Sunday, May 08, 2016

What's Christian Unity? And What It's For?

John 17:20-26
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. Beginning at verse 20, Jesus prays: “My prayer is not for them [that is, the first century disciples who were following Him back then] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message [that’s you and me], that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you...”

Jesus prays for unity among Christians. But what exactly does it mean for Christians to live in unity with each other? It's easier, in some ways, to talk about what Christian unity isn't, allowing that to help us form an answer to that question.

So, first of all, it’s not unity with each other apart from unity with Christ. In a denomination to which many of us once belonged, we were accused of breaking the unity of Christ’s Church when we left. But when a group of people calling itself the Church breaks with Christ, it’s no longer united with Christ. We left that old denomination in order to have unity with Christ and with His true Church. Those who repudiate the authority of God’s Word over the life of the Church and the life of Christians are the ones who break the Church’s unity. Unity with other people without Christ is not unity.

Secondly, Christian unity isn’t coerced uniformity. I knew a man who bragged about his marriage: “I’m so proud that we’ve been married more than fifty years and we’ve never had one disagreement.” But I later learned that his wife had been taking antidepressants and seeing a counselor for years because her husband was a thoughtless dictator. He was happy; she was a wreck. Unity is not coerced uniformity, whether in a marriage or in a church.

Thirdly, 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 and disagreement are to be expected. Only spiritually immature people think that good churches don’t have disagreements! As someone has said, if two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant...or maybe dead.

Consider the Biblical record of Jesus when it comes to conflict.
  • Jesus publicly disagreed with Pharisees and Sadducees for valuing their religion instead of a personal, saving relationship with God.
  • Jesus also condemned those among His fellow Jews who refused to believe in Him, despite Jesus being the clear fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah King God would send to save His people from their sins.
  • Jesus called His own disciple, Peter, a satan for trying to keep Jesus from following God’s plan for Jesus’ cross and resurrection.
Was Jesus breaking the unity of believers when He said these things? Absolutely not! Sometimes, in the Church, as in our marriages and friendships, it’s only through the clash of ideas (and the clash of wills) that those who have taken a wrong turn--often both parties--can be brought to the right path and truth becomes clearer. But such clashes need not bring disunity.

Fourthly, 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. The real Church, says Article 7 of The Augsburg Confession, one of Lutheranism’s basic statements of faith, “is the congregation of 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.”

As much as I appreciate the North American Lutheran Church, of which Living Water is a part, it is only the Church to the extent that it remains faithful to that Biblically-rooted understanding of the Church.

The same is true of Living Water Church.

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 disagreements, and even a little neurosis. 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. What would be the point of that?

It turns out that Jesus has a particular purpose in praying for our unity as His Church. Look at verse 23 of our Gospel lesson. Jesus prays, “...Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”

The unity for which Jesus prays has one overriding purpose: to empower the disciples of His Church--you and me--in fulfilling our one and only mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ. That’s it!

I’ve known many churches whose members were so content with each other--and how comfortable and united they felt with each other--that they never thought about welcoming others into their fellowship. They would brag about how friendly their church was, but when visitors came to worship, Bible studies, or church activities, they were only friendly to each other, not the visitors. (That’s a contrast to Living Water, where visitors have to negotiate a gauntlet of unofficial greeters as they make their way to the sanctuary!)

A church united in Christ loves nothing more than making disciples, seeking out and welcoming others so that they can know Christ as their God, Lord, and Friend.

Disciples from 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.”

They love taking the time to help others to know and grow in a saving relationship with Christ!

We do this in the passionate hope that those not connected to Jesus will be reached by the amazing grace God extends through saved, repentant sinners like us, disciples of Christ who bet our whole lives on Jesus Christ!

In John 20:30-31, John explains why he wrote his gospel: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Like the apostle John, a Church united with Jesus Christ 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!

As someone has famously put it: “The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.”

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.

Disciples of Christ and His Church believe that Jesus meant it when He said in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If Christians live in unity for any other purpose than helping people follow Jesus, 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 resolving to be united. Unity in Christ is God’s gift to people who are focused, not on themselves or their preferences or obsessions, but on Jesus Christ alone.

Sometimes, I have Catechism students scatter to different parts of a room and tell them to pretend that a Bible I place on a table is Jesus. Then I tell them to walk toward Jesus. Here’s the deal: 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. Jesus prays 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. I think that I may have misunderstood what you were saying, could you explain it to me again? How can I share Christ with others? How can I invite others to know and follow Christ?” will be spoken among us.

More and more disciples in our midst will understand that they too have been transformed by Jesus so that they can be part of His priesthood of all believers, each of us having ministries to the Church and to the world.

As we live each day as part of this community of Christian faith, Living Water, may we turn always to Christ in repentance and renewal and pray that, as we do so, Christ will unite us in doing the very thing that we all were saved by Jesus Christ to do: Turn this dying world upside down by living and dying for Christ alone and by making disciples; reaching up, reaching in, reaching out. Amen

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