[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during both worship services yesterday.]
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus prays, shortly before His arrest and execution, for unity between God and the people who have been won to faith in Christ and unity among those who confess that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Beginning at verse 20, Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these alone [meaning the disciples who were with Him in first century Judea], but also for those who will believe in Me through their word [Jesus is praying for us here; we have come to believe in Him through the apostles’ word about Jesus.]; that they may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us...”
What is the unity among Christians for which Jesus prays?
Well, first of all, let's remember one thing it is not. It is not coerced uniformity. I knew a man who made this brag about his marriage: “One of the things I’m proudest of is that we’ve been married more than thirty years and we’ve never had one disagreement.” He really was proud of that. But I later learned that his wife had been taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications and seeing a counselor for years. He was happy; she was a wreck. That husband and wife didn’t seem to be “one” to me. Unity is not coerced uniformity.
Also, the unity for which Jesus prays for His Church does not mean that Christians will never disagree or get upset with one another. In fact, since the Church is Christ’s body in the world, the group of people given the most important mission in the world--making disciples of all nations--conflict is to be expected.
Jesus publicly disagreed with Pharisees and Saducees for valuing their religion over having a personal relationship with God.
He upbraided His fellow Jews for refusing to believe in Him, though He had come into the world because God loved the world and then died and rose so that all who turn from sin and believe in Him can have eternal life with God.
He called His own disciple, Peter, a Satan for trying to keep Jesus from following God’s plan for Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
Paul and Barnabas, as well as Paul and Peter, had raging arguments.
Sometimes, in the Church, as in our marriages and friendships, it’s only through the clash of ideas that the truth becomes clearer. But that need not threaten unity.
The unity for which Jesus prays is also not about denominational organizations or even our congregations.
As Lutherans, we believe that the earthly institutional Church is not to be confused with Christ’s Church, the body of Christ that exists in both heaven and earth.
In Luther’s Two Kingdoms understanding of how God rules--you remember, the kingdoms of the earth that are ruled through laws, rules, and coercion and the kingdom of God which is ruled by grace among those who believe in Jesus Christ--the institutional Church is not part of the kingdom of God. It’s one of the kingdoms of the earth.
The real Church, says Article 7 of The Augsburg Confession “is to remain forever.” Notice, it's not our buildings, candlesticks, robes, organs, hymnbooks, fellowship halls, office equipment, parsonages, parking lots, and so on that will remain forever. All of those things will one day be destroyed to make way for a new heaven and a new earth, but the Church will remain forever. Article 7 goes on to say that the Church “is the congregation of saints...in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” “For the true unity of the Church,” the Confession then says, “it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.”
When agreement about the Gospel of new life through Jesus and agreement about the administration of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion exist, along with the commitment to sharing Christ with the world that flows from that agreement, then we begin to experience the unity for which Jesus prays.
I enjoy getting together with Christians of other denominations and heritage. That’s been part of my faith journey. I was baptized in an evangelical Friends Church and was confirmed in a Methodist Church. A Roman Catholic priest preached at my ordination service. He and a Nazarene pastor joined my own Lutheran pastor in laying on hands when I was ordained. I’ve participated in and led prayer and study groups with Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Pentecostals. I served on or chaired five committees for the Billy Graham Mission in Cincinnati back in 2002, working with folks from every Christian faith tradition. Since coming to Logan, I’ve participated in a number of multi-denominational prayer services, including one just a few weeks ago.
We can and should affirm that Christians of other traditions have Jesus and have eternal life. We can pray with them. We can praise God with them. We can join them in serving our community, as we do through the CHAP emergency food bank and will likely increasingly do through the Inspire shelter for the homeless.
We must avoid the sin of denominationalism, thinking that we have an exclusive claim to God’s truth.
But there is a place for our denominations. As Lutherans, we want the Church to be united. But we have disagreements on fundamental aspects of the Christian faith with our sisters and brothers in Christ in other traditions.
So, we continue to proclaim the good news of new life by God’s grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus as we understand it and pray for that day when unity goes beyond institutional affiliations or legalistic checklists of cooperative ventures.
