In John 17, Jesus prays, “that they may be one.” This verse is championed by many as a cry for organizational unification. Those of this opinion will say that in order to see the answer of Jesus’ prayer, we must see every Christian in the one true church (whichever group that might be), or we must somehow get all the varieties of churches to merge and combine.
Now it may be that union and unification are good goals and that the divisions and divides in the church are wrong, harmful, and lamentable. But it is not clear that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is really about the circumstance of today’s unhappy church divisions.
At this point in his prayer, Jesus turns from praying about his immediate disciples to praying about those who will come to believe through the preaching of his disciples. It is that larger group that Jesus prays will be one. And there is good reason to believe that the unity Jesus prayed for was achieved.
When Paul writes to the churches, he insists that there is no longer any Jew/Gentile division. He scolds Peter in Antioch for withdrawing table fellowship when Jews from Jerusalem visit. By ceasing to eat with the Gentiles, Peter is denying the gospel. There is One Table. When you separate table fellowship from other Christians, you are denying the gospel.
In Ephesians, Paul tells the Gentiles that Jesus has accomplished a new oneness by the cross. Jesus “has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” So there is the answer to Jesus’ prayer that they may be one. He did it. He made them one. The reconciliation by the cross is accomplished. Finished. Done.
So it seems much more likely that on the eve of the cross, Jesus is praying for the fulfillment of God’s plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth, than that Jesus was praying about some distant form of desirable church unification.
To be sure, it may be that structural church unity is downstream from Jesus prayer in John 17, but it also seems certain that the way ahead is by giving thanks that the one new man has indeed already been created, and that we must now behave like it, especially by refusing to deny one another table fellowship.