That They May All Be One
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Three-Year Lectionary devotes this Seventh Sunday of Easter to what is called Jesus’ “High-Priestly Prayer.” Our Gospel text for today from John 17 is part of that prayer. It is certainly fitting to consider this prayer on this Sunday after the Church has remembered Christ’s ascension, for our heavenly High Priest continues to pray for His Church before His Father’s throne of grace and glory.
In this section of the prayer, Jesus prays not only for His disciples who are gathered with Him that night, but also “for those who will believe in Me through their word.” Jesus prays for all of those who will receive His Word through His apostles. The Father had given His Word to Jesus. Jesus gives the apostles’ His Word by the Holy Spirit. That Word works faith in Jesus for eternal life.
Jesus sees this process as ongoing. Already He has used His disciples to preach and teach the Word. But more is to come. The great Day of Pentecost lies ahead when the Spirit will lead them into all truth. The Spirit will guide them to write down God’s Word, and God will preserve it in the New Testament Scriptures for us to read today. In this way Christ will build His Church.
Jesus—in His all-knowing power as God—sees it all. And as true Man, He prays for those who would come to faith in Him through the apostles’ word. That means that Jesus prays for you. For in the water and Word of Holy Baptism you have been grafted into His body the Church. Jesus prays for all those who will believe in Him through His Word from that day forward until the last day.
And what is it that Jesus desires for His disciples? He prays for our success. Right? For the new ideas that we can cook up to save ourselves. Right? He certainly prays that our congregation and synod would grow by leaps and bounds. Right? No. Jesus prays for the Church’s unity. For our oneness.
“That they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You…. That they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they become perfectly one.” Unity. Oneness. Between those who believe in Jesus. Why? There’s a specific reason. Jesus says: “So that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” So the world may believe that God the Father loves them too.
But the world looks at the Church, and it doesn’t see unity, does it? It sees endless divisions and many versions of the message packaged and peddled. It sees congregations divided by petty squabbles and major conflicts. And this turns people off. So they retreat from “organized religion.” Unfortunately, in the process, many close their ears to hearing the true, saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Division in the Church is truly scandalous. So Jesus prays for her. For unity.
Actually, I think that the whole world is already looking for unity. The problem is that so many of us are looking for it in the wrong places.
Some look for institutional unity: Like all being under the bishop of Rome or Eastern patriarch, or some other ecclesiastical supervisor. They argue that if we would all just place ourselves under the same hierarchy and traditions, or establish the right churchly structure and governance then we would be unified.
Others promote a unity in diversity, where substantial doctrinal differences are ignored so that there can be “full fellowship” declared. Like when Lutherans decide to commune with others say the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbol of remembrance not substance of salvation.
Or those, who in the name of tolerance, insist that a man has the right to marry another man and that a woman should be able to marry another woman. And that even if you haven’t yet been “enlightened” enough to accept this, you should still keep quiet to maintain the peace. Make no mistake; God is not pleased with such an arrangement. It is wrong to pretend that it is okay. It is wrong to not tell our children that such behavior is sinful and against God’s commands.
On the other hand, it should be noted that we shouldn’t tell people who are caught up in such sin that they are not welcome here until they get their lives straightened out and stop sinning. If that were the criteria for admittance, none of us would be here. No, we need to invite them here and let God’s Word—His Law and Gospel—work in their lives just as it does in ours.
But let’s not ignore a sin that’s even more socially acceptable. In fact, many now just take it for granted that it’s part of the natural progression of a relationship. It’s nothing new for a man and a woman to live together without being united in marriage. What is new is the way that Christian churches deal with such an arrangement in order to prevent division. It is just ignored or swept under the rug.
Statistics show that couples who live together before they are married are far more likely to divorce. That would be enough reason to counsel against it. But more than that, this arrangement, too, is against God’s will. When we don’t stand up and say so, when we don’t encourage unmarried couples to change their sinful situation, we are participating in their sin. What is more, our silence may leave them in the bondage of their sins. Never called to repentance, they may never have the joy of having the words of forgiveness applied to their particular sins. Far from uniting us, such willful negligence may end up cutting others off from their only source of forgiveness, life, and salvation: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We don’t have to look very hard at these manmade attempts at unity to see that they really don’t work. They collapse under their own weight, because they are based upon things that are not true. They are based upon a misunderstanding of the way that God has made things. They ignore the truth of God’s Word for the sake of an artificial, external coming together. And a false unity is no unity at all. In fact, false unity is the biggest barrier to the true unity of the Church.
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.”
So, are we to believe that Jesus’ prayer has gone unanswered? I hardly think so. As we just heard last week, Jesus promised His disciples, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My Name, He will give it to you.” Certainly a prayer spoken by the Son Himself on our behalf would be answered just as favorably.
