Posted by: gcarkner | July 23, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 9.

The Journey through Community to Communion: Becoming One 

“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23 ESV) Jesus’ prayer was rooted in the very heart of God. For 2,000 years, it has been a journey for billions of becoming like Christ—in communion with God. We continue in this noble quest, listening to God’s Spirit, asking him where we are in the process, and to call us into deeper communion. 

Human unity naturally operates within the context of community— the spirit of one-anotherness. Made in the image of God, we intuitively sense a feeling of solidarity as we come together in cooperation. We also gain insight into the essence of God as Trinity: three-ness and one-ness. The journey toward communion is sometimes long and arduous, but also exciting and full of surprises. In this short reflection, my deep longings and fulfillment emerge.

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfilment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God. (Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, 1986, 60, 61)

Community Discovery in My Family Story

As an only child (born of European immigrants), the absence of competition for their attention made things simple. I lived in love and unity with my parents, a sweet treasure indeed. The first shock to this situation came at age seven as my parents decided to introduce me to my European relatives for the first time—the paternal side of my family. It was the beginning of numerous introductions to our extended family, in what was then West Germany. This coincided with their initial return to Europe since they emigrated to Canada in 1953. They fled Communist East Germany as newlyweds, risking it all on this new venture, starting from the economic bottom.

I was wide-eyed with awe meeting all these new relations as a young, naïve Canadian schoolgirl. My heart was racing with anticipation. I found myself sitting around a table with my parents, my father’s two sisters and a brother-in-law and my three cousins. I studied their features, manner and speech for a familiar resemblance and ring. The adults would exchange intense pre- and post-war stories. There was weeping from so much loss and suffering, mixed with robust laughter and sheer joy in each other’s company. It was a larger than life experience for me, almost surreal. 

My first tense political experience, however, came on another occasion as Mom and I were granted visas to return to the soil from which they fled as a young couple—the former German Democratic Republic (DDR/East Germany). The imposing and hostile Berlin Wall looked down on us an open display of ‘a great divide’ between eastern and western powers. It was rife with the tension of dark rain clouds, guards and angry dogs. As an aside, my father, feeling unsafe, never did cross again into the East after leaving for Canada. This journey with my mother was profound: an opportunity to bridge thousands of miles of distance between our families on her side. Through the various visits by plane and train, alienation has faded into love, joy and the kindest community imaginable. Our precious family was now united despite the political tensions. My East and West were one again through our visits. The wall eventually came down in 1989 as the Soviet Union crumbled and the two Germanies finally reunited in 1990 under Helmut Kohl.  

Witnessing the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Spiritual Longing (Sehnsucht)

One dear, hospitable aunt in the East during the cold war, was most curious for information about life beyond the Wall. Anneliese posed the question about my wonderful experience of community during my sabbatical year of global travel, age 29: “Ute, how could you have come to know all those strangers that you speak about from various countries? How is it that you were invited into their homes, their lives, met their children, ate meals with them? Those conversations provided such an education. How is this even possible?” My aunt’s curiosity was bursting with longing for the kind of communion that was definitely possible among God’s people whom I enjoyed in different countries. But people, even in the small village where my aunt and cousins lived, were taught to be suspicious of each other during the Communist era—the opposite of unity. It was more Darwinian: Trust no one because your life and safety depends on it!

Fullness of Communion is Costly and Humbling

John 17: 20-23 reflects Jesus’ heart for the power of communion between heaven and earth: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me. That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” ESV

This section of Jesus’ prayer was illumined to me while I was engaged at age 22 with a Canadian Lutheran youth ministry team in India. As a team of eight students, we were asked to host four services that Easter Sunday. I lead one. Witnessing the stark diversity in India and speaking out of this text, a chorus began to rise from within the heart and soul of our team: “That we may be one… that we may be one. Jesus is praying that we may be one.” We sang this daily throughout our eye-opening subcontinent tour, at each venue. I came to such a deep conviction. Because Christ’s actions are always consistent with the will of his Father, his prayer is destined to reach its fulfilment. He himself has introduced to us the way of unity by praying us into the inter-relationships with the members of the Trinity. Our deep and real union with Christ is actually a taste of his union with the Father (I and my Father are one). This relationship within the Trinity is a beautiful model for human communion across difference and diversity, even conflict. 

It is one of the implications of this trinitarian conception of divine agency that the intentionality of divine action is not to be inferred from the structure of the world God has created, but has to be understood as grounded in the revelation in the Son. It is this paradigmatic action that is authenticated by the inspiration of the Spirit which then provides the framework for the interpretation of God’s work in creation. In a similar way the character of the work of the Spirit as inspiration indicates how God involves human beings in the realization of his intentions. It is the context of the interrelatedness of creation, revelation and inspiration that we can talk about God’s action in terms of free, intentional action. (German theologian Christoph Schwöbel, 1992, 70)

Jesus dramatically revealed to us this dynamic oneness. Beyond our clan, family or tribe, we have this God-given reality to back up our quest for community and communion. The desire for unity, demonstrated by years of tears and repentance, led to the dissipation of enmity and to the final 1989 deconstruction of the Berlin Wall. What a celebration! After forty-four years of hostility and cold war angst between political rivals, there came a new hope that walls of all sorts between various people will be deconstructed. We long to mature our understanding of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:14-16: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new human community in place of two, making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing hostility.”  ESV

Paul was making reference to alienated Jews and Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world becoming one community in Christ. There is still work to be done in our time regarding repentance, responsibility, truth  and reconciliation. Recently on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I paused with my daughter dumbstruck seeing multiple toys, shoes and boots to represent Indigenous children lost during a dark period of Canadian history. They represented unmarked graves of precious young ones who were made in God’s image. We felt the tears of the angels. We must remember them and do better.

Our being in the image of God is also our standing among others in the stream of love, which is that facet of God’s life we try to grasp, very inadequately, in speaking of the Trinity. Now it makes a whole lot of difference whether you think this kind of love is a possibility for us humans. I think it is, but only to the extent that we open ourselves up to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set by Nietzsche and Foucault. (Charles Taylor, 1999, 35)

As we let go of suspicion and enmity, we enter a life of contrition and repentance towards hope for human communion. This is the route to the heart of God, the route through all our hearts towards the world. Such a trajectory moves us towards a credible posture. Our unity within the body of Christ commends the gospel of peace to a divided world. As Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise states in The Church Jesus Prayed For, “However, defaced or damaged the image is in another, it is never to be diminished and can never be destroyed.” The incarnation and the cross of Christ have opened the gate to mature unity amidst diversity and difference.

That most poignant image of hope, the Kingdom of God, expresses the relation of free divine love and loving human freedom together in depicting the ultimate purpose of God’s action as the perfected community of love with his creation. (Christoph Schwöbel, 1995, 80)

~Ute Carkner, guest blog.

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom. In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Merton, T. (1986). Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publication

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