From Pastor Dave Delaney
John 17:11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
It would be nice if, on this inauguration day, we could experience just a little bit of national unity and for just a moment celebrate a common heritage and vision - the remarkable phenomenon of orderly government transition that has happened now more than 40 times in this country's history. It would also be nice if, on this Martin Luther King day, we could experience just a little bit of cultural and racial unity and for just a moment recapture Dr. King's admonition that we really do not have to engage in violence in order to address our societal stratification. We may each decide whether we are optimists, pessimists, or something else regarding the likelihood of either of those things happening. What, however, is our outlook regarding the third large public observance of this week - the hope for Christian unity? We Lutherans, along with nearly every other church body in the world, observe a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Jan. 18 (The Confession of St. Peter) to Jan. 25 (The Conversion of St. Paul), and we have been doing so for more than a hundred years. It would be nice if we could experience just a little bit of that unity, but is it any more likely to happen than the other two?
The answer to that question depends perhaps on how we approach the task. Historically, the centerpiece reading for this ecumenical week of devotion is John 17, Jesus' so-called "high priestly prayer" which he offered during his Last Supper with his disciples. Notice, however, that Jesus does not exactly pray *directly* for the unity of his followers. In that long prayer, he actually prays for four or five (depending on how you count) interwoven things with several interwoven goals in mind. At the beginning he prays for his own glorification (vss. 1-11a), in the middle he prays for his followers' protection (vss. 11b-16), and for their sanctification (vss. 17-19), then finally he prays for his followers to be "in us" (vs. 21), where the "us" is Jesus and his Father. All references to the oneness of his followers appear as goals or byproducts of the things for which he is praying. In other words, because Jesus earnestly desires our unity, he doesn't simply pray for unity, he prays for these things that he knows will *lead* to unity.
Jesus' four requests are not things we might instinctively pray for if we were imagining Christian unity as the goal. We might pray for good, politically skilled church leaders (a perfectly legitimate inauguration day prayer!). We might pray for a solution to the social and ecclesial ills that perpetuate racial, cultural, ideological, and doctrinal divisions (a splendid MLK day prayer!). We might just pray directly for unity - I pray like that a lot, so it would come naturally to me: "God, please just skip all the stuff about repentance and mutual submission and *fix* this!" And yet we know the pitfalls of praying and acting that way: Our quest for unity risks becoming a series of political negotiations or a process of social power brokering, not an exercise in spiritual discipline directed toward the same oneness enjoyed by the Father and the Son in their mutual Spirit, which is what it should be.
Instead, why not actually imitate our Lord in both word and deed: during this week, concentrate on glorifying him in all things, be alert to the constant and protective vigilance of God over the tasks we have been given, see the holiness of every action of the day and every bit of creation we encounter, and - above all - desire that all relationships should be as thoroughly self-giving as that which exists within the little community of the Trinity. Hours, days, and years could be expended simply unpacking the implications of Jesus' four-petition prayer in John 17. How, for example, would God's protection guide us toward a common identity and common life? That is not immediately clear, but Jesus must have meant something by it, and this week is the ideal time to begin that process of reflection.
Are we hopeful that we might someday experience just a bit of the unity among Christians that Jesus desired for us? If so, then let us join him - and all Christians everywhere - in prayer for these things.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love towards me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seek my life, and they do not set you before them. But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving-maid. (Psalm 86:11-16)
For a downloadable pamphlet with resources for the Week or Prayer for Christian Unity, visit www.oikumene.org.