Have you ever heard of channel surfing, that very grueling activity of sitting in front of the tv, remote in hand, switching from channel to channel, either trying to find something to watch, or trying to avoid the commercials that are interrupting the show that you really want to watch. Ask my family and they can tell you that I am quite the accomplished channel surfer, or at least I used to be. I don’t do it as often as I used to. Lately I am into article surfing on the internet. I pulled up my Yahoo home page and instantly there are hundreds of articles that I can read. So, I scan through the titles one by one until I come across one that intrigues me and then I click on it and read it. I guess in some ways it is my version of reading the daily paper. Yet, what is interesting is that at the end of each article is a comment section, a space where people can write their thoughts and opinions about what has been written in the particular article. People can even comment on other people’s comments so that sometimes a conversation develops, of course, it is an anonymous conversation. Sometimes the comment section is more entertaining than the article. Sometimes the comment section is disheartening. One time I was reading an article about the Christian faith, which I often do, and as usual there were many people who responded to the article in the comment section. And, as usual, many of the people who responded were either non-Christian or who had no religious belief at all. Nevertheless, I was reading the comment section and I noticed that a conversation had developed between a non-Christian and a Christian about the good news of Jesus Christ. The non-Christian asked the question, “Why should Jesus love me?” and went on to write, “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not really proud of. It find it hard to believe that God even thinks about me, much less loves me.” The Christian responded by writing, “Isn’t it amazing? I know it’s hard to believe, but God does care about each of us and Jesus died for us. God know the things you have done and loves you anyway.” As I was reading this, I thought, “This is really good.” But, then a third person, another Christian, jumped into the conversation. This third person wrote, “You Jesus-is-love types really make me sick. You’re one of Satan’s best weapons for misleading people. It’s simple: if this non-believer doesn’t turn away from his sinful life and stop doing all those things he isn’t proud of, he is going to burn in hell, and you’ll be right beside him for teaching him falsely.” The non-Christian was understandably shocked and wrote, “You see? Even you Christians can’t agree on what this is all about. And it sure doesn’t sound like you’re more loving than anybody else. I don’t need this.” And, the conversation was over.
This conversation that took place in this comment section highlights what is probably one of biggest criticisms that is leveled against the church today, and that is our disunity. People who look at the church know that we profess belief in the same God and the same Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the assumption is that if we believe the same thing then we should be one church, united together in our common belief, and yet, what people see is division, after division, after division. Many people do not see the church being the one church that Jesus prayed for in the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel.
Jesus prayed that all of us in the church would be one. At first glance, it seems that the answer to Jesus’ prayer is still waiting to be fulfilled. We can see this ourselves as we look around at our different denominations. Long before the Protestant Reformation, we were a divided church. In any town, large or small, we can find more denomination and congregations than can be counted on one hand. Denominational differences pull us apart. We argue over such things as modes of baptism, or the right means and methods of the Lord’s Supper. We disagree on structure and government. And, we do it all in the name of Jesus, who prayed that we might be one.
We can even find the church divided within a particular denomination. Just in our own Presbyterian denomination, we are divided over how to interpret the Bible; we are fractured over who should and shouldn’t be ordained, or married. We are a denomination divided along liberal and conservative lines; we are fractured in the name of Jesus who prayed that we might be one.
We can even find the church divided within a local congregation. Every local congregation wants to put on a show of unity, but a closer look easily reveals the cracks in our façade. There are times when I look out over our church here at Montours and I don’t see one church, I see at least two or more, worshiping under the same roof. I see two or more churches when I watch at how we communicate with each other both inside these walls and outside these walls through emails and telephone conversations. I see two or more churches when I see how we vote on matters in our Session meetings and in our committee meetings. I see two or more churches when I witness over and over again repeated attempts to grasp for power and control, all in the name of Jesus who prayed that we might be one.
