Unity Not Uniformity – ELCA Grand Canyon Synod

Alyssa Kaplan, Baltimore, MD

Warm-up questions

  • What does the word “unity” mean to you?

  • Can you think of a time when you and a larger group of people felt “unified”?

  • How was it? Were the people you felt “unified” with like you? How or how not?

Unity is not uniformity

Sophie Bern describes herself as a “unifier”. She says, “I want the world to feel smaller by bringing people together, and I want every person to understand the power of being human.

conversational connection. As the only Jewish student at her school in Wichita, Kansas, Sophie grew up often feeling misunderstood and outside the mainstream culture. When she moved to Philadelphia for college and was surrounded by people who looked like her culturally, politically, and religiously, she found herself longing for the diversity of life and experience she had grown up with in Kansas, although it was uncomfortable at times.

In 2019, Sophie founded a non-profit organization called ‘The talkera platform created for and by Gen Z-ers committed to unifying the world one conversation at a time. The Conversationalist aims to empower Gen Zers to step out of their echo chambers, have difficult conversations and unite across differences, working to heal the polarized world this generation has inherited.

She believes that opening space for safe and courageous conversation, especially among people with differing identities, understandings and beliefs, can mend division and lessen hatred in our world.

Discussion Questions

  • What is an “echo chamber”?

  • Do most of your family members and close friends believe the same or similar things on important matters?

  • What are some of the challenges that might arise in Sophie’s work?

  • Sophie talks about unity, not uniformity. What are the differences between these words? Can you feel united with people who believe in different or even opposite things to you?

  • What ground rules or expectations would you set if you were in the role of Sophie, facilitating difficult conversations across differences?

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:16-34

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

John 17:20-26

(Text links are at Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the Year C reading schedule at Lectionary readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check out the weekly comic Agnus day.

Gospel Reflection

Our Gospel text for this week comes from the end of a long conversation Jesus had with his disciples on the last night he spent with them before his trial and crucifixion. Jesus gathers them around a table, washes their feet, gives them a new commandment to love one another as he loved them, and discusses at length his imminent departure from them. Judas left the dinner table to deliver Jesus to the Roman imperial elites. Jesus tells Peter that even in spite of his most serious efforts, he will always fail and will deny even having known Jesus three times. After all of this (four full chapters in the Gospel of John!), Jesus prays. He prays aloud for his disciples, the same ones who are in the room with him. He even prays for Peter who denies him. And I think he’s praying for Judas betraying him. The very last thing Jesus does before being arrested and judged is to pray for his disciples in their presence.

Today’s text is the last part of this prayer. Jesus has already prayed that God would accompany his disciples and keep them safe. He prayed for God’s spirit of truth to fill them and make them holy. Next, Jesus turns his attention to prayers for unity and oneness. Jesus also expands the direction of his prayers. He not only prays for the disciples in his presence, but for all who will believe in Jesus through the ministry of his disciples. (spoiler alert, it’s us too!).

Jesus repeatedly prays that “all may be one”, so that, through the communion of God and Jesus, we may all be one. This unity is rooted in the immense love of God which goes beyond all time and all space.

Even in this upper room, the reality of this unity rooted in love is difficult to conceptualize. The people who fill this room are far from perfect, they will mess some up quite a bit in the days to come as they struggle to understand and come to terms with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, knowing all this, Jesus prays for them and, at that moment, Jesus also prays for us. Jesus’ prayer for unity emphasizes that our unique identities and experiences can be brought together, through God’s love, for the good of our communities and the world. The unity that Jesus describes does not erase our differences or force us into uniformity. On the contrary, Jesus prays for us to be united in demonstrating more fully God’s immense love for everyone.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you think the disciples felt when they heard Jesus pray for them?

  • What were some of the divisions that threatened to undermine the unity of the disciples in their mission?

  • How are some of the divisions that threatened the unity of Jesus’ inner circle similar to those we see in our society today?

  • What is the difference between unity and uniformity in a Christian community?

Suggested activities

  • Sophie Beren started what would become “The Conversationalist” by setting up a couch on her college’s main lawn and inviting people to chat. What projects can you think of that could invite conversation and help people feel united with each other? Could you set up a couch in front of your church lawn and invite your neighbors over for a chat? What would a project like this require?

  • Pair up with someone in your class to talk for five minutes and together make a list of three things you have in common and three differences.

  • Jesus prays for his disciples in front of them and aloud. Sit in a circle and practice this kind of prayer. Ask each person to pray aloud for the person on their right until each person has prayed for someone else and heard themselves praying for themselves.

Closing prayer

Unifying God, help us find common ground with others. Help us to understand that we can be united in your love without forcing those who are different from us to conform to our way of being, thinking or acting. Help us to remain curious and open to the movement of your Spirit which draws us into relationships of love and justice, even with those we least expect. Amen.

Barry F. Howard