Essential identity

February 1, 2019 - 12:00am -- Living City

Essential identity
The John 17 movement starts with friendships among different churches

By Susanne Janssen

Often, all it takes is a meal and the right attitude. When Pope Francis got elected in 2013, Joe Tosini, an evangelical pastor who was raised Catholic, was awakened during the night. Since he didn’t want to wake up his wife, he went into the living room and felt the sudden urge to pray for the newly elected pope. The following morning, he told his wife, “As crazy as this sounds I think we are going to meet with Pope Francis and work towards Christian unity as Jesus prayed for in John 17.”

A short time after that Joe and Mary Tosini, Pentecostal Christians from Phoenix, were invited to a meal at an old friend’s house in Caserta, Italy. He shared with them his impression, and learned to his complete surprise about their friendship with Pope Francis.  A door opened, and some months later, he found himself having lunch with the pope in Caserta, Italy, where Pope Francis made his historic visit to a Pentecostal church asking for forgiveness for the persecution the Catholic Church inflicted on the Pentecostals in Italy decades before.

Experiencing that walls had come down and wounds were healed in that short time together, Joe suggested to the pope that they repeat this with other church leaders, and the pope agreed. And so, John 17 began: as an encounter at a meal and a deepening of love, sharing of faith, laughter, and prayer; where people are experiencing reconciliation.

“John 17 often starts with a meal,” Joe says. “We get to know one another, to love one another, and then just allow the spirit to work.” Sometimes, when appropriate and felt, it even includes foot washing, as an expression of serving one another as Jesus did.

This movement started about four years ago, and now Tosini and 19 other founding members wrote down their brief history in a book John 17: The Heart of God. Its message is very much in tune with the thoughts of Pope Francis, who wrote to the community that he observed “the degree of brotherly friendship that has come to exist among you.” He hopes that this testimony may draw “many others to Christ and that your experience of fellowship may inspire an ever-increasing number of Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Catholics to rediscover one another.” He ended with “May Jesus’ prayer, which I know is honored among you, be our guiding star.”

With this message, walls that were built for decades come down: didn’t some Evangelicals even think that Catholics are not Christians? Didn’t Catholics have their prejudices against the free structures of Evangelicals?

If we stop here, we will never do our part to achieve unity. And so Tosini and his friends started with sharing and praying together, simple gestures where Christians of all different denominations can experience that we can be one in God. And it is something direly needed: there are more than 34,000 different denominations, and the number is still growing — it could seem absurd to speak about unity, even though it was one of the last things Jesus prayed for and communicated to his apostles.

Tosini himself links it to our search for identity. Growing up, his grandmother would always emphasize his Italian decent, yet the little “Giuseppe” felt American. We are all unique, but this unites us. And for Tosini, it’s a choice if we want to act as Christians of Protestant or Catholic descent, or as Catholics or Protestants: we find our essential identity in Jesus.

Most of the other 20 authors, among them three bishops, tell how it all started with friendship. And it soon becomes more than a cup of coffee, also to realize that what counts is the relationship with God, not “who is most right” (Gary Kinnaman). Bishop Eduardo Nevares brings it to the core: “He wants the unity of his followers to be the unity that exists as in the blessed Trinity itself.”

There’s a long way to go, but tensions are normal — Jesus encountered them too. Very often, one great first step in order to build bridges is to work together for the poor. Nobody can deny that there are differences that involve serious questions and core identities of each church. However, by listening and getting to know each other, a big step is made toward the other, not away from others who use different expressions to pray.

Peter Petrov describes his experience with a beautiful example: he recognized that building relationships with other, similar communities would only be like “connecting the own lake to others, to have a bigger lake” while God is calling all Christians to be a river that brings living water. That required the members of John 17 to get rid of the biases each one carried with them their whole lives.

In the book John 17, this process is seen as “we need each other to be whole.” It is an important step in our polarized times to come to this point — and as Christians, we are called to take this step.

John 17: The Heart of God. Edited by Joseph Tosini. New City Press: Hyde Park, New York, 2018. 170 pages, $16.95.

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