The Most Abused Bible Passage
Tell anyone that your church practices closed Communion; state that all churches are not the same, and this Bible passage will be mentioned. "Jesus wants His people to be one." This passage is the justification for joint prayer services, pastors preaching from each other's pulpits, and inviting everyone to Communion. "Jesus prayed for us to become one." Of course, the worse abusers of this passage are you and me. We think the oneness of the Church is impossible, not worth working for, or to be feared. Therefore, let us repent and take Jesus' prayer seriously.
Jesus is specific about the unity He prays for among His people. He asks that they may be one "even as We are one." Note the as.' As' indicates analogy not identity. Jesus doesn't pray for Christians to have the same union that is between the Father and the Son. He prays that we might have a similar one. Unity between the Father and the Son is one of nature from eternity. There never has been, never could be disunity with them. The unity among sinful Christians can only be by grace. It takes a miracle. That is why Jesus prays for it.
So this unity we're to desire and seek among Christians is to be like that between Father and Son. Do the Father and the Son teach different things, do different things, will different things? No, Jesus says in John all that the Father says, does, and wills is what He says, does, and wills. Jesus and the Father don't teach or think differently about what Baptism does or who should be Baptized. They don't teach or think differently about how one comes to faith or what it means to be saved by grace. Christians are to seek a unity like theirs where we think, teach, and will the same thing.
How's this possible where Christians hold to their denominational beliefs stubbornly? Isn't the only hope for unity in agreeing to disagree? This is the model of the World Council of Churches. People will not accept this model in earthly, relatively unimportant things like sports or politics, yet they accept it in the eternal realm of religion. What true UT or Aggie fan would agree that the other's belief in their school being the better of the two is just as valid as their own? What devout Republican or Democrat believes the political platform of the other is just as good, just as true as their's? Yet, in the realm of the religious this is exactly what most people believe.
Is this how it is with the Father and the Son? Do they agree to disagree? In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that the brimming cup of suffering your sins deserve be taken from His lips. He did not want to drink it. But He prayed, "Not as I will but as you do Father." And the Father willed that the Son drink the cup filled with the pain, the hell, and punishment you deserve. If they had agreed to disagree, the Son would've walked away from the cross, and the Father would've hung you on it. And you'd be hanging there to this day sweating blood and tears drop by drop eternally paying for your sins.
That didn't happen because the Father and the Son don't agree to disagree. They don't have that kind of union. And they don't have a forced union either, as if unity is the highest goal and must happen no matter what, even by force. People think this when they hear Jesus praying for us to become one. That's not what Jesus prays. He prays that we be one. When you hear Jesus praying for us to become one, you start to feel guilty. You think that above truth and falsehood, above right and wrong, above salvation itself (because a false or wrong teaching can never lead a person toward salvation anymore than a false or wrong direction can get you to the right place) there must be unity. You feel guilty. You become one because Jesus said so.
You're forcing what Jesus isn't praying for. He isn't praying for us to become what we aren't, but to be what we are. There is only one faith, one hope, one Baptism, one Lord, one Gospel, one Spirit. At no point in your life have you confessed to believe in any but the holy, Christian Church." In the Nicene Creed you've always said you believe "in one holy Christian and Apostolic Church." The problem is that amid the schisms, heresies, and falsehoods that rend the Church you can't see or sense the oneness, so you think it's not there.
Jesus says it is. The oneness of the Church is as real and true as the unity of the Father and the Son. What Jesus prays for is that this already existing unity continues in the face of the devil, the world, and our flesh that work against it. Jesus prays that we be the one body of Christ we are. He prays that we be the one loaf He has made us from the many grains of wheat.
So if we are one how do we be one? The basis for our unity isn't emotion, but the name of God. Jesus prays, "Holy Father keep them in Your name in order that they may be one even as We are one." Jesus doesn't pray for Barney friendship to exist among Christians. You know, "I love you; you love me; we're one big happy family." The issue of unity is not whether we like each other. The boundaries of our unity aren't the limits of our puny human hearts. The boundaries are as big and broad as the name of God. We are one with all who share the name of God whether they are black, white, rich, poor, male, female, Republican, Democrat, Longhorns or Aggies.
Picture a fence around a piece of property with signs on the fence. "T & D Cattle Company" they read. That means everything within the fence belongs to T & D Cattle Company. Whatever is outside of the fence T & D Cattle Company has no claim to. In fact, if you try to make T & D Cattle Company responsible for what's outside their fence, they'll have none of it. Neither would you. You get angry at, might even sue, someone who puts your name on what is not yours.
The unity of the Church is based on the name of God that Jesus prays we be kept in. The boundaries of the unity are the name of God. They can't be broader than that because God no more accepts responsibility for what is outside of His name than you or T & D Cattle Company. If I am bounded by the name of God, then I can't claim union with what is outside of His name. I can't pull up the fence with God's name on it and put it around whatever I like or the people whom I'm friends with.
When any church claims a teaching is from the Bible, they're saying it's within the fence with God's name on it. We claim baptizing babies, Jesus' real presence in Communion, and praying only to the true God not Allah, Mary, or the saints are all teachings within God's fence. Other churches say these are outside the fence. Still others say His fence is big enough to cover both teachings. But no one has permission to put's God's name on opposing things. No one has permission to move His fence wherever they feel like it. You'd be angry if I did that to you; don't think God is any different.
There is only one, holy Christian Church. Jesus prays that we be one by being kept in God's name. So there's the limit of the unity we are to seek and express. How's this different than the Church of Christ claiming if you're not part of them you're outside of the Church? How's this different than the Catholic Church insisting all Christians belong under the pope? Is our yardstick only what we say the Bible says? Is our yardstick no more than our opinions? Is our yardstick an outward form?
Our yardstick is not what we say the Bible says. This is what sectarian splinter groups say, and this is what many of you think we teach. We are right because we know what every Bible passage means. No our yardstick to measure the boundaries of unity is not our being right but what God says makes a person righteous before Him. Actually, all churches use this yardstick. It's just that they believe different things make a person righteous before God.
For example, church's that believe righteousness is knowing what 100% of the Bible means have fellowship based on their being right and everyone else being wrong. This is not us. Other churches believe righteousness before God consists in doing the right thing. These people look for unity with anyone who does what they do. They have unity with all who feed the hungry, help the poor, or do good in society. Still other churches believe righteousness before God consists in being sincere, spiritual, tolerant. Wherever they sense or see this spirit, they embrace it. They unite with it. All churches seek unity based on what they believe makes a person righteous before God.
So do we, but we believe what makes us righteous before God is only Jesus. His holy, spotless life. His shedding His innocent blood to cover our sins. Our being correct about what a Bible passage says doesn't make us righteous. Our works don't make us righteous. Our good vibrations don't make us righteous. Only Jesus does. So our fellowship, our unity is found where He is. And Jesus is found where the Gospel is purely preached and the Sacraments are administered as He instructed. Someone preaching a Gospel that doesn't freely forgive all sins or is based on your decision has jumped across the fence. Someone refusing to administer baptism to babies or the Body and Blood of Jesus in Communion has jumped across the fence. They have went outside God's name. I can't agree to disagree. In Christian love, I must testify to their fence jumping.
It's not about us being right and their being wrong. It's about our righteousness, our salvation being in no other name other than the true God's. I can like fence jumpers. I can do business with them. I can even cooperate in social works with them, but I can't claim we're on the same side of the fence. The name of God won't let me. Doing so is also an abuse of this Bible passage. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter VII (20060528); John 17: 11b