Lessons – Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 47; Revelation 22:12-20; St. John 17:20-26
“That they may be completely one, as we are one…so that the world may know that you haven sent me and has loved them even as you have loved me.”
A young priest arrives at this first cure and on the desk are three sealed envelopes. Just as he wonders to himself what they are the phone rings. It is his predecessor who had just retired. The old wise priest said, “ I left you three envelopes. When things get difficult in the parish, and you feel that the parish’s unity is being challenged, open an envelope”. At first things went wonderfully but after the honeymoon wore off, division and backbiting set in and much of the anger was focused on the young priest. So he opened the first envelope. It said, “Go ahead and blame me for the problems. I am retired and gone and it will take the focus off of you.” The young priest followed the advice and the division ended and unity was restored. But before long the rancor returned with even more division and so the priest opened the second envelope. It said, “Blame the diocese. It is large and wealthy and makes an easy target. A common enemy will get you all pulling in the same direction.” This tactic worked even better than the first and it seemed like peace had finally set in for good. But to his dismay the infighting returned. Once more unity was shattered and so when he could take it no longer he opened the third envelope. Its advice was simple. It said, “Prepare three envelopes.”
While I would never be so Pollyannaish as to believe that the Church can exist without any problems, I do believe that Christians in general have accepted a standard for unity that is far below the standard given to us by the Head of the Church. While He is praying for our unity we cavalierly accept division. John Johnson once told me that he came from a church that not only would fight at the drop of a hat but they will even drop the hat. I do not believe that we have to accept that as the status quo.
Clearly from this Gospel lesson, Jesus wants His Church to be unified. The context of this prayer is this is the night before His death. So this beautiful prayer, often called the High Priestly prayer, is what is on the heart of our Savior as He prepares to die.
As we take a closer look at this prayer we can receive instruction about what it is that He seeks for us. I want to give credit where it is due. The bullet points for this sermon comes from an insightful bible scholar named Bruce Milne and his commentary on the Gospel of John.
The first point that we need to understand about the kind of unity for which Jesus prays is that is a supernatural unity. Not only is it supernatural in its application but it is supernatural in its origin. In fact the unity for which Jesus prays is a reflection of the unity of the Blessed Trinity. “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” Thus He is praying for a unity that only the Trinity can bring about.
That may at first sound discouraging. “Oh great, our divisions are so deep that it will take a miracle from heaven to bring about unity.” But we can look at it another way. It is good news that the Lord does not put the impetus for unity on us because whenever we try to do it in our own power we mess up royally. I have seen it from the World Council of Churches to diocesan committees, when we try to create unity it inevitably comes down to how much truth we have to jettison from the ship in order to find agreement. But that is not unity, that is compromise. When God brings about unity, rather than abandoning the truth, we unite under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. This requires not compromise but submission to His Lordship.
Is unity just a biblical pipe dream? I don’t believe so. I believe God’s work for unity is all around us but we will only see it if we have hearts that hunger to see God at work. Let me give you three examples and let me add that none of them are without their problems, but they are God’s work nonetheless.
First is the charismatic movement. In the first half of the 20th Century, Pentecostalism was on the rise, but it existed mostly among the poor and less educated. By and large it was outside the mainline denominations. For Pentecostals, mainline denominations were the enemy and the worst of the worst was the Roman Catholic Church. But then in the late 1960’s Father Dennis Bennet spoke in tongues and Pentecostalism came to the Episcopal Church. I’m not sure how it was initiated in the other denominations but this movement ran rapidly across denominational lines. Before anyone realized it had even entered the Roman Catholic Church! To the shock of Pentecostals, rosary praying Catholics were loving Jesus, speaking in tongues, and still praying the rosary. No one saw that coming!
I attended a conference in Kansas City in the 1980’s to observe this phenomenon and it was remarkable. During the day we separated into our denominations but at night we would gather together for worship in a football stadium. The most moving event for me was a healing service. On the platform were leaders from every denomination and non-denomination and then out came the preacher for the night. He was in vestments because for him the healing service was a sacrament. His name was Fr. Francis McNutt, a Roman Catholic priest. He preached and ministered the sacrament of unction and that night every stripe of Protestant joined their prayers with Roman Catholics and a unity that only God could have created was in evidence.
The charismatic movement has had its share of difficulties but God has used it to cross man-made barriers and that has to be a good thing. Until that time no one could have imagined Pentecostal Protestants receiving the laying on of hands by a Roman priest. Only God could have pulled this off.
A second example is Promise Keepers. Like the charismatic movement it is not without its problems but I have witnessed the hand of God in that movement. I attended a meeting in Atlanta with over 60,000 men from every denomination that you can imagine. Let me tell you, to be a part of 60,000 men singing the great hymns of the church was worth the drive alone.
