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"The True Unity of the Church"

John 17:20-26

Pastor James F. Wright

Seventh Sunday of Easter
St John Lutheran Church  
Champaign, IL

Sun, May 27, 2001 

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. John 17:20-21

On the night before he gave the supreme sacrifice of his death, our Lord Jesus Christ poured his heart out to God his Father in prayer. We have the record of that prayer in the Gospel of St. John. Jesus prayed not only for himself that he would not waver from the task of redeeming the world by giving his life. He also prayed for his disciples and for those who would believe in him through their word. He prayed that they would all be one.

Of all of the things Jesus could have asked for that night, what he wanted most was for unity to exist among those who believed in him. Was Jesus' prayer answered? Yes and no.

Yes, the holy Christian Church is united and always will be. That is to say, all who know that sin brings separation from God and spiritual death, and who by the Holy Spirit's calling confess that they are poor miserable sinners, and believe in their hearts that when Jesus Christ died on the cross he paid the price for their sin, and when he rose again three days later he brought them new life, all who believe these things are believing Christians. They are united by what Jesus gave them in this faith and the forgiveness of their sins. They are united in that they share a common religion: one hope, one faith in the Son of God, one holy Christian church, one baptism for the remission of sins, and one life without end. By what God has done for us on the first Easter we are one with all Christians everywhere around the world and even with those whose worship is in heaven above.

At the same time the people Jesus died for continue to answer no to Jesus' prayer for unity. Everyone knows that the Christian church on earth has divisions. There are Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Pentecostals . . . the names go on into the hundreds. Even within these groups there are divisions as there are among us Lutherans. Why does this happen when Jesus prayed that we should all be one, and God regards all who receive Jesus as savior as one flock? These divisions exist because of our disregard for the things of God. We do not cherish his sacred word and so we allow it to be compromised. Therefore we are divided from one another.

In the last one hundred years there has been an effort to bring the churches back together. It is called the "Eccumenical Movement." The problem with it has been the way this is brought about. Rather than coming together in agreement on the Word of God, many have simply agreed to disagree. It reminds me of a married couple who want to stay married and date other people. The relationship cannot survive. Churches merge and interweave communions, yet the divisions still remain within them. The fabric is easily torn apart. This is not the kind of unity Jesus prayed for.

He prayed that we would be one just as he and the Father were one. Jesus shared a common essence with his Father. They also shared the same will. What God the Father wanted for us, Jesus also wanted for us. The Father loved his people and his Son. When he asked the Son to die for his people, the Son accepted the Father's will, even though it would bring about his death. The Father and the Son shared one will. They were truly united.

This is not the case between God and many of us today. God reveals his will for us in his Word, but many disregard it. We have seen it with regard to the atonement when faith and good works are both considered the ground for our salvation. We see disregard for God's word with the sacraments, where the Lord's Supper is offered to those who have not been instructed and are unprepared to meet Christ. We see it with regard to the commandments, where adultery is tolerated, murder of the unborn is taught as a godly choice, and in many other things.

Perhaps where we see it most evident today is in human sexuality. God created us male and female and gave us natural desires for each other to be realized in the covenant of marriage. Many, many Christians today have disregarded God's will here. They live together without marriage. They gratify their desires for members of the same sex. What God calls immoral, they call diverse. One of our Bible readings for today declares the sexual immoral as dogs outside the bounds of the church.

For example, just recently a congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota calling itself Lutheran ordained a woman who is a practicing lesbian to be its pastor. More than two hundred members of the clergy from across many mainline denominational lines participated in the ceremony and gave it their blessing. Is this the kind of unity with the Father that Jesus showed us in the sacrifice of his desires and his perfect obedience to the Father's will? Certainly not! Christians everywhere are watching to see if this congregation will be called to repentance or if it will be ignored, allowing other congregations to follow.

When a Christian disregards the Word of God, which is his means to give us life, we have a responsibility to that person. We must warn them of the dangerous path they have headed down. We must also warn others not to follow that road. It is not enough to proclaim the truth of God's Word. We must also defend it against attack so that it is not stolen out from under our noses and replaced with a cheap imitation that has no power to save.

We should love others enough to point out error where it exists so our brothers and sisters can turn from it and not bring division to God's church, or, at worst, to forsake the faith and lose their salvation.

This loving concern should be shown within our congregation when one of us is drifting from the faith or overcome by sin. We should care enough to say something.

If one of your children were taking illegal drugs and about to ruin their health, their future, and possibly lose their life, surely you would love them enough to warn and discipline them that they might turn back. So it should be with the family of God also.

This loving action should also extend beyond the walls of our church. When whole groups of Christians are departing from the word of God, either by allowing immoral practices to go on in their fellowship, or when they weigh down souls with requirements for salvation God has not made, we should not hold our tongues out of fear or apathy and allow them to further divide God's church. We must warn them about the seriousness of the situation.

When we deal with individual Christians, we have to make some assumptions. If a person is a member of a church of a particular confession, we have to assume that they believe what their church teaches as public doctrine or else they would not be a part of that church. If you are a communing member of St. John, we assume you have been instructed in the faith of this congregation and synod and believe it yourself, or you would not unite yourselves with the rest of us.

There is to be no division among us. This is Jesus' prayer for us. When we are divided, we are called to repentance and reconciliation. If, after much effort, this is not possible, those who dissent with God's word are to be released. There are two reasons for this. One reason is the hope that they will realize the seriousness of their departure from Christ's word and return. The other is so that they will not lead others astray by their example.

Jesus' prayer for unity has been answered. God's Church is one. All who confess the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins will be saved. But we are not to reduce the Word of God down to its least common denominator. We are to make disciples by baptizing and teaching men to observe all things Christ has commanded.

Jesus prayer for unity calls us to action. We must all pray that the word of God will overcome our divisions, that we will not merely agree to disagree, but share that true unity that following Jesus brings. We should support the church of our confession, especially that preachers and missionaries be sent throughout to world to promote and uphold the truth. We should live a life that agrees with what we confess at God's altar. And we must pray that the Holy Spirit will visit those who are drifting away that they may be called back to the truth. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Copyright 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.

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