I want to talk about unity. Since Tuesday, November 8th, we have been living with the results of a presidential election which fairly clearly underscored many of the divides that still run deep in American society. Some people are excited about a change in political power, while others are frustrated, angry, and fearful. And knowing that there are Christian men and women on both sides of the spectrum, I felt it would be a good time to address this political conundrum by turning to a different question. That is, despite the obvious divisions in 2016 America, what about unity—specifically unity amongst those who follow Jesus?? What does unity look like in the Body of Christ, and the Church?? How are believers in the church united across the wide spectrum of different traditions, cultures, and denominations that make up Christianity? Is such unity even important?? It’s interesting that even in the immediate aftermath of this devastating electoral defeat for the Democratic Party, both Hillary Clinton and President Obama had words of encouragement and a unifying spirit to share, rather than expressing bitterness or anger at the man who had just defeated them.
Outgoing President Obama reminded Americans about several important truths as he prepared to hand over the reins of power to someone who, on the surface at least, he would appear to share little in common with. “One thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush’s team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect. Because we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country…We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first.”
Then listen to some words from Hillary Clinton, who despite just having lost the most important election of her life, was still in a conciliatory and positive mood: “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans…I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Now how is it that even following such a devastating political defeat, both Obama and Clinton can be so gracious and magnanimous towards a man with whom they admittedly have some very significant differences? I believe it’s because they both recognize that America, the ideals for which our nation stands, and the overall national unity which they can help foster, is more important than the partisan divide. And I think there is also a belief here that ultimately, those things which unite us as Americans remain stronger even than the obvious divisions that threaten our society. Now I share all this by way of illustration to return back to my main topic—what does unity in the church look like? What does it look like not only for groups—churches and denominations, but amongst individual believers? What beliefs and practices bring us together, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, as Christians, how do we demonstrate a spiritual unity to the world at large? These are some of the questions I want to examine through the lens of John 17:20-26, as well as some other passages. These verses in John thoare part of a passage that constitutes Jesus’ great final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. And in these last few moments before everything turns against Him, one of the big things that is on Christ’s mind is the unity of those who would call Him Lord. In light of this, I think that the 2.2 billion people around the world who profess to be Christians would all do well to call to mind the shared faith we have in the One Savior and the One God who is great enough to surpass all of our human weaknesses, divisions, and imperfections, to bring us together at the foot of the Cross.
To start out, let’s address a question that perhaps is obvious to some of you, but still is important to unpack a little. Because before we can fully understand why unity in the church is so important, we need to understand where the church itself came from. And no, I’m not referring to the Baptist church, or indeed any one particular denomination. This is a much larger question regarding the universal church. Who started it—who was its founder?? Now those of you who know me probably know that I’m a history guy—I love to study the past, and something that’s always been intriguing to me is how things get started. Because almost any entity you can think of has what we might call an origin story—and often that origin or beginning leads us back to one particular person, a founder.
Cities have founders—Romulus and Remus were the two legendary founders of Rome, nourished, so the story goes, by a female wolf.
Nations have founders too—Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan statesman and military leader who in the early 19th century, played a key role in the establishment of five South American countries as independent from Spain–Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the nation that would bear his name—Bolivia.
Companies have founders—the Bell Telephone Company, established back in 1877, was started by none other than Alexander Graham Bell—the main who incidentally also invented the telephone.
If you’re ever been to Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, you can see a large statue of Walt Disney standing hand-in-hand with his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary vision of one man, whose fertile imagination launched an entire multimedia and entertainment empire.
But when we talk about the Church—we can talk about a founder greater than any other you could possibly imagine. Cities, nations, companies, even creations of fiction and the imagination, all have their founders—but in each case—these individuals built something that ended up being greater than themselves. But in the case of the church—its founder, Jesus was infinitely greater than what He created, yet He lived, and died even to serve His creation! The church, according to Scripture is not a man-made entity, the result of politics and hierarchy, but the creation of none other than God—in the person of Jesus Christ. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18—“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Furthermore we know that the church, being once established by Christ will prevail ultimately because of the sacrificial love that Jesus has for the community of believers. It is a love that perfectly exemplifies the type of love a husband should have for his wife, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Christians call the church the “Body of Christ”—a term that has twofold significance. It recognizes on the one hand that all of us as individual believers come together in a corporate fashion to compose a unified entity that should live and work in the Spirit of Jesus. This phrase also reminds us that Jesus has sacrificed Himself in love for the welfare of all Christians, both individually, and corporately.
