 years, it’s that when people feel strongly about something, they go on at length. They repeat themselves. They go over the same point again and again—like I just did! That’s why all writers need editors!

I’m not saying that Jesus needed an editor! I will say that the length of this prayer, and the way in which it circles around the main points over and over, shows that Jesus felt very strongly about what he was talking about. He wants us, his followers, to be united.

Why? Because this is how we witness to the world. This is how we spread the Good News. This is how we fulfill the Great Commission.

Yet, sadly, we have largely ignored this part of Jesus’ message. In fact, when talk turns to unity and ecumenism, a lot of us get nervous. We divert the conversation to such things as truth and faithfulness. Then too often we ignore this fundamental message of Scripture: unity.

How do we come to this unity? 

Now it probably goes without saying that this unity to which Jesus calls us is very difficult to achieve. Perhaps that’s why we gravitate to other parts of the Bible and spend our time trying to decide how they apply to our lives. But, Jesus seems to be telling us, if you want to be my disciples, you must work at being united.

Let me be bold enough to suggest several ways in which I think we can come to more fully realize the unity to which Jesus calls us.

1. First of all, we must give up our obsession with the truth.

One of the characteristics of being human, it seems to me, is to be obsessed with truth. That obsession began way back at the beginning of humanity, when Adam and Eve took the apple into their own hands so that they would have knowledge of good and evil: good or truth, evil or untruth, error. The history of humankind since has been—and continues to be—attempting to discover truth and then defending what it is we believe we have discovered.

Several weeks ago I was at a stop light when I noticed an interesting bumper sticker on the car ahead of me. It read: “Truth is not relative!” Oh, really? I had to wonder what would happen if I had jumped out of my car, tapped on the window of the other car, and said, “Everything you believe and everything you experience has to be the same as mine!” But I didn’t, because the light turned green, and if there’s one truth that is not relative, it’s what you do when a stoplight changes colors!

Truth—how we’re obsessed with it. We proclaim that we have found it. We proclaim it is not relative. We are right. You are wrong. Then we break off relationships as a result.

Perhaps the person in the Bible who came closest to understanding the human obsession with truth was a character we most often malign: Pilate. Faced with conflicting claims about Jesus, Pilate asked the ultimate human question, “What is truth?”

If we would experience the unity to which Jesus calls us, “What is truth?”  is a question we must continue to ask, every day. When we stop asking, we are in trouble, because it is then that we begin defending. And defense and unity have very little in common.

The best we can do, it seems to me, is to say, “This is the truth, as I perceive it.” Not to use that qualifier is to set ourselves up as God, to make ourselves divine. Is this not a violation of the First Commandment? Is this not the ultimate sin?

2. A second way in which we can more adequately come to the unity Jesus calls us to is to acknowledge our failures.

Now this is nothing new. Yet how difficult it is to do—admit we do not have the full truth, and that we even fail to live up to the truth that we do have. But if it is difficult to do as individuals, it is even more difficult for organizations.

And here I am going out on a limb that could get sawed off, but I believe Allegheny Conference needs to admit a mistake we make in our action related to your congregation in 2005. When I went back into the records, I discovered that only 65% of the delegates voted to make your congregation a “non-voting participant.” Although close, that’s not a 2/3’s majority. Our bylaws call for a 2/3’s majority on major decisions, such as when a congregation wants to leave conference or when we change the bylaws. True, they don’t say anything about how large a majority there should be when taking an action to change the status of a congregation. I think it should also be a 2/3’s majority; it wasn’t.

Some who were at that November 2005 meeting have come to agree with me, but by all means not all. Whether or not we can ever admit as a conference that less than a 2/3’s majority in the November 2005 vote was a mistake I’m not sure. But as the current moderator I wish we could. I believe it would be an important step toward reconciliation and toward unity.

Now some people tell me Hyattsville Mennonite Church also made some mistakes during that time—and that’s likely true, since it usually takes two to have a falling out! These persons are also usually eager to tell me what those failings are. But I don’t take their word for it. I believe that if there were mistakes that were made, the Holy Spirit will lead you as a congregation to decide what these were and if you want to admit to them.

My point is that, unless we admit our failures to each other, we likely will not be on the road to the unity that Jesus envisions for us.

3. Third, we can only achieve the unity to which Jesus calls us if we change our definition of unity.

It is so easy to equate unity with oneness, with agreement on belief and practice. We somehow think that if we don’t agree on these things, then we don’t have unity.

But unity is much broader than thinking alike. Unity, it seems to me, is willingness. It’s saying, I want to be your sister and brother, even though I don’t agree with how you interpret Scripture, with how you believe, even with how you live. But if you are a follower of the same Jesus I follow, then unity is the willingness to walk alongside you, to worship with you, to be counted as a fellow believer in the kingdom of God.

Unity is not agreement. Unity is willingness. Unity is action. When the world sees this, it will be more likely to believe.

4. Fourth, to achieve the unity to which Jesus calls us, we must be willing to compromise.

Now when did “compromise” become such a bad word? Somehow it has come to mean being less than faithful. We’ve become scared of compromise. We’ve allowed compromise to imply giving up, maybe accepting what we don’t fully agree with. In many people’s minds, compromise equals sin.

Yet how else can we get along as human beings and as Christians?

We have a wonderful example of compromise in a story from the early Christian church, as recorded in Acts 15. According to the New Living Translation, Paul and Barnabas had a “fierce argument” between them on a matter of the law: whether or not circumcision should be required of new believers. They finally took their argument to the highest council of the church, which agreed to a compromise in relation to the requirements of the law:

• new believers did not need to practice circumcision;

• they did, however, need to keep the part of the law that forbade eating food that had been offered to idols.

Now that “fierce argument” seems rather innocent to us today. Yet it was every bit as passionate and as emotional back then as anything we can argue about! The solution then was compromise; the solution for our day is compromise.

5. Finally, if we would come close to the unity of John 17, we need to dedicate ourselves to achieving this unity.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: You can’t have unity without wanting to have unity, without making unity your goal, without working hard at achieving unity. Unity needs to be the number one priority of the church. Why? Jesus spells it out in his prayer. So that the world will be believe.

Have we caught that vision as a church? Not yet, I don’t think. We’re still much too much obsessed with finding “the truth.” We spent way too much time defending our version of that truth. But I believe things are changing. I have faith that God’s Spirit can lead us to fuller unity in our future.


So what does all this mean for the future relationship of Hyattsville Mennonite Church and Allegheny Mennonite Conference? I wish I knew, but I don’t. I’ve discovered there are many different definitions of reconciliation and unity among us. There’s also a lot of fear on the part of some of not being faithful.

But I also sense a desire on the part of more to begin the journey together on the road to unity and reconciliation—whatever that may mean.

As moderator, I dedicate myself to work at bringing us closer to this unity during my brief tenure. Let me repeat: I believe this is what Jesus would have us do, as illustrated in his prayer in John 17.

Back to my car with the bumper sticker that said, “Truth is not relative.” It made me wonder if I should have a sticker on my bumper. That one would read, “Unity is non-negotiable.”

This is truth, as I see it. This is what Jesus would have us do. Hear his words again, as we pray together:

“I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me.” Amen.

(John 17:20-23, The Message)