Relational Unity

Written by Alan Rouse, May 29, 2021

Here is holy ground; here is the gate of heaven. No such prayer was ever heard before or since. It could only be uttered by the Lord and Savior of men, the mighty Intercessor and Mediator, standing between heaven and earth before his wondering disciples. Even he could pray it only once, in the most momentous crisis of history, in full view of the approaching sacrifice for the sins of the world, which occurred only once, though its effect vibrates through the ages. — B. W. Johnson, The Sunday School Helper

The prayer of Jesus in John 17 is a priceless treasure for Christians. In it, we learn what was most important to our Savior on the evening before he went to the cross.

Jesus prayed asking that his Father protect the disciples so that they might be one. And he prayed for that oneness so that the world might believe the gospel of Jesus. The oneness of the disciples was of surpassing importance to Jesus on this momentous occasion, and therefore it must also be so for his followers.

So, what kind of oneness did Jesus have in mind?
The entire prayer centers around relationships. First, Jesus referred to the relationship he had with the Father before the world began. He defined eternal life as knowing the Father and his Son. He had come to reveal the Father to the disciples, and he had completed that work. He had lived with them and had protected them. Now he was leaving them, and he was concerned for their continued spiritual safety. He wanted them to share his joy. He wanted them to be set apart from the world, for a sanctified relationship with the Father. Indeed, the Lord’s prayer was all about relationships.

Then Jesus spoke of those who would believe because of the apostles’ message. Jesus wanted us to be one, in the same way as the apostles, and in the same way as the Son and the Father. He has given us glory so that we can be one. That oneness would cause the world to believe. And it would show the world that the Father has loved his followers. It is all about relationships.

Jesus prayed that his followers could be with him. He wants us to share the experience of his glory — the glory that came through the relationship of love between the Father and the Son. He wants an eternal relationship of oneness.

Jesus knows the Father. He shared that with the disciples, and they came to know of the Father through Jesus. Jesus wants to continue showing us the Father so the Father’s love will be in us, and so Jesus himself will be in us.

Every phrase of Christ’s prayer was about relationships. 
He was praying for a relational unity among his followers — a unity that transcends differences among us - whether intellectual, cultural, racial, gender, or otherwise.

It is a sad fact that Christians today are far from being “one.” In fact, the lack of oneness among Christians is a primary complaint leveled against Christianity by outsiders. We should not be surprised that this has been the result of our divisions. Jesus told us in advance that we must be one so that the world would believe (John 17:23). All the world would know we are his disciples if we would simply love one another (John 13:35). But historically, Christians have chosen to quarrel and divide rather than to hold onto relational unity. Christians have disagreed on innumerable questions. When they disagreed, more often than not they chose to divide as if that were their only option. They did not find a way to rely on that relational oneness to hold them together.

Far too often, we just follow in the unfortunate footsteps of our forefathers.
The unity for which Jesus prayed is not all about technical points of doctrine. That doesn’t mean doctrine is unimportant. But it does mean we should not base our unity on detailed doctrinal agreements. Those matters are not the basis of unity. Instead, we are called to be one because Jesus is one with his Father, and because the Father and the Son have reached out to save us most amazingly. We are called to a relationship as brothers and sisters since we have been adopted by the same Father.

Jesus said that if we loved one another, the world would know that God had sent him. If we would be one, the world would believe. Could it be that today, the world does not believe, because we have not been one? That is a huge problem.

I have resolved to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. May God help me to do so.

May we be brought to complete unity to let the world know that God sent Jesus and that God loves us even as He has loved his Son. Amen!

Alan Rouse was baptized at NC State University in 1976. For many years he has advocated for greater unity within the various streams of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, at Alan is an elder, husband, father of two, and grandfather of six.