We pray for that day when the whole Church on earth will be united in the pure Gospel and the right use of the Sacraments. And like Martin Luther before us, we will offer to gladly admit our errors and any straying from God's Word if it can be shown to us.
Of course, the unity of an individual congregation can sometimes seem to be threatened over disagreements, too. But we know from other relationships that disagreements aren’t unhealthy. Presbyterian pastor and writer Charlie Shedd once told about a fierce argument he had with his wife Martha one morning. He left home angry. He came back several hours later to an empty house and a note. “Dear Charlie,” it said, “I hate you. Love, Martha.”
Love allows for a little neurosis in those we love and in ourselves. As the sinless Savior Jesus loves and forgives us despite our faults, He makes it possible for us to love and forgive our sisters and brothers in Christ despite theirs.
Of course, Christ doesn’t want us to be united just so we can sit around being happy about our unity. Jesus has a particular purpose in praying for our unity.
Look at verse 23. There, Jesus prays, “...that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
The unity for which Jesus prays has one purpose then: to empower us and lend us the credibility with the world to tell others about Jesus Christ.
I’ve known many churches whose members were so content with each other that they never thought about welcoming others into their fellowship. Listen: A truly united church loves nothing more than making disciples. Members of united churches love telling the spiritually disconnected and lost about the new life that only comes from Jesus Christ, and calling all our fellow sinners to “come and see Jesus Christ.”
The Church is the fellowship of the saved, reaching out to those who are still lost. We reach out in the passionate hope that those not connected to Jesus will be reached by the amazing grace God extends when repentant sinners believe in Jesus Christ!
In John 20:30-31, John explains why he wrote his gospel: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
A truly united church, like John, wants to so present Jesus to others that they will come to believe in Him and so have eternal life with God.
A united church has the salvation of the lost as its animating passion and purpose, the very reason for its existence!
Jesus prays for our unity so that the world we touch and reach out to will come to believe in Jesus Christ, the only One Who can give human beings forgiveness of sin and the new life that He died and rose to give to those who believe in Him.
If Christians live in unity for any other purpose, they may be nice people; but they are not a church.
One last thing to note about the unity of the Church is that true unity can’t be manufactured by us. We saints who are also sinners are incapable of making a resolution to be united.
Sometimes, I have our Catechism students scatter to different parts of a room and pretend that a Bible I place on a table is Jesus. Then I tell them to walk toward Jesus.
You know what happens? As they draw closer to Jesus, they also draw closer to one another.
As we draw closer to Jesus, we grow closer to our fellow Christians. We see them as imperfect AND loved people, just like us, all of us in need of daily repentance and of the grace of God given in Christ that can daily make us new again.
Jesus has to pray that His Church will be one with God and one another because Jesus knows we can’t manufacture or coerce our unity; unity is a byproduct of a people who turn their eyes on Jesus.
As we pray, read Scripture, receive the Sacraments, and serve others with a focus on Jesus, our hearts will be more dialed into others, not just ourselves. Words like, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,” will be spoken among us. And more people will understand that they too have been transformed by Jesus to be part of His priesthood of all believers, each with ministries to the Church and to the world.
All of which leads us to May 19.
I cannot tell you how to vote on the question of joining the North American Lutheran Church and leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America next Sunday.
You must decide for yourself as you pray and study God’s Word.
But I do know that a humanly-created unity based on never having differences of opinion is not the unity Jesus wants us to have.
Nor is Christian unity necessarily about affiliation with a particular humanly-created denominational structure (be it the NALC or the ELCA) or with a particular humanly-created congregational corporation.
True Christian unity is rooted in a common belief in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, in a common belief that it is only by grace through a faith in Christ that includes repentance and surrender to Jesus. True Christian unity is also rooted in a common belief that in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, God acts (we don't act, God acts) in our lives to bring grace, forgiveness, and life. And true Christian unity is also rooted in a common commitment to sharing these things with fellow sinners who will be eternally separated from God unless Christians care enough to share the truth of both God’s law and of God’s promise of new life in Christ.
Let the unity that Jesus prays for guide you in your decision on how to vote. Put your decision in Christ’s hands and know that, whatever you decide, God loves you and that I too truly love every member of this congregation. Amen