Slightly edited from a sermon I recently preached at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL.
There are just some passages of the Bible that you can’t get away from.
Sometimes it’s because a passage is particularly inspiring, encouraging, or comforting. Think Psalm 23.
Other times, it’s because the passage really bugs you.
And I’ll confess that our Gospel lesson, John 17:20–26, really bugs me. And I hope that, by the end of this post, it really bugs you too!
I find the first four verses of the text particularly irksome. Praying to the Father, Jesus says:
“My prayer is not for them [that is, my current disciples] alone.
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.
Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Now, this is a beautiful ending to a wonderful prayer, really.
But here’s what really bugs me about John 17: It doesn’t seem like this prayer’s been answered.
For me, personally, it really didn’t seem like this prayer was being answered when my evangelical mentors were fired and/or forced to leave the school when I was in college.
Now, admittedly, despite the personal crisis this caused, on its own, a seemingly unanswered prayer is no big deal, right? I mean, “that’s life.”
But consider who is praying!
- Jesus Christ, the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord of the universe…
- Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end…
- Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God…
…is praying to his Father, the Lord of all the earth, before whom the mountains melt like wax.
Incidentally, the last time Jesus prayed to his Father that people might believe that the Father had sent Jesus, it was right before he told Lazarus to come out of the grave in John 11! That prayer sure got answered!
Here, in John 17, Jesus is praying for the same reason: “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus asks his Father that the Church might be gloriously united. And instead the Church is scandalously divided.
Let’s take a look at the “State of the Disunion”
At a macro level, the Church tree is divided into Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican branches.
To say nothing of divisions that exist in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the Protestant branch has exploded into thousands of twigs.
And the Anglican branch? Well, it might dress a bit differently and talk a big game, but it’s not much better than the Protestant branch.
After all, one of the divisions within the Anglican branch of Christianity is whether or not we are, in fact, our own branch!
One of the tragic ironies of Church history is that the sacraments, the very things that are supposed to unite the Church, have often been the cause of division. I mean, we can’t even agree on how many sacraments there are!
And when it comes to the sacrament we’re celebrating this evening, Holy Communion? Well, thanks be to God that the Anglican Communion table is open to all baptized Christians.
- A Roman Catholic,
- a “capital O” Orthodox Christian,
- an independent fundamentalist Baptist,
- and Anglicans of all stripes…
…can, if they want to, commune together at an Anglican Eucharist.
However, would they want to?
After all, at best, the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox consider Anglican Holy Communion and ordinations to be out of order. We Anglicans are just like other Protestants: not “catholic” enough, until we return to the Mother Church!
And, speaking of those other Protestants, plenty of them are scared away because we’re too Catholic! In their eyes, it’s a mistake to think that Holy Communion is anything more than just bread and wine eaten in commemoration of Christ’s death.
Of course, plenty of Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Christians think that it’s a grave mistake to ordain women. They might not listen to a sermon if a woman is preaching. And they might not come to the table if a woman is presiding.
The Church is scandalously divided. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m part of the problem.
- I grew up thinking that, if any Roman Catholics were, in fact, Christians, it was only by accident.
- I once called my best friend a “pagan” because we disagreed on predestination.
- Even now, on my worst days, I’m prone to think that plenty of American evangelical churches are only “half churches”! Heavy on the sermons, but light on the sacraments.
On my worst days, I’m prone to think that I’m somehow better than my brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.
And so, despite Christ’s prayer—and because of people like me!—the Church is scandalously divided.
So, What’s the Solution?
Well, I see a few potential options.
The easiest option, of course, is simply NOT TO CARE ABOUT THE CHURCH’S UNITY!
But Jesus obviously cares about it, so perhaps we Christians should as well.
The next option would be to insist that WE ARE THE ONE TRUE CHURCH of Jesus Christ.
…Whether we Anglicans, we egalitarian Anglicans, or we, (insert the name of your local church).
All other “churches” are in error. And the Church will be united when they come to their senses, repent, and join our Church.
The problem with this approach is that it’s part of the problem, not the solution! It’s exactly the same prideful stance that’s been taken in every church split! “WE’re the true Church.” “No, WE’re the true Church!”
So, is there anything else we could do?
Well, we could emphasize the Church’s INVISIBLE unity.
After all, despite appearances, the Creed says that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
According to John 10:16, there is “one flock” with “one shepherd.” According to 1 Corinthians 12, the Church is “one body” with “many members.” According to Galatians 3:28:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
And according to Ephesians 4:4-6:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
By definition, then, the Church IS one.
And yet, there’s a danger here.
We can’t allow the Church’s invisible unity to be an excuse for ignoring the Church’s visible disunion.
We can’t just throw up our hands and say “You know what? The Church only appears to be divided. It’s not our problem! We don’t need to change! This will all work itself out.”
Instead, we are called to the hard work of reconciling with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, perhaps we should do the opposite and emphasize the Church’s VISIBLE unity.
After all, according to John 17, if the Church’s unity is meant to cause the world to believe that God sent Jesus, then this surely has to be some kind of visible, tangible unity!
And the unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians—which, by the way, is a key theme in the New Testament—was a visible, tangible unity. It had to do with what was on the dinner table! You can’t just spiritualize away that pork that’s been sacrificed to an idol!
But, of course, there’s a danger here as well. And it’s arguably the danger that the “ecumenical movement” has faced in its recent history.
We can’t allow the Church’s visible unity to become an end in itself, detached from the Church’s invisible unity.
This leads to the pursuit of visible unity at all costs. And some of the first things to go are usually the historic doctrines of the Church.
After all, “doctrine divides,” right? Christians can’t agree about the sacraments? Well, let’s just not teach about the sacraments! Can’t agree about sexuality? Well, let’s just not talk about that!
