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Jesus' Prayer, John 17

Roy Harrisville III (Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

December 2, 2003


Contrary to those who have misused it, Jesus' prayer in the chapter following our text that "they all may be one" has nothing to do with visible structural unity or uniformity. His prayer reads "That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee...." Now, where is the structural visibility in that oneness of Father and Son that should model the oneness among believers? But even if we have misread that prayer, there are twenty-six other pieces in the New Testament which yield a different view. In Mark's Gospel, a disciple says to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us." And Jesus said, "do not forbid him...he that is not against us is for us." So much for marching in step.

In Romans 13 and 14 Paul allows for diversity in everything but love for the neighbor, thundering at the champions of uniformity in matters of diet and worship: "who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls!" So much for uniformity.

In Second Timothy the author writes: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent"--in direct contradiction of the apostle who writes that when she preaches a woman must cover her head. So much for visible unity.

Just as the word "God" in the Old Testament is the center of gravity for a host of narratives, prophecies, laws, and hymns that resist reducing to a common denominator, so the word "Christ" in the New. The one Christ, the one Savior, the one Lord, viewed in ways that are not interchangeable. These differences in perspective regarding the one Christ are not, nor were they ever the scandal of Christianity; they result from the New Testament itself.

In the second century lived a Syrian Christian who tried to conflate the four Gospels into one. The ancient church stubbornly resisted his attempt and swore that just as there were four corners of the earth or four winds, so there must be four Gospels. What remains of Tatian the Syrian's enterprise is a fragment in a tongue not his own. Now, if our confessions make this clear, if they enunciate the biblical view of the one Christ viewed from various perspectives, so that a Matthew can never be a stand-in for a Mark, Luke, John, or Paul, well and good.

But we are not confessionalists. If we have read our confessions wrongly--as some responsible for our tribulation never cease telling us--infinitely less harm will be done than if we have misread what Scripture has said, what Christ has said. The aim and purpose of the confessions is to serve Christ and his word. If they do not, they are to submit to it--as they themselves concede.