Several years ago I attended a get together with friends, mostly Christians, to celebrate the founding of the new church in our area. Among the guests were members of the new congregation, its pastoral staff, and invited guests from a wide number of congregations. When we walked in we recognized many of the faces and commented on how nice it was to see such a diverse group of believers coming together to give blessings to a new congregation, albeit a non-denominational charismatic one.
The cordiality lasted only a short time after the pastor of the new church completed his welcoming address. As I wandered over the food table I could not help but overhear a heated discussion between two local pastors, one Baptist and the other Presbyterian, over some trivial issue too peripheral to even mention. The disagreement rose in both intensity and volume, with veins protruding from the Baptist clergyman’s neck and spittle flying from the rarely closed mouth of his Presbyterian counterpart. Choosing to avoid this discord, I made my way through the gathering crowed to an adjoining room. After a hectic week with many hours spent hunched over my keyboard, running household errands, and helping my wife prepare for my daughters birthday party, I only wanted a bit of peace and harmony and figured that if it wasn’t available in the first room, surely it must be in the second.
I was both wrong and disappointed.
As soon as I walked in I saw a small gaggle of people in the center of the room waving their arms about, talking loudly, and attempting to settle once and for all whether or not Christ’s second coming was to be a literal event or whether it should be viewed as allegory. I recognized a few of the folks involved. There were two members of the Methodist Church that I attend, an Episcopal priest, a few Baptist and one fellow who is a leader at one of the larger Assembly of God churches in the area. This group was even louder than the pair of combatants I had left in the first room. I would have gone to a third room, but no such room existed. Finding my wife, I suggested we leave and she was more than ready. We offered our blessings to the new pastor and his wife and, at the same time, wondered what he might be thinking about the “Christian” community he had recently moved here to become a part of.
After arriving home and getting Salina, our daughter, bathed and bedded, I sought out my home office and settled in for some serious prayer time. I prayed for unity among the various Christian groups in our community and especially for the identification of a serious community need that we might all come together to address. I also prayed for God’s wisdom in finding ways to foster an increased sense of unity and mutual respect when it comes to denominational conflict.
During the time of my prayer when I just shut up, got quiet, and let the Spirit speak, I was led to revisit the prayer offered up by Jesus in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John. This scripture has always been one of my most treasured passages in the Bible and as I quietly let the words penetrate my heart, the Holy Spirit spoke clearly to me – not verbally but quietly, through what scripture calls all that his disciples may be in unity with him, just as he is in unity with the that “still, small, voice.
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. Chances are, if the Lord was present at the ceremony I had attended on that particular evening, he would have been deeply saddened.
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)
All one has to do is read the many Christian contributions to the blogosphere to see how drastically we fall short of meeting this core teaching of Christ. Instead of loving one another, it seems far too many Christians are at each other’s throats, debating the minutiae of doctrine and accusing each other of heresy, apostasy, or worse. These self-styled and self-proclaimed “Watchmen on the Walls” most often do far more harm than good. Craig Gross, in the book Starving Jesus, which he co-authored with J.R. Mahon, astutely describes this phenomenon:
Lately I have been struggling with “Super Christians.” These are Christians who love the inner debate among Christians; the Christian cops, if you will. They add nothing to the landscape of faith other than self-induced bloviating about why they are right and you are wrong. The Super Christians do a great job of throwing the Word of God in your face, all the while baiting you into public debate. Using worldly offense as their weapon, Super Christians serve no purpose other than dividing Christian against Christian.
Nothing further need be said.
© L.D. Turner 2010/ All Rights Reserved
Post Script: The original version of this essay was written back in 2008. The above is a revision, with several notable additions. The subject of Christian unity has been on my mind quite a bit as of late.
- unity (crcpastorchad.wordpress.com)
- Understanding The Lord’s Prayer With John Dominic Crossan (huffingtonpost.com)