Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church; Creston, Iowa;
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”” (John 17:20–26, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Here in this text Jesus prays for unity. I’ve been thinking a lot about unity this week. Maybe you have, too. What exactly does it mean to be “united?” It’s a tricky word for us, isn’t it? Actually, I think that unity is something the whole world is looking for. In some sense lots of the violence of the Middle East is about unity. And closer to home we have the false unity of men and men, and women and women seeking to be married. This is just the latest; there are other attempts at unity. For a long time now men and women have been trying to live together without being united in marriage. They believe that marriage isn’t necessary, and yet the statistics show couples who live together before they are married will most likely divorce. Political correctness tells us that if we just say things the right way we can create unity by not causing offense. And I don’t know if you feel the pressure (but I certainly do) to say that Muslims worship the same god that we do, or to say that all religions are the really the same and each leads to God, each in its own way. We don’t have to look very hard at these attempts at unity to see that they really don’t work. They collapse under their own weight, because they are unity that is based on things that are not true. They are based on misunderstandings of the way the world really is.
The church as a whole isn’t doing any better. It is very ironic that in a year that Hollywood gave us a great movie like “The Passion of the Christ,” the Christian church in American gave us the first openly gay bishop, “in the hope that the church can be more inclusive.” And the desire to be a united church, in spite of the differences that exist, grows every day. But the kind of unity that is sought is the kind that simply ignores the reality of the differences in the teachings of the different church bodies. There are real significant differences in understanding who God is, what He has done in Jesus Christ, and how He works in peoples lives. This kind of unity is not true unity at all. It is a unity that ignores the truth of God’s Word for the sake of an external coming together. This is the kind of unity that promotes communion tables that are open to all comers without regard to what they believe or even the kind of teaching they support. It is the kind of unity where adultery, divorce, homosexuality and other sins are outright ignored; “for the sake of unity.” Even when those sins are present in those who serve as the Church’s pastors. The Church, just like the world around it, is seeking unity. But it is a false unity that isn’t the unity the Jesus prayed for.
And yet, Jesus prayed for the unity of the church; that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Are we to believe that Jesus prayer went un-answered? I hardly think so. We can trust that what Jesus prays is true. He is the One to whom God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” So when Jesus prays that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. We can know that it is true. The Christian church throughout the whole world is united, just as Jesus said. It really isn’t a choice is it?
Someone said to me once that when we became Christians we gave up the right to choose who we would love. We are united because of Christ. If you want examples of how the church is united you need look no father than the pews we are sitting in. All of you know of times when you were helped by someone here. God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ who are here for us when we need them. We are united when we hear about God’s great love that sent Jesus to live and die and rise again for us. We are united when we gather and have the gift of salvation poured down our throats. We are united as we speak the words “in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” that were spoken, when Jesus united us to Himself in Baptism. We are united because we have been claimed from the jaws of death, rescued from sin, and saved from our own sinful desires. Our unity comes only from the work that God does and what God has done, not from anything we have done or could possibly even do. Martin Luther said it very clearly in his explanation of the third article. (Page 323, Lutheran Service Book)
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.
Because we are united, we have a responsibility to love one another. We have the responsibly to correct one another, and accept each other’s correction, and even to hold one another accountable.
But we also know that we don’t always act very much like we are united. That’s because we are sinful people. That’s because the very nature of sin is separation. Sinful people are separated from God. Sinful people are separated from one another. Sin is divisive. That’s the problem with all human attempts at unity; they are filled with, and driven by sin. For an example just look at so called “homosexual-marriage.” It is no real marriage at all. It is a false unity that is based on a lie, a lie that two men can have the same kind of unity that God has created for men and women. Or even the example of live-in couples, claiming to have unity when there is none. Because the unity that God puts into marriage is based on a life long commitment to love, honor and cherish in spite of what trouble may come. How about an example closer to home: Even though we are a very friendly church, not everyone who comes here feels welcome. We lament the fact that the children of our congregation don’t come to church, but when they do we turn right around and do things and say things that tell them that they aren’t really welcome. And we hold a pretty tight reign on who we really want to be in this church; and who we really want making decisions and running programs here.
