Christian Unity.....is that an oxymoron? Can there be unity among Christians when we are a very diverse people, when we think as we will, independent of any authority figure? Even when there is a person or board or group who speaks for a religious body, individual members of that body will think for oneself and will decide that the authority does not in reality speak for each member.
Even our Catholic friends who respect the authority of the Pope as one who speaks on behalf of God on many religious and moral issues will beg to differ with the Pope is they do not agree with something that he has said. His authority goes as far as their right to think individually when it comes to matters that are not specifically addressed in the Bible.
Jesus' prayer in the Gospel according to St. John in chapter 17 contains the text for this last week of Easter. Jesus prays that after he is gone back to heaven that the Father will bring unity among those who have followed him and learned from him over the years they have been together. Jesus prayed that "they may be one, as we are one." (v.22b) Unity with the Father was something that Jesus did not have to strive for once he was reunited in heaven in the Holy Trinity. Unity of humans with one another was and is another matter.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States is published regularly. It enumerates and classifies religious bodies in the United States and gives brief descriptions of the major groups. In the last edition of this book it contains listings for 29 different groups who use the word "Baptist" in their name. If one wanted to research what Baptists believe so as to join a Baptist church, then one would need to read or visit or experience many different Baptist churches in order to ascertain what it may truly mean to be a Christian with the name Baptist attached to it.
Baptists are not the only group with this distinction, however. There are also many religious groups that use the name "Church of God" in their title. One can read over the entries in the Handbook of Denominations and get the idea that Christianity is such a diverse faith that one can never be sure what a Christian truly believes. Followers of Jesus Christ have divided and subdivided so many times since the Reformation that no one religious group truly can describe what all Christians are like or should be like. Being Christian, like being American, is a unique, individual experience.
Jesus' priestly prayer, however, does not ask for persons to stop being individuals, because Jesus recognized that each of his earthly followers were unique individuals with their own temperaments and personalities. Jesus' prayer was asking God to assist these humans to be more closely connected on earth, just as Jesus would be connected to the other members of the Godhead in the heavenly realm. Jesus knew that humans would need a lot of divine intervention if they were ever going to achieve some form of unity that would overcome the frailties of human life.
That unity is seen now and then when Christians of many different flavors work together for a common goal. When Christians work to help persons during disasters such as floods or earthquakes or fires, they put aside their need to promote their unique theological or religious viewpoints and concentrate instead on showing mercy to those who need to feel God's love in a tangible way as they try to make sense of life once more. What we may believe or think about one of the tenets of our faith tradition that may make our religious group unique in the world around us is not nearly as important as helping another human who has little to eat or no place to sleep or needs medical care in order to survive. Suddenly, we are at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Food, clothing, shelter and safety trump religious dogma any day.
"That They May All Be One" is one of the mottoes of my denomination, The United Church of Christ. Even within the boundaries of this church tradition, we are a varied people. We may have mottoes to unite around but our views on moral and religious matters are as wide as the sea at times. Individual congregations have departed and joined our denomination because of our social views. So, we are an ever-changing religious body from year to years. Yet, when a disaster happens somewhere in the world, our denomination is often the first to respond with financial and practical assistance. Our Disaster Relief Team springs into action almost immediately when a need arises. Our offices at the national level send funds that we have gathered through special offerings from local churches to assist those in need throughout the world. We may not have realized the goal to "All Be One" even within the bounds of our own denomination, but we do have moments when we can see a glimpse of what it may mean to live out what Jesus prayed.
Jesus' prayer for Christian unity is an ongoing effort, a project that is always in process. As we all continue to strive for unity, we will see those occasional glimpses of what it may look like. As we work to put aside our differences in favor of the common goal, then we will see what Jesus may have been praying for so long ago. Let it be so, Lord, we pray.