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That They May Be One (John 17:6-19)

by F. Dean Lueking

In 1998 F. Dean Lueking was teaching at the Lutheran seminary in Bratislava, Slovakia. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 23-30, 1997, p. 407, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."

Jesus prayed these words in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal, knowing that crucifixion would follow with the coming sunrise. The words are part of his final words, and final words have a history of being intense, focused and passionate. So it was with Jesus. Never before had the disciples heard him pray like this.

That they may be one. For this he would sweat blood, endure mockery and freely lay down his life. To make this brief prayer efficacious, he would rise in Easter glory and in the power of the Holy Spirit be permanently in the world, gathering into "one" the whole people of God. One shepherd, as he had promised, and one flock would follow. The apostolic messengers would proclaim one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, in whom all those made new in the Easter Lord are no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or gentile, but one in Christ Jesus.

This passage from John is Jesus prayer for what the Father will do for the world through his risen Son through the church. It is not a declaration of what is, but intercession for what shall be. It is not a blueprint for how the oneness will take form, but a plea for the Father’s strong name to protect those who are in the world, hated by the world, yet up to the task (read "sanctified") of doing mission with joy and hope.

Where are we now as we hear that they may be one?

"Are there many Christians out there losing sleep over the scandal of division?" church historian Clifford Nelson has asked. Where are today’s counterparts to the giants who gave us the ecumenical building blocks toward unity in faith and order, life and work of the church: Visser t’ Hooft, Niles, Nygren, Lilje, Newbigin, John XXIII and others who took Jesus’ prayer to heart?

One answer is -- to look in new locations. Look, for example, at Promise Keepers as a demonstration of the Spirit’s pull toward unity in a different way for a different time. Yet another demonstration appears when the Joseph Bernardins of Christendom and the Herman Schaalmans of Judaism publicly seek the common ground of unity that lies in the mystery of the covenants at Sinai and Calvary. And it would be shortsighted to pass over all those ecumenical laborers who work globally and locally in councils and conferences to embody the oneness for which Jesus prayed. 

Nevertheless, that they may be one still haunts as well as inspires. It is wearisome, deadly wearisome, to endure church battles that split not once but repeatedly. The blight of triumphalism, of power games, and the obsession with always being right still throw up huge, offensive roadblocks against Jesus’ prayer. Such sin drags us back to the Upper Room, to dull disciples among whom we now sit, to the grief of our Lord over our tearing apart the seamless robe of unifying love in which he would wrap us.

Yet he comes to us with Easter’s treasure. The tilt of that they may be one is ever forward, toward the coming day when he will bring to fullness the unity we now know in part. Despite the sins which splinter, he protects his own with the Father’s name. The outcome of that they may be one is in his strong hands. There is neither time nor reason for despair.

It is Easter in the church. The Lord Jesus lives to draw us to himself and therefore to each other. We are given signs to read and follow. The ecumenical community at Taizé, that "little springtime" in southeastern France, keeps leavening people across the world for the unity that comes through prayer and worship. The late Henri Nouwen’s ministry brought people together within and outside the faith in the risen Lord he served so winsomely. Madeleine L’Engle’s spiritual gifts are spread wide and deep across every denominational barrier.

Cardinal Bernardin, teacher of life amidst death, was another witness to that they may be one: his legacy blesses us in ways we’ve only begun to recognize. Billy Graham keeps on keeping on as the Word-bearer to millions who enter into Jesus’ prayer by sin confessed and gospel embraced. Above all, week after week in place after place, people gather for the nurture that unifies and equips them for daily mission in the world.

Each hearer and doer of this Easter reading has stories to tell. Mine include 20 years of a weekly gathering with eight or more for breakfast, prayer and an hour with lectionary readings. Diverse as we are denominationally, we attend to the Word and find there a unifying power like no other. My puzzlement over why such weekly oases are not more common was eased when I traveled to another city to preach. There I learned of 17 Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy whose weekly time for breakfast, prayer and textual study is life-giving for ministries that take on poverty, crime, drugs and AIDS.

Such stories beg for hearing and handing on in the mission that is inseparable from the unity for which Jesus prayed. In the name of his Son, God is packing and delivering the power that reconciles and unites what otherwise lies broken.

The prayer that Christ prayed in the Upper Room is still heard. Christ prays ceaselessly for and through the church to the world -- that they may be one, as we are one.


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