“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…I in them and you in me” and “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”…Sorry, I lapsed in The Beatles I am the Walrus there at the end. Kookooachoo.
I’m not making fun of Scripture, I assure you. But all those pronouns and prepositions leave my head spinning. Jesus is praying here, and I wonder sometimes if even God got lost in the grammar.
What Jesus is asking of God, of course, is that the disciples experience “oneness” with God and one another, especially in the difficult days to come. This reading puts us back on the night before the crucifixion; he is praying from deep in his soul. He has just finished his final teaching to them, reminding them that he is the vine and they are the branches (a favorite passage of mine); that they can demonstrate their love for him by loving each other; that they need to be brave and not fear what was coming, not fear the world but love it into greater wholeness. The world—the kosmos, the word that embodies all the parts of creation that choose chaos and rebellion against God—even the world will be changed, if they can just practice this oneness that is rooted in the love of Christ.
I have avoided the word “unity” because I think it carries baggage these days. We confuse unity and uniformity. Too often we think we have to believe all the same things and do things the same way. That’s not what Jesus is talking about. At least not in the way we use those words.
We tend to think of “belief” as an intellectual opinion on the validity of an idea. This is probably part of our Enlightenment inheritance, the scientific method that insists something is only true if it is a verifiable fact. Both fundamentalists and atheists have bought into the idea that to be a Christian is to believe that every word of Scripture is literally, factually, historically true. The fundamentalists accept the premise; the atheists reject it.
On my way to the pool Tuesday morning I heard a story on NPR about a conference being held at the Vatican this week. “Understanding Unbelief.” I was intrigued by the word “unbelief”; surely everyone believes in something, even if it’s the conviction that math can describe the way the universe works. Is there anyone who is truly an “unbeliever”? That’s usually where I start when someone rather scornfully or defiantly says to me, “Well, I don’t believe in God.” I ask them two questions: 1) what do they think I mean when I use the word God? and 2) do they believe in universal concepts like love, justice, truth, peace?
The people doing the study did something similar, trying to get at the assumptions we make about what someone else does—or does not—believe. They were surprised to discover the “diversity in unbelief,” as they called it. We may think we know what concepts, what beliefs, atheists have rejected. The study revealed that very few are total nihilists, believing that the universe is entirely random and there is no inherent meaning in existence.
What fascinated me the most was that of those who deny the existence of any sort of divine being, many still believe in an afterlife, some form of existence beyond the one currently being lived, and some kind of human capacity for spiritual experience that eludes scientific explanation. Many accept that there are universal concepts—love, truth, valor—that have some sort of “reality” to them; that they are more than agreed-upon intellectual constructs. Some even extend that to a belief that there is a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Light and dark. Dare I say, unity and chaos?
But they are all still working from an understanding of belief as some sort of articulation of a creed, a set of assertions one can either agree or disagree with.
That is not what is meant by “belief” in any of these passages we heard today. In that first reading from Acts, when the jailer asks “What must I do to be saved?” and Paul responds, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” they are not talking about signing onto a set of doctrinal statements or make some intellectual affirmation of the existence of a divine being.
The girl with the spirit of divination was able to do that. She was declaring to anyone who will hear a set of facts she knew about him, “These are slaves of the Most High God!” (however she understood that term) and believed what she was saying. But it wasn’t world-changing. Her life only changed when Paul became annoyed enough to turn around and free her from her possession so that she would STOP TALKING. We don’t know if it changed for the better or for the worse, we don’t hear anything more about her; we don’t even know if her owners freed her once she no longer made them money.
What Paul is offering to the jailer is something much more powerful, and much riskier.
The jailer is afraid, and prepared to end his life, because the only thing he can believe in the moment is that the Roman authorities will not see an earthquake breaking down the walls of the prison as an acceptable excuse for losing his prisoners, and will punish him for it. His question, “What must I do to be saved?” isn’t about preserving his soul from some hellish afterlife. He’s more concerned about what’s going to happen to him in the next few hours if he chooses to stay alive.
The word Paul uses, the word here translated “believe” is elsewhere translate “faith” and it’s about trust. Put your trust in the power of God, who brought Jesus Christ back from the dead. Stop putting your trust in an oppressive system that uses violence and fear to control you. Remain confident that whatever happens to you, you are not alone. You are loved by the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe. There is hope beyond the present moment—and yes, sometimes that hope is only realized after death. But through it all we are loved by the One who made us. The One who wants to be One with us. Put your trust in that One, and you will not regret it.
Trust is an act of vulnerability, a risk taken because of a deep conviction that love wins. Always. Not always immediately, but always eventually, if we remain open to the power of Christ to work in and through us. Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. We look past the differences and see in each other the image of God, and then allow that revelation to change us, to draw us together in defiance of the world that wants to keep us divided and at war with each other.
One last thought before I finish. Today, in the second reading, you heard the very last verse of the Bible. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (It always amuses me when a Bible passage ends with Amen because you all respond “amen” back. Amen, as you may know, means “may it be so.”)
The Bible ends with grace. I wonder how many of the people who count themselves as unbelievers know that. (Honestly, I wonder how many of the people who count themselves as believers know that!)
How many people are walking around with some image of the Bible as ending in hellfire and damnation for some and self-righteous gloating for others? How surprised might they be to learn that it doesn’t end with condemnation and separation but an invitation—come. If you are thirsty, come to the waters of life and receive them as a gift. That grace is open and available to all. And it is more powerful than the chaos and violence of kosmos. Grace gets the last word.
Even John Lennon stumbled upon the truth of that: “We are all together.” Grace brings us together in ways that nothing else can.
May it be so.