After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. John 17: 1-11
Jesus prayed, …that they may be one, as we are one. He wasn’t just talking to the Father about his disciples, Peter, John, James and the rest; Jesus was talking to the Father about us! He wanted us to be just as much “one” or unified, as Jesus is with the Father. Frankly, that would make most of us want to be atheists (or Buddhists at best). Why do I have to be in unity with him; and why with you? And frankly, some of you don’t like me and aren’t too fond of others here too. Why unity, LORD….oh, WHY unity?
The answer comes a little later. First….before the “why” – what is unity? Unity is not so much everybody thinking, talking and looking alike. It has much more to do with pulling in the same direction. I heard a Southern Baptist missionary to Africa who had served thirty-years quote an old African saying as: You can’t kill a flea with one finger. It’s true; the thumb and forefingers will push in opposite directions, but it’s the cooperation that gets the job done.
The Apostle Paul said that was our “vocation” – our job – to walk worthy of God’s calling, so we would keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. After a lot of years, and (admittedly) a lot of mistakes and eye-openers as a pastor, I’ve come to the conclusion that unity is no easy task in any church. In the everyday course of life, people do not get along very well.
It is like the man who was stranded all alone on a deserted island for 12 years. When he was rescued they noticed he had built three structures in the long years he was marooned there. That seemed odd, so the people who rescued him asked about it. He said that one building was his house, and one was his church. He said the third building was where he used to go to church before he got his feelings hurt! Some of us even have trouble being in unity with ourselves.
You could make a case that human nature almost despises unity; at the very least you could say our nature can’t seem to stand unity for very long. Human nature aside, Jesus prayed for us to have it. The question remains…why?
The answer comes a few verses after this morning’s text ends:
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. John 17:21 (NRSV) (emphasis added)
Jesus prayed for us to be unified so people who don’t know God will know there is truly a God who loves – and loves them – and they will believe in Jesus. Some would say, “So what” – it isn’t my business whether or not someone believes in Jesus – it’s a personal decision. That may be true, but if you’re a disciple of Jesus you have chosen to draw close to him, love him and do his will.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. John 14:15 (NRSV)
Jesus even said Heaven was in the balance over this.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matthew 7:21 (NRSV)
Unity is that important; it isn’t ALL that we’re responsible for as the body of Christ, but we cannot do anything for which we ARE responsible without unity!
Now…if unity between believers in the body of Christ is that important – so much so that Jesus made it a command – what gross sin it is for a church body to be divided! For a church to be divided is like:
· going to Yankee Stadium and finding out they don’t play ball games there, but they’ve got nice seats and tasty hot dogs.
· or walking into Ben & Jerry’s and having them tell you they’re all out of ice cream.
Unity of the Spirit between Christians is just that important. Without the unity of Christ there is no need for a church to exist. And that is the very reason so many churches are out of business. There may be 15 or 20 people hanging in there, keeping the doors open…but where there is no unity of Christ, the Spirit departs; the church is no more.
That is why Jesus gave us reconciliation (Matthew 18), so when the unity of a church is broken by strife and discord, that unity can be restored. It is a fact that one person cannot do the work of the church; but one person can be the reason why the work of the church isn’t done. A person who refuses to reconcile – or even try – can break the spirit of a congregation! One person can disrupt the present and future ministry of a church…for years! I have seen it firsthand.
Unity isn’t simple or simply achieved; it is also not easily gotten back. The will of God can be accomplished without money, programs or denominations (including Methodists) – but it cannot be accomplished without unity; God works through people – people in unity!
More than two years ago our Bishop Rev. Dr. Larry Goodpaster, unveiled his vision for the churches of our conference; he named it “The Power of 3”. At the heart of this plan was to start new congregations, revitalize congregations that had grown stagnant, increase the mission effort in our neighborhoods and see an increase of at least 10% in worship attendance. The power of 3!
I have come to firmly believe that the power of 3 cannot be accomplished in any other way than the power of ONE! The “Power of ONE” is God’s people living and loving in Christ-honoring unity. With all due respect to my Bishop, the “Power of 3” also is meaningless without the Power of ONE!
