Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Farewell Discourse V: Unity"

John 147: 11, 17-25

Ephesians 4: 1-6

      This morning, we conclude our Lenten series on Jesus’ farewell discourse.  Over the span of the first four weeks, we’ve explored Jesus’ parting words chronicled in the 13th through 17th chapters of John.  We’ve brought out of those chapters Jesus’ teaching regarding four broad areas:  servant hood, fear, love, and persecution.  Today, we end the series on words of prayer Jesus offered just prior to He and His disciples moving from the upper room to the Mount of Olives, then to a garden called Gethsemane.  The specific portion of this lengthy prayer I’d like to bring into focus this morning is Jesus’ petition to God the Father for unity among His disciples.

          (Read John 17:11, 17-19)

      This 17th chapter of John has been variously identified by scholars as “the high priestly prayer,“a recapitulation of the previous four chapters,” “an address of admonition, consolation, and prophecy.”  All that sounds real impressive in the halls of academia.  But commentator Gerald Sloyan gets right to the heart of it when he identifies this prayer of Jesus as simply “a prayer for unity among believers.”

      It seems the most important thing for Jesus as He prepared to leave this world was that His disciples would be one – of one spirit; of one mind; indeed, of one body as living witnesses to the Son of God; that which would later be called “ekklesia” translated “church.”  Not many years following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the apostle Paul pleaded for the same thing when he wrote to the Ephesian Church:  “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called….. making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”  You may recognize these words from the liturgy we use for baptism, as baptism is on one level a demonstration of oneness and unity within the covenant community. Yet in spite of Paul’s impassioned plea, and Jesus’ last dying wish that the church be one, the church sadly remains one of the most divided institutions on earth, and quite honestly, has been from day one.  Jesus constantly struggled with division within the ranks of His own small band of original disciples.  They argued with Him and among themselves on every issue imaginable:where to find enough food to feed four thousand persons; how to deal with a blind man crying on the side of the road, and children clamoring for attention; what should have been done with the costly ointment a woman allegedly wasted on Jesus; whether Jesus was truly resurrected or not; who the 12th disciple should have been to replace Judas Iscariot.  There seemed no end to their bickering and whining.  Even Peter and Paul - the church’s early leading apostles - couldn’t get along, so they had to go their separate ways to keep peace.  Paul and Barnabas - close missionary partners - had a major falling out at Antioch over who their associate pastors would be.  They ended up going their separate ways as well. 

      So you see, the division we find in the Church of Jesus Christ some two millennia later is more of the same.  Everyone wants to go their own way, and get their own way.  Hence, the church which Jesus pleaded in prayer would be one is a church of hundreds of denominations, and hundreds more of splinter churches which have broken away from denominations.  We divide ourselves along lines of theological differences, Biblical interpretation, worship style, spiritual emphases, lifestyle requirements, giving requirements, social causes, sacramental practices, church architecture and adornment, racial and ethnic composition [interesting that we’re integrated in virtually every area of society except one – the church, where we remain woefully segregated]. And on it goes.  Even within denominations and within congregations, we further divide ourselves over politics, economics, social status, leadership styles, sexual orientation, musical tastes, pastoral leadership expectations.  And on it goes. 

     It is evident from the words of Jesus’ prayer that knowing He was leaving the physical presence of His disciples returning to the Godhead, He feared what would happen in His absence.  For Jesus, better than anyone else, knew human nature.  His experience of three years with the disciples He so loved taught Him that their tendency was to argue over every difference, and divide along the lines of every issue.  So Jesus prays: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.”  Keep them together under the name of Christians; Christ followers.

      Yet Jesus, idealist that He was, was a realist as well.  He knew that the coming together of the church in oneness would be a process; indeed, a life-of-the-church-long process; it’s consummation in oneness occurring only upon His return.  That is the church envisioned by John in the Book of Revelation; the holy city – the New Jerusalem wherein Jesus will be enthroned as the head of the perfected body of Christ.

      Meanwhile, Jesus’ prayer is for a process of growth into wholeness and completeness we call in theological jargon “sanctification.”  “Sanctify them in the truth;” Jesus prays. “Your word is truth.”  That is to say, set them apart for your divine purposes, they growing continually toward the holy truth of Your word.  Much as with the individual on their journey of faith, moving toward the perfect life in Christ, the church’s journey is to be marked as well by diligent and consistent effort to move toward the perfect body Christ envisions and prays for; a process of sanctification.

     The road, however, would be long; laborious; curves and potholes; hills and valleys.  The process of sanctification of Jesus’ disciples as a community would be an ongoing struggle through seasons of understanding and misunderstanding; agreement and division; traveling the same road and going separate ways.  And we as disciples of Jesus Christ – the church – have been struggling along that road for 2000 years.  So what might we, at this point along the road of sanctification, practice in our church life to make our efforts diligent, and consistent, and effective in moving toward the unity Jesus desires for His people?

