After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people,[a] to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
If you have ever struggled with the problem of unanswered prayer, you are in good company. Today we heard one of Jesus’ two un-answered prayers. Jesus prayed both of them in the same evening: the second, when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing that his arrest and execution were imminent, and he prayed, “Father, let this cup pass from me…..” As you know, the cup of suffering did not pass from him. But God did answer his next prayer in the same breath: “not my will be done, but yours.”
The other unanswered prayer of Jesus was the one we just heard, “that they may be one as we are one.” That was his prayer for his disciples, a prayer for unity, like that unity which Jesus the Son knows with his Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit. Now, how do I square that prayer for unity with what Wikipedia says, that currently there are around 38,000 Christian denominations worldwide?
If unity means a perfect uniformity of opinion on everything, then we would all have to be God, for only God knows the entire truth of any matter. As for us mortals, we’ll have to wait for the day when we no longer see through a glass dimly, when we shall “know as we are known,” by God. If Jesus was praying for a complete unity of authority and accountability and organization for his church, such that all Christians report through the very same hierarchy to Rome or to Elkhart, Indiana, that hardly strikes me as either possible or necessary. Jesus is the head of the church, so his headquarters are in our hearts, and our midst.
Now, we could say that Jesus’ prayer for our complete unity in opinion and organization will have its fulfillment in the next world, when our prayer, “On earth, as it is in heaven,” is finally answered. I’m not aware that there will be separate seating for Catholics, Protestants and others at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, nor that there will be any segregated neighborhoods in the New Jerusalem. Yet I believe that even before then, here and now, there can be a unity among Christians that goes deeper than the differences of opinion, or of denominational labels, or other labels like “progressive” or “conservative,” “left” or “right,” even “Protestant, Catholic, Anabaptist or Orthodox,” by which we identify and divide ourselves. Compared to this deeper unity that I have in mind, these other labels and differences strike me increasingly as superficial, incomplete and often misleading.
In the absence of complete uniformity of opinion and organization, I still see two kinds of unity possible for us. Jesus himself exhibited the first kind of unity even as he prayed for our unity. It’s a unity of focus and of faith in God. As Jesus draws near to his Heavenly Father in prayer, he brings us in prayer along with him. As we then draw nearer to him in prayer and worship, so do we also draw nearer to everyone else who is drawing nearer to him. Our unity with each other, in Christ, is like that of the spokes in a bicycle wheel. As they get closer to the hub or the axle of the wheel do the spokes also get closer to each other. But if the spokes should try to draw closer together anywhere else besides the hub at their center, that wheel is going to wobble off track; it will need retuning. In a similar way, it is in drawing closer to Christ that we find ourselves drawing closest to each other.
So if some visitor from a distant galaxy were to drop in on our planet and start poking around among all the places people gather in the world, he would be struck by the differences between what he saw happening in a cathedral in Rome and what he saw in a Pentecostal church in Jamaica, or in an African independent church, where everyone dances during worship, or an Amish church, where they are most definitely not dancing. Those are very different experiences and expressions indeed. But give that visitor a little time and he would also be struck by the similarities: they are all expressing love and loyalty to the same Lord. Maybe hearing them all saying the Lord’s Prayer, as they drew nearer to Jesus, using the very words of Jesus, most powerfully demonstrated their underlying unity with each other. So, we are most in union with each other not when we are trying to draw closer to each other, but when we are looking to Christ and drawing closer to him.
As for the second kind of unity, that was the point of that drama you just heard, about the monks treating each other as though they were Christ. It’s a kind of unity that struck me when our family lived in the Detroit metropolitan area, some twenty-five years ago. That area has so many different ethnic and religious groups that everyone in the world must have at least a distant relative there. You think that would make it very hard to get everyone on the same page, and the Detroit metro area does have a lot of bad history around race and labor.
While trying to plant a church there, I offered some community education classes on things like West African cultural influences and some peace-making and communication classes. I also proposed an evening session on “our diverse city,” to highlight and celebrate the diverse ethnic heritages of the Detroit metro area. That class never happened. For one thing, only one person signed up for it. For another thing, I realized there was some serious intellectual confusion built into it that I had not thought through very well. At the same time that I was exploring and celebrating the ethnic diversity of the Detroit metro area, there was a rash of car-jackings. That had nothing to do with Detroit’s ethnic diversity: the perpetrators and the victims came from all of Detroit’s different ethnic and racial groups. It was a crime of opportunity, not identity.
But there was a kind of diversity I had not reckoned on: a diversity of values, not of people. Some evidently thought it was okay to stick a gun in someone’s face and to steal their car; their victims generally did not. Here was where I could no longer say, “Celebrate diversity,” and “Hey, different strokes for different folks!” I caught myself in the logically ridiculous position of saying, “Let’s celebrate diversity, but not that kind of diversity.”
Then I realized that what I was really celebrating were only the diverse ways that these diverse ethnic groups and cultures in the area observed and embodied a few same key values for treating each other: with love, respect for person and property, with covenants and commitments to family, community, and the generations past, present and future; and to telling each other the truth. Where our daughters went to school, monthly meetings of the PTA looked like a general assembly of the United Nations, but that was because they all valued their children and education. The same with the city council meetings and the neighborhood watches: all these different kinds of people united to support their neighborhoods and protect each other’s persons and property. They had different cuisines, but they all liked enjoying good food in good company. So our diversity of customs and colors and cultures and cuisine all pointed to a unity of values around how we expected to be treated, and how we were expected to treat each other, like with the monks in that little monastery in today’s drama. If I were to offer such a class again, I would start with the few values that make a community work, and then highlight the different ways we live them out.
That’s also the kind of unity that Jesus was also praying for: that we his disciples would be united in our commitment to show love, respect, care and compassion for each other, like what he showed for them, and like what we saw in the drama a few moments ago. That kind of unity we can have even if we are not in agreement about all matters of doctrine, politics or ethics. We can still always unite around a commitment to Christ, and a commitment to treat each other like Christ treats us, and like we would treat Christ. And that’s what we see in Bridging Cultures Canby: a unity of a few key values among culturally diverse people, especially, the value we share of valuing each other. In that way, this prayer of Jesus for our unity is being answered today, right before our eyes, in our partnership and fellowship with Bridging Cultures.
If the world could have achieved this kind of unity on its own, we would have, already. And we would not have needed Jesus. But it is he who makes this kind of unity more possible than it would have been without him. If we would then draw nearer to our neighbors, and to each other, seeking a unity of care, commitment and compassion, let’s keep drawing near to the One who is drawing all people to himself, to unite us with his Heavenly Father through His Holy Spirit. Such unity is possible for us, more and more, until the day it is perfect, complete and eternal.