A sermon based on John 17:20-26, also adapting elements of Nicky Gumble's address to the delegates at Alpha's Europe, Middle East and Africa week.
The gospels frequently tell us that Jesus prayed, but we are very rarely told what he prayed for, and how he prayed. But in John chapter 17, we get a unique glimpse into Jesus' prayer life, as the whole chapter is one long extended prayer. In this prayer we see lots of things that Jesus prayed for. For example he prayed that his name would be glorified, he prayed for joy, he prayed for his disciples, and he prayed for protection against the evil one. But at the very heart of the prayer of Jesus is one overriding theme – he prays for the unity of the church.
But the great tragedy is that as we look back at the history of the church over 2000 years, so much of its history has been marked by disunity and division. But despite the problems facing the church, and at times the lack of unity, we strive toward our ultimate goal of unity, realising that our differences don't have to divide us. The church today needs to heed Saint Augustine who said. "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
This evening I want to draw out four things about unity that we see from Jesus' prayer in John chapter 17.
1 UNITY COMES FROM THE HOLY SPIRIT
Jesus prays that 'I myself may be in them'. This is the most extraordinary truth of the New Testament – that Jesus comes to live in you and me by the Holy Spirit.
St Paul writes to the Christians and says, 'Do you not realise that Jesus Christ is in you?'
Let me ask that question today: do you realise that Jesus Christ is in you? Do you believe that?
Jesus lives in you and in me by his Spirit. That's what happened on the day of Pentecost – the Holy Spirit came to live in every single follower of Jesus. Jesus came by his Spirit to live in you and in me.
To have Jesus living within us, through his Holy Spirit, is an extraordinary privilege, and gives us tremendous power. But it also places an important responsibility upon us about how we live our lives, and how we conduct our business, because the Bible warns us that it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit.
For example, I have encountered people who I describe as Sunday Christians. These are people who when they come to church are sweetness and light, but when they leave church they change completely. The way they behave, their attitudes and values, and the way they conduct themselves when they are not in church can seem a million miles away from how a Christian should live.
Of course, I have to recognise that there are times when I also do the same. One of the things my wife complains about, is that when I'm behind the wheel of our car I can change. I can become very impatient and irritable when I see people driving badly, and Beata complains that when I get irritated, I can become quite aggressive in the way I drive. I was listening to Richard Taylor, who was speaking at the Diocesan Renewal Conference in Lichfield last month, and he told the story about how after one Sunday morning service, he got stuck behind a white van, which was crawling along very slowly in the fast lane, and as a result was holding up the traffic. This really annoyed him, and so when he eventually managed to pass the van, he started shaking his visit at the driver, only to realise to his horror that the person driving the van was his worship leader!
But we can grieve the Holy Spirit in much more serious ways. I think speaking badly against other Christians and churches in particularly is something that the Holy Spirit doesn't like – even if we feel it may be deserved.
The Holy Spirit doesn't want us to speak badly against one another. Because the same Holy Spirit lives in all of us, whatever church or denomination we belong to. And it is the Holy Spirit that unites us.
We are united by the fact that we are sons and daughters of God, the Father; we're united by the fact we love Jesus; and we're united by the fact that the Holy Spirit lives in us. So unity comes from the Holy Spirit.
2 UNITY IS BASED ON LOVE
Jesus prays that "the love you have for me may be in them."
There is no higher love than the love God the Father has for Jesus his son. And Jesus' prayer for us (because he is praying for us), is that the love we have should be the same love that God the Father has for Jesus.
There can be no unity, without love, Jesus commanded us to love both God and one another. This is the great commandment, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" (Luke 10:27). And he said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)
The church theologian, Tertullian, writing in the 2nd century, remarks how it was the love that Christians had for one another, that attracted pagan attention. He writes, ""What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness... they say, 'look how they love one another'" (Apology 39).
