As broken followers of Jesus, called to live out his holy prayer, we can seek the wisdom and courage we need to pursue unity and reconciliation while standing for truth and righteousness at the same time. And to equip us for this “both-and” endeavor—both unity and truth—we can listen further to Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17.
“We grieve that the church,
which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope,
and spans all time, place, race, and language,
has become a broken communion in a broken world.”1
We can also learn from the Apostle Paul in both his life and his letters, and we can seek to discern our version of a “conversion” toward both reconciliation and righteousness from a fellow Christian named Will D. Campbell who speaks directly to divisions in our own time.
Regarding Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, we can note that Jesus allows us to listen in as he intercedes for us to his—and our—Father. As we listen in, we hear Jesus saying, “The glory that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22). We can then ponder the revelation that, in Christ, glory is full of both “grace and truth” (John 1:14). In Christ, glory comes in the form of a sacrificial love by which Jesus can say “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). As sinners for whom Christ was lifted up on a cross to save, we can confess further from “Our World Belongs to God” that:
“When our pride or blindness
hinders the unity of God’s household,
we seek forgiveness.”2
The Apostle Paul helps us seek both unity and forgiveness in Christ. In Ephesians 4, Paul begs us “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which have been called” by “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-2). Like his and our Lord, Paul practiced sacrificial love in order to live out his inspired teaching that “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). And to see what such a worthy life is like, we can learn from both Paul’s example and his teachings.
With respect to Paul’s example, we can ponder his passionate struggle to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” among the flawed saints in Corinth. In Paul’s letters to the broken church in Corinth, we see him embodying the wisdom and power of Christ crucified (See 1st Cor. 1-2). For example, in relation to Apollos, a teacher whom some in Corinth viewed as a rival to Paul, the Apostle, wrote “Think of us this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1st Cor. 4:1). That’s an exemplary way for pastors, teachers, and all believers to think about ourselves. As we commit ourselves to unity, we will do well to imitate Paul when he writes, “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the Lord comes” (1st Cor. 4:4b-5a). In his biography of Paul, scholar F.F. Bruce observes that Paul’s “time in Corinth, and his experiences with the Corinthian church during the years which followed his departure from Corinth, did much to deepen his human sympathy and to promote his pastoral maturity” (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 248). Pastors, teachers, and all church members can deepen our sympathy and grow in maturity when we follow Paul’s example of hearing our Lord say to each of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2nd Cor. 12:8). To persevere in the paradoxical power of Christ, we can echo Paul in saying “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2nd Cor. 12:10).
With respect to Paul’s teachings, we can ponder how his profoundly theological letter to the Romans culminates with a passionate plea for unity. Paul does not deny important distinctions between different groups of Christians; nor does he hide his own view as to which has the better teachings. In Romans 14-15, Paul gives the opposing groups the names “strong” and “weak.” So, he both agrees with the strong and seeks continued partnership with the weak. He tells the strong they “must not despise” those who interpret the Law of Moses differently from them. He tells the weak they must “not pass judgment” on those they view as insufficiently devoted to the Teachings of Moses. Such mutual respect and unity can help Christians today work as partners in the gospel even when we disagree about mask wearing, political candidates, human sexuality, and other controversies in our own time. We need not hide or compromise our convictions. Instead, we can express them in Christlike ways by living out Paul’s instruction: “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). For Paul and for all members of the body of Christ, unity in the church and the glory of God are a “both-and” that go together.
To experience Jesus and to hear Paul in ways that speak directly to conflicts in our own times, we can listen to a fascinating witness named Will D. Campbell, in his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly. Although Campbell was born in 1924, almost a hundred years ago, he experienced a conversion that continues to speak to the racial reckoning and divisive differences in our current situation. Born into a white family and church in Mississippi, Campbell was “born again” at an early age in terms of personal faith in Christ. After witnessing terrible expressions of dehumanizing racism, Campbell was further converted to the cause of racial equality. Some of Campbell’s friends had left the church and their faith in reaction to the hypocrisy and racism they experienced among believers; and one of them, P.D. East, in the context of a sarcastic argument, had goaded Campbell into summarizing the gospel as: “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
One day, while East and Campbell were visiting, they received news that a special deputy named Thomas Coleman shot and killed an Episcopalian seminarian named Jonathan Daniel. Daniel’s “crime” had been to emerge from a grocery store in the company of two people of color. When East weaponized that atrocity to attack Campbell’s crude summary of the gospel, he did so by asking, “Which of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” (p. 188). In response, as Campbell pondered the love of God for both the shooter and the one shot, he experienced what he calls a “revelation” and a “conversion,” which he describes as “at once a joyous and painful experience” (p. 191). He did not at all compromise his devotion to civil rights; instead, he grew in his devotion to grace for all. He writes, “My ministry had become one of law, not of grace” (p. 192). Theoretically, he had emphasized the triumph of grace; however, he confesses, “I had come to act as if I didn’t believe it” (p. 192). Judgmentally, he reduced his ideological opponents to labels such as “rednecks.” Now, having had such an experience of revelation and conversion, Campbell went on to live a life that recently deceased Congressman John Lewis describes as follows: “That insight led Will to see racial healing and equity, pursued through courage, love, and faith as the path to spiritual liberation for all” (p. viii).
With repentance and humility, Will Campbell’s insight can inspire us to live out the restorative example and teachings of the Apostle Paul. Our version of Campbell’s revelation and conversion by grace can help us to live out the High Priestly prayer of Christ Jesus that his followers “may all be one” (John 17:21 NRSV).