Praying and Working for Christian Unity

John ArmstrongUnity of the Church

The real Lord’s Prayer, that is the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples (John 17), makes it abundantly plain that he desires the unity of all believers. The simple point made in the text is beyond serious doubt (John 17:21). There are many ways Christians have approached this text, and several major explanations have been offered and accepted, but the basic direction of the prayer cannot be in doubt. When we are in a relationship of oneness, or unity, with fellow Christians the world will believe our message. The key word here, I am convinced, is relationship. What Jesus desires is our relational oneness. The problem comes when we seek to apply this to macro issues like the unity of the whole visible Christian church. (In reality, most Christians have the real problems in how they handle everyday relationships with other believers in the same congregation!) Most evangelicals tend to give up when they get to this issue and believe they are safe by making no real effort to pray for, or concerted attempts to experience, this God-given unity. God is teaching me otherwise.

On the Catholic calendar, this week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Pope Benedict XVI is one of the finest theologians Rome has produced in our time. He is also very serious about advancing the progress made by the late John Paul II in this area. In fact, Benedict is an even better Christian ecumenist than John Paul II, at least in terms of understanding the real theological issues that still divide us. At the same time he gives thanks for what he calls “the new situation.” So do I.

Vatican Council II rightly argued that the movement toward unity belongs to the Triune God and thus it is a gift of God to his people. Benedict XVI, in a message given this past week, reasoned that Matthew 18:19 (“if two of you agree on earth”) was Jesus’ solemn assurance that his disciples can experience unity. Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism expressed the desire for a common effort for unity by saying, “Such prayers in common are certainly an effective means of obtaining the grace of unity.” Benedict reasons that when believers draw closer to the triune God they draw closer to one another.

Simply put, the place any effort at unity must always begin is in the unity of common Christian prayer. Concludes Pope Benedict: “The presence of Jesus in the community of disciples, and in our prayer, guarantees efficacy.” He refers to the present time as a “new situation” for which we should thank God and then concludes that we should “not forget that God has given us much [in recent years] on the path to unity.”

My own testimony to this process is quite simple. I once feared conversation with Catholic brothers and sisters very deeply. I had a myriad of reasons for my fears, all rooted in arguments I had learned to embrace from those who taught me out of their own fears. My study of history led me to see Catholic errors and to miss my own, and those of my own tradition. In my last year in pastoral ministry (1991-92) I preached through the Gospel of John. My last Lord’s Day ended with me in the final words of John 17. I prayed during those last months in the pastorate that God would open my eyes to His Word mroe adn more. When he did I was shocked. I wanted to run away from what I saw so plainly. I knew there would be a cost if I obeyed. There always is a cost. But an invitation to love, right from the words of Jesus, changed my life. I began to pray, “Father, lead me to your people. Show me how to love those whom you love as your Son’s bride.”

My story of a journey into knowing and loving the whole community of Christ is unfolding every day. I carry on growing friendships with theologians, priests, and ordinary Christians who come from every part of the church on earth, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. My life is being changed through this process in ways that have radically altered a number of my attitudes. My wife, and closest friends, all agree that these alterations have been for the better. My love for Christ is growing in intensity every day and my desire for Christian unity is a burden that is truly light and profoundly joyful. The opposition that I have experienced from strong Protestants has only increased my love for Christ. And by that love for Christ I believe that I have come to love the whole church, including those who speak ill of my journey and those who suggest, quite wrongly, that I have denied the core convictions of my Reformed Protestant confession.

In an address on January 18, Benedict XVI referred to John Paul II as one who truly “suffered for the ecumenical question.” I pray that I will be able to do the same, with a much deeper sense of joy and a growing love for all. I encourage you who read these words to open your lives up to this great journey of faith and to invite the Holy Spirit to make you an instrument of peace within the whole body of Christ!