A joy of my ministry is working in settings where denominational loyalty does not matter. Serving as an Army chaplain, I was just a Protestant clergyman providing a ministry to soldiers from a variety of backgrounds. Often we had Roman Catholics and even Jewish soldiers present for chapel services, especially when we were on field exercises. They simply saw me as a person who had a special relationship with God and who had received special training to know what we are to believe about God and what God would have us do with our lives. During those years, I felt the oneness of Christ's church, of which he spoke in John 17.
Serving as a chaplain in large medical centers has also given me the chance to experience the unity among believers, which Christ longs to see manifest in his kingdom on Earth and for which we pray in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
When I served as chaplain in a retirement center, we had residents from all major denominations. In conducting the vesper services and Bible studies, I found that the areas of God's Word that we held in common were enough to keep us from worrying about denominational differences. When differences did come up, we enriched each other's lives as we shared various denominational perspectives.
In Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17, he makes it clear that he wants believers to feel a sense of unity. He twice prays that believers "may be one."
We can experience more spiritual unity through joint endeavors. After all, there certainly will be but one heaven, and there is no mention of subdivisions of various religious groups in this heaven. If we are going to be together in heaven, we had better start trying that on for size on Earth. When we experience here on Earth a little of what we will experience in all its fullness in heaven, one theologian coined the experience "realized eschatology."
If heaven is going to be compared to a great banquet scene, where the main course is served, then all the joys we experience on Earth can be described as appetizers and hors d'oeuvres. When we isolate our religious experience with those who believe exactly as we do, we miss out on one of God's delicious appetizers.
What can we do to increase this expression of unity? We can have more pulpit exchanges as well as exchanges of church school class leaders and choirs. Traditionally in smaller communities, fifth Sundays were times when congregations had joint services, or at least an exchange of preachers. There is no reason why fifth Sundays could not be the time for larger congregations in our cities to do the same.
Certainly we could take advantage of seasonal celebrations, such as Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Memorial Day weekend, Reformation Sunday, World Wide Communion Sunday, Women United Day of Prayer and National Day of Prayer. There is no limit to the possibilities for manifesting the unity we have in Christ.
According to John 17, the Lord is praying for us right now that we may be one as he is with the Father ..."so that the world may believe that you (Father) have sent me."
Dr. Gene Norris is a local Presbyterian pastor who serves as a hospital chaplain and a marriage and family therapist.