Indeed, civilizations are made or lost based on the amount of togetherness people work at having and keeping. Unity is a quality we all desire — especially in the church. But even there, with a God who wants us all to be unified, it doesn’t stick around very long.
The simple definition of unity is “the state of being one; oneness; the state of being of one mind or feeling, as in harmony or agreement.” We’ve grown up with the image of the ideal, thinking when we find the perfect mate, elect the perfect official, or do the best for our community everyone will be happy and content. But we just have to look into the ghosts of our past to see that true unity is more than just everyone with a smile. The heart of unity is a comfort we only feel when we share an experience with someone else.
In the church, we call that Christian fellowship. It’s about connection — and through that connection, peace and intimacy develop. When you connect with someone, the threads of your lives start to intertwine. We find we are affirmed for who we are and what we believe when we meet together.
Challenges to unity
The problems start to arise when we want unity on our terms. We want out from under the yoke of someone else to do what we think is best. We want to play on a team, but when we can’t do it the way we envisioned. We get frustrated. World history is full of examples of groups that splinter off from the main body because someone didn’t like what someone else had to say. The Church is no exception.
The Apostle Paul talked about this in Romans 14. There was a group in the early Roman church causing dissention — over diet restrictions — and that was breaking relationships between the early believers. Paul’s argument was simple:
Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I’m convinced — Jesus convinced me! — that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it. (Romans 14:13-14, The Message)
Paul is saying that when our thoughts, words, and actions are pushed on others we disrupt the unity instilled in us by God. Unity is hard to maintain because “me” gets in the way of “we.” There is a way to overcome those barriers, agendas, and long-standing traditions once those walls are raised. Unfortunately, it often involves shaking the foundation of what we know.
Unity with God’s help
When I look back 10 years on the time since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the level of fellowship we had as a country at that time was remarkable. Gone was the desire to get ahead. In its place was the desire to maintain our ideals and persona as the greatest country on Earth. We needed comfort at the deepest level. We needed to connect with others and be assured everything would be ok.
I will never forget an encounter with a co-worker (who I never talked with about religion before because I knew her beliefs to be different from mine) a week after the disaster. She asked me what I was doing for lunch and I told her I was going to pray for the healing of our nation. I surprised myself by asking her if she wanted to come along. I expected derision at worst, or a polite, “No thank you,” at best. What she said floored me, “Yes, I want to go. I need some prayer right now.” We had something of value in common from there on out.
But as time washes away the immediate pain, the desire to work toward true unity weakens because it is a lot of work.
No one was more dedicated to unity than Jesus. Yet, not another life revealed how hard it was to bring unity to life. His sole purpose was to unite us — first to God, then to each other. He was willing to go to any length to achieve that end and he did. Jesus didn’t care where you were from or what you believed up to that point — he wanted you to know God and love your neighbor. Jesus’ life revealed that what is unnatural in our minds is the ultimate desire of the divine mind.
My cousin, a former United Methodist minister and now a layperson in the Catholic Church, had this to say about unity:
There are basically two ways of thinking about Christian unity. One is the “why can’t we all
just get along?” approach, which emphasizes our common beliefs and tends to deemphasize theological differences. From this point of view, the important thing is tolerance and mutual respect. The second is a desire for what I would call true unity — a unity of belief and of communion; or in shorthand, One Faith, One Church. That one’s tougher — it means doing the hard work, both intellectual and emotional work — of facing the divisions among us.
The end result is that the choice is (partially) up to us. We have to be willing to lay down our agendas, perceptions, prejudices, and pride. God’s part is enabling us to do that. God knows, firsthand, how hard it is to lay aside your own will. But Jesus said if we sought the desires of God first, everything else would fall into place. When we seek this unity of minds, bodies, and spirit — even if it means a tough road — it will lead to greater purpose, joy, peace, and fulfillment. Unity is hard; it involves sacrifice. But in the end, it is what Christ asks of us. It means being true to the high calling he has placed in our hearts. And that is definitely worth it.