Praying with Jesus for Unity

Praying with Jesus for Unity

I am delighted to post this thoughtful reflection by Mennonite sages and Anabaptist scholar teachers par excellence, Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider. "Praying with Jesus for unity" also appeared in The Mennonite, February 2015 — Sara Wenger Shenk

Silence, prayer, work, worship. Mennonites living like this? We tried it. Thirty years ago we were guests for eleven weeks of the Community of Grandchamp near Neuchâtel, whose sisters live by the Taizé rule of life as a part of the Swiss Reformed Church. The sisters’ noon prayer, centered on the Beatitudes, always concluded with Jesus’ own prayer for his followers: “may they all be one” (John 17.21). They want Jesus’ prayer to shape their day and change their world—that there may be unity among Christians.

We were astonished by this daily repetition. After all, we were Mennonites. We thought, weren’t we the ones committed to do what Jesus taught and did? Unlike other Christians who paid too little attention to the Sermon on the Mount, who fought their enemies and swore oaths, we Mennonites were faithful to Jesus. And yet the Grandchamp sisters also listened to Jesus. Further, they prayed with him, using his very words, that his followers may all be one, as the Father and the Son are one.

The sisters inspired us to think more about John 17. How was it that we Mennonites, so keen to obey and imitate Jesus, had sidelined this passage? The twenty-six verses of this chapter form what is called Jesus’ “high-priestly prayer.” Jesus concludes this by praying for his disciples, and also for those who will come later, those who will believe in him through the disciples’ word. No fewer than three times he prays “may they all be one” (17.21, 22, 23). And he anticipates that his prayer will have a consequence: “that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17.23).

Why did Jesus pray this way? We came to see that the prayer

  • sums up what Jesus had said: he had taught reconciliation, love of God, neighbor and enemy, the incorporation of enemies (gentiles).
  • reflects what Jesus had done: he had called varied people to follow him, who had different life experiences and understandings, especially Zealots and tax-collectors.
  • anticipates what Jesus would do: on the cross he would draw all people to himself (12.32).
  • reveals what Jesus saw as the gravest obstacle to the credibility of his followers’ message—their disunity.

So to Jesus this final prayer was crucial. As we prayed this every day with the sisters, we came to understand why. His prayer worked on us. It made us newly aware how important unity was to Jesus; he wants his followers to be “one.” And for good reason: their unity is to be a means of embodying his message and work, and of enabling others to get the point of it all and to believe. Why, we wondered, had the Grandchamp and Taizé communities homed in on his prayer and allowed it to shape their lives? And why had we Mennonites so rarely prayed this prayer or seen its importance?

Listening to the sisters’ stories helped us understand why the prayer was important to the Taizé/Grandchamp movement. World War II had been a catastrophe; it had led to the fracturing of Christian churches in Europe whose members had killed vast numbers of Christians from other countries. In disillusionment, many Europeans turned their backs on Christianity. In this setting, Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers came alive, and the Grandchamp sisters found their mission. Together, from varied countries and outlooks, they would be “a sign of the coming Kingdom . . . a place of reconciliation, of communion and of praise.”

Why had we, as Mennonites, not seen that Jesus’ prayer was crucial? Perhaps our history has shaped us too. Like members of most Christian traditions, we Mennonites are the children of splits. After our initial departure from Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed state churches, we in the Anabaptist tradition have continued to split. We have often been peaceable people, and at our best we have said, in humility, “We recognize that we may be wrong.” But often, with moral perfection in our sights, we have distanced ourselves from other Christians. At times we have been especially dismissive of people in our own tradition who have disagreed with us. Our impatience with each other has led to hundreds of Anabaptist/ Mennonite denominations. Perhaps we need to ponder more deeply Jesus’ parable of the two pray-ers: the righteous Pharisee who prayed about his good works, and the despised Publican who pleaded for God’s mercy (Luke 18.9-14).

Nevertheless, we Mennonites, like the sisters of Grandchamp, are in the Body of Christ. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 4.4-6, we are one in the Spirit. Our unity is the work and gift of God. To be sure, we live in a world that defies and devalues this unity. There are 6000 plus Christian denominations, and people are constantly founding new ones. Our own Mennonite Church is in danger of behaving like this and splitting into fragments. But we do not need to be worldly. We believe that fragmenting is not in the spirit of Jesus prayer; and that creative ways to resist fragmenting will grow out praying it together with Jesus.

