“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” – Messiah Jesus, John 17:17-23
Unity. What does it even mean? The dictionary says, “the quality or state of not being multiple; a condition of harmony; the quality or state of being made one.” But for United Methodist Christians the word is laden with different meanings. As the United Methodist Church struggles with actual unity, the word ‘unity’ has been co-opted. Some refer to it as a ‘totem’, a ‘code word for mushy moderates’, ‘an idol’, ‘selling out full justice’, and ‘a holy-sounding argument for those who want to avoid the issue altogether’.
I have a different perspective on unity. It is rooted in my understanding of scripture and the experience in the context I serve. Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is unique. It is actually a collection of diverse worship communities (churches) who live out their faith as ONE church. The Sanctuary, Mercy Street, Contemplative, Upper Room, The Branch, Fair Haven, and Holy Family are each very different. Most people who spend a weekend with us and visit our differing services realize this is not their parent’s church. Different lead pastors, different contexts, and really diverse people.
Our worship community pastors, the lead pastors of each community, are a tight-knit group. We really love each other, we spend a lot of time together, and we are very different: Male, female, white, black, hispanic, asian, young, old, married, and single. We come from different parts of the country and we’ve been educated in different schools. We have all been formed by different experiences. There is very little ‘uniformity’. But there is a deep unity.
Last week, we met to discuss how we want the Holy Spirit to help us lead Chapelwood through the next few years as the UMC struggles with the issues before us. We started with our own stories. We shared our personal beliefs on the issues surrounding scripture, the life of Christ, marriage, sexuality, gender, and many other issues. We’ve had these conversations before, but we were very intentional this time to press each other to go as deep as possible with our struggles, beliefs, and dreams for our church. When we finished, a few things were clear to me:
- We do not all see the issues the same way and we do not all long for the same outcomes…
- We are currently wrestling with many of the issues…
- We love the people we serve and we grieve knowing there are people on all sides of these issues in our communities – some who may find staying in the UMC difficult…
And, with all the differences we shared, we left our time together with more commitment and love toward each other than when we started. The power of the Holy Spirit actually pulled us together – not apart – as we shared our different stories and our different dreams for the church. I left more focused on Christ. Jesus was glorified in our sharing.
And this is just one reason why I wholeheartedly disagree with people who say unity is some type of totem, excuse to avoid conflict, or excuse to exclude others. Unity is not the end…the glory of Christ is the end…unity is the means by which we get there. Unity is very challenging. People who claim unity is an excuse to avoid conflict have never actually contended for honest unity in a diverse community. It is far easier to draw bold lines in the sand, state what you believe, and then stand far removed on one side of the issue.
I do not fear schism and separation in our denomination. Why? Because it’s easy. It is intellectually and spiritually lazy. And it relieves the tension of the day (until the next issue arises). Schism is definitely messy, but it’s not horrifying.
You want to know what I fear? Unity. I fear, revere, dread, cherish, dismay, exalt, and esteem unity. Why? Because unity means I have to give and take, live and die, learn and be taught. It requires deep humility, love, and grace – things I don’t always do well with. I am blessed to live in a community that seeks to live into the prayer Jesus prayed. And my prayer is that ‘we also may be sanctified in truth…that we may all be one…so that the world may believe that God sent Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.’