This is the third in a series of daily posts during this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25, 2011) offering brief reflections on the biblical basis for the quest for Christian unity. These reflections are drawn from the pages of Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Cascade Books, 2010).
The unity Jesus prays for his church is rooted in the life of the Triune God, the one God who as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is three distinct persons who share one divine essence and engage in one divine work, the redemption of the world. “That they may be one, as we are one,” Jesus prays in John 17:11 and 22, and in verses 21 and 23 he clarifies these connections: “As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...I in them and you in me.”
The ancient Greek theologians had a technical term for the manner in which Jesus’ prayer in John 17 portrays the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. The Greek word perichoresis meant something like “mutual indwelling” or “mutual permeation” or “interpenetration.” The eighth-century theologian John of Damascus and others employed this word perichoresis when they explained the unity of the one God who is three persons, and they cited John 17:23 as the biblical basis of this concept. The being of each person mutually indwells or permeates the being of the other two persons, so that the Father is in the Son and in the Spirit; the Son is in the Spirit and in the Father; and the Spirit is in the Father and in the Son. Each person jointly participates in the work of the other two persons. When the Father creates the heavens and the earth and makes human beings in the image of God and gives them life, the Son and the Spirit jointly share in the divine work of creation. When the Son comes down from heaven and becomes incarnate for us and for our salvation, suffers and dies for our sins on the cross, is raised from the dead, ascends into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and comes again to judge the living and the dead, the Father and the Spirit jointly share in the divine work of redemption. When the Spirit indwells the lives of believers, makes them holy, and empowers the Christian life, the Father and the Son jointly share in the divine work of sustaining what God has created and redeemed. This understanding of Trinitarian perichoresis is the concept behind the familiar Trinitarian symbol of three interlocking circles in which each circle is intertwined with and inseparable from the other two.
Jesus’ prayer makes it clear that these relationships of the Triune God are both the ground and the goal of Christian unity. It is the unifying life of the one God that dwells in us and makes us one, and the unity of the shared life and work of the three persons of the Trinity is the model and standard for the unity that ought to characterize the church. Christian unity is a perichoretic unity. That means that the lives of churches in relationship to other churches and the lives of individual believers in relationship to other believers ought to be as inseparably intertwined as the three interlocking circles that symbolize the Trinity. In other words, we are “members of one another,” as Scripture tells us more than once (Romans 12:5, Ephesians 4:25; cf. also 1 Corinthians 12:20-26).
-- from chapter 1, “Here to Play Jesus: Why Ecumenism Isn’t Dead”
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