John 17:20-23 | NIV
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
I’ve often struggled to understand what Jesus meant when He prayed that His disciples would be one. When Jesus knew His time with His disciples was short, He begged the Father on behalf of His disciples for unity. I’m sure Jesus knew the complications that would soon ensue after He was gone. Conflicts and disagreements would arise and division would soon follow. What one person considers truth, another stands staunchly opposed. While we can simply write this disagreement off as a difference of interpretation, the division remains. Denominations arise and stand opposed to one another. With so many differences of opinions on matters of Scripture, how can we possibly be brought together as “one”?
Unity ≠ Agreement
I’m not convinced that in order to be one, we must all agree. I believe there are a few non-negotiable things where agreement is critical. And that leaves a whole lot where we are free to disagree. I’m a white man who grew up in the south. I’m hardwired with a whole lot of beliefs and convictions that many people from other parts of the United States would oppose. For instance, I truly believe the only way to drink tea is if it’s sweet enough to make the hair on your neck stand up. Folks up north would disagree. This is what we call a “preference”. The more I study Scripture, I’m finding lots of “preferences” in how we interpret the Word of God.
Can there be diversity in unity?
Can people of different races and ethnic backgrounds be one? Can people from varying socio-economic classes be unified? Can democrats and republicans claim unity together? If we stand opposed because of our varying “preferences”, it will never happen. However, if we can discover where we agree with one another, I believe unity is possible. In fact that is exactly what Jesus prayed for. We probably will never agree on everything. In fact we may discover more topics that we disagree than we agree. While I’m not advocating that we “agree to disagree”, I do believe there is essential common ground where unity is found.
So how can Lutherans and Pentecostals, Baptists and Presbyterians, and every other flavor of Christianity in between unite? When views on eschatology, baptism, and gifts of the Holy Spirit vary, how can be come together as one?
I believe it’s possible. In fact, I believe God expects it. Check out what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”
According to Paul, we must find common ground on this important truth: Christ died. Christ was buried. Christ resurrected. Christ appeared.
Jesus made it abundantly clear in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Apart from Jesus, there can be no unity. But because of Jesus, we can be one!
Unity = Oneness
Let’s take one more look at the prayer that Jesus prayed in John 17. Specifically verses 22 and 23: “…that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
The oneness that Jesus describes has nothing to do with doctrine or theology (although those are important to the Christian faith). Jesus’ description of oneness is founded upon a relationship! The essence of Jesus’ relationship with His heavenly father is what Jesus is praying we would experience with one another.
Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” From this passage, we can discover two keys to this relationship that defines unity:
1. Unity takes work.
Paul says, “make every effort…” It’s not going to be easy. We’re not always going to agree. In fact we may often disagree. But work at it. Understanding that Jesus is the same Lord for us all, that His death, burial, and resurrection was achieved for each one of us, we can walk together as one Body and one Bride in spite of our differences.
2. Unity requires maintenance.
Notice that Paul said, “to keep the unity of the Spirit…” We must understand that unity is not something we manufacture. Oneness is not a goal to be achieved. It is something God has already done through Jesus. “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
If unity is founded upon one common ground, the Gospel of Jesus, and it’s essence is found in a relationship with one another, then in order to fulfill what Jesus prayed for, we the Church must set aside what divides and cling to what unites. Instead of fighting over how we are different, we ought to come together on the one essential truth that we find in common. It’s what Paul called “most important”. His name is Jesus.