Let the Scriptures Speak

Unity—an Option?

(For 7th Sunday of Easter)

I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one, as you. Father,
are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
(Gospel)

The final words of the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 contain a vision of Church whose message is so startling that, frankly, it stops me cold whenever I read it: the unity of the Church is to be such that, simply by example, it will convert the world. That is what the words say—twice, in case we didn't get it the first time (Jn 17:20-21, and again inJn 17:22-23).

Those climactic words of Jesus' prayer in John's version of the Last Supper convey an unmistakable assertion about the mission of Jesus' followers: rooted in their participation in the union of Father and Son—facilitated by the Holy Spirit, we know from the earlier parts of the Last Supper discourse—they are to be so united that they convince nonbelievers that the group's claims about Jesus (as the revelation of the creator of the universe) must be true.

Has this ever happened? Can it possibly be a realistic hope? Yes, we can find in history times and places where the life of a Christian community has been such that its example of mutual service and love has drawn outsiders to join their number. As to whether it is a realistic hope, how can we deny that words expressed as a prayer of Jesus can be anything other than a divine mandate? What is mandated must lie within the reach of hope.

From the fuller context of the Fourth Gospel, especially the scene in which this prayer is set, we learn that the unity of Christians is to find its source and expression in the kind of mutual service that Jesus modeled in his washing of the disciples' feet. This action reflects precisely the core of Jesus' teaching on discipleship as we find it in the Synoptic Gospels—in Mark 10:44-45, for example: “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Ironically, just when the theologians of separated Christian denominations are arriving at new areas of consensus, those same denominations, and even local churches, are experiencing new internal divisions. It is a sobering sign of the times when a dying cardinal's call to his fellow U.S. Catholics for establishing a common ground in dialogue is met with suspicion and resistance. It was, remember, not a call to compromise in matters of doctrine and morality; it was a plea for a deeper level of discourse (speaking and listening) as we labor to move beyond suspicion and culture clashes in order to live out together what is essential in our common faith.

Luke's portrayal of the death of Stephen may hint at one of the resources for drawing unity out of conflict, even out of murder. One of the seven chosen by the Jerusalem Christian community to assist the apostolic Twelve, Stephen, at odds with the Synagogue of the Freedman, soon finds himself the victim of a rigged trial (complete with false witnesses) before the Sanhedrin. After he speaks his piece about how Jesus fits the pattern of God's plan (like Joseph and Moses, Jesus is a rejected leader who becomes his people's savior), Stephen has a Trinitarian vision: “Filled with the holy Spirit, he looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (First Reading). He claims his vision is an assertion of the Son of Man as risen Lord.

When his adversaries move into an impromptu “lynching” by stoning, Luke describes Stephen's behavior in ways that precisely parallel the death of Jesus. (1) Like Jesus, he is taken out of the city to be dispatched. (2) Just as Jesus prayed to the Father, so Stephen prays to the risen Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (this parallel is as clear a claim to the divinity of Jesus as is to be found anywhere in Acts). (3) Finally, like his Master, he cries out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

What does the martyrdom of Stephen have to do with Jesus' prayer for unity? Just as Jesus’ own death and resurrection release the power of the Holy Spirit to form a community for mission, so Stephen's faithful union with Father, Son, and Spirit works, even through his death by murder, to plant a seed in a bystander, Saul of Tarsus. This Pharisee, aiding the killers by minding their cloaks, will soon respond to a vision of the same Lord, and become the greatest promoter of Christian community we have ever known. Christian unity in our own day will come only through mutual service and forgiveness enlivened by that same Trinitarian prayer.

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson