Read John 17:20–26.
There’s an old Irish proverb that says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” When folks come together in community, a place of protection and belonging is created. It’s no less magical than if a large and stable house were to erupt out of the earth spontaneously with rooms for all. Unity is a beautiful thing, and it should mark the people of God.
The key word in that last sentence is should. We all know that unity isn’t a foregone conclusion when Christians get together. Since the early centuries of the church, there have been splits and schisms, rifts and divisions. The apostle Paul wrote about one of the earliest squabbles:
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:11–13)
The sin within each of us acts as centrifugal force on our relationships, always threatening to pull us apart and put space between us. It never relents and, if left unchecked, division is the natural result. Unity is something we need to work for. It is not a given. That’s why Jesus prayed for His followers, that they might live in unity, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21).
If there was any doubt that Christ’s desire is to see unity among all of His people, across the world and down through the centuries with no exceptions, He says, “My prayer is not for them alone [the eleven disciples]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” (v. 20). But with billions of people and just as many unique backgrounds and experiences, how is that sort of togetherness even possible?
It’s not. At least not without the power of God.
We will never find common ground on our own. We will never bridge the gaps between us through hard work or some masterful relationship-building exercise. We will never come together through compromise or by attempting to meet in the middle. It will take something deeper and stronger to bring us all together. Before we can feel connected to one another, we must first live as people connected to God. Jesus prays to the Father, “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (v. 23).
I recognize that if you were to ask a hundred Christians whether or not they are connected to God, exactly one hundred would answer with an emphatic “Yes!” even though the unity we crave—and Jesus desires—remains out of reach. Certainly, by virtue of our salvation and the Holy Spirit who dwells inside of us, every believer is united with Christ and, by extension, with God the Father. But what Jesus is talking about here is an active, ongoing, daily connection, in which the hearts of believers grow more like the heart of the Father with each passing year.
A few years back, in an interview about Scripture’s place in the life of the believer, Bible teacher and author Jen Wilkin said something that has stuck with me: “The closer we get to the text, the more we’ll move toward agreement on the things that matter most—and the more we’ll deal charitably with one another on the other matters of conviction and preference, too.”* Although the Bible itself seems to be a battleground for different traditions and denominations, it doesn’t have to be. The problem is not that we have spent too much time with our noses in our holy book; it’s that we haven’t spent enough.
Wilkin’s point is that the Bible is the breathed out Word of God, and so, if we want to know the heart of the Father, we must know the Bible. The more we all read it, study it, meditate on it, and live by it, the more we will find we’re walking in step with one another, because we’re walking in step with the Lord.
Will there be tough passages over which we disagree? Absolutely. But if we’re truly digging into the Word as students of history, literature, language, and the story of redemption—if we’re leaning in to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice, doing our best to set aside our own ideas about what we want Scripture to say—we will find humility in the journey.** We’ll discover that godly people may, at times, view certain passages differently than we do, and that it’s oftentimes okay. We’ll find we can, and should, offer grace to our brothers and sisters when it comes to non-essential matters of the faith, and we’ll be able to better discern just what those non-essential matters are.
Jesus has already said, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (v. 17). The truth doesn’t just change minds; it changes hearts as well. Because they are both invitations to commune with God, Scripture and prayer are pathways to receiving His love. It’s the love of God, not words on a page, that change us. And the love of the Father has been the point of it all. It’s why Jesus came. As He put it: “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (v. 26).
In the end, it will be the love of God and the presence of Jesus that bind us together. So let’s stop focusing on our differences and set our eyes on the God who loves us. All of us. All the time.
* Bronwyn Lea, “Jen Wilkin: Feeding the Church One Book at a Time,” Bible Study Magazine, May/June 2019, https://www.biblestudymagazine.com/mayjune-2019-article-1.
** I’m not talking about digging into systematic theology or the teachings of certain popular Bible teachers, though those things have their place. I’m talking about getting back to the book that is supposed to be the source of our training in righteousness: the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). Let’s do our best to cut out the middle man, or at the very least, follow him back to the Scriptures. Otherwise, there’s the danger we’ll end up with a situation like the one in Paul’s day. To paraphrase, “One of you says, ‘I follow Calvin’; another, ‘I follow Luther’; and still another, ‘I follow Wesley.’” Or perhaps, “‘I follow MacArthur’; another, ‘I follow Johnson’; and still another, ‘I follow Stanley.’”