Let’s just go with the least common denominator doctrines. Something like “God exists, and he wants us to be good people.”
Well, he does exist and he does want what’s best for us. But we’re talking about the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ here, not the unity of vaguely ethical theists!
So, we really need to emphasize that the Church’s unity is both INVISIBLE AND VISIBLE.
We can’t use one as an excuse for ignoring the other.
In other words, here’s my big idea…
Big Idea: The Church’s unity is God’s gift to a divided world.
How is the Church’s unity GOD’S GIFT?
Well, notice that the Church’s unity is SOMETHING JESUS PRAYS FOR.
- He doesn’t issue a white paper.
- He doesn’t offer a 3-step plan.
Instead, he asks God to unify his people.
Furthermore, notice that the Church’s unity is NOT JUST ANY KIND OF UNITY.
In John 17:20, Jesus prays “for those who will believe in me through their message.” The Church’s unity flows from and through the apostles’ preaching and teaching about Jesus.
What’s even more astonishing is that the Church’s unity is MODELED ON THE DIVERSE UNITY OF THE TRINITY.
To say “The Church is one” has never meant “All Christians are the same.” We’re not trying to abolish all differences and diversity.
Instead, we’re talking about a unity of love and purpose that resembles the eternal unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So, the Church’s unity is not something we can manufacture on our own. It is God’s gift.
But it’s not a gift we’re supposed to hoard for ourselves as Christians! The Church’s unity is God’s gift to a divided world!
The goal of the Church’s unity is that the world may know that God sent Jesus and that God loves the Church like he loves Jesus.
The goal isn’t that the world would look at the Church’s rampant division and say
“Wow, what a hot mess! I hope that invisible unity thing works out for them!”
The goal isn’t that the world would look at the Church’s watered-down unity-at-all-costs and say
“Wow, those Christians sure are such nice people!”
Instead, the goal is that the world would look at the Church’s Christ-centered, sacrificial unity and say
“Wow, what a glorious and loving God.”
So, if we want to be seeker-sensitive in the best way, we should quit watering down the gospel. But we should also stop insulting the “seeker-sensitive” churches.
We should, instead, love one another just as Jesus has loved us. By this all people will know that we are Jesus’s disciples, if we have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Glimpses of Unity Today
You know, I said earlier that the Church is scandalously divided. And I think that’s true.
At least in my own life, I’ve never existentially doubted that God exists, that He loves me, or that He has redeemed me from my sins in Jesus Christ.
But, after the Christian divisiveness I witnessed in college, I came close to giving up on the Church.
Glimpses of the Church’s unity—at a Mennonite church, at my interdenominational seminary, and in the Anglican tradition—helped prevent me from leaving.
This is why it’s important not to overlook the glimpses of Church unity we’ve been given.
For one thing, we should praise God that the Church still exists!
Despite persecution, despite division, and despite differences, generation after generation of faithful Christians have handed down the apostles’ message concerning Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
And, for another thing, we should praise God that this church exists!
Our church is filled with people who have come from various backgrounds, including from many different branches of Christ’s Church.
We share clergy and a youth group with churches that are, in various ways, quite different from us.
We have an open Communion table where men and women, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, egalitarian and complementarian can taste and see that the Lord is one, and that the Lord is good.
Thanks be to God!
But How Can We Move Forward in Unity?
Here are some pastoral suggestions.
Recognize the issue.
We ought to be burdened by the lack of unity in the Church. It should grieve us. But it’s a grief that should drive us to prayer.
Pray for the Holy Spirit’s power.
Only the Holy Spirit gives union with the Father and the Son. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the strength and the wisdom we need to be reconciled with one another as we are reconciled with God.
We should pray along these lines: “God, do not leave us comfortless and divided. Pour out your Spirit to strengthen and unify us, that the world might believe in your Son, Jesus Christ.”
Love each other well.
As we pray, we need to recognize that Church unity begins here, in our local congregation. Yes, there are plenty of big picture divisions in the Church, but we can’t do much to address those in our daily lives.
What we can do, however, is sacrificially serve one another—despite our differences and despite the hurried and isolating forces in our culture.
And you’re doing this already! So, keep up the good work!
- Bringing meals to one another is God’s gift to a divided world.
- Going to visit with one another,
- Helping one another move,
- Giving one another rides to work and to church,
- Sharing a meal together,
…These are all God’s gift to a divided world.
They might seem like small things, but they are becoming increasingly countercultural and important. We need to love each other well in our local congregation.
Finally, we need to take care how we speak about other believers.
There is a place for critique, to be sure.
So let me critique a tendency I’ve noticed in myself and other Anglicans. We should think twice before we insult someone for whom Christ died.
If we have theological sympathies with Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers, that’s great.
But what’s that really worth if we’re known, on the ground, for making fun of various kinds of American evangelicals?
At least for me, I think some of this comes from thinking “Well, I used to be a complementarian. I used to be a young earth creationist. I used to be a fundamentalist. I used to be a Baptist. That means I can make fun of those people, right?”
I don’t think so.
We can and should honestly explain why we are drawn to the Anglican tradition.
But we should speak well of other Christians whenever possible. We should only critique our brothers and sisters in Christ when it’s necessary to do so, and when it’s for their good—not at their expense.
I don’t know about you, friends, but the more I think about the Church’s unity and the lack thereof, the more I realize just how much we always need Pentecost.
The Church’s unity is God’s gift to a divided world. And the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to a divided Church!
We need the Holy Spirit to give us the kind of discernment, patience, and humility we need in order to be a unified witness to a loving God.
Jesus Christ’s prayer for the unity Church will not be left unanswered.
It is being answered, even now, as we gather at the Lord’s Table.
And yet, we pray:
Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.