Is oneness even possible? Is the Church one today? Is Christian unity possible at all? These are all reasonable questions, which is why we must follow Jesus to the very end of John 17.
“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one … ” (Jn 17:22-23). Notice Jesus is not letting go of the point. In John’s Gospel, it seems whenever Jesus teaches something necessary but scandalous — so scandalous that even his disciples think he should tap the breaks a bit — Jesus only presses the gas more. Like in John 6 when Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” people started to murmur (Jn 6:41). So then he said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you,” which, of course, made the situation even more tense (Jn 6:53). But still, he made the point even more strongly, saying, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55). All the while, the disciples are in the back wishing Jesus would zip it as people start to walk away. But that is not what Jesus does. He keeps hammering the point, probably because eternal life depends on it. And so, here we are again: may they be one, may they be one, may they be brought to perfection as one — just in case we were not getting it. By this stage in our close reading of John 17, do you think Jesus thinks Christian unity is important? Or, do you think it is something Jesus would say is not all that significant, take it or leave it?
But how can we even begin to imagine Christian unity is possible? Notice Jesus is still talking about glory: “I have given them the glory you gave me.” Is the glory of God insufficient? Is the glory of God weak? Did not the angel Gabriel say to Mary that nothing is impossible to God (Lk 1:37)? Is the glory of God not enough to make Christians one? What are we saying about God when we say Christian unity is not really possible? Are we saying he may not be almighty after all?
“…that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (Jn 17:23). Again, why struggle to be one Church? Why struggle for unity? The answer is: for the sake of love. Because we believe God created the world in love, sustains it in love and redeems it in love. And the way that love is revealed to the world is through Jesus’s disciples who are in love with each other in oneness. St. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: the world will see “in amazement the glory of the saints” in unity and love. That is how the world will see love, by seeing Christian love.
I mentioned earlier the unique love I have for my wife and children: I love them as a father should love his children, and as a husband should love his wife, loving them more than I love your wife and kids. But that is so they can learn how to love and be loved; so that they in turn can love others well, which in turn makes the world a more loving place. Again, that’s how love grows. And, thinking about this in terms of the Church, that is how the rest of the world knows God’s love — by seeing it in Christians, in the Church. So, how can we Christians more credibly tell the world God loves them? By being one. Everything Jesus has been praying about — the oneness of his disciples, the oneness of believers today — is for the sake of love, so the world may see it.
“Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17:24). Jesus’s eternal glory is now revealed as love. He desires that we be one so that we may be with him. Jesus desires it. He is not indifferent about whether we are one; he is not neutral on the question — he desires it! Jesus prays to his Father desiring our unity from the deepest core of his being. Why? Simply so that we can share in the glory of God together. And, again, remember the context: Jesus is praying that his disciples be one, that they be where he is, at the disciples’ worst and weakest moment. Jesus is praying they remain with him as they are doing the exact opposite, as they are scattering in darkness. This is strangely comforting, that at our worst moments, at our moments of scattering and sin — whether personal or ecclesial — still Jesus wants us with him.
When you sin, what do you think God is thinking? Is he mad? Do you think God wants nothing more to do with you? When I get into a fight with someone, I want to avoid that person, avoid the awkward encounter. It is human to avoid the person we are in conflict with. But the problem is that we sometimes project that very human instinct onto God, fooling ourselves into thinking God wants to avoid us after we have sinned. But that is not true. It is not in God’s nature to do that. After Jesus’s prayer in John 17, all the disciples scattered and left him alone. One of them betrayed him, and still, Jesus wants them and prays to be with them. You, at your worst moment — or me at mine — still have Jesus praying for you, loving you, wanting you. Never fool yourself into thinking that God will ever say to you, “I’m done with you.” Because he will not. “I am with you always,” Jesus said after the resurrection (Mt 28:20). He meant that. At the least, this reminds us of the good of hope. No matter what, Jesus will always want us. We can always return to him.
Which reveals God’s justice. “Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you love me may be in them and I in them” (Jn 17:25-26). Jesus ends his prayer invoking the justice of God. Often when we think of God’s justice, we think of the wrath of God, sometimes of some mean and nasty deity in the sky out to get us. We think of going to hell. But in this prayer that is not how Jesus thinks of the justice of God. He thinks of it in terms of love and knowledge. The justice of God is not the wrath of God sending you to hell. The justice of God is your communion with him, your love with him — a strange justice, because we certainly do not deserve it. God’s justice is our sharing life together with his Father with him in the Holy Spirit — in oneness and holiness. Also notice Jesus’s promise that he would continue to make his name known. The glory Jesus gave, he still gives. And so, what was true in John 17 — the call to oneness and holiness — is just as true now as it was then. And also, the grace available to accomplish oneness is just as available now as it was then. Again, millennia removed from this prayer, still this prayer claims us. We cannot ignore it — unless, of course, we no longer believe in glory, no longer believe what Jesus said.
A great deal of what we believe is found in John 17, especially that which we believe about the Church at its deepest level. Again, John 17 reveals the DNA of the Church. The Church is a sacramental entity, a sociological entity, an institutional and bureaucratic entity, all with a rather dusty, vibrant, glorious and squalid 2,000-year history. Yet in her essence, the Church is the oneness that the Father and the Son share in the Spirit. The Church, in its essence, is a communion — a communion in the Trinity that is open through Christ to the disciples, and which is also our communion and life together.
So, whenever you come into contact with the Church in her historical or her institutional forms — sometimes aggravating and sometimes glorious — we should always remember that the Church is first and foremost this — the oneness Jesus prayed for the night before he died.
Now of course, it is our belief that this oneness is in substance (although not entirely) the Roman Catholic Church. This, undoubtedly to many, is a scandalous claim. It certainly was to me. But we’ll explore that later, for that too is something we believe.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.