”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” (John 17:20-21a).
There’s not much talk of ecumenism these days—not in books, not on blogs, not even in and among churches. Maybe that’s because forty years of dogged efforts at dialogue and mutual understanding have borne some real fruit: Calvinists are far less suspicious of Catholics than they used to be and vice versa; Methodists and Lutherans are now in full communion with one another.
Of course, the ecclesial traditions most vested in the ecumenical movement are now among those experiencing significant decline, and the growing churches—Pentecostal, non-denominational, “emergent” of this or that variety—don’t seem to place the same high premium on bridge-building and cross-over conversations. So maybe it’s too soon to say “mission accomplished” when it comes to Church unity.
Of course it is. Jesus’ prayer in this week’s Gospel reading is a stinging reminder of his Body’s continued disunity. But what can and should be said about this obstinate, obvious reality? How does one preach this familiar text in ways that signal urgency but not despair, that convey the gravity of our predicament while also offering a word of hope?
I have no idea. But here are a few thoughts . . .
1. The oneness for which Jesus prayed is rooted not in human achievement but in the life of the triune God. The unity between the Father and Son, which is their mutual self-giving (perichoresis) in the Spirit, is the same love by which the ekklesia exists (“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize [actualize]; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
2. The unity of the Church does not subsist invisibly through “faith” or by assent to propositions, but is to be visible and material. The reason for oneness is “that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Unity is shared witness not intellectual agreement.
3. It is the Eucharist that constitutes this unifying witness in the world. Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the community receives itself—it becomes the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is the whole body—“the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said. The Church is–there and then, here and now–the visible body of its Lord. And this visible body does not express or evince the Church’s unity; it is the Church’s unity.
But the Church is divided. Still. John probably included Jesus’ prayer in his Gospel because of doctrinal strife in his own community. Discord then and now. Yet while the scandal of disunity persists, Jesus prays for us still. This is the good news. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility to practice the unity that is the triune God’s and that is God’s gift to us.
How will Christ’s body, divided by differences both petty and consequential, receive this gift and bear visible, material witness to God’s own life and love?