O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Collect this morning bids us to pray that God would grant that we would be “united to one another with pure affection.” It’s a petition that gets right to the mission of the Church, which our Catechism in the back of the Prayer Book defines as the mission “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” . It would be difficult to come up with a better definition than that -- what Christian, after all, could not be moved by such a goal?
And beyond that, all people, whether Christian or not, instinctively want unity with each other. Nobody, except I guess the crankiest among us, really enjoys discord and unresolved conflict. And, of course, who could ignore the resonance of this prayer for unity on this Fourth of July? Because, in some ways, the unity of people is also the mission of every nation, America included. Every society, every human institution, is an attempt at some kind of unity; and the reason human beings have always made this attempt by gathering together is that the desire for unity is part of what makes us human. You could even say that the unity of all people in Christ is the mission of the Church because it is already the mission of the human race.
This universal desire for unity of all people points beyond whatever humans could achieve together on their own, because our desire for unity with each other is itself a reflection of our ultimate desire for unity with God. As we hear at the beginning of the mass each week, the love of God with all of our heart, soul, and mind is what makes it possible for us to love our neighbors as ourselves. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” our Lord says. These two acts of love -- the love of God and the love of neighbor -- are inseparable from each other.
“Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection….” It reminds me of a passage from the late, great Herbert McCabe that gets straight to what I’m saying. I know that I quoted him in my sermon last week, but what can I say? He’s my favorite! Anyway, McCabe says, to quote at length:
...the sacrament (or mystery) of union with God and the unity of all mankind are not meant to be two separate things. The ultimate unity of people is only to be found in God, and the real God is only to be found in unity between people. It is just because we have not reached the point of unity, just because we are still alienated from each other, that our picture of God keeps slipping into falsehood and idolatry, so that God becomes for us the God of our class, our nation, our race or our time, the tutelary deity, perhaps, of the ‘free world’. It is because we have not reached unity in God who is love that our unity is less than the unity of all mankind. 
Again, we see here the inseparability of our devotion to God with our whole heart -- our unity with God -- and our unity with each other. These are not two separate things, any more than the humanity and divinity of Christ are separated from each other. Christ is the icon of the unity of God and the unity of people because he is that unity: he is the Word made flesh, fully God and fully human. Which is why the unity of all people can only be achieved in Christ.
But herein lies the difficulty and the danger with our desire for unity. Because our unity with each other depends upon our unity with God, it means that if we get our unity with God wrong, our unity with each other will become distorted as well. Our idolatry with regard to God produces our alienation with regard to our neighbors. After all, who even is my neighbor? Who counts as my neighbor and who doesn’t? Does anyone not count? Who is an “us” and who is a “them?” And how do I distinguish the two? Is there even a distinction at all? So, unity is complicated.
To boil it down, just as it’s possible for us to have distorted beliefs about God, it’s also possible for us to imagine distorted ideas about our unity with each other. If idolatry is what we call our false beliefs about God, alienation and discord is what we call our false beliefs about unity.
This is the temptation that afflicts every nation and, for that matter, every group or institution -- especially those who rise to greatness. The more powerful a nation becomes, the more easily it can start thinking of the unity of its citizens as the ultimate unity: a national unity that is directly sponsored by God himself. And since there’s no unity beyond what is defined by the nation, the unity with God and the national unity effectively become the same thing. God becomes our God -- the God of the “us” -- the God that legitimates the imagined superiority of the nation.
Nations and empires have done this repeatedly throughout history -- it’s just what we do, it seems -- but at the end of the day, it’s just good old fashioned idolatry. It’s what happens when we invent a lesser God that can be more easily employed to advance our own power than the almighty and everlasting God, maker of heaven and earth.
So, the challenge for our desire for unity is that we have to pursue our unity with each other in terms of our unity with God in Christ. We can only be united with each other with pure affection if we are devoted to God with our whole heart -- this devotion to God is the basis of our pure affection with each other. Otherwise, we’ll inevitably end up divorcing the one from the other by coming up with our own definition of what unity is; one that’s not accountable to the love of God and thus more conducive to our own desires and purposes.
Consider, for instance, how unified the people of Israel are in our reading from Ezekiel: “And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day.” They’re united alright, it’s just that they’re united as a “nation of rebels” -- a “rebellious house.” Their unity is defined by their stubbornness and impudence against the law of God.
Likewise, consider the people that Christ meets from “his own country” in our Gospel reading. What are they united around?
And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Their unity is defined by their offense against the teaching of Christ. It’s their familiarity with Jesus -- what they think they know about him from their shared assumptions about him -- that makes it impossible for them to receive his teaching and recognize him for who he really is. And they are so unified in the shared consensus of their offense at Christ. And Christ responds to their offense with a judgment of their unity: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
Ideally, the Church doesn’t replace or cancel out the natural unities that people create, but can rather embrace those unities and elevates them into the divine life. Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28 is to:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19)
The mission of the Church is that the nations become disciples; the baptism of the nations is how the unity of all people is restored in Christ. But we’re not there yet. Churches are still human institutions just like the nations are, along with any other group that people form. Which means that human institutions can all succumb to the temptation to become like a “rebellious house” or “the prophet’s own country,” where the one sent from God finds no honor, but only offense. No matter how small or how great, it’s always possible that a group of people becomes unified in their resistance to the love of God and neighbor. There is such a thing as a false unity, which rivals and undermines the unity that can only be found in God. And to the extent that the Church pursues its mission within these false kinds of unity, it will be marked by its prophetic critique which names the falsehood and idolatry and alienation for what they are. And like Christ, the Church will be without honor in this world.
The goal, therefore, is for us to participate in public life in such a way that the societies in which we live become a little bit more receptive to the teaching of Christ, the Son of Man; to work towards a kind of society where the prophet is not without honor; where the nation responds with humility and obedience instead of offense. It’s a high task -- an impossible mission, really -- which is why it will only be achieved at the last day when everything is subjected under Christ’s feet once and for all. In this fallen time, human societies will inevitably be inclined to a rival, false unity that is hostile to unity of God and humanity in Christ; societies will be subjected to the dominion of Christ in judgment. But as those who have been made citizens of another Kingdom -- who wait for its arrival with vigilant anticipation -- we find ourselves with the gifts of faith, hope, and love. And it is these gifts, given to us by God, that enables us to greet the Son with the honor due his Name and thereby love our neighbors as ourselves. They are what propels us onward to the ultimate unity of people that is only to be found in God: the God who, in Christ, is only to be found in unity between people. So grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection….
 Herbert McCabe. "Holy Thursday: the mystery of unity." God Matters.