True unity doesn’t come from sinful people. It can’t come from sinful people. It comes only from and through Jesus Christ. Jesus brings unity to a divided world. He brings restoration to a separated world. Through God’s Word made Flesh, we find peace, healing and wholeness; first, in restoration of our relationship with God; and then in our relationships to other people. It is in Jesus Christ that we find that we have true unity. He is the one who has knit us together into one body. That’s what Jesus is talking about when He prays that they may be in us. We are united to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
It works like this: When human beings were separated from God because of sin, God united himself to the human race by becoming a human being. Jesus was conceived by an act of God, a miracle in which God took on human flesh and became a full and complete person. He grew like any person, was born like any person, and was fed by his mother like any person. And although he was a complete human being he wasn’t like any other person, because He was without sin. Jesus is God and Man perfectly united together, completely God and completely human. In order to bring an end to the separation between God and man that is caused by sin, Jesus lived a substitute life for sinful people. He was a perfect “stand in” for us, because we can’t stand for ourselves. To better understand what I’m talking about, imagine that you are the star player of a basketball team. But, in the first few seconds of the game you foul out. You can no longer play in the game but your substitute comes in and plays for you. All the points that he scores still count, just as if you made them yourself. The other teams coach can’t contest those points because they were made by a substitute. Jesus whole life was lived perfectly, as our substitute, in perfect unity with God, the Father. So that, as Jesus prayed, they may be one even as we are one. And Jesus our substitute goes even further. Jesus doesn’t just do the good things we should do; He doesn’t just live the life we should live; He suffers the punishment we need to suffer. Jesus on the cross suffers and dies as the greatest sinner that has ever lived. Not because He was sinful, but because He substitutes Himself for sinful people. All of God’s anger at our sinfulness is re-directed to our substitute. All of God’s punishment for our sin is put on our substitute instead of us. Jesus became sin for us, and the very thing that prevents our unity with God is put to death. Sin is sent to the grave with Jesus. Jesus, our substitute, is made to be guilty and we are declared not guilty. With sin done away with, with its punishment paid in full, Jesus was raised to life again. Again He rises in our place, a complete human being dead and buried, raised again to live. You see, all that Jesus did He did for you, and you are united with Him through Baptism in it all, through faith in what He has done. It’s all Jesus. It’s all His work. It’s all for you.
Now look around you. It’s all Jesus. It’s all His work. It’s all for them, the young ones and the old ones, the brother in Christ sitting next to you, the sister in Christ sitting behind you. It’s for the person here that you don’t particularly like. It’s for the person here that you love more than any other. It’s for the person here who has hurt you deeply and even the one you have hurt deeply. That’s the unity that binds us. That’s the unity that is found in the true nature of Jesus Christ. It can’t be found or seen in any way other than in the truth about what Jesus has done, and for whom He did it.
And He did it for other people, too. Many don’t even know or care about what He has done for them. They aren’t united to Him, because they don’t trust that what He has done is for them. Jesus talks about that, too. …so that the world may believe that you have sent me. He’s talking about taking the message of what He has done to people who don’t know Him. This Good News about true unity in the world isn’t just for you, and the people sitting right here. It’s for folks you know out there. In our friendships here we share the unity the Jesus Christ has given us. We also want to build up the friendships we have with people who don’t come here, and people who don’t go anywhere. So that Jesus can use us all to show what He has done to bring unity to the world.
The church will not find unity by ignoring sin. Unity is found in repentance and forgiveness that only Jesus gives. It will not find unity by setting aside real differences that take away from the truth about what Jesus has done for us. There is no “piece”, nor “part” of the Gospel that is unimportant. The world won’t find unity by wallowing in its own misguided sense of morality. It won’t find unity in speaking so as not to offend. The unity the world is looking for is found only in a relationship with the True God. There is no relationship with the True God outside of Jesus Christ. He is God’s only way of uniting human beings with Himself once again. Amen.
The Peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.