As previously stated, without unity, God’s will is not going to happen. The “Power of 3” is a measurement of the tangible results of the Power of ONE. In unity any church can be revitalized, help start new churches, send mission teams and increase attendance. Some of that can even be accomplished without unity, even in the midst of extreme discord. (God’s ability is never shortened by the actions of people). But unity is the fertile soil for growth in God’s vineyard. Without the sweet fertilizer of unity, we will raise a crop of weeds, briars and stones. There will be activity and no spirit. We will have a crowd; we just won’t have a church.
What would happen if we exceeded all four goals of “The Power of 3”? What if we not only exceeded, but leaped over the goals….lapped the goals….destroyed the goals; what if we doubled, tripled or clobbered them by ten-fold? Would that be satisfactory….would it be enough? And for whom? Are we trying to satisfy a Bishop’s vision? Or is our heart set on God?
Now, before you write to the Bishop about my impertinence, let me assure you that our Bishop is not interested in goals to stroke his ego – he is first concerned with pleasing God, and seeing our church BE a fruitful congregation. His goals are simply measuring tools to help us understand if we are being fruitful. Without unity there is no pleasing God, no matter how far we surpass the goals of an earthly leader.
The “Power of 3” is not our goal; pleasing God is our goal. And friend – God is never pleased with a church out of fellowship with each other. The goals we have set presuppose that we are in unity. Goal-setting in terms of new members, and any other new numbers, before you join hearts and hands in unity, isn’t so much like putting the cart before the horse….it’s like sending the horse of unity off to pasture and chopping up the church cart for firewood. There’s nothing left to do but put up a new sign that announces the truth – God isn’t welcome here. It would be the truth because He only is welcome when hearts are open.
Without unity we live in the brokenness of anger, discord and confusion. God won’t get in the middle of that! Where will God’s Spirit be found working mightily?
· Do you recall what happened at Pentecost? Do you recall how God’s Spirit broke out on the disciples and they preached boldly and people were saved, blessed and signs and wonders were done? It was the upper room – they were all together – in ONE accord – the saints were in unity!
· Do you recall Peter and John walking into the temple? A beggar asked for a handout. Peter said, “I’m as broke as you are, friend, but what I’ve been given is yours….rise up and walk in Jesus’ name.” Peter could say that because his heart was in unity with God and men.
How do porcupines dance? Very carefully! I’ve stated that unity isn’t simple; you’ve got to work at it. But it isn’t overly complex either – God designed unity to grow in humble hearts who want it more than they want anything else.
So….two related questions for us to chew on…
1. What works AGAINST unity?
2. What will HELP us to be unified?
Eyes are the window for the soul. It is also the chief suspect whenever lust has taken over. With the eyes we covet and discover more to covet. The eyes were designed to take in the beauty of God’s creation. But with those eyes we also see what we lack….and want. That can be as simple as wanting to be as strong or beautiful or gifted as our neighbor. It could be the things our neighbor possesses that we think would look better in our driveway. Lust leads to jealousy, which is the seedbed for disunity.
The tongue in your mouth weighs between two and three ounces. The Apostle James called it the most unruly member of the body. And what destruction it can cause! I have never known anything that can ruin the unity of a church, family, business office or friendship quicker, deeper or more lastingly than words gossiped (“shared” in Christian circles) or just plain launched like a .38 caliber bullet.
The will is where we choose to live for self or live for God’s kingdom as his child; it’s where our decisions are made. Willfulness is when we choose what we prefer – we will against unity; it is simply the decision for “me” rather than what God wills. A person who chooses to live his life for God is also choosing against living his life for selfish reasons. Integrity demands that we follow-through on that decision by making Godly choices. Godly choices promote unity, selfish choices which destroy unity.
These three…the eyes, tongue and willfulness against Godliness are destroyers of unity. Then, to the second question…
These three “helps” or promoters of unity are mirror images of the three unity-killers.
For our eyes….BLINDNESS
If there is anything we need it is to be blind to color, race and the usual prejudices that go along with that which divides us. Blindness promotes dependence on other than our eyes. Our physical eyesight provides all sorts of natural temptations that enter our lives. We need spiritual eyesight to super-impose over the natural sight. That only comes from depending on God, rather than what we can see.
