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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Costly Unity

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Scripture: John 17:20-26

Icon in video by Kelly Latimore

We were having issues with our camera on Sunday, so there's no picture, but the audio recording is available in the video above. We apologize for any inconvenience.

During the second World War, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer implored German Christians to stand up against Hitler. He saw what was happening in his country—the divvying up of people into the “right” kind and the “wrong” kind—based on race, religion, physical and mental health and ability, sexuality; the systematic massacre of those considered inferior; and the way everyday Germans stood by and allowed it all to happen.

Though his teachings were centered on grace, they were not peaceful. They weren’t meant to gently guide Christians in the direction of their values. They were blunt and convicting. They were urgent. He saw what was happening in his country, and he knew that something needed to happen now.

He talked about “cheap grace” versus “costly grace.” If you’ll indulge me a long quote from his book The Cost of Discipleship. I’ve changed some pronouns to make it more gender-inclusive.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a person will go and sell all that they have. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a person will pluck out the eye which causes them to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves their nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock.

I mention this today because of our gospel. Today Jesus prays, on behalf of these—his disciples there with him—but also on behalf of those who will believe in him through their word—or all those who come after his disciples—"that they may all be one.” This verse is often wielded as a call to unity, particularly unity within the church. Put aside divisions and come together as one in Christ.

And I agree that unity, that oneness in Christ, is definitely our highest call as people who claim to follow Jesus. But so often I think what we’re actually talking about is cheap unity. Cheap unity is actually a call to conformity, not unity. Cheap unity refuses to acknowledge that God created each person with their own unique gifts and ways of being. Cheap unity tends to favor the status quo, because the status quo is comfortable, and cheap unity values comfort—or at least the comfort of those who are in positions of power and who want to maintain that power.

So I ask: Who or what sets the terms of unity? Because if the answer isn’t Jesus and the love he taught us, we’re not doing it right.

Earlier in our collect, we prayed together, “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.” If we look at our liturgical calendar, this Sunday is wedged between the Ascension, when the fleshly, material—though resurrected—Jesus leaves the earth for good, and Pentecost, when the Spirit comes to be the life of God in this fleshly, material world.

Jesus leaves, so he's no longer here to model our faith, to teach his love, to guide our behavior. But the Spirit is coming so that we may become Christ’s body in this world.

Through the power of the Spirit, we take up Jesus’ cause, we take up Jesus’ cross, for the sake of Jesus’ love.

Through the power of the Spirit, we become one in the Body of Christ. “The glory that you have given me I have given them,” Jesus prays in today’s gospel, “so that they may be one.” Faithful unity is unity on Jesus’ terms. And unity on Jesus’ terms is costly unity.

Jesus going to the cross was an act of unity with us. He would not compromise his love for us, his solidarity with us, for anything—not because of our sin, not for the sake of his comfort, not even to save his own life. He held to love, even in the face of death, and trusted that God would hold him through it.

Few, if any, of us will be called to that kind of sacrifice for the sake of Jesus’ love.

But plenty are being sacrificed for the sake of cheap unity. Unity based on self-protection as the highest value. Unity based on an inherent fear of others. Unity that would rather default to threatening someone than understanding them. In the past two weeks, 31 people, the majority of them Black and brown folks, 19 of them children, were sacrificed to that kind of unity.

I’m sick to my stomach with rage. But I’ve had enough training to know that anger is always a secondary emotion. It’s an emotion that is always covering another primary emotion. And if I’m being honest, underneath my rage is utter heartbreak. I am heartbroken that I live in a country where children, the most vulnerable among us, are regularly killed by gun violence and we do nothing to change the situation. I’m heartbroken that I live in a country that would rather take the easy path to cheap unity than to sacrifice for the sake of the least of these. I’m heartbroken that I live in a country that doesn’t prioritize a unity based on love, which, yes, sometimes requires risking our beliefs, our comfort, and sometimes even our own safety for the sake of loving someone else. For the sake of caring about their well-being.

Costly unity means fighting for the right not to bear arms. It means living in such a way that creates a world where we default to love and care. It means defaulting to Jesus’ priorities:

Blessed are the poor

Blessed are those who mourn

Blessed are those who are meek

Blessed are those who hunger

Blessed are the merciful

Blessed are the peacemakers

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these siblings of mine, you did for me.

Love God and love your neighbor. There is no commandment greater than these.

I could go on, because Jesus goes on.

Jesus is clear in his priorities. And to unify around our ability to quickly and efficiently harm and kill others over all else seems to me the very opposite of those priorities.

And so we who claim to follow Jesus, we who are now his body in this world, must put aside fear that defaults to self-protection and widen the scope of our love. It might mean risking some of our long-held beliefs. It might mean risking our comfort. And in rare cases, it might mean risking our own safety for the sake of someone else.

Because the kind of unity Jesus calls us to is love above all else. Sometimes it’s costly. It was costly for Jesus. But three days later, he was resurrected in hope and joy. I have to believe—especially now—that if we lean into, if we live into costly unity, our world can be resurrected.

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