What follows came as I reflected on the idea that Christians are a sign in the world pointing to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven. In his book “The Presence of the Kingdom” Jaques Ellul presents this idea and states that it is the Christian's primary role in life to be this sign. I found this to be a compelling and powerful idea.
We are to be this sign on the road for humanity as they wander spiritual paths seeking truth and meaning. A common belief is that all ways lead to God. However, Christ's followers are the signs along the One Way pointing to the One Truth and Life, Jesus. This message is vital for at least two reasons. First, it simply is not true that all ways lead to God. This is the reality of the spiritual landscape. It does us no good to pretend that it is otherwise and it may not be a popular move to state it so plainly, but there it is none the less. Those seeking God along the wrong road deserve to know that they are going the wrong way and it falls to Christ's community to sound the alarm. Other roads may lead to genuine spiritual powers, but they are not the One God, and thus they are pretenders to a throne that is not theirs to sit upon.
Second, it is vital that Christians be this sign pointing to the kingdom because the world lives in darkness and is ever moving toward destruction. The city is burning and there is only one road out of town to a safe haven. Darkness prevents humanity from finding that road. Some light is required. Imagine the Church as being the only working lampposts lit up along that singular narrow path leading out of darkness into the light and life of the kingdom of heaven. If we, Christ's community, are not fulfilling our call to be the sign pointing the way then how will the world, caught in darkness, know the way? As John says: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:4&5). The community of Christ is the embodiment of his message: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
But how, we may ask, are we to be this sign? How can we act as markers on the journey of humanity pointing to the way that brings a darkened world into the light of life? A simple foundation is best else we quickly devolve into panicked action based in the fear of failing to do anything. Too often the Church gives this appearance. We bolster our image with programs and actions rooted not in love, but in a fevered performance driven by our need to be doing something that at least looks like what we think the kingdom of heaven should look like. Lest I be accused of not supporting action let me at the very outset say that this is not the case. Rather, I believe that action cannot precede being. If we are not fulfilling our prophetic calling as the community of Christ then our actions will amount to little. We need to turn away from living lives primarily focused on materialism and return to being a spiritual community. Ours is a spiritual message just as our king's is a spiritual one. The message begins with us and who we are (not what we do), and when we begin to be that message it becomes the living sign it is meant to be.
I believe a good starting point for setting down a simple foundation is found in John 17. Jesus gives us a powerful picture of how to be this prophetic sign in the world. He describes the Christian community as a prophetic community whose message is that Jesus is the the son of God and that he is the Way to the kingdom. The foundation of acting as a sign is found in being something first before expressing that foundation in actions. As he prays for the future community Jesus calls us to his way; namely that of oneness and love. Jesus believes that if his followers are one with him and his Father and with each other the world will know that God sent him (John 17:21&23).
What does Jesus mean when he speaks of this oneness? In our world the spiritual potency of this word can be difficult to apprehend much less appropriate. However, in order to fulfill our king's call to be a prophetic community we need to come to not only an understanding of what he meant, but begin to actively receive it and be open to it. This way of being cannot be entered into without Christ's presence within us, his Spirit empowering and teaching us the oneness he desires for us.
So what do we mean when we speak of oneness? It includes the aspect of unity to be sure, but it goes even deeper than this. To understand what Jesus is speaking of we need to look back to the Garden of Eden, back to a time before sin shattered the spiritual landscape of creation. Back to a time when there was wholeness and unity on every level of relationships; the era of Shalom.
The word shalom is most commonly understood to mean 'peace', but the full meaning is much more profound. Shalom refers to complete, perfect, and full relationships, which would naturally be marked by peace. In the pre-Fall reality, shalom permeated everything: all relationships were filled with it. Thus there was no separation between God and man, between Adam and Eve, and even no separation between they and creation. There was a state of oneness. This is difficult for us to imagine, for we live in such a fragmented world, both spiritually and materially. There is a vast distance between us and that era, but this distance has been bridged for us by Jesus, a part of the redemption he accomplished through his death and resurrection. Thus shalom is a redeemed and restored inheritance given to us through grace, and it is a profound marker of the kingdom.
The entrance of sin into reality was much like taking the material and spiritual reality and shattering them like a pane of glass. Shards and dust exploded, scattering throughout creation. We see evidence of this shattering in the consequences God lays out for Adam and Eve once they confess their action of eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. From Genesis 3:7 and following the consequences are clear ultimately resulting the loss of shalom between man and God, between Adam and Eve, and between man and creation. These once complete, perfect, and full relationships are altered by the introduction of separation, and ultimately result in Adam and Eve having to leave the Garden to prevent this loss from becoming permanent (v.22). (For a fuller discussion of this see my article “Thoughts On Community” in the Clarion Journal).
From this point on shalom becomes a marker of the past and a state sought after by humanity who desires a return to Eden and its reality of wholeness. Of course, there is no going back to the Garden, that road is lost to us. God could only make a road forward that would lead us to a new Garden where shalom could be restored and safeguarded against ever being shattered again. Jesus called this new Garden the kingdom of heaven.
In some ways the Old Testament is the story of God's road forward to the new Garden. The Law and the Prophets point to a time when God would reveal his plan to restore shalom. We know this plan would culminate in the sending of his Son and that he would accomplish this restoration. Restoring shalom is a part of the meaning of the cross and Christ's resurrection. When Jesus endured the cross he did so as one who had lived his life in shalom with God his Father. When he was raised on the third day part of his victory would be that this shalom was now eternal, and he would share it with us by giving us his Spirit. At Pentecost the gift is poured out and the followers of the Way are those indwelt by Holy Spirit, and Christ's shalom with God now dwells within us by his presence.
So not only are we ransomed from the power of sin and death by the cross and resurrection, but we also become coheirs with Christ of the life he gained for us. The Spirit of Christ has come to live in shalom with the spirits of those who believe and confess him as king. If we live by the Spirit and are led by the Spirit then we are receiving the hope that God is transforming our natures into the likeness of Jesus; we are becoming like him. The Holy Spirit, Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:13&14, is given to us in part as a prophetic sign that points to our future inheritance: And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his Glory. (See also 2Cor. 1:22 and 5:5). Jesus also promises that at the end of the age in the coming fullness of his kingdom we will live in complete, perfect, and full relationship with God. The final chapters of Revelation give us an incredible picture of how we will live together with God in his city. While the symbolism may be complex, the message is clear: we will live forever in shalom with God.
So at last we can return to our question regarding what Jesus meant by oneness in John 17. I
believe the answer lies in understanding shalom. If we read his prayer as a request to his Father that we would have complete, perfect, and full relationships with him and each other we have language we can begin to work with in understanding the word oneness. Our relationships are no longer trapped by the shattering that occurred in the Garden. This oneness points the way to the kingdom reality and the truth of who Jesus is and the truth of his gospel.
The second prophetic sign Jesus calls us to is love. This follows naturally from the oneness he has asked for. What other evidence of oneness can there be than love? Those who are moving toward shalom with God and each other will love God and love each other. This sounds familiar doesn't it? Matthew 22:37-40: Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. This call to love is a call to live in shalom.
The community of Christ, the Church, is then a prophetic message to a dying world still suffering the terrible cuts from the shards of the Fall and loss of shalom. The message is communicated in a way of being preceding action: Be one and love. All that the Church does in action must proceed from this way of being. Jesus tells us quite simply that by these two intertwined signs the Church will point the world to his kingdom, his salvation, and to God. The Church is to be an invitation to the world to come home in a sense. What we lost in Eden has been restored to us. Come and live in wholeness with God once more, and what is more it will never be lost or shattered again.
Eric H Janzen