The church service ended and I leaned forward to collect my Bible from under the chair in front of me. When I straightened, Jesus was sitting beside me.
“That was an interesting prayer,” he said.
I stared at him, frozen in place. He continued conversationally, “You know, the one where you all prayed for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.“
Across the sanctuary, people were milling around talking to one another. No one appeared to be able to see Jesus next to me.
“I wonder,“ he said, “how do you expect me to answer that prayer?” He waited and looked at me.
I licked my lips and said hesitantly, “Umm…”
“Unity isn’t a package I can just hand over to you,” he explained. “It’s not like a gift on Christmas morning that you can unwrap and start enjoying immediately. You have a part in this, too. In fact you have the biggest part.“
He tapped my Bible. “Open it,” he commanded. “Read Ephesians 4:1-3.”
I flipped through the pages until I came to the passage. I read the words falteringly, totally unnerved at reading the Word in front of the Word. “‘Therefore, I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’”
“If you’ll notice,“ said Jesus, “unity is something that you are called to preserve, not to pray for. And the way you preserve it is through all the things that come in the previous verses … walking in holiness, in humility, in gentleness, in patience, in tolerance, and in love.”
He pointed at my Bible again. “Now read Colossians 3:12-14.”
I turned a few pages and read out, “‘So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you so also should you. Beyond all these things, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.’”
He looked at me. “Is it a command, or is it a prayer?” he asked.
“A … command,” I answered.
“Do you know what I call it when people ask me to do something for them that I ask from them?” he inquired.
I shook my head.
“I call it passing the buck,” he said sternly.
I swallowed nervously and didn’t reply.
“Do you know why the perfect bond of unity in the Spirit is missing from this church?“ he asked.
I shook my head again.
He rose to his feet. “Get up,“ he said. “I will show you.“
Jesus led me to one side of the sanctuary where two men were talking. I stared. Between them was a brick wall about seven feet high. They were conversing without any apparent awareness of the barrier.
Jesus gestured to the brick wall. “They built that wall up over the past several years. Brick by brick. Every time they failed to communicate, every time they made an assumption about the other person, every time they were hurt and said nothing, they put another brick in place. They have become so comfortable with the wall that they no longer see it. The wall makes them feel safe, but in fact it simply keeps them separated.”
Jesus looked at me. “Can they experience the unity of the Spirit with that wall erected between them?”
I shook my head.
“Whose responsibility is it to take down that wall?“
“Theirs,” I answered in a whisper.
“Correct,” Jesus replied. “I will help them. I will give them my grace. But the choice and the work is theirs. That wall took years to build up; it will take time and effort to break down.”
He led me away from the two men to where three women were chatting. In shock, I saw that each of them was covered with pure white frost. I shivered; the temperature plummeted as we came within a few feet of them.
Jesus sighed. “They are cold. They don’t care about each other. Any one of them could become ill or fall into hardship and the others wouldn’t feel the merest twinge of compassion. They cannot rejoice with those who rejoice, nor can they weep with those who weep. Their hearts are frozen.”
An expression of deep sadness crossed Jesus’ face. “If they want the unity of the Spirit they so glibly prayed for, they need to start caring for one another. They need to love one another ... not just in words, because words are cheap, but in deed and in truth.”
We moved to the front of the sanctuary where a few of the church leaders were gathered to discuss some point of business. I gawked. One of the men and one of the women in the group had on brightly-painted masks.
Jesus’ mouth turned down. “They are shepherds of my flock,“ he said. “How can they expect to lead my people to be open and honest with one another when they cannot be open and honest even among themselves? Why did those two feel the need to put on the masks? Did they not feel safe? Why have the other leaders not asked about the masks? Why have they not reached out and created a place where masks can come off?”
He gestured for me to follow him. We walked to the back of the sanctuary where two seniors were talking. Each one had a list in their hands. The papers were so long that they spilled onto the floor in untidy piles.
“They are lists of grudges,“ Jesus explained. “They never forget a single slight. Those lists are constantly kept at the ready so that they can call up memories of past injuries at a moment’s notice. Do you see the pens in their hands? They are literally waiting for the next insult so that they can write it down to prove how wrong the other person is and how virtuous they are.”
Jesus turned to me and searched my face. “Are you beginning to see why your prayers for unity have fallen flat?”
I nodded, stricken.
“I cannot do for you the things which you must do for yourselves,“ Jesus said. “Where there are walls, you need to pull out a pickax. Where there is ice, you need to thaw your hearts. Where there are masks, you need to create a place of safety. Where there are lists, you need to shred them."
I stared down at the floor, feeling miserable. I felt Jesus come close and in a moment his hands rested gently on my shoulders. His voice urged me to look up. “Do not despair,“ he encouraged me. “It is indeed your job to do these things, but I will give my Spirit to you to help you. Never forget that I myself have prayed for you that you would be perfected in unity – that you would be one even as I and the Father are one.”
He smiled at me and hope filled my heart. “You can do this,” he said. “The highest walls, the thickest ice, the most elaborate masks, the longest lists … you can conquer them all in my Name. As you do so, you will achieve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And the world will know that you are my disciples and that the Father sent me and that he loves them.”
He lifted his hand in blessing. “Now, go: put on love which is the perfect bond of unity.”
I bowed my head and when I raised it again he was gone. I was alone in the empty sanctuary.