“Jesus prayed for his disciples and then he said, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” What does it mean when Jesus prayed that we all “may be one”?
Many people have different ideas about what it means. One is that Christians cannot have differences of opinions. They believe that we must all conform to some homogenized set of views acceptable to everyone (or more correctly, acceptable to the group requiring the conformation of others). This is not a true view of Jesus’ prayer for unity. Another idea is that denominations are wrong. Now we see from some a requirement not only to conform to the same beliefs but also to conform to the same practices of worship. This is not true of Jesus’ prayer either. This is because the prayer of Jesus is not asking for a lockstep uniformity of either doctrine or practice.
The true fellowship of the saints is found not in uniformity but in unity, a unity of spirit and purpose, which is a much different thing. Rick Warren in the book “The Purpose Driven Life” said: “God expects unity, not uniformity, and we can walk arm-in-arm without seeing eye-to-eye on every issue.” It is very similar to what Paul explained in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians when he was likening the faith community to the human body. Not everyone in the faith community is called to the same work or responsibility. Likewise we are not all called to the same expression of our practice of our faith just as not every part of the body is called to be identical.
In fact the human body will not work if all of the parts are identical. The human body works because of its diversity. That is how the Christian Church works as well. It is in our diversity of views and practices that we can live together, accomplish ministry and mission together, and learn and grow from each other. We should be celebrating our differences. How boring and unattractive it would be for many if the only expression of the Christian faith was Episcopalian or Baptist or Lutheran or Pentecostal. Not everyone is drawn to that sort of expression of faith.
Some believe that the differences in the Christian community are a stain on the Christian witness, but “(d)iversity is not always a blemish. It is a feature of nature…” You see that not only in the human body but in many other places as well. A garden would be so boring if it required uniformity. You don’t see many gardens filled with the exact same plant. I actually have never seen one like that. Imagine a forest where all that you found was one particular type of tree. No other vegetation. It would simply seem wrong to us. God created the world in wonderful and amazing diversity. So finding diversity in Christian expression should not really surprise us. Christian unity comes through a unity of relationship, unity is not found in some kind of lockstep uniformity.
Sadly “…outward disunion is too frequently indicative in inward disunion, for unity of action is often entirely lacking. The Christian churches are not all like divisions of one great army under one head, but are often rather like contending factions.” And yet how often it is that we see Christians acting like contending factions. The constant fighting of denominations and the constant fighting inside of denominations, our own included, surely does fly in the face of Jesus prayer for unity. Perhaps some are threatened by a lack of uniformity and see trying to enforce uniformity as the only way to make their faith strong.
“When we focus on personalities, preferences, interpretations, styles, or methods, division always happen. But if we concentrate on living (with) each other and fulfilling God’s purposes, harmony results.” The seeming constant focus on division surely grieves Jesus and is the exact opposite of his prayer in this passage. Jesus is calling on us to live in harmony with one another. We are called to over look differences with a spirit of focusing on that in which we can agree and then working together for the spread of the kingdom. It is the practice of Generous Orthodoxy as advocated by Bruce McLaren. And yet it seems too often that a generosity of spirit is missing in the church world around us.
James 3:18 explains what this unity of action is that we should be striving for. The author writes: “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” (The Message) Respecting the dignity and worth of every person is what each of us have been called to do in baptism.
It is important to remember that “Christian unity is not formal, but spiritual, -- If we are looking for formal union, we are looking in the wrong direction, and we are looking for the wrong thing.” We are missing the point of Jesus prayer for unity. We should be rejoicing in the diversity of the Christian family. If we truly are able to do this then we will be able to work together for ministry and mission in the world around us.
What should we do to respond to the work we are called to do in the prayer of Jesus? First, we should be praying for our fellow Christians, particularly those who we think are wrong for whatever reason. But we should not be praying that God brings them around to our way of thinking. Rather we should be praying for God’s blessing on them and for opportunities to work with them to do things like feed the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison and provide shelter for the homeless. Second, we should pray that God will give each of us a true generosity of spirit in our hearts towards fellow Christians. We should be asking God to soften our hearts towards our sisters and brothers. Third, we should seek to serve God in those with whom we have disagreements. We must respect their dignity and worth as beloved children of God.
If we can accomplish these steps the prayer of Jesus may be finally answered.