Sermon: Christ’s Prayer for Christian Unity

Text: John 17:20-26
Sunday after the Ascension
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you know that you are mentioned in today’s Gospel reading? You are. Jesus is talking about you; he is praying for you. It’s part of his “High Priestly Prayer” found in John 17.  On his last night with the disciples, Jesus shared a meal with them, washed their feet, gave them a new commandment, and answered their questions (John 13-16). After all that, Jesus began to pray. At first, he’s simply praying for his disciples, the ones he would be sending out as his apostles. But, as our text begins, the prayer shifts to include you as well. He says, “I do not ask on behalf of these only, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word” (17:20). What is Jesus praying for? Jesus is praying that we should all be one. United.

Do you think unity is essential for the Church today? Jesus, the Son of God himself, prayed for the Church’s unity, so it must be important. Sadly, we experience, sense, and know that Jesus’ prayer for us has not yet been fully answered.  The Church is divided into many branches, denominations, factions, and divisions. As the hymn says, “With a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” The Church is not united, which is an embarrassment and a reason for all denominations to repent. How about closer to home? Is there unity within our own Lutheran Church-Canada? Would you say that our congregation of St. Peter’s is united? The Church throughout the world has many divisions and factions. Does our parish suffer from division and disunity? I’ll let you think about that question. As in any human relationship, unity cannot be forced. But there is no excuse for Christians not to work afresh in every generation towards the unity Jesus prayed for. This morning we’re going to look at Jesus prayer for Christian unity. We’ll see first that Christian unity reflects the undivided unity of Father and Son. Then, we’ll see that this unity is based around the Apostolic Word.

Christian Unity Reflects the Father and the Son

The unity that Jesus prays for is not a unity based on warm fuzzies or on holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Christian unity is more than that. This unity isn’t just a formal arrangement; it isn’t just an outward thing. There is a unity between God the Father and Jesus Christ, his Only-Begotten Son. Jesus is of one substance with the Father. Our Christian unity is based on, and reflects, the unity between God the Father and God the Son. We are supposed to reflect that unity in the Church. That means that we should be united.

The unity Jesus is praying for is a unity of relationship. Jesus describes the relationship between the Father and the Son (v. 21). The Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father. Next, he describes the relationship between believers and the Son (vv. 21, 23). We have received a new identity in Holy Baptism when Jesus united us with himself.  Our union with Christ is created by God’s own work of binding us to himself, giving us faith. Christian unity results from entering into the deep relationship that exists within the Trinity. The Son is in believers, and believers are in the Son. As a result, believers are in the Father (v. 21). Do you see how Christian unity is rooted in our relationship with Jesus?

The closer we draw to Christ, the closer we draw to one another. That unity, though, does not mean uniformity in everything. In the Trinity, there exists a unity in diversity—three distinct Persons, yet they are one in essence. So also, although we’re different, with different gifts and backgrounds, preferences and appearances, we’re perfectly united in and through Christ. Christ’s prayer for unity does not mean we all should be the same. Too many think other believers should be just like them—carry the same Bible, read the same books, promote the same styles, educate their children in the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes. That would be uniformity, not unity.

There is unity between God the Father and Jesus and between Christ and the believer. This overflows in the unity of believers with one another. That unity is seen in showing love for one another. It means being committed to humbly serving one another. And, in case we might miss the point, the result of this will be that the world will see and know that Jesus actually did come to the earth, sent by the Father to die on the cross and atone for our sins (v. 21). If we have unity, the world will believe that Jesus really came from God. The Church needs to be united if we’re going to reach the world with the Gospel.  What will cripple our efforts at mission and evangelism are the divisions and disputes within the Church. Each local Church is the visible display of God’s kindness to its community. It’s like a picture of God’s love and mercy. There’s a picture frame around each Church and a sign above us that says, “Come, see what God is like.” Do you think we’re doing a good job?

Christian Unity is Based on the Apostolic Word

Jesus is not praying for unity based on our personal opinions of who God is but a unity based on who God truly is, as revealed through the Apostles. We are the ones who have come to believe because of the disciples’ words. His apostles announced the message around the world. Those who heard them passed it on, and that Word has come to us. We believe what God has revealed about Jesus in the Bible. Our unity began when we heard the truth about God conveyed through the Word of the Apostles, and our unity continues based on that truth.

The Word proclaimed by the apostles is the means for creating faith and making believers.  The Word and faith are connected. One produces the other, and the other cannot exist the one. Apart from the Word, there is no church because there is no faith apart from the Apostles’ Word. The Church is made out of those who have faith. The Word is the vital means and the root of faith. You should see from this how dangerous it is to be ignorant of the Word or to alter and falsify it in any way. Few people heard the apostles while they lived, yet the apostles still speak “through their Word” in the New Testament. Jesus’ prayer is that there should be a historical continuity between the Church of the first century and subsequent centuries. Our Church’s beliefs must not change, but they remain the same. That can only happen if we cling to the Word. Note what Philip Melanchthon wrote in our Augsburg Confession, “Our churches also teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments” (AC VII.1-2, Tappert).

Every Sunday morning when St. Peter’s meets, I look around and see accountants and teachers, blue-collar workers and management, small business owners and retirees, moms and dads, husbands and wives. There’s no reason for all of you to sit in the same room listening to me unless I am teaching the truth about Jesus revealed in his Word. We didn’t go to the same colleges, don’t like the same sports teams, and don’t have the same hobbies, but our unity is far more robust than the bond shared by those at the same country club or stadium. We all know and understand we’re sinners deserving of God’s temporal and eternal punishment. Yet all of us have received God’s forgiveness because we believe in Jesus through the Apostolic Word. We share something more powerful than a shared experience or shared interest. We share Christ, and we don’t need to compromise the truth to be unified. Because it’s the truth that unifies us. When we see  disunity we are seeing a failure to either believe or practice God’s Word. So, we must always go back to the Word.

Christ desires unity in the Church and unity among us believers. Jesus wishes us to be bound together tightly with an unbreakable bond of love and humble service. We may grow to such a degree of unity that the congregation may be an image of the natural unity between the Father and the Son. That unity is not something we can manufacture on our own. It is created through the Apostolic Word. The goal is that the world may know that God sent Jesus and that God loves the Church like he loves Jesus. Despite all the divisions and fractures and errors we see in Christendom, this unity exists now. And this unity will last forever. One day, those warts and flaws in the Church will no longer be seen. They will be healed when Christ returns to present the Church to himself as a bride radiant and beautiful, holy and without blemish.

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

Published by revfenn

Canadian. Confessional Lutheran pastor. Loci Communicant. Husband. Dad. Bach enthusiast. Middle-Earthling. Nerdy interests on the whole.

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