Oneness Is Not Sameness
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 17:1-11
Today is the last Sunday in Eastertide, this season of simply sitting in the celebration of resurrection. We have been basking in the hope Jesus showed us in his words and actions, letting it enliven and challenge us. This is the season when this miracle that is the risen Jesus opens the disciples’ eyes not through words but through the ritual of sharing food. He teaches them to feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.
Today is a bridge Sunday, a day that connects the Ascension of Jesus that we celebrated on Thursday with Pentecost, when God sends the Holy Spirit into the world.
We heard this from the Acts today. The apostles asked,
"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
And then the apostles went to the upper room and waited for the Holy Spirit.
So this is a quiet Sunday. A Sunday of trust: of Jesus trusting in us enough that he returns to God knowing that his love will continue to the ends of the earth, and of us trusting in Jesus to send the Spirit, who will silently and invisibly guide us in that love.
But before Jesus left, before he even died and then rose from the dead, he prayed for his disciples. The prayer we heard today from the gospel of John. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Side note: Bold of Jesus to refer to himself in the third person, but he is the Son of God, so we’ll let it slide. Because he’s praying for his disciples. He’s praying for us.
He prayed before he died, but it foreshadows a time when he will no longer be among them: “And now I am no longer in the world,” he prayed, “but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
That they may be one. That we may be one. But what does one mean? Does it mean sameness? Conformity?
If you asked Taylor Swift to write a song about love—okay, another song about love—would you expect it to be the same song that Bob Dylan or Kendrick Lamar would write? If Picasso had been asked to paint what fear looked like to him, would you expect it to be the same as what Norman Rockwell or Georgia O’Keefe might create on the same subject?
I mean, the authors of the four gospels couldn’t even write the same account of Jesus’ life, which presumably actually happened in some sort of objective way. And three of them—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—share the same source material. These are what are called the synoptic gospels. Actually, the gospel of Mark itself is a source text for Matthew and Luke. You can tell that Mark is a source text because it is the most straightforward of the gospels: reporting the facts without much interpretation. It’s the shortest gospel and reads like a newspaper.
The authors of Matthew and Luke took Mark and a now lost source that scholars call the Q source, and each created their own interpretation of that content, of that story of Jesus. They told that story from their own perspective, informed by their own experience, and they each had very different audiences in mind. Matthew wrote to the Jews in his community, framing Jesus within the Jewish law, while Luke was more focused on the Gentiles and caring for the marginalized and oppressed.
Even though all three synoptic gospels pull from the same source material, they each paint a slightly different picture of Jesus.
And then there’s the gospel of John. The gospel of John came later than the other three gospels. Which means that the author had more time to make sense of and interpret what happened to Jesus and why. It has a more developed theology of the divinity of Jesus. Its basic message is, “no one can know or see God except through Jesus.” It’s intricate, sometimes to the point of confusion, as we heard today, but it’s also rhetorically skillful and, well, beautifully written. John is the poetry of the gospels.
The gospel of John has a very Greek feeling, portraying Jesus as the logos, the Word. It is through John that we start understanding Jesus as present before the making of creation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In John, Jesus is the creative force, the word that God spoke to bring the world into being.
John has a wildly different interpretation of Jesus than the synoptic gospels. And yet, all four gospels are part of our Bible, one beside the other, each illuminating something different about the man we call our savior. None is more authoritative than the other. We accept them all as truth despite their different accounts, even despite clear contradictions of details between them.
Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
So that they may be one, as we are one. As God the Creator and God the Son are one.
On this Sunday before the coming of the Spirit, even Jesus does not imagine God as one single entity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Beloved, Lover, and Love, as St. Augustine described it. Mother, Lover, and Friend, as theologian Sallie McFague interpreted it. The one who brings into being, the one who is being, and the one who fills being.
Not even God is just one thing. We need different aspects, different understandings, not sameness, to understand the fullness of God.
Paul understood this very well and articulated it beautifully in his theology of the Body of Christ. Next week, we’ll hear what you know by now is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” He then goes on to list a number of different gifts, saying “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”
Oneness is taking all of our different gifts, all of our different ways of being, and knitting them together in one body. I hope you know by now that is also my theology of leadership: revealing your gifts, lifting up your unique way of being, and finding your place in this body.
So I’m not really worried that there are Episcopalians and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. I’m not worried that there are cis folks and trans folks and nonbinary folks. In fact, we need these differences to have a body. Paul writes,
God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
Oneness isn’t sameness. Not in our own Bible. Not even in our Trinitarian theology of God. Which is to say oneness is not conformity. It can’t be. Oneness is really seeing one another and celebrating the different ways God made us, the different gifts God gave us so that we may become one body, the community God calls us to.