Summary: Our Lord is praying that, in the midst of a divisive, confrontational world, Christians might attain a unity of faith and purpose.
“Complete Unity” Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
From John 17, "Our Lord’s Prayer for His Disciples" (sermon series)
John 17:20-23, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through that they may all be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and You in Me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
A man was shipwrecked on a deserted island for several years. When finally he was rescued, those who found him were amazed by his survival skills. He had constructed several buildings on the island, to include two churches. This puzzled the rescuers, and they asked why two churches since he was the only person there. He answered, pointing, “That’s the one I pray in, and that’s the one I wouldn’t step foot in!”
The song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”…what will they know if we don’t get along? Our Lord is praying that, in the midst of a divisive, confrontational world, Christians might attain a unity of faith and purpose. When the world sees us bickering, they write off Christianity. Jesus is praying for those He wants us to reach with His Message.
Unfortunately, even as early as the Book of Acts there was dissention and misunderstandings within the Church. A controversy arose over the place of Gentiles within the assembly of believers…and we continue to struggle over discord. Nonetheless, we strive toward our ultimate goal.
It’s been said that, “sin is the great dividing element” (Spurgeon). Why are there so many different denominations? Churches divide over comparatively minor issues such as worship style, baptism, Bible translations, the 2nd Coming, and the ordination of women. I’m not advocating universalism, nor am I assuming that every group that calls itself Christian really is; I’m trying to expand our view of the “Body of Christ.” It may be bigger than we think! Cliftondale Congregational isn’t the only legitimate church in the North Shore; there are many others preaching the Gospel. Our differences don’t have to divide us. Augustine penned a rule that should guide our relationships with other believers: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
It grieves me when I encounter groups who exclusively claim to possess all of God’s truth. They think they are the only true believers, the only ones following God’s will on earth. They act like a private club by claiming that all other religious groups are false. This elite, cultic claim causes division; it also causes their members to trust their affiliation, not their faith, to get them to Heaven.
Theology can be divisive…but do you know the #1 reason most Christian ministries fail? It isn’t persecution, political turmoil, environmental hardships, or lack of funds—it’s a failure to get along with other believers! It’s also the #1 reason people leave churches—they have a run-in with someone, harsh words are spoken, and instead of being tolerant, instead of trying to reconcile, they get their “feathers ruffled” and they leave the church. Maybe there’s someone here with whom you need a more loving relationship. Lack of unity can destroy all we seek to accomplish for God. We need to pray for one another, avoid gossip, appreciate our diversity, mend fences if necessary, and refuse to get distracted over divisive issues.
A key reason we care about unity is that we’re part of what’s been called the “universal church”, a fellowship of all believers that rises above denominational labels. We comprise the fellowship of the forgiven! So let’s not be fractured!
How big is our “circle”? Does it include people different from us? Someone joked that when Jesus said His Father’s house has many rooms, He was referring to the different denominations, races, social classes, and musical tastes. I’m proud of our Congregational heritage, but our primary allegiance is as followers of Christ. I’m not against denominations, except for when they cause division. The devil uses this to split and distract us. We can’t appraise clergy and churches solely by their labels. Each congregation serves a purpose within the one Church. We find common ground with our common faith in Christ; we are one at the foot of the cross. What unites us is our shared relationship with Christ, which is greater than anything that could divide us.
Within the Methodist Church there was a strong doctrinal disagreement between two of its early leaders, John Wesley and George Whitefield. Someone asked Wesley if he thought that he would see Whitefield in Heaven. Wesley said, "probably not, for George will be so close to the Throne of God that I will hardly catch sight of him!" Although the two disagreed on some theological matters, Wesley was careful not to create problems in public that could hinder the proclamation of the Gospel. We can disagree without being disagreeable, even over controversial matters. We can choose to remain dialogical.