So for all of its flaws and shortcomings, when we speak of the church as a whole, let us never forget that the idea of the church and its founding take us back to none other than Jesus. That truth alone should serve as a powerful reminder for us that the church is an institution worthy of respect and worthy of our best efforts to serve in and through it for the cause of Jesus. But within each individual church, as well as across many different churches and denominations, what is it that actually binds us together in a shared sense of value and purpose? What does a belief in Christ lead us to profess and practice in common? Well I want to highlight just a few truths here, which hopefully will further impress upon you the importance of unity within the Body of Christ. Because while it can be all too easy to focus on what separates us from other Christians, we must not lose sight of the great number of cherished beliefs that have been held in common by the vast majority of Christian men and women down through the centuries from the time of Jesus until our present age. Even if you think you have little in common with a Catholic priest in Rome, a Russian Orthodox grandmother in St. Petersburg, a Pentecostal congregation in Rio, or African-American Baptists in Alabama—there is an amazing commonality of belief and practice that binds us together as Christ followers. That commonality extends first from our beliefs—in one God, and in the Savior, Jesus Christ. A statement of universal Christian belief that I particularly value is the Apostle’s Creed. It dates back to at least the 700’s AD, and contains a powerful summary of those essential doctrines and truths that most Christians share across denominational and cultural boundaries. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” Now I won’t try to unpack all of the beliefs referenced in the Apostle’s Creed, but most of us who are believers can recognize in this statement a fairly accurate summary of a good deal of essential Christian doctrine. And let me just add a brief semantic explanation here. In the Apostle’s Creed, “catholic” is a lowercase word, that is referring not to the Roman Catholic Church, but is being used in its other sense to mean “universal” and “all-embracing.” Christians are also bound together by things that we practice in common. For example, although the understanding of how exactly to carry out these ceremonies may vary from church to church, virtually all Christians in some way observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. Christians worldwide also share in the church calendar, sometimes known as the Liturgical Year. Although the dates and customs of celebration may differ, almost every Christian will celebrate holidays like Easter and Christmas.
Perhaps the most powerful factor in binding us together as Christ followers is our common adherence to the Word of God—the Bible. The power and permanence of God’s Word has been a strong anchor for the universal church down through the ages—through changing times and seasons, the authority and witness of Scripture remains steadfast. Jesus promises us this—in Matthew 24:35 He assures us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Then we can agree with and echo the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:89—“Forever O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” Now sometimes you might hear people say something like, “Well yes Christians everywhere use the Bible but it’s been changed and distorted so much down through the years by all of the different translations!” So I want to share with you a brief anecdote about how one Christian answered such an objection. Horizons International is a ministry located here in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. Their founder is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli before coming to faith in Christ as a teenager. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so often when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, which is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them, “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! Despite the different translations that exist, we should be confident that the essential message and truth of God’s Word, the Holy Bible has been preserved, and will continue to be preserved by the Holy Spirit.
Some people perhaps wonder how does the concept of unity relate to the obvious diversity that is present within the church?? And here I’m speaking not only of diversity of cultures, languages, races, but also a diversity of different personalities, gifts, and talents. I remember having a conversation with a student recently on campus at CU, and although he’s not a Christian yet, he’s been reading the Bible some with me, and is definitely spiritually open. But anyway, his concern was that becoming a Christian meant he would have to conform to a certain type of personality, with certain interests and hobbies, maybe even a particular way of talking or dressing—and I tried to assure him that while becoming a Christian does mean being molded increasingly into the person and character of Christ, it does not mean that you have to lose your individual identity, or lose those unique characteristics that make you different from everyone else! Scripture talks about this—and how unity within the church can still serve to highlight and celebrate the diversity of different gifts, talents, and abilities that are present. Listen to Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6—“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of you calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” So first, Paul is laying out the case for our unity as believers. But then listen to what follows—“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift…And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul expresses a similar thought—“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.” Paul then says later in this same chapter “Now you are the Body of Christ, and members individually.”
Those of you who know me well know that my great passion in sports is college football, and my favorite team is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now I have to brag a little on my home state here, because in case you didn’t know, Alabama has been one of the best teams in college football over the past decade—during which time we’ve won four national titles, and an amazing 91% of their overall games. This remarkable run of success is largely due to their talented head coach Nick Saban. He calls his coaching style and system “The Process” and a key part of it is leaving nothing to chance, and building a comprehensive team of experts to guide the Alabama football program in every possible way. You might think that to be of service to a dominant college football program you either need to be an athletic young man between the ages of 18-22 or an experienced coach that lives and breathes football strategy 24/7. But Saban has recognized that there are many other pieces to the puzzle of constructing a championship caliber football team. So at Alabama the strength and conditioning coach is an equally important part of the program, as is the nutritionist, the academic advisors and tutors, and even a sports psychologist. In this way, Saban leaves nothing unaddressed that could possibly affect the on-field performance of his players, and he’s quick to mention how all of these diverse figures are equally important to the overall success of the team.
