Jesus doesn’t seem to mind repeating himself to make a point – if it’s important enough. In the space of a couple of chapters, within one speech as reported by John, he tells us for a second time to ‘love one another, as I have loved you,’ and paraphrases his earlier promise that, facing new challenges and situations, the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.
Then he continues from speaking to his friends to go on to speak to God about them in prayer, asking the Father to care for and protect them once he has left the earth. But as well as protection, he asks for one key thing – unity. ‘May they be one as you and I are one’. It’s a high standard – that the church should be as united as is God the Holy Trinity. Yet even by the time John wrote these words down, there were already differences between churches in different areas and cultures – not the thousands of often-competing denominations we see today, but differing interpretations of faith expressed in different ways of life. Of course, some were heading away from the faith of Jesus, and would end up heading down different paths; but there were even within authentic Christian faith several distinct patterns emerging.
So perhaps John didn’t mean us to see an ideal ‘one organisation’ church structure, but rather a diverse group of churches united by their core beliefs and above all by this ‘love’ business Jesus keeps going on about. After all, there is within the Godhead a distinction between persons, but a unity of being and of love. Perhaps our diversity across the churches is an asset, not a problem – provided that we come back, yet again, to the love for one another which Jesus expects to be the heart, sign and advertisement of the true church.
How well do we even know our fellow Christians of other churches, let alone understand them? Perhaps it’s through getting on together with the mission of Jesus, rather than in structural ecumenism, that we’ll find a God-shaped unity.