Proposal: we propose that we pray with Jesus for unity. Let us commit ourselves to pray, with him, that his disciples “may all be one.”

Why? We pray for unity because Jesus prayed for unity. The unity of his disciples mattered to Jesus, and Jesus is the foundation upon whom we build (1 Cor 3.11). As his disciples, we are called to have his priorities and to do what he did. And the resurrected and ascended Jesus is praying this now. According to Paul (Rom 8.34), Jesus is now “is at the right hand of God, interceding for us.” Imagine! Jesus, who in John’s gospel prays for the unity of his disciples, is offering up constant prayers for our unity now! When we pray “that they may be one,” we are praying not only what Jesus wants us to pray. We are praying with Jesus.

When? Often. Daily: in the morning, when we get up, or at bedtime, we ask God that Jesus’ disciples may be one. Throughout the week: in small groups, prayer meetings, or while driving. Weekly: on Sundays, when we gather for worship, in our congregational prayers we pray for the unity of God’s people. As we do this, we overcome our hesitancy as Mennonites to pray for ourselves; we realize that it is an act of love to pray for ourselves, and especially for the unity of the Christian family.

How? We can pray for unity in our own words, expressing to God our own deep longing. We also can pray using Jesus’ strong John 17 words; with feeling we can pray, ”God, may we become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent Jesus.” And we can pray words that others have developed, as in the song in which we pray: “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken; bind us together with love.”

What difference does this make?

  • Praying for unity changes us. Prayer changes the pray-er. As we pray with Jesus for unity we become humbler, more patient, more alert to find good in the other. We become more able to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4.2). Praying for unity changes us so we are less likely to require everybody to do things our way, or to think precisely what we think. Praying with Jesus makes it harder to split!
  • Praying for unity changes our congregations. Because unity in love mattered to Jesus, it matters to all of us. Praying as a congregation encourages the spiritual discipline of patience. It develops the practice of listening well to each other, and motivates us to find common ground. Praying for unity also changes the way we talk; it modulates our voices, and gives us a humbler way of expressing ourselves. And as we pray for unity, God opens us to new possibilities, in which new affinities and overlaps emerge between brothers and sisters who disagree.
  • Praying for unity transforms mission. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples’ unity was rooted in his deep sense that his Father’s mission was to unite all things (Jn 17.21; Col 1.20). As we pray for unity, God draws us to play our part toward the completion of God’s mission. Forces for fragmentation constantly attempt to frustrate this. Think of news stories on TV that focus on the abuses and divisions of Christians. In his high-priestly prayer, Jesus is intensely aware that his disciples’ divisions will make it hard for people to come to faith. What if Christians were known, locally as well as nationally, not for abusing people and fighting each other, but because they serve the world in creative new ways? Further, when we as Christians are at peace with our brothers/sisters, we are less defensive, and more open, in our dealings with non-Christians. The disciplines of unity help mission.
  • Prayer for unity has hidden potency. In a mysterious way, prayer moves things forward. Somehow, in ways that the Bible never spells out, prayer enables God to work. In the Bible, God, is moving all things toward reconciliation in Christ. Mysteriously the Bible connects God’s work with prayer. God doesn’t force people; but Jesus insists that our praying makes a difference. Jesus underscores this in parables, where he urges us to approach God with our concerns. He commands us to ask, seek, and knock (Lk 11.9). Jesus tells us to be persistent, in faith “to keep bothering” God who at the right moment will answer (Lk 18.5). The early Christians knew this: “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4.2). And they sensed that when they prayed, Jesus prayed with them. Hebrews 7.25 confesses that Jesus, the eternal high priest, “is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercessions for them.” In praying for unity, we join with Jesus’ passionate prayer at the very end of his ministry. We may confidently believe that the resurrected and ascended Jesus in all eternity continues to pray for the unity of his disciples.

To many Mennonites, leaders and ordinary members, what we are saying is familiar; they intercede faithfully for the future of Mennonite Church USA. They also pray for the unity of their congregations and for the unity of Christ’s two-billion-strong church globally. It is not only the sisters of Grandchamp who pray with Jesus for unity.

However, we sense that most Mennonites and most Mennonite congregations can grow in this prayer; we have tried to indicate reasons for this and ways forward. We are concerned that, in various ways, for reasons that seem persuasive, some of us may be acting against Christ’s prayer. May God empower us all with wisdom, fidelity, and love so that we may be “completely one.” May we pray Jesus’ prayer with him so “that the world may believe …”