There is a misconception amongst some that if you really want to be useful in the Kingdom of God, and serve the Lord, you have to devote yourself to full-time vocational ministry, or become a missionary. Now of course we need good pastors, and missionaries, and even campus ministry leaders, but it is also absolutely vital to the Kingdom of God that we have Christian engineers, Christian doctors, Christian business people, Christian teachers, and so on. So you should never think that you are of any less importance to the Body of Christ because you don’t do ministry as your career. A lot of people can get hung up on the decision about whether they should go into ministry or not as a profession, and while that might be a discussion that some will need to have, I think perhaps the larger and overarching question is prefaced by a statement. As Christians, all of you are going into the business of ministry and missions, and from there it’s just a matter of finding out what is your most effective mission field to serve in. And a Christian serving in whatever walk of life God has placed them in is just as important and vital to the health of the overall church as a pastor, missionary, church planter, or campus minister.
We’ve talked about how unity in the church comes from shared beliefs and ultimately from Christ Himself—so what does Jesus say on this subject? Well there are many passages we could turn to, but I want to focus on just a few verses for a moment. In Luke 9:49-50, Christ briefly addresses the question of sectarianism. This can be defined as the anger and strife that emerges between two different subsections or factions within an overall group. And if you know much at all about the history of Christianity, you know there has sadly been a great deal of blood shed over the years in support of sectarian quarrels—Catholics fighting Protestants, Orthodox fighting Catholics, even religious violence between citizens of the same nation—such as was experienced in Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century. And it is clear from Scripture that none of this internecine violence and division is ultimately pleasing to Christ. Listen to Luke 9:49-50—“Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us. But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.”
Well that brings us to our central passage, John 17:20-26. Now, it’s interesting, but a few chapters before this prayer, in John 10:16 Jesus makes a significant allusion to the fact that His message will soon spread far beyond just this small band of followers and the largely Jewish world He lives in to reach many different peoples: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” So as these other, future believers come into faith, Christ emphasizes the unity that should prevail. Then, in John 17, during those last few precious hours before His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for Himself and His disciples. But as we read a minute ago in verses 20-22, Christ also prays for many others who will one day believe—that even includes us as Christians today! “I do not pray for these alone but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.” There’s much to unpack from just these three verses, but basically Christ is praying for the great universal church, for all those who will come to faith through the teachings that will be written and passed down by those original 12 Apostles. And that includes us now. How cool is it to know that more than 2000 years ago, Jesus was already praying for you! Note also that when Jesus desires us to have unity amongst ourselves as believers, He’s calling us to model a much greater unity which exists in heaven. Because when Christ says that He and the Father are one, He’s referring to a perfect unity between God the Father and Jesus the Son as part of the Trinity. And the Church is called to honor and reflect that heavenly unity. Then listen to verse 23 in John 17. “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Here is a reference to the world knowing that Jesus has been sent by God. Christ is trying to remind us that the extent to which the universal church can either display unity, or a lack of it—will powerfully affect its witness. To put it in simpler terms—as my pastor Jay Wolf used to say back in Alabama, no one wants to come to church to see a fight! If those on the outside, non-believers, only see Christians continually arguing amongst ourselves, how attractive and compelling a testimony is that really, coming from people who claim to follow the Prince of Peace?? Make no mistake—a spirit of discord, strife, disunity and hatred that springs up between groups of Christians comes from Satan himself. You see the devil can so easily twist our seemingly spiritual feelings around. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with a new church being established, or even a new denomination—this has happened periodically throughout history, according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But when that new church or group of believers is consumed with pride at their exclusivity and even led to believe that they alone have a monopoly on the truth, and when they start to look with contempt and derision on other Christians—well that is where the spirit of Satan very well may have superseded the Holy Spirit, and be at work. I heard a joke one time—“A man went to heaven and was being shown around by St. Peter. As they went from cloud to cloud they came to various doors which St. Peter would open. One showed a large group rolling on the floor and talking in tongues. “Our Pentecostals” Peter said. Next was a serious ritual. “Our Catholics”, he replied. Then they saw a group engaged in a beautiful choral performance—“The Episcopalians”, St Peter offered. At the next cloud, Peter didn’t open the door but instead put his forefinger to his lips in a hushed motion and they both tiptoed past. Once past, the man asked what was that all about? “Those are the Baptists”, Peter explained. “And they think they are the only ones here!!”
