There is something in the spiritual DNA of the human being that divides, pushes away, sets up barriers. Our natural inclination seems to be sectarian.Perhaps Fredrick Buechner put it well, “The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left. "The wages of sin is death" is Saint Paul's way of saying the same thing.
We experience this consequence of our human weakness in every area of society. From the fanaticism of sports teams to political parties to races to religions to Christian denominations we push each other out, we create others and them. I find myself doing it so easily in my own life. I put distance between myself and other individuals. I become loyal to certain groupings to the point of being prejudiced against other individuals and groups.
In recent weeks I have been surmising the words of Jesus in John 17; “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” When I preached on this chapter recently my sermon concentrated on the words, “I have given them the glory that you gave me…” It is a remarkable phrase. What has lingered with me though has been the reason why Jesus gives his followers his glory - “that they may be as one as we are one…”
Jesus redemption has a powerful reversal effect on our pushing others away. Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 2“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Putting to death hostility was one of the resurrection victories of the cross!
I surmise all this because somehow it is not common thinking in the Christianity I have been nurtured in. Instead of revealing this powerful work of Christ’s death and resurrection we in Christendom seem to have negated Christ’s impact. Christian missional organisations seem to be hesitant rather than eager to work together. Local Churches tend to be ignore one another and at times seem competitive rather than collaborative partners and this is even rife within the same denominations.
In my own spiritual nurture, ecumenism was literally a bad word. I can remember the situation I was in when I first heard the word in a positive context and it like the feeling of culture shock; strange and unsettling. As I surmised John 17 this past while I have been much more unsettled. I am looking for evidence that this intention and command of Jesus is not being ignored and flagrant disobedience.
Now, I am not talking about one big feely weely Church that dilutes what everyone believes and in some limp hippy way says we are all the same. Indeed, I don’t think that that is why Jesus prayed the prayer. He knew we would be different, coming at Scripture and the outworking of his words in different ways. He knew we would all find faith in different cultural situations and concentrate on different aspects of the faith as a result. He was not praying that we would give up our differences but that we would learn to live with them and love each other as one big family as a result. So I am asking in what ways are we open to oneness with our Christian brothers and sisters? Surely this is something that should be being revealed in our personal relationships, in local Church communities, across our denominations and between denominations.
Now, we might think that the reason Jesus would give his people his glory would be for missional purposes, not ecumenical ones. Well, actually the end result of our unity will be just that; “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is a slight variance on Jesus words in this same section of John when in chapter 13 he tells his disciples “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I have heard time and time again how Northern Ireland is one of the biggest hindrances to world evangelism. Our divisions is a declaration across the world that Christianity doesn’t work. John 17 is a clear Biblical exposition as to why. If Northern Irish Christians across our divides took this pivotal prayer of Jesus seriously and began to answer it by breaking down the barriers of our hostility then Jesus tells us, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”