So, what do we do with this prayer of Jesus, this prayer that we might be one? Do we look at the current state of the church and just throw up our hands and say, “Oh well, I guess this one will go unanswered?” Because we can’t even envision how Christ could possibly bring us together. Or maybe we can envision such a possibility, except that our vision usually carries us far into the future. We think, “When Jesus returns and takes us all to heaven, then we shall be the unified church for which Jesus prayed. Until then, it just ain’t going to happen.” But, are these our only choices, either no hope at all, or a hope that is so far into the future, that it might as well be no hope? Or, can we look at Jesus’ prayer in a different way? You see, I don’t think Jesus is praying that we all think alike, or that our every action in the church be exactly the same. I don’t believe that Jesus is against diversity. After all, Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit gives out a diversity of gifts to us as Christians. I think Jesus wants for us to be more than Stepford Christians. I think Jesus’ prayer is for something deeper, something far more profound. Jesus is praying that those who would follow him would discover the unity that he has with God the Father.
All throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has made the claim that he and the Father were one, and a great deal of our history in the church has been spent trying to understand exactly what Jesus meant, but one thing we can say is that God the Father and Jesus the Son are one in their love for each other. The relationship between Father and Son is a relationship of love, of love that is perfect and complete and utterly self-giving. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. It is in this context of love that Jesus prays for his disciples and prays for us as well. Jesus is praying that we too might take part in the unity of love between the Father and the Son. Jesus prayed, “they may all be one, even as thou, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also be in us.” Jesus is praying for our faith, that through faith we would have a share in that loving relationship between the Father and the Son.
Here is the good news. Jesus’ prayer has already been answered. God’s love has already been lavishly poured out over our lives. That perfect love of God has been graciously given to us, and through faith we give that love to back to God. We give that love back to God through our worship. We give that love back to God through our prayers. We give that love back to God as we love one another in the church. For, as we love God and experience the love of God, then we cannot help but love our brothers and sisters in the church. Another way of saying this is that our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with one another. As John wrote, in another place, “If you say you love God, but hate your brother or sister, then you are a liar; for he who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen, cannot love God who he has not seen.” If you want a litmus test for your relationship with God, just look at your relationships with others in the church, especially those with whom you disagree. The unity or oneness that Jesus is praying for is our oneness with God whereby we know that God loves us and we love God, and in that unity, we can be united with our brothers and sisters in the whole church.
There was a time when I hated a sister in the church. This was a follow pastor with whom I greatly disagreed on theological matters. It was so bad that there were times when I avoided going to Presbytery meetings because I knew that there was a possibility that she might be there and I might run into her and I might have to talk to her. That was the last thing that I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure how to get past what I was feeling. I knew that I didn’t want to feel this way; I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel this way. Thankfully, God, graciously and kindly, wacked me over the head with a 2X4. It was at a Presbytery meeting. We were having worship, and on this particular occasion, we were also having communion. We got to the point of the service where the pastor invited us to the Lord’s Table; and, as I sat there listening to him, it was as if I was hearing that invitation for the first time. I realized that this invitation to come to the table was for me and for this sister that I hated. That is when the whacking of the spiritual 2X4 commenced. Coming to the table, I had to answer some very tough questions, like, “How can I hate someone else for whom Jesus had died? How could I smugly think myself so superior when I was in just as much need of God’s grace? How could I think that I was better than her when I was just as much a sinner who had fallen far short of the glory of God?” In case you are wonderful. No, she and I didn’t suddenly start agreeing on things, but at the Lord’s Table, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the overwhelming presence of God’s love. In the presence of such love, the hate began to slip away.
According to Jesus’ prayer, love is a must. We are all so loved by God and in that love we discover the possibility of loving one another. When we in the church of Jesus Christ love one another as we have been loved by God, then we become a powerful witness to the world. Our love for one another reveals, to the world, the glory of God, and that is what we are all about in the church, the glorification of God for the redemption of humankind. So, as we look for unity in the church, we might look for organizational unity, or we might look for a unity of theological beliefs, but the one unity that we cannot overlook is the unity of love. For, that is the unity which glorifies God and reveals the grace of Jesus Christ. The unity of love is the unity that protects our diversity, but still draws us unto one another because we have been drawn to God. Jesus’ prayer for us is that we may be one, as he and the Father are one, and the unity that Jesus prays for is the unity of love.