Throughout his writings, the Apostle Paul went to great lengths in order the stress the importance of unity in the church. In fact, this whole concept of unity is central to the Christian faith and can be seen as one of many facets of our tradition that flows from the unity of Christ and the Father, so clearly illustrated in the great prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17. Paul saw the necessity of the church existing in a similar bond of unity and he discussed this in many places. For example:
Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)
I specifically chose this verse for our focus because it not only points to the inherent unity of the Body of Christ as envisioned by the Apostle, but also points to an internal unity stemming from the fact that all Christians have the same God residing within them. This aspect of the faith’s unity is often ignored or, in extreme cases, even denied. Before getting into this important theme, however, let’s take a brief look at a few of the major points Paul is bringing to the fore in his letter to the Ephesians.
We are told to keep ourselves united in Spirit and bound together in peace. The two key principles here are unity in Spirit and peace. The same Spirit that animates my personal spirit, brings life to your personal spirit as well. Elsewhere we are told that this Spirit is the same force that raised Christ from the dead. It is part of God’s great plan of restoration that the same blessed Spirit animates all of us. With that fact before our eyes, it is easy to see how we, as Christians, are to exist in unity and peace with one another.
The problem is, we Christians seem to have a hard time following this command from the Master. Even worse, it seems many of us either ignore the command or worse still, rationalize it away with some theological pirouetting that would make Baryshnikov green with envy. I think it is high time we tried a different approach.
In John 17 Jesus addresses his Father on the eve of his crucifixion, asking above Father. He brackets this request with mention of the Father’s glory and his own glory that he had in oneness with the Father “before the world existed.” We can only imagine yet maybe never truly grasp the character of the oneness and unity that Jesus is speaking of. He is stating in no uncertain terms that he and the Father existed in perfect unity before the creation of the world. Further, throughout all his trials and tribulations while walking on earth, he and the Father maintained that unfathomable level of unity. He also makes it clear that he wants us to have the same type of unity with him that he had with the Father. Moreover, and this is vitally important to grasp, he wants and asked for something further.
Later on, in 17:20-22, Jesus then asks a remarkable thing – something that is directly related to our unity as Christian brothers and sisters – and something that put the arguments I had heard at that evening’s gathering into stark, not to mention dark, relief. Listen to Jesus own words:
I am praying not only for these disciples, but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. (NLT)
Do you get the importance of what Jesus is asking of the Father? Do you really get it? He is asking that the Father to grant us the same kind of intimacy that existed between Jesus and his Father. Even more incredible is Jesus’ statement that he has given to us the same glory that the Father granted him. And why did he do this? So we can be as one just as Jesus and the Father are one!
Jesus also tells us that he is giving us this inexplicable level of glory so that the world will understand that God sent Jesus here. What does this all say to us as Christians in the 21st Century in relation to unity in the Body of Christ? I know what it says to me. There is no tenable explanation or rationalization for disunity. Jesus, with both focus and clarity, expresses that it is his wish that we exist together with the same harmony and unity as he has with the Father.
Does this mean that it is a sin to disagree with one another? No, I don’t think this passage is saying we cannot have differences. However, I do believe what Christ is telling us is that even though we may disagree at times, that disagreement can never be so extreme as to break our harmony and unity. The fact that we have hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations, sub-denominations, sects, and cults illustrates that we have not lived up to Jesus’ wishes in this regard.
In this unity that the Lord so clearly wants us to exemplify lies perhaps the most profound and fundamental aspect of God’s character – love. We are to love one another enough to disagree in harmony and to place that harmony above insisting that someone march according to our particular drummer or sing our particular anthem. This is the essence of agape, the selfless love of God and of his Son, Jesus.
Godly love exudes a pleasant fragrance, a delicate but undeniable scent of unity and oneness. And for what purpose are we to have this abiding oneness? After telling us that we are to exist in this heavenly unity so that the world will know that Jesus was sent by God, the Lord mentions an equally important reason. We are to exhibit a genuine, brotherly unity so that, in the words of Jesus:
…the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. (John 17:23 NLT)
Nothing further need be said.
© L.D. Turner 2009/ All Rights Reserved