No. We can trust that what Jesus prays is true. The Church is united. Even if it doesn’t look that way to the world or ourselves. We are united because of Christ. We are united by Christ. We are united in Christ. Like many of God’s gifts, that unity is hidden right in plain sight.
Look around. See those other Christians sitting in the pews around you. You’re united. You share many things with them, one of which you just confessed together with them: that you are a poor miserable sinner, who has offended God and justly deserves His wrath. Together you sincerely repented and prayed that He would be merciful for the sake of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Together you heard Christ’s absolution spoken to you through His called and ordained servant.
You are also united when you hear about God’s great love that sent Jesus to live and die for you, to rise and ascend for you. As you gather at the altar rail for the Lord’s Supper, you are united not only with those sitting in the pews today, but with all Christians, present and past, with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven.
You are united when we invoke God’s holy name at the beginning of the service: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Those are the same words spoken when Jesus united you to Himself in Baptism. You are united because you have been claimed from the jaws of death, rescued from sin, and saved from your own sinful desires.
Christian unity comes only from the work that God does and what God has done for you, not from anything you have done or could possibly ever do. Martin Luther said it very clearly in his explanation of the third article:
“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.”
Jesus prays, “That they may all be one.” Jesus prays for unity. But Jesus isn’t referring to a “touchy, feely, holding hands around the campfire” kind of unity. Jesus is talking about a unity that has as its basis the Word of God, particularly the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul would point out in his Epistle to the Ephesians, the basis of this essential unity of the Church is our having one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all (4:3-6).
Jesus prays for the oneness of faith that unites the holy Christian Church and ties all Christians to one another. This is the reality of the Una Sancta, the one Church made up of all believers and only believers, wherever they may be found, bound together in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. This is the holy Christian Church that we confess in the Creeds.
Jesus prays for a unity that will not only bless the Church but will also influence the world. This unity includes a common confession of faith based on God’s Word that is witnessed to the world. Unified by the Spirit, Jesus’ disciples confess their faith in their Savior. By the Spirit’s work through the Gospel, the world will believe that the Father sent Jesus and the Father loves the disciples of Jesus just as He loves His Son.
This unity is best displayed when Christians are consistent in their testimony to Jesus as the Son of God and the only Savior, when we are serious about guarding the Gospel from error, and when we give evidence of Jesus living in us through active love to one another and to the world.
A common confession of faith—itself the gift of the Holy Spirit—begins with acknowledging God to be the Holy Trinity, and God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Lord and Savior. United by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, Christians can then speak the truth of the Word to each other in love… teach and admonish one another in love… and respect and serve one another in love as Christians.
A unified Christian witness would be powerful. Like Jesus, we should pray for the day when all church communions faithfully witness to the world the one, true, apostolic faith, based upon the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the creeds.
That’s why we confess our Christian faith together each week with one of the Ecumenical Creeds. That’s why we have our catechumens memorize the Apostles’ Creed and the explanations of the three articles. For it’s in confessing such creeds, that our unity is not merely expressed, but also formed, reformed, maintained, and passed on to the coming generations.
Speaking of confessions and creeds… I have a confession to make. In my earlier years as a pastor, I used to have the catechumens write their own statement of faith prior to their confirmation. I reasoned that if the students could write a creed, they would be showing that they had a solid understanding of the basic teachings of the Christian faith. Fortunately, whether it was that they had greater theological insight than I possessed at the time, or more likely just plain old laziness and a touch of plagiarism, each of students came up with statement of faith that was a remarkably close paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed.
I’ve since repented of this practice. I came to realize that it is more important to know and understand the Ecumenical Creeds, those ancient confessions of faith developed by the Church to combat false teaching. In an age where diversity is celebrated above all else, it is far more important for us to confess our Christian faith together corporately with other Christians throughout the world and history than for anyone to express his own personal faith.
The Church will never find unity with our own man-made structures or fellowship agreements. The Church will never find unity by ignoring sin. The Church will only find unity by resolving real differences that take away from the truth about what Jesus has done for us in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The Church will only find unity in Christ and His saving Word and work. How He has paid the penalty for all our sins and credits us with His righteousness. How He rose from the dead that we might have eternal life. How He sent His Holy Spirit to lead us to all truth. How He continues to rule all things for the sake of His Church. How He saves us, His children, through water and Word. How He gives us His very own body and blood for forgiveness and life.
True unity is found in a common confession of the one true faith. For only through faith in Christ do you have eternal life and salvation. Only in Christ’s Word do you hear this liberating, unifying, gracious Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.