If Jesus were to pray for you and me, what would he say?
We actually have record of such a prayer. He did pray for us and among other things he prayed for our unity.
Let’s look at part of the long Lord’s prayer in John 17:20-26 and see its great lesson for us.
John 17:20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
24 “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. 26 And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Note: Though other translations have their strengths and weaknesses, the NKJV (along with other more literal translations like the NASB) is helpful to our later discussion of “Why Unity” because it more literally translates all the “so that” (hina) clauses.
An Invisible Unity (vs 20-21)
Did Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity fail? Jesus prayed that we be one, but how? —in our practices? No. —in our manners and customs? No. —that a magisterium or doctrinal committee dictate to us every belief? No. —that our churches be united under one human institution? No. Jesus’ prayer for unity was very specific about one thing. He prayed that we may be one. How? —just as the Father is in him and he is in the Father. He prayed that we would be in them. The reality is that, despite petty differences, all Christians who are in Christ and in the Father are already unified. Jesus’ prayer has been answered. Like a garden we are unified in beautiful diversity.
A Visible Unity (vs 21-22)
A purpose of Christian unity is “that the world may believe.” Our unity with God must be visible to the world. There have always been divisions within the Church. Early truly ecumenical councils settled some differences. Dissenters were sometimes persecuted and sometimes permitted to create religious orders in the western church. Eastern Orthodox divisions are mostly territorial. The past sins of the western church caused Protestantism. The western church calls its exclusive councils “ecumenical” and itself “Catholic,” but wherever people are united in Christ is the catholic church. Where is our unity visible? When we exclude anyone who is united in God, we create visible disunity. When we promote our agreement over 95% of important doctrines, then unity is visible.
Growing in Unity (vs 22-23)
How do we grow in unity? —by exclusive authoritarianism or being burned at a stake? Jesus is bringing us into unity through the glory that he has given to us. “One” means here “to be united most closely (in will, spirit).” When we disagree with each other, even strongly, can we do so in unity? Inclusive diversity offers salvation to a broader range of humanity than narrow exclusivism. Denominational arrogance causes division not unity and is a heresy. The Greek here can be literally “that they might be perfected in unity.” Christians are wonderfully unified on the essentials. There is room to grow, but unity comes through a bond of peace not through robotic uniformity of opinion (Ephesians 4:3).
The so-called hina clauses (“so that…”) explain why unity is important to Jesus’ prayer. He works for unity among us so that all of us may be one; so that we might be in God; so that the world might believe that God sent Jesus (verse 21); so that we might be one as God and Christ are one (verse 22); so that we might be perfected in unity; so that the world will know that God sent Jesus and has loved us even as he has loved Jesus (verse 23); so that where Jesus is we may also be; so that we may see Christ’s glory (verse 24) and so that God’s love may be in us (verse 26).
Unity is not uniformity of opinion, of culture, of musical taste, of liturgy, or of gifts. Unity is created by being in a relationship with God and Christ. It is kept through the bond of peace. Like a beautiful garden, the Christian church is meant to have different colors and seasons, and it is meant to be a peaceful garden, diverse but unified in God and Christ.