As I am growing older, I am also growing in the conviction that we are meant to become part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “that they may all be one….” We are called to live the Christian life in a way that contributes (if only a small piece) to the fulfillment of Christ’s dream.
I lived through the time when Christian ecumenism was in the forefront, with its interpretation and tireless efforts to create mergers and unions of all kinds. The definition of ecumenism in those days largely revolved around sociological and institutional oneness.
Time has shown that those efforts, while noble, were largely unsuccessful. Christianity remains very divided institutionally. There doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that this is going to change, and I have come to believe that it is because we misunderstood what “ecumenism” means theologically and what “oneness” meant in the prayer of Jesus.
I now believe that we become “one” when we no longer allow the beliefs of other Christians to keep us from being able to fellowship with them. Jesus was not praying for the elimination of differences; he was praying for the elimination of barriers.
Christians have always had—and will always have—their differences. We can trace them all the way back into the apostles themselves. When they are not dysfunctional or heretical, they play a vital service in the church, by showing the richness of the faith. We would all be the poorer if the whole church were like any one of us.
Jesus was not praying that differences would disappear. He was praying that differences would not prevent the formation of Christian community.
I have my preferences, and you have yours. Some of them are rooted in identifiable faith traditions. Some of them have become deep convictions. But if we are to become “answers” to Jesus’ prayer, we will not allow any of them to prevent us from having fellowship with all others who claim to be Christ followers.
I think Jesus provided the paradigm in the prayer itself, rooting “oneness” in the Trinity—unity which does not cancel out distinctiveness. Life, which does not require lock-step conformity to everything. Oneness which says, “I believe, and you believe. Let’s believe together.”