That they May be One
If we were to ask the question, ‘Which is the most significant prayer found in the Bible?’ the answer would almost certainly be, ‘the Lord’s Prayer’ and understandably so. This was the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in response to their request, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ and it has become the prayer that has had the widest influence on the prayer life of the church both as a set prayer and a pattern for prayer. But it is worth pausing to reflect on another prayer recorded in the New Testament. One that may not be as widely appreciated, but which certainly has a depth of significance that goes much deeper than we often realise.
It is the prayer often labelled ‘the great High Priestly prayer of Christ’ that he offered the night before his crucifixion and is recorded in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel. It falls into three parts: Jesus’ prayer for himself as he faces the ordeal of the cross (17.1-5), his prayer for his disciples, soon-to-become apostles (17.6-19) and his prayer for all who will come to faith in response to the apostolic testimony (17.20-26). Such is the weight of importance bound up with what he prays for we might rightly describe this prayer as ‘the prayer that changed the world’. If any one of Christ’s requests had not been answered, there would be no church and no hope for the future.
We could focus on any one of the three sections of this prayer, or even on the many details each contains; but I want to home in on one detail in particular. It is the one request that dominates the last part of Jesus’ prayer and it reflects his greatest concern for his redeemed community: the church.
Just suppose you had never read this chapter, but were told the broad outline of what Jesus was seeking in prayer. And suppose you were told that the final part of the prayer concerned what Jesus perceived to be the greatest need of the church throughout the ages and then you were told to ‘fill in the blank’ as to what you thought that need might be. How might you respond? My guess is that we would come up with answers like, ‘getting its theology right’, or, ‘offering the kind of worship that genuinely pleases God’, or a host of other things on which we place a premium. But the answer is ‘none of the above’. Instead Jesus prays passionately for unity within his family.
Not once, but twice he prays, ‘that they may be one’ (17.21,22). Indeed, he raises the stakes regarding the kind of unity he prays for them: he desires a oneness between his people that is a reflection on earth of the oneness between the Persons of the Trinity in heaven (17.21,22). Given the tragic history of disunity among God’s people through the ages – not least among those who claim the same confessional base – it’s hard not to think that Jesus is asking the impossible. But the reason he attaches to the prayer makes it clear why it matters so much to him and why, therefore, it must also matter to the church. It is this: ‘…so that the world may believe you have sent me’ (17.21) and ‘…to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’ (17.23).
In other words, the unity of the church matters because it impacts the credibility of the gospel in the eyes of the watching world. If the gospel claims that Jesus entered our world in order to ‘purify a people for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Tit 2.14) and that, for those who receive the salvation offered in the gospel, they ‘are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Ga 3.28), then when the church is characterised by disunity, the gospel is called into question.
Paul shared Christ’s concern for unity with a passion. We see it in his tireless efforts to demolish the prejudice that was tantamount to evangelical apartheid in the New Testament: making a distinction between those saved from a Jewish background and those who were Gentile believers. But we see it most potently in his command to the Christians in Ephesus who were themselves deeply divided by this issue. To them (and through them to the church at large) he says, ‘Spare no effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.3) [my translation].
The very wording he uses in this injunction is a much-needed reminder that the unity that exists between us as Christians is not of our own making. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the consequence of each of us individually being united to Christ in salvation and simultaneously being joined to every one of his blood-bought children throughout the world and through all ages. Just as it is often said of our natural families ‘You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family’, so too with the church family. If we are truly joined to Jesus, then in him we are joined to all his children – the good, the bad and the ugly!
It is not without significance that it is Paul, the greatest missionary-evangelist the world has ever known, who is so concerned about the oneness of those who claim to be Christians. Like Jesus, the archetypal Evangelist, he sees it as a gospel issue.
We would do well to reflect on this – especially if we belong to that part of God’s family that delights in the historic expressions of the Christian faith captured by the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms. Let us recognise there is more that unites than divides us. And let us remember that how we relate to one another as members of that family is closely watched by those outside the church and has profound implications for how they view the message we proclaim. And let us remember that the night before he went to the cross, Jesus was praying for those he would redeem at such dreadful cost: ‘…that they may be one’!