Now as I have already alluded to—there is nothing wrong with having different denominations or churches—their existence alone does not necessarily constitute an offense against the unity of the Body of Christ. Because we can have differences which don’t have to lead to disputes, or mutual distrust and dislike. We can think of different churches, or even different denominations like families. Now everyone knows that their family isn’t perfect, and yet I bet that most of us will at the same time stick up for our families. I’m a Winslow—my family has certain things we value, and they’re important to us, they’re not just arbitrary things, but maybe there are some differences with my family and your family. That’s ok—we don’t have to be exactly the same, maybe it’s even good if we’re different. It’s more interesting that way, and we can learn some things from one another. My denominational family is Baptist—that’s one major reason why I came on staff with Christian Challenge—which is the Baptist campus ministry at CU-Boulder, and not with a non-denominational group like Navs, or Cru, or Intervarsity. I am proud to be a Baptist, I can tell you some specific reasons why I am Baptist, and I would even say that I think there are some things we do really well as a church and a denomination. But by no means do I think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that the Spirit of Christ isn’t present and working in other churches and denominations. So all that to say, when we talk about unity, we need to make sure it’s unity for the right reasons, and a unity that is centered on Christ. Let’s go back to John 17:24-25—“Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me.” It’s clear to me from Christ’s Words, that our unity should be centered on Him—because faith in Jesus alone, not in our good works, not in our church membership, not in anything else, is what will bring about our salvation. Along those lines, I have a pretty simple criteria for what makes a church or a denomination Christian, in terms of their doctrine. You can get complex and look at a big statement of belief, but I have a very concise rubric that I borrowed from my pastor back in Alabama—“Jesus plus nothing.” If someone is saying that to be a Christian means believing in Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or believing in Jesus plus devotion to the Saints and Virgin Mary, or even something that sounds really good like believing in Jesus plus promoting social justice—they’re off base for me, and they’re missing the point. Because anything that is added to faith in Christ and then presented as an essential component of what it means to be Christian, is unnecessary. Jesus alone is enough. So we of course should reserve the right to dissociate with groups which have either removed Christ or added to Him being at the center of the church and Christian practice. So in summary, what we are talking about this morning is not unity at all costs, and it’s not an inauthentic unity for the sake of political correctness. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg concluded a period of destructive warfare between Lutheran German princes and members of the Holy Roman Empire. The peace settlement’s religious implications were defined by a Latin term–Cuius regio, eius religio, being translated—“Whose realm his religion.” In others words, the prince of a particular region would now determine the religion of his subjects based on his own beliefs. A Lutheran prince’s subjects would have to be Lutheran, a Catholic prince’s Catholic. Now this is spiritual unity of one kind—but it was forced, and therefore artificial. I would even hazard to say this type of spiritual unity does not honor God because it proceeds from man-made strictures rather than the heartfelt convictions of individuals.
I want to conclude by talking in some very practical terms about what unity in the Body of Christ can look like, and how we can promote it. Because I firmly believe that promoting unity and ecumenism, a spirit of cooperation amongst those in the universal church begins not with bishops, popes, pastors, or presidents of denominational conventions. No, it starts on the grass-roots level, with people just like you and me. Ordinary Christians, who, nonetheless, can be called by God to do some extraordinary things. And many of the same things that promote a healthy walk with God as individuals will help us to be ambassadors of unity and reconciliation amongst the Body of Christ. So if you’re wanting to promote unity in the Body, ask yourself—are you striving to embody the nine Fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23?? What about those superlative qualities of love as listed in 1 Corinthians 13—are you making your best effort to live those out?? Love is paramount here—because it is the one quality that Christ highlights as the defining hallmark, and characteristic of those who would be His followers. Listen to John 13:34-5—“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Then, in John 17:26, Jesus says “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” In addition to the qualities we should demonstrate individually, what about corporately?? What does a church that is unified, and actively working to promote unity amongst the rest of the Body of Christ look like?? Well the Book of Acts gives us a beautiful portrait of how the early church came together in harmony to promote the general welfare and furtherance of the Gospel of Christ. Acts 4:32-35—“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” Of course the early church wasn’t perfect—we can garner evidence of all the doctrinal disputes and problems they endured from the early letters of Paul. Yet there is the portrait here nonetheless of a unified Body of believers whose priority is each other’s mutual welfare as well as the spread of the Gospel message.
So what might your role be in promoting unity amongst the Body of Christ?? We certainly don’t have to always agree on everything, and as I’ve tried to show, a diversity of belief and practice can be the working of the Holy Spirit, just as the Spirit has also distributed a variety of different spiritual gifts and talents among us. But we should always be striving to build bridges amongst one another. Let’s follow the words of Paul in Romans 12:18—“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” If you can do that, and promote unity amongst all believers, you will be giving a powerful testimony to the way in which Christ can unite peoples across boundaries of race, language, history and culture. And today, in an age where there appears to be so much polarization and disunity, for all Christ followers to proclaim and live out the One Thing, Same Thing together is a priceless opportunity. Don’t miss it—be part of it—be one, even as Christ and the Father are. Amen!