John 17:20-26 – The Need for and Importance of Unity

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (New International Version)

What is the Church’s identity?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

The Church’s Identity

The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit. This special relationship that believers and Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenant relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenant community – receiving the blessings first promised to Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith. 

God mercifully acts on the Church’s behalf through choosing, adopting, and redeeming people. This new covenant community receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things. 

So then, the Church is not a voluntary society, like other human institutions. Rather, it is divinely called by God. The Church is the community of the redeemed whom God has joined through the Spirit to Christ. Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

The Nicene Creed

This ancient ecumenical creed describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from being in fellowship with God through Jesus in the Spirit – expressed through the bond of love and a common worship which includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments. Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is holy. The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work. Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth. As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do. Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is catholic. This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together. The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is apostolic. Apostolic means “to be sent.” The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who remain in darkness. Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that good news is spread to all nations.

The Church’s Mission

  1. The Church is called to love God.  The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells. The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints. The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners. The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ. The forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

The Church’s Importance

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach. The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

The Belhar Confession

This Reformed Confession of faith directly addresses the need for and importance of Christian unity, which was of great significance to Jesus in his high priestly prayer.

We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.

We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another.

We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:

That we love one another;

That we experience, practice, and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;

That we share one faith, have one calling, are of one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope.

That together we come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;

Together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;

Together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another;

That we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.

Amen.

Philippians 1:3-11 – Better Together

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joybecause of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (New International Version)

The need for a medical intervention means there is ill health in the body. And the need for a spiritual intervention means there is ill health in the Body. Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. Bodily sickness prevents us from doing normal activities. Illness causes us to need care and to have an inability in caregiving to others.

Spiritual health in the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort into keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there is an inability for service and mission, a lack of unity, and an absence of joy. It was in such a situation that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians as a spiritual intervention meant to help restore their spiritual health.

In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity, joy, and fellowship through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others. Paul emphasizes throughout his letter that the church is to be a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others.

“We are only as strong as we are united, and as weak as we are divided.” 

J.K. Rowling

Every pronoun, “you,” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing, avoid tattoos, or vote Republican.

The Apostle Paul knew without a focus on mission, on encouraging one another with the good news and sharing the gospel with others, the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people will nit-pick one another to death with their various opinions and wants. Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find complaining, arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the gospel of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes, when we are facing hard circumstances, we need to recall past days when this was true of us and remember why we were joyful.

In difficult times of injustice, we need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another. When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the hope of Advent and the anticipation of Christ’s coming, give us a way to understand our past and order our steps in the present so that the rule and reign of God is planted in our hearts and spread throughout the world.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to set aside our cranky unhappiness and divisive spirits. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and everything which hinders us from godly union and connection: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth to glorify you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Stay Connected

Photo by Grape Things on Pexels.com

Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8, NIV)

“Remain in Me”

The word “remain” means to linger in the present moment – to be mindful to ourselves and our situations and stay connected. It is to have continual unbroken fellowship with Jesus.

To have a connection, there must be two ends to connect. The Jesus connection is consistent. It’s always there. We are the other connection. And, frankly, we can be flaky – pulling away and coming close. Which is why Jesus gives a repeated invitation to keep the connection. Here are a few other translations of John 15:4….

Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. (CEV)

Live in me, and I will live in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself. It must stay attached to the vine. In the same way, you cannot produce fruit unless you live in me. (GW)

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (NKJV)

Stay connected to me, and I will stay connected to you! A branch cannot produce fruit on its own but only if it has a vital connection to the vine. In the same way, there’s no way you can produce fruit, at all, unless you have a meaningful connection with me.

Jesus (John 15:4, own translation)

Our task as Christians is to remain connected to Jesus. So, the question is: How do we keep the connection without breaking it? How can we be fruitful?

Focus On the Relationship

Christianity, at its core, is about a living relationship with Jesus. Yes, doctrine is important. And it is necessary to know the basic tenets of Christian faith. Yet, any knowledge and understanding we gain about Christianity is to be channeled into developing the relationship.

Bible trivia is only as good as the understanding we apply to build the relationship. Knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others. While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Christ’s redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, death, resurrection, and ascension are all meant to restore a severed relationship with humanity. Therefore, knowing doctrinal truth is not the same as using the doctrines to connect with God in a loving relationship.