Have you ever made a choice for God that is so absurdly different than what was clearly before you? I was presented with an opportunity once to serve a prominent church with a good salary. The eyes said, “Wow” but the spiritual eyes saw differently. Some years later I was glad I said “no”. The church was a seedbed of hotheaded and carnally-minded people. It fell apart and was a disgrace to everything holy.
For our tongues….SILENCE
I recall a quite volatile situation. A man got very angry over something I’d said. Although I meant no disrespect – rather the opposite; I enjoyed his company – but he took my teasing remark seriously. And he offered to remove my head from my shoulders with his fist. I trusted God and apologized immediately. We were never the best of friends; but the unity of our church was not broken over my remark.
We need to be trained – most of us – to keep our mouths from running constantly. Elijah couldn’t hear God for all the noise; finally, as he listened in the quiet there was that still, small voice. We would do well to remember that we are given two ears and one tongue, and should use them in like proportion!
For our will….SURRENDER
Jesus informed us that the cross is the way of His kingdom:
Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. John 15:20 (NRSV)
There is just no way around this…if your will is going to be the way, you will not have Christ governing your life…and you will be a cause of disunity in the church.
Now, the preference is that every person who attends here would be an example of Christlike lifestyle. But there is also no easy way to say this – if you have no intention of surrendering your will to Christ, you should never join the church.
That is to say, if you have no appetite or willingness to be united with the other believers of this church…please don’t join it. If you’re already in, reconsider your reason for being here. If it’s just because of nostalgia or this is where your family always attended…that’s not a good enough reason to be a disturbance to the unity of God’s church, where the will and attitude of Jesus Christ is the expectation.
These are much like a three-rail fence I once saw in Florida. The anchor post was a living palm tree. The dead wooden rails were laid in those long, extended bits of “bark”. As the palm tree grew (and the fence rails didn’t) the living tree split the fence all apart. It is like that for anything of the Spirit of God.
Jesus said that it is foolish to think that old wineskins can contain new wine. As the wine expands, the brittle old skins will split and you lose both the wine and the skins.
This is the difference between the old rails or wineskins of lustful eyes, wagging tongues and selfish wills, as opposed to Blind faithfulness, thought before using the tongue and absolute surrender of the will to God’s ways.
Unity cannot survive as a dead split rail fence coupled to a growing tree. Either the rails or the tree will die. With humans, the strife of conflict drives the Spirit of God from our presence….and with Him, any chance of unity or ministry.
Unity exists in hearts….human hearts that want to join hands in service to our LORD. One of John Wesley’s more well-known sermons (Catholic Spirit) is based on the text of an Old Testament incident of two former rivals meeting. I think it rightly fits when it comes to how Christian people ought to behave.
"And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered: It is. If it be, give me thine hand." 2 Kings 10:15.
Unity cannot be measured by any statistic ever developed, but you know it when it’s present. It starts infant-like, birthed in the hearts of humans as personal humility. It grows into a force that cannot be contained by the universe – unity, a bond that will not be broken. It is winsome and glorious…and there is no place in the cosmos better than being right in the middle of a people bathed in that kind of spirit!
I lived in Jacksonville, Florida in the early 90’s. We lived on the North side of town. There was a paper mill just over the bridge to our north, and the kind of processing chemicals they used back then….well….propriety forbids me to tell you exactly what the odor was like. At times, when the humidity got above 80% (which was 98% of the time), and the wind was towards the South, the smell that came wafting through North Jacksonville like the angel of death made you long for the atmosphere of whatever chemistry experiments went wrong in high school.
I cannot tell you how many times the story of the skunks was circulated during those years. It seems a family of skunks was migrating down from Georgia. It was August – hot and humid, and the paper mill was in full production of an especially powerful batch of atmosphere.
One baby skunk cried out, Mama, what IS that smell. Mama skunk replied, I don’t know, baby child; but we got to get us som’a that!
The desire for unity has to hang in the air a bit as we breathe a holy cleansing breath each time we consider being selfish. Followers of Jesus are as much created for unity as the skunk for stink. It’s what Jesus prayed for; that’s the power of ONE!
You may never explain it fully, or understand it, or be able to tell how it got here…but it is like the God who created…he is the wind – you can’t see him, but you can know his presence. And that presence will be strong in this place, with us when we are a people of unity. You cannot put a price tag on that; it’s not for sale. But it is what we were created for.
Oh that we were ONE!
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!