On the first night I heard the singularly most boring gospel sermon I had ever heard. It was dry and very poorly presented. In fact it was so bad that I was embarrassed for the preacher. Then I watched about a quarter of those 60,000 men come forward to confess Jesus as Lord. It was definitely not the preaching, and since it was only the first meeting in a 3 day event, there was not enough time for psychological manipulation. God was in that place creating a unity that only God could create and the fruit of it was made manifest. I’m not sure what is going on with Promise Keepers today, but God used it and perhaps has moved on from there. Remember Jesus told us that the Spirit is like the wind moving when and where He wills.
A third example of supernatural unity I believe is seen in the Alpha movement. It started in a tiny Anglican church that was about to fold in Brompton, England in 1977. It was a course explaining the basics of the Christian faith and the first class was with the Vicar and 13 people around his kitchen table. I have not seen an Alpha paper in some time but the last time I did, they were estimating that some 6 million people have taken the course. Nearly 30,000 courses are taught in 143 countries every year. When I attended a leadership training meeting in Nashville there were denominations represented that I knew nothing about. God has used Alpha to unite Christ’s Body in a way no man could have planned, certainly not that Anglican vicar in 1977.
My point is that we don’t have to feel helpless about seeking unity. Yes only God can do it, but if we will open our hearts and pray for unity as Jesus prayed for it, then we will also open our eyes and see it all around us. As you well know, unity is not found in resolutions from Conventions. It is found by watching for what God is doing and then being a part of it. It will not be perfect because when man gets his hands on it it becomes tainted. But that is still not a reason not to seek it. It is our Lord’s will. The unity for which Jesus prays is supernatural.
Second the unity Jesus holds before us is a tangible unity. It is not just a sentiment. It is a unity that the world is supposed to be able to see. “That they may become completely one, so that the world will know that you have sent me.”
When I was in college we used to get all sentimental and sing a song about how we are one in the Spirit but we knew in our hearts that while Jesus loved everyone He loved our group the best and so we kept to ourselves. It has been my experience that this kind of thinking makes a group insular and spiritually unhealthy. It is as we reach out to other parts of Christ’s Body that we and they are benefited.
I had a very humbling experience with this tangible unity. Years ago a Church of Christ minister had befriended me and came to an occasional mid week Mass. When he heard about us getting a church together in Chattanooga he asked if he could accompany me to the first Mass. Since Jesus had sent the boys out by twos he wanted to be there for support. While we were driving to Chattanooga he told me that if any of his board found out that he had attended an Anglican mass that he would be fired as pastor. I felt guilty for naively putting him at risk but at the same time I was awed with his example of putting it on the line for the sake of unity. That is the kind of tangible unity for which Jesus prayed.
Lastly because unity is so tangible that it can be seen, it is therefore evangelistic. Again Jesus prays, “that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them even as you loved me”
I met a priest from India who was doing PhD work in Scotland. He told me that in that part of the world Christians have discovered that they are much more effective in terms of missions if they downplay their differences and focus on the Gospel that unties them. They are not so much Baptist Christians and Anglican Christians as much as they are simply Christians. I have known a number of missionaries and they tell me that this is not unique to India. It is generally true in the mission field that Christians cooperate to a much greater degree with each other than we do in the States. Why? Because the people they are evangelizing do not understand why Christians would be divided. The nuances that separate us are lost on the non-Christian. The difference between believer’s baptism and infant baptism may seem like an important point of contention in the U.S. but not to some tribal guy in Sri Lanka. If a guy declares that he will not be a Christian unless he can bring his whole family with him, the missionary is too focused upon the family’s salvation to get into a debate about dunking versus sprinkling. The missionary who does not believe in infant baptism will find someone who did and together they would baptize the entire family. It is this kind of cooperation that has resulted in missionaries being so successful around the world and it is why 1/3rd of the world’s population is now Christian.
Imagine what would happen if rather than seeing that as a practical necessity on the mission field, we in the Church consider the U.S. a mission field and seek the same kind of unity with one another in order to win the more?
It may seem ironic that I am preaching on unity when our own Communion continues to divide. But perhaps there is a different way to look at it. Perhaps what we are experiencing is not so much a division as a pruning so that we can experience true unity. We are not the only part of the Body of Christ that is experiencing this pruning. Maybe we are all going through this so that we can be unified with the other pruned parts of the Vine so that we avoid compromising truth for unity’s sake.
I have no idea what the future holds except that it will contain a united Church. How do I know that? I know that because Jesus prayed for it to be so. Can you ever imagine Jesus offering a prayer that the Father will not answer? We may pray amiss but He never does. So in one way or another, even if it is very different from what we see today, Jesus’ Church will be one. Let’s pray with Jesus that this unity will become a reality and then let’s make ourselves available the Father to use us toward that end and to even make us the means for answering Jesus’ prayer. Amen.