Together for a purpose
It’s just hours before Jesus goes to the cross. The crowds have gone away and he’s left with his small band of disciples, painfully conscious that he is soon to leave these friends with whom he has spent the past three years.
Turning his head towards heaven, he prays to his Father. And, in this prayer that captures the heartbeat of Jesus, he talks to his Father not just about his disciples, but also about their followers.
“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,” he says in John 17.
It’s so important to him, he says it again: “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.”
Reading this prayer is a ‘wow’ moment for me. In the hours before his death, Jesus is praying for us. He is praying that somehow we may be caught up in the relationship, the intimacy, which is there within the Godhead.
Back in the first century, as the early church fathers struggled to describe the Godhead before they adopted the word Trinity, one of the metaphors they used for their relationship was a ‘dance of intimate relationship’. Father, Son and Spirit have always been a community together. Out of that community, they made a decision to make human beings in their own image. And in this prayer, Jesus wants us to express that intimacy, that community in our relationships with each other.
Whenever I talk to Christians about unity, they always respond with an immediate “Yes!” Then, there is usually a pause, followed by, “But…”
The thing is, unity is not always easy. We know that God is about unity, but we also know that it’s hard at a local level, in the context of our community of faith. Relationships get difficult, we misinterpret each other and things don’t work out as we had hoped. And what’s true locally can also be true nationally and internationally. Sadly, the history of the church is that we’ve not done this thing called unity well.
So where do we start?
I don’t believe that when Jesus is praying here he’s talking about an institutional unity, but about relational unity, about us as the family of God. That doesn’t mean he is calling us into uniformity – thank God. He has made us different, and that is something to be celebrated. We are different in how we do worship, how we do preaching, how we open scripture, how we interpret scripture, but we’re still family.
Nor is Jesus calling for us to have unity for the sake of unity. After his plea to his Father for us to be one, he says: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you loved me.”
My experience is that when we try to do unity just for the sake of unity we end up with what often the church does really well: committees. And God save us from those!
This is unity for a purpose. There’s something in our unity that connects us with the mission of God. It seems there’s almost a spiritual principle at work, that in our unity our mission is more effective. The purpose Jesus is talking about here is to do with our relationship as God’s people with the world – in fact, he talks about the world 18 times in this prayer.
Over the years, I’ve been involved with a few things that have taken me beyond simply my tradition of church, the Pioneer network. First, there was March for Jesus in the 80’s and 90’s, which ended up with people out on the streets praying, from all different traditions. Sixty million people from 180 different countries were involved, and that prayer was amazing.
Soul in the City and HOPE also saw all kinds of Christians coming together in mission, out on the streets. The HOPE strapline is: “Do more together, in word and action” and in 2008 we saw this happening in 1,500 locations across the UK.
From the acceleration of Street Pastors around the country, to more than 200 schools in Manchester running school missions, to 15 kids cleaning a community centre just outside Leicester in 2008 – HOPE was, and continues to be, an amazing example of the Church making a difference, together.
I am sensing we are at a pivotal moment of time here in the UK. Over the past two years, there has been an erosion of confidence in some of the institutions we’ve taken for granted. Look at the financial institutions, at everything that happened with the credit crunch, high street banks incredibly close to insolvency. Big business has fared no better, with BP spending months unable to plug an oil leak at the bottom of the sea.
Look at the democratic institutions, and all that has taken place at Westminster with the expenses scandal – an erosion of confidence in those we elect to represent us in parliament. And look even at the religious institutions. We can’t ignore what some have described as an institutionalised cover-up of abuse of children that took place in the Catholic Church.
So people are asking questions, good questions, about what kind of society we want. They’re also asking questions about some of the philosophies that have been brought to us in the 20th century - about secular humanism, the philosophy that we can live our lives without any regard for a deity or spiritual things. Then there’s consumerism, which promised we could buy happiness, so we filled our houses up with stuff, but ended up feeling that actually, life’s not quite what we hoped for.
All these questions give us an amazing opportunity, as God’s people in the places we live and work, to engage in a conversation about the things that really matter. There’s a real opportunity for us to show people that there’s a God in heaven who loves them and sent Jesus out of his love for them.
I was down in Wales a few weeks ago with a couple who lead a church in a really tough part of Swansea. They told me a story about an Alpha course they were running in a community centre.
There was a small group of people sitting in a circle, one of whom, called Donna, was deaf in one ear, and was struggling to hear the speaker. She was getting frustrated, so my friend offered to pray for her.
They prayed together and immediately she could hear. You can imagine the impact that had on that Alpha group. Three people became Christians straight away – though interestingly not Donna, who was in such a state of shock it took her about a month!
This prayer is about Donna, and others like her, who needs to know there is a God who loves her so much he wants to heal her.
I sense the church of Jesus Christ has got a song that it needs to sing, and that the world needs to hear. It’s a song of forgiveness, it’s a song of hope, it’s a song of freedom, it’s a song of welcome, it’s a song of acceptance, it’s a song of grace.
This song isn’t Methodist, Anglican, Baptist or Pentecostal. It’s not white or black, middle or working class, young or old. It’s truly the song of heaven. It’s the song that God’s given the Church and we need to sing it, in all of our diversity, with a passionate commitment to a God in heaven who sent Jesus and loves people.
As we sing it, we can see the prayer of Jesus, that amazing prayer that has echoed throughout 2,000 years, answered together
Steve Clifford is general director of the Evangelical Alliance and chair of HOPE Together.
METConnexion spring 2011 pp 12&15