Jesus paid intense attention to his twelve specially chosen disciples during his final meal with them the night before he died.
He prayed that their fledgling efforts at evangelization would not be thwarted by the powers of this world. He bequeathed to them the same gift of peace that allowed his own will to merge with the will of his heavenly Father even in the face of crisis and challenge. He mandated them to continue the precious sacrifice of his Body and Blood for the building up of his priestly people. And Jesus prayed warmly and especially for the unity of this apostolic band as this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage indicates: “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”
Yet as cherished as these final moments of Jesus with his closest disciples clearly were, the savior did not omit concern for the vast community, the larger church, that these men were challenged to inaugurate. At the same final meal, the Master prayed: “Holy Father, 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.” Jesus prays that the essential unity that the Father and he have shared from all eternity might be reflected in the unity within his new believing community, the universal church. As readers learned in their catechism classes, a basic accord —oneness — was and is to be a distinguishing mark of the Christian community.
St. John especially is concerned with this internal unity within the church. The seamless garment that was torn from Jesus’ shoulders at the moment of his crucifixion can be understood in the fourth Gospel as a symbol of this oneness: “They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be…” The same can be said of the fishing net bulging with newly caught fish: “So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.” St. John, echoing Jesus’ fervent desire, understands that the Gospel message of basic revealed truth and fundamental apostolic teaching is to be shared generously and authentically with all peoples. St. John and certainly Jesus desire that the saving word originally entrusted to the disciples should be handed on to succeeding generations and to expanding communities as the trustworthy source of genuine belief and the effective foundation of authentic unity.
St. Luke is an equally powerful spokesperson for the need for unity within the believing community. In the Acts of Apostles, St. Luke understands the ordination of deacons within the church community primarily began to insure practical unity with the believing community. The Aramaic-speaking Jews and the Greek-speaking Jews had experienced some estrangement long before the Christian era. This ethnic discord was sadly but understandably brought into the congregations formed by Jews converting to the new way. St. Luke accordingly makes a potent statement for the unity of all persons within the Christian community by relating the martyrdom of St. Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jew, an outsider, as it were, to the Jerusalem community. The death of St. Stephen reveals a more than coincidental correspondence with the death of Jesus himself. Both men died outside the city gates. “They threw him out of the city…” Jesus prayed, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” St. Stephen uttered, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” St. Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them…” Both Jesus and Stephen ended their lives by crying out “…in a loud voice…” Thus both Greek speakers and Aramaic speakers deserve respect.
What St. John taught through the prayerful reflections of Christ at the Last Supper, St. Luke teaches through the graphic account of St. Stephen’s painful death. Unity, oneness, harmony and accord are integral to the authentic Christian life. Lack of unity in essential Christian truths violates the prayer of Christ, ignores the sufferings of St. Stephen, disappoints the Christian faithful and scandalizes the secular the world.