Friends, in his 2006 book, Prayer, Phillip Yancey refers to this prayer of Jesus to suggest that even Jesus knew what it is like not to have his prayers answered. ..it appears that prayer was no simple matter even for Jesus. I once wrote an article titled ‘Jesus’ Unanswered Prayers’..in respect to prayer, too, he fully shared the human condition..Jesus knows the heartbreak of unanswered prayers. His longest prayer, after all, centres in a request for unity, ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.’ The slightest acquaintance with church history (at recent count, 34,000 distinct denominations and sects) shows how far that prayer remains from being answered.
If unity refers to an ability to be together in fellowship with Christ, the type that Ephesians 4 refers to : Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, then Jesus’ prayer is largely unanswered. There are other towns than ours where Christians combine to teach Scripture in schools, but fewer that gather together in worship as we do on this peninsular. So the kind of unity that Jesus enjoyed with his Father and with his disciples and that he prayed for is almost nowhere to be seen.
But Yancey may be a little pessimistic. A little short-sighted. For there are two aspects to the unity Jesus prays for. There is the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, but there is also the unity Jesus sought when he asked that his little flock may be one – ‘as I am in you and you are in me.’ There is the primary unity of being in Christ; of being a branch of the true vine, upon which the other unity depends.
This unity is the one Jesus speaks of throughout the Gospel of John. He wanted his disciples to understand that he came from the Father; that the words that he spoke came from his Father; that he spoke only what he heard in his Father’s presence. “Sanctify them by the truth,” he says, “Your word is truth.” He wants a flock, a flock that hears his voice and knows him and follows him, but who will not follow another. Perhaps the primary question to ask in unity is to ask, “What do you think of God’s Son?”
Two stories from John’s Gospel illustrate this unity. There are two ‘drive by’ healings in John. These are not people who are healed because of their great faith, though we can also read about those. These are people who are healed though they don’t know who Jesus is. They are a cripple at the Pool of Bethesda in Chapter 5, and the man born blind in Chapter 9. Both are healed on the Sabbath, and both encounter the Jewish authorities, who object to this Sabbath desecration.
The man at the pool has been a cripple for 38 years, and that is bad. That is even longer than you wait for an appointment with your GP! Jesus walks past and asks him if he wants to be healed. He doesn’t answer that question but complains about the injustice of his situation. When the water moves, those who can walk enter the Pool and are healed before he can move. Jesus tells him to take up his mat and walk. He hasn’t introduced himself to the man, so when the Pharisees ask him why he is carrying his mat on the Sabbath, and he tells them that a man told him to, he can’t even tell them who the man is.
The man born blind does not know who Jesus is either. When Jesus, unbidden, makes a paste and smears it on his eyes and sends him to bathe in the Pool of Siloam, he at least knows Jesus’ name, but has no idea who he is. He has, literally, never laid eyes on the man when he, too, falls foul of the Pharisees, and so does Jesus.
But here, these two men whose histories are nearly identical show how different they are. Jesus seeks them both out. To the crippled man, he says, ‘Stop sinning, or something worse will happen to you’, and that man goes away to ship Jesus to his enemies, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. How different the man born blind. He defies the authorities; he debates their philosophy; he stands firm against his parents; and he defends the honour of the Lord to get thrown out of the synagogue and dispossessed by his community. He followed the Lord into life, while the cripple gained nothing from his healing. Yes, he could walk, but he walked away from Jesus.
‘He who honours me, I will honour’ God told Eli.
So unity depends first on our confession of Jesus and our acknowledgement that he comes from the Father. Now let’s visit the most disunited church in the New Testament. Let us move from Jerusalem to Corinth. The Corinthian church was many things, but was certainly disorderly and disunited. In 1 Corinthians 3, we find that it has split into denominations. “I follow Paul,” says one, “well I follow Apollos,” says another, and yet a third follows Peter. “Well you can do what you like,” says another, “but I follow Christ.” So Paul tells them that there is jealousy and quarrelling among them, and they are still worldly.
But surely, even if they were split into denominations, at least they wouldn’t go too far wrong if they were taking after Paul and Peter? Well, wait, there’s more. They may have called themselves, ‘St Peter’s Church,’ or ‘Christchurch’, but they weren’t following these worthy people. Rather, they were following false teachers that Paul calls the super-apostles. Through his two letters to Corinth, we learn that these men were silver-tongued. They were great speakers, and if God gave Paul great gifts of evangelism, he gave him no gift for public speaking. ‘His letters are weighty,’ they said, ‘but his presence is weak.’ So Paul spends his letters and his visits trying to grab the people’s attention and drag them away from these super-apostles who were leading them astray. Not only were they great talkers, but they were ,money-hungry, we learn, and while Paul made tents and robbed other churches so as to be no burden to the Corinthians, the super apostles raked in the money and other benefits, for Paul says that they made demands on the Corinthians. So with so lucrative and competitive a ministry, a super-apostle would have no incentive to get his followers to cooperate with the others.
