“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
John 17. 6-19
Theological reflection on the theme of Christian unity betrays, far more often than not, overly clerical concerns. The ecumenical movement of the twentieth century has promoted greater official dialogue between churches than in any period since the Reformation. Texts such as Pope John Paul’s Ut Unum Sint (1995) take the prayer of Christ we hear from today as a textus classicus of Christ’s call to unity (John 17. 11, 21). Yet, while the ecumenical movement rightly encourages mutual listening and reception, it is mainly concerned with questions of institutional unity: how may we be one amidst profound disagreements of doctrine, practice, and order? As worthy as institutional unity may be, it often remains far removed from the daily concerns and life of the Christian in the pew. What else, then, does Christ’s call ‘to be one as He and the Father are one’ mean for us all in the routine of our daily lives?
Christ’s call to unity occurs in John’s Gospel as part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples immediately before his Passion. The call to unity surprisingly becomes predicated, then, on the seeming absence of Christ in the life of the post-resurrection (and post-ascension) church. The apparent absence of Christ also marks, of course, our daily experience: our discipleship is to and with someone seemingly absent. So, the immediate question for us becomes how can we both be one with one another and also with an absent Christ? Rather than institutional unity, Christ’s call to one-ness primarily addresses how we live as Christians and how we deal with absence.
In his prayer, Christ identifies participation in his mission as the answer to the dilemma of his apparent absence. Christ prays that his disciples may be protected and sanctified as they continue Christ’s earthly ministry in his coming physical absence. In a poem, Teresa of Avila similarly recognises that, after His ascension, Christ has no body but yours/No hands, no feet on earth but yours/Yours are the eyes with which he looks/Compassion on the world. While in the literal, physical sense, Christ will be absent, our participation in him, through baptism, through the eucharist, through his loving and saving activity, incorporates us into the Body of Christ still present, still active in the world. As such, those who follow Christ by leading sacrificial lives in the world, are one with Christ and his mission.
What matters here is not so much the negotiation of our individual differences and gifts, never mind our ecclesial difference – though, as St. Paul is at pains to say in his reflections on the Body of Christ image, individual differences and gifts at least are all God-given and Spirit-filled. For now, however, what really matters is the other side of the equation: how we share either individually or collectively in the unity given as a gift to us, how we participate in Christ’s unity with the Father. It is Christ’s unity, rather than our own, which enlivens us and allows us to participate in God’s mission to heal and elevate creation to communion.
Christ’s prayer allows us to say that the meaning of unity in our ordinary, daily discipleship is first and foremost being in Christ through the Spirit. Such unity describes the very life of God and our sharing in that life, not as individuals per se but as individuals-in-communion. It is unity with the mind of God (as St Paul puts it), and with the works of God (as John the Evangelist phrases it). Maintaining a focus on our participation in God’s nature allows us to recognise the gift that God gives to us in the invitation to share in His life and mission. Christ’s prayer in John’s Gospel, then, determines everything we should say about unity: the unity that shapes everything else is unity in the work, the prayer, and the mind of Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit who makes God ever present and alive to us. Such unity begins in God, flows out to us, and allows us to recognise something not only about God, but also to recognise God in us through communion and community.
Rather than from absence, then, unity actually begins with presence, in time and space, of the Christian community as witnesses to God’s activity through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ’s prayer that we all be one calls us to first look for God, not as a verifiable fact, but as the irreducible giver of all that is verifiable, namely our world, with all of its joys and sorrows. Only once we have looked to God’s unity can we see our place within it. In that unity we can recognise the “mutuality of the gifts of the Spirit and how we relate together: the fact that every gift the Spirit gives is for communion,” not only with God but with one another. Through God’s unity, we can see one another as in Christ, our place, our belonging. As John the Evangelist details in chapter fifteen of his Gospel, such unity remains rooted in the love of one another as well as an outreach into the whole world with the same, often costly and unwelcome love. In this eucharist today, may we receive unity with Christ through his body and blood, and so see one another and everyone we meet as Him too. Amen.
 Rowan Williams, Archbishop’s Address on the fiftieth anniversary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Sala Pio X, Vatican City, 17 November 2010. The following ideas are also taken closely from ++Williams' address.