If you love someone, it makes it difficult for there to be disunity. The Apostle John said, we cannot claim to love God if we do not love our brother (1 John 4:20). So if we as Christians talk about loving God and loving our neighbour it must show in the way we live our lives. Of course, there are times when we may have our disagreements, we may not always see eye to eye, but this does not need to lead to division.
The unity that Jesus prays for is not something that can be imposed on people, it can only come through a change of heart, which results from being touched by Spirit of God. When Christians are united, it becomes a real sign for hope in a fragmented, divided world.
3 UNITY SHOULD BE VISIBLE
Jesus prayed that we 'may be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me'. Jesus wants the church to be united – completely, visibly united. The psalmist writes "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!" (Ps 133:1)
Here in Walsall we are fortunate that that there are many signs of real Christian unity, where Christians are coming together from different churches and denominations, and are working together to serve the people of our town. Something I am personally involved with is Walsall Street Ministry, where every Friday night Christians from various churches across the town go out into the town centre to offer people non alcoholic drinks and a friendly listening ear. And when people ask us where are we from, we don't say "I'm from this or that church" but simply that we're Christians from churches across the town, because ultimately there is only one church – that is God's church. Last Monday I was privilege to be at a meeting of church leaders from across Walsall, as we signed our support to bring the Street Pastors to Walsall, yet another sign of God's church here in Walsall uniting together to serve our community.
For me, what matters is not what church someone belongs to, but that through Christ we all belong to one family – God's family. This is why Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 writes "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." (1 Cor 12:12-13).
4 UNITY IS LINKED TO MISSION
Jesus prayed for complete unity so that the world may believe.
One of the saddest and most off putting things in any society is disunity, and disunity within the church is I believe one of the greatest barriers to belief. A study was conducted which asked people to use single words to describe Jesus. They responded, "wise, accepting, compassionate, gracious, humble." Then they asked them to use single words to describe Christians, they said, "critical, exclusive, self righteous, narrow and repressive." Clearly there is a problem here, and I suspect a large part of it is to down to the fact what the world sees of Christians is not our love for one another and our unity, but infighting, and disagreements on various issues.
The reality is that when Christians and churches fight each other, people are not interested. But when churches unite, it is so attractive. When Christians are united together in love for one another AND for God, it provides a powerful witness to the world of God's love. This is why I believe so passionately in the church, because where else would you find these people from different backgrounds, different cultures, coming together as one body, caring and supporting one another through good times and bad. Bill Hybels, is one of the founding members of the Willow Creek Church in America, one of America's largest churches. This said this about the local church "I believe that the local church is the hope of the world. I believe to the core of my being that local churches have the potential to be the most influential force on planet earth. If they get it and get on with it, churches can become the redemptive centres that Jesus intended them to be. Dynamic teaching, creative worship, deep community, effective evangelism, and joyful service will combine to …strengthen families, transform communities and change the world" The church can only achieve this if there is unity.
When missionaries took the gospel of Jesus to other nations, they used to feed the hungry as an opportunity to share with them the gospel. Today, the food for evangelism is relationship. People are starving for relationship, and this is what we have to offer people. Relationship as part of God's church, and relationship with God.
What attracts people to church is when they see a community full of joy, unity, and love for each other. It is not so much what we say, but what we do, that will attract people to God.
WHAT HOLDS US TOGETHER
What should unite us as Christians is our love for God, because it is this that binds us together.
Imagine for example, if we had thirty pianos, and they were all tuned using the same tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to each other. They would be of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to the one tuning fork. So if thirty worshipers meeting together, look to Christ, they would be far more united, than if they turned their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Our unity comes from God, and we are to be united to him.
Jesus prayed for you and for me, and for all his followers, that we might be united, in order so that others will believe in the God who transforms and heals in order that churches will be renewed, cities transformed, and nations healed by Jesus. This will only be achieved when we allow the reality of the Holy Spirit to be at work in our lives, then and only then might we experience the joy, peace and love that comes from knowing Christ in our lives.