As with all relations, it takes planning, dedication, time, and effort to grow and maintain our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we fail to use our time and energy on that relationship, then the leaves on the branch begin to wither.

Scripture, silence, solitude, community, prayer, giving, and fasting have always been at the center of Christian practices which are designed to put us in a position to hear and receive from God.

Relate Well to the Other Branches

The church is a community. Christ and the church have a vital union with each other. We are a living growing community. I used to live in a place where there was a tree that had grown up next to an old fence post. The tree grew tall and engulfed the post to the degree that now you can only see part of the fence post.

To try and remove the post, you would need to remove the tree. The two have become one. And the tree is still growing. Not only are we connected to the trunk, but we’re also connected to each other. We are all part of the same vine. We aren’t separate vines. So, we all need to do our part in the system of the vine.

Keep Close to the Vine

My grandmother had a grapevine in her backyard when I was a kid. I have firsthand understanding that the best grapes are located closest to the trunk of the vine. The sweetest, juiciest, biggest, and best tasting grapes are found in the middle, securely next to the vine’s trunk.

If you’re into sour grapes, then pick the ones at the end of the branches. Show me a sourpuss Christian, and I’ll show you a Christian who is not close to Christ. Show me a sweet Christian and I’ll show you a believer who daily works at their connection with Jesus.

Pruning is Necessary

Healthy vines need to be pruned, at least once a year. Ideally, twice a year, in the Spring before budding; and in the fall, after the harvest. To ignore pruning is to compromise the vine’s ability to produce both good grapes and lots of grapes. The branches of a grapevine need to be kept short because the nutrients are concentrated in and near the vine. Long branches compromise the harvest.

Pruning hurts. From the perspective of us branches, pruning feels like judgment. But it isn’t. Even though pruning is painful for us, it makes us healthier and tastier. It’s better to do a few things well, rather than try and do a lot of things for which we have limited time and energy. It is a good practice to do some pruning twice a year.

Know Why You are Connected

Christians are joined to Jesus. Yes, we are connected so that we are saved from sin, death, and hell. And, yes, we are also linked with Jesus to experience life to the full. Yet, the goal or the end of the connection is to produce succulent fruit.

If there are no grapes on the vine, the vine is useless. Then we get rid of it. Grapevines exist to produce grapes. Christians and churches exist for the life of the world, to produce the fruit of righteousness consistent with our Christ-connected union: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The church is not an end in and of itself. The church exists for the life of the world. Jesus said:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16, NIV)

Pray

If we live in union with Christ, and if the words and ways of Jesus live powerfully within us—then ask for anything, and it will be done. Prayer is both an event and a process. It is something anyone can do, as well as a spiritual practice that needs growth and development.

God’s Word, the words of Jesus, are the nutrients for our spiritual life. When those words find a home within us, there is a divine/human conversation as well as a mystical union. Christ promises that if we just ask, it’s ours.

As our relationship with Christ grows, we learn to be thoughtful about our asking. Flippantly or selfishly asking for things disrespects the connection we enjoy with God. Claiming or demanding answers to prayer demeans the relationship. However, we can also dishonor God by simply not asking, at all.

Essentially, Jesus said to his disciples, “Go ahead, try me!” Prayer is the delivery system for our nutrients. And prayer is also the means of delivering the blessing of succulent fruit so that the world might live.

Jesus modeled prayer for his disciples, and for us. Those prayers are grounded in connection and unity with the Father. Just as God is One, we are to be one:

I am not praying just for these followers. I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me. I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.

I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me.

Father, I want everyone you have given me to be with me, wherever I am. Then they will see the glory that you have given me, because you loved me before the world was created. Good Father, the people of this world don’t know you. But I know you, and my followers know that you sent me. I told them what you are like, and I will tell them even more. Then the love that you have for me will become part of them, and I will be one with them. (John 17:20-26, CEV)

Conclusion

We are to live and to pray consistent with who we are and what our mission is. The church is to be one as God is one. Christians are to pray for unity because our triune God is always united. Believers everywhere are to remain and abide in Christ through a vital connection of loving God and loving neighbor.