Several years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Nepal to meet with Friends from that part of the globe. One morning in the middle of the journey, we took a short airplane ride through the Himalayan Mountains to see some of the wonder and glory revealed in creation. It was absolutely stunning. Later that evening, I got to witness something even more spectacular. Actually, it was a miracle. In a refugee home in Kathmandu, asylum seekers from many countries in the Middle East gathered. Among them were women and men, young and old, from such diverse places as Yemen, Somalia,
Pakistan, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq and a few scattered guests — a woman from Ireland, a fellow from Scotland, several Nepalese and a few of us from the US.
The Middle Eastern refugees had either fled or been exiled from their homelands for religious or political reasons. They had come to Nepal and settled in this refugee center hoping to be granted permanent asylum by some willing country. Many had been there waiting for years, in the longest case, 17 years. Several had already had their cases reviewed and rejected. Most of the group were Christians or had become Christians in Nepal. Several were there as seekers or simply to be warmed by the fellowship of this gathering. We sang songs in various languages and shared a terrific meal together.
As we sang, I could barely breathe. But it wasn’t the thin mountain air that was bothering me. Instead, this felt like a “thin place” — that experience described by some Christian traditions where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially narrowed. I knew this as the overwhelming presence of Christ gathering and uniting us as a people in ways I have rarely experienced before or since.
In a world that insists on dividing, alienating, oppressing and killing people based on the color of skin, gender, economic or class/caste status, I saw what may have been the clearest picture of heaven I have ever seen. There, gathered in and around Jesus, members of many tribes, tongues and nations came together in unity, to speak with one voice and to be one people. In this moment of worship, we lived out among ourselves the fullness of God’s reconciling power.
Across the open-aired terrace, I looked into the eyes of an Iraqi brother in Christ. As we spoke together, there was a real and visceral kinship between us. Despite our respective political leaders’ decisions to insist we are enemies, we both understood a deeper, eternal truth. Long after the memory of his government or mine would be remembered, when history would be rolled up as a scroll, our unity as brothers would endure and, in fact, be complete. The thought that we could somehow commit an act of violence against each other over earthly political differences was, to us, an abomination.
The experience of unity is a great gift. Sustaining unity, well, that is a whole other matter full of problems, challenges and landmines just waiting to be stepped on. There are real and important differences that come between us at times. Like most Friends I know, I have to “die for” issues. These are the beliefs, commitments and practices so core to my identity as a follower of God that I would rather die than betray them. It is these matters of conscience that often spur us to make a principled stand on some social, political or theological issue when we feel challenged or see the necessity for change. I love this prophetic impulse, and the world is richer for it even though it can lead to conflict among ourselves and with others.
For all of our principled moral and doctrinal stands, however, I keep wondering, “Why is there almost never a principled stand for unity, at least among those who are followers of Christ?” In fact, in the face of our conflicts, it seems the prospect of unity is one of the first things we jettison as a possible outcome, rather than the last.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament, the priority for unity is overwhelmingly clear. Key to this is the fact that Christ had already united all brothers and sisters in Him. They were knit together by the common Holy Spirit, being formed and shaped in one Body comprised of many distinct parts. Whatever human divisions that had previously caused separation were now leveled by the reconciling presence of Jesus. This is the gospel at its core — we who are in Christ are one.
What is left for us, the New Testament’s writers plead and cajole, is to live into this reality with such passion and devotion that we will experience a unity that transcends our diversity.
Unity, I admit is not easy, but is essential. It is at the core of our identity as Christ followers. The costly peace of Christ waged and won at the expense of his very life makes it so.
Unity for unity’s sake serves no one. Unity for Christ’s sake serves us all and the world.
Is anyone willing to take a stand for it, or even more, consider dying for it?