      First, we acknowledge that we’re not perfect; that we, at least as Presbyterians, don’t have all the answers.  The Presbyterian way is an exceedingly good way, but not the only way.  We must be continually examining our ways – our theological assumptions; our style of proclamation and worship; our responses to social justice issues; our interaction with other denominations, and even with other religious faiths.  The clarion call of the Protestant Reformation was Theodore Beza’s statement:  “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda,” translated “The church, having been reformed, always is being reformed.”  We’re never quite there; never what we would call perfect.  Far from it.

      In Max Lucado’s book In the Grip of Grace, he tells this story:  “Some time ago, my wife Denalyn brought home a baby monkey.  I didn’t want a monkey in our house, so I objected.  ‘Where is he going to eat?’ ‘At our table,’ Denalyn replied.  ‘Where is he going to sleep?’ I inquired.  ‘In our bed,’ she answered.’  What about the smell?’ I demanded.  With a smile, Denalyn answered, ‘I got used to you.  I guess the monkey can too.’” You see, church unity doesn’t begin with examining other churches and identifying their weaknesses.  It begins with examining ourselves; our weaknesses; our stumbling blocks; our peculiar smell.  Nor does church unity begin by demanding other churches act like, look like, smell like us.  Rather, the first step toward church unity is in the admission that we’re not so perfect ourselves.

      A second practice closely related to the first: we respect the diversity which comprises the body of Christ.  There is a vast diversity of personality styles and spiritual terrains we all bring to the larger church.  Paul, in his analysis, speaks about varying gifts of the Spirit manifested in its individual members which makes the body of the church full and rich, and moreover interdependent. We need each other; complete each other.  I believe Presbyterians have a great deal to offer.  Our spiritual gifts, our theological interpretations, our form of church government, our style of worship and prayer are distinctive.   But we as Presby’s represent but only one terrain of the church’s vast spiritual landscape.  Likewise, Pentecostals have much to offer.  Their spiritual gifts, theological interpretations, form of church oversight, style of worship and prayer may be vastly different from those of mainline Presbyterianism, but bring much to the landscape as well.  Likewise Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Nazarenes, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Korean Church, African-American Church, Coptic Churchall are parts of one landscape, each seeking to move toward a fuller understanding of Universal Truth; of the Word; of Christ who calls us all.  The overarching question is: how do we find unity in such diversity?  I suggest neither by forcing unity, nor by ignoring diversity. 

      Rather, a third practice:  we diligently search out the common ground.  Instead of focusing the spotlight on that which makes us different, why don’t we focus on what we share in common?  What is it that ties us together?  If we get out of our narrow trajectories of self-interest and dare to remove our protective blinders, we just might find there is more which ties us together than we think about: our common belief in Jesus as our Lord, our Savior, the Son of God, the Friend of humankind; our shared belief that Jesus calls His church to make a positive difference in the world; our fundamental belief that Christ’s greatest commandment is to love God, and to love others as we love ourselves; the common table whereupon we observe and celebrate the sacrificial symbols of Christ’s atoning death for all people.  Imagine if we were able to make these things central in our lives together as the multi-faceted, multi-gifted body of Christ!  The world Jesus prays we are sent into wouldn’t look at a divided body and criticize, What’s wrong with them.  The world would see a diversified and unified body and exclaim, Look, that’s right with them!  Then, then, we might win the world to Christ!     

Finally, and at the risk of repeating myself for the hundredth time, our most important practice leading us toward unity:  remembering whom we serve.  We don’t serve ourselves.  We don’t serve the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We don’t serve reformation Protestantism.  We serve the common denominator; the One who identified His way as the way, the truth, the life.  Whether we serve Christ with pipe organ and well-crafted liturgies, or with tambourines and speaking in tongues, or with guitars and praise choruses, or with serving meals and distributing clothing, or with evangelizing on the streets and taking the gospel to the plight of the inner-city, or with mission in Haiti or Guatemala, or in a thousand other ways, glory is brought to Christ alone.  Diversity?  Yes.  Different styles, approaches and preferences?  Absolutely.  Widely varying spiritual terrains?  Without a doubt.  But all these are drawn together, like the metal spokes of a well-constructed bicycle wheel are drawn to the alloy hub where the power of the chain and gears is brought to bear.  This is the point of unity where all are equally-regarded, equally-respected, and equally-valued.  Jesus prays we move toward the hub; toward Him.

      As we await Jesus’ second coming when as a bridegroom, He will receive His bride - the church - and bring it to perfection and full unity, let’s keep His vision clearly in front of us, and the words of His farewell discourse in our hearts:  “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  Amen.

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102