We know something of the behaviour of these men but nothing of their teaching. But we know that the sermons they preached, and the demands they made, did not address any of the many problems that Paul addresses in his two letters. For example, there is the sexual immorality of the man in 1 Corinthians 5 who has shacked up with his stepmother. Now if that happens in your church, you would have a tricky problem. Try intervening! Imagine how defensive of their happiness these people would be. Remember that John the Baptist was beheaded for telling Herod he should not have his brother’s wife. But the super-apostles didn’t find this situation tricky, for though their pagan neighbours were scandalized, the church was proud of it.
So the Corinthians were in denominations that squabbled with each other and followed false teachers who led them into sin. They were disunited. But wait – there’s more. Chapter 6 tells us that the believers were suing each other, and going before unbelievers to do so. Bringing Christ into disrepute before the world. Paul is furious. “For goodness sake, can’t you appoint someone of little account among you to decide these things? Why not rather let yourself be wronged? In fact, radical suggestion, why wrong each other in the first place?
But there’s more. Jesus said that all men would know who his disciples were – they would love one another. How then did they celebrate Communion? Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians tells us. They dived in without waiting for each other. Some got drunk, others went without. It is all gluttony, lust and selfishness. It was so bad that Paul said that it is not actually the Lord’s Supper that they were eating.
Such disunity! Is there any medicine for this malady? Any antidote for this poison? Well Paul loves these unruly and disorderly people. They drive him to despair. They must make more mistakes than any other church. They grieve him with their sin and their rejection of him. He spills more ink over the Corinthian church than any other. He regards them as his children in Christ and he would rather rob other churches than take money from them or make any other demands on them. And even in their worldly and sinful state, to him they are the saints of God in Corinth. Look how he loves and honours them in his second letter to them. See how he affirms them despite their weaknesses and failings. They are a sweet aroma. They are the fragrance of salvation to God and to those who are being saved. They are a letter from Christ, written on the heart, that all men may read. They are the radiance of God’s glory, that unlike the glory of the Old Covenant that made Moses’ face shine so that he had to cover it, does not fade. They are being moulded and made like their Saviour. They hold these treasures in jars of clay. They are Christ’s ambassadors, along with Paul, in the new and magnificent ministry of reconciliation.
So what is Paul’s prescription? What glue is there to put the Corinthian church back together? Paul starts in 1 Corinthians 13 and addresses the lack of love in the Corinthian church. Love is the most excellent way. Love is greater than prophecy, or faith, and it far exceeds other Christian virtues. In fact, I can give away all my possessions and give up my body to be burned, and that does not even imitate love. There was not much love shown by believers in Corinth, and sadly, the position has not changed, but our Lord said that all men would know that we are his disciples if we love one another.
How does love work out. Well one way is illustrated in chapters 8 and 10, which deal with food sacrificed to idols. We know that an idol is nothing, for there is only one God and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone realises this and some are used to sacrificing to idols. My freedom to do what I like is restrained by my duty to guard my brother’s conscience. So Paul says that, if what he eats causes his brother to fall into sin, he will never eat meat again so that he will not cause him to fall. Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others.
‘So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble…even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many so that they may be saved.’
Now though Paul speaks of eating meat sacrificed to idols, does this not also apply to other things that may cause offence?
In Chapter 12, we are told that the church is the body of Christ, and each believer is a part of that body. These parts have different tasks, and every part is essential. No part can look down on any other because it does not do the same thing in the same way. What this means for us, as it meant for them, is that we don’t, and cannot, despise anyone on our pews, or injure them, or lord ourselves over them. And it means also that we bear an esteem towards those who don’t share our doctrine but do share in the unity of Christ. It means that we hold a communion with the saints in our community on the basis of interdependence. For if one part suffers, all parts suffer with it.
But there is more. For Chapter 12 talks of Spiritual gifts. The nature of Spiritual gifts is a matter of debate, but listen to verse 7. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” God gives Spiritual gifts to each person to build up the church. So though those of us in administration in the church might mull over budgets and bank accounts, the real treasure with which God builds his church is sitting in the pews around us. Each person carries gifts – riches from God, to build us up in to maturity.
That means that whether we share his or her views on predestination, or baptism, or speaking in tongues; whether we consecrate bishops to govern us like the hierarchical church in Jerusalem or ordain elders like the Gentile churches; whether we worship on Saturday, or Sunday, or keep all days alike; whether we celebrate Communion with a common cup at the altar, or individually in the pews; we are parts of his body, dependent on each other, and have each other in trust as gifts from God.
And so, by love and care of each other; by recognition of the gifts of our brothers and sisters in Christ, by recognising the body of Christ, we make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
And we listen to the voice of Jesus; we follow him; and we give no heed to another.