One thing that has made the last two years really hard for me is seeing and experiencing the divisiveness among Christians in the church of Jesus Christ, in our own church, and even in my extended family and friends. Political disruption and hostile opinions from both the right and the left continue to divide us. Vaccinations, mask mandates and the wisdom of meeting or not as a church continues to divide us as well. We also faced (and continue to face) a series of social issues, especially about race, that impacted the church (and our nation).
For me, the saddest part of it all is how my neighbors, those who don’t know Jesus, see all of this. They see how it plays out in mainstream media and think we as the church are part of the problem with what’s wrong in our society. Not only have we hurt our witness as the church, we’ve injured our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ and even some of our own blood relatives. Some of you have even questioned your understanding of the church and your place in it because of the division you’ve felt.
Believe it or not, Jesus loves Republicans and Democrats, boosted and anti-vaxxers, those who wear N95s and those who refuse to. He loves people of every race, gender, and socioeconomic demographic. The one place we should see the love, fellowship, and unity of Jesus Christ on beautiful display is in the church, and yet it’s become a venue of anger, disunity, divisiveness, and abuse.
The night before he died, in the shadow of the cross, moments away from being arrested, beaten and crucified, Jesus prays one last time with his disciples. Out of all the things he could pray for, he prays for unity among them. I’m convinced there is nothing more important, especially today, than to listen, internalize and obey the words of Jesus Christ in this prayer for unity (John 17).
Jesus begins by praying for the Father to glorify him. He says he brought God glory by finishing the work he was given to do. The work of entering our broken world to rescue and redeem humanity by his life, death and resurrection. After praying to be glorified, Jesus prays for his disciples. Jesus is clearly more concerned about the disciples than he is for himself. If we’re going to work towards unity, we will need to take our eyes off ourselves and learn to care for others too. First, he prays for them to be one. Even though Jesus had predicted they would all desert him, he prays for them to be one and to remain united. Jesus knows there is strength and power in their unity, but left alone, they will struggle. He knew that trouble and persecution were coming and the disciples would only survive if they remained united with Jesus and one another. Next, Jesus prays for the disciples’ protection. Jesus prays for their joy in the midst of the coming troubles, for spiritual protection from the Devil and this world and for faith and security in their relationship with Him. Lastly, Jesus prays for the disciples’ sanctification. The process of sanctification is for the purpose of unity in the church and that leads to mission outside of the church. You are the hands, feet and heart of Jesus to a lost and hurting world. Right now, as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, he is praying for you! He is praying for our unity, for our protection and for our sanctification. Jesus prays for unity in the church because it gives God glory and when we are united in Christ and united as a church, we give God glory and the hurting world is drawn into our community of faith.
Notice the freedom we have in this unity Jesus prays for. Jesus didn’t pray for uniformity or for alignment on all theological, social, or political issues. This is why the Apostle Paul taught about unity using the image of the church as a body. We have one body, but many distinct parts and many different functions. The church is one body made up of those from the right and left of politics, with all sorts of opinions, with many ethnicities, backgrounds and demographics. What other place can people come from all different backgrounds, races, political parties, opinions, gender, social statuses, and demographics and yet be united under the banner of Jesus? Sadly, the church has been unable to be this community that our world desperately needs.
When it comes to working on our unity, we need to focus on the essentials of our faith and find common ground with others in them. We help build up the unity of the church by doing little things every day. We believe the best about other Christians and churches until they prove us wrong. And while today the world feels like it’s moving to World War 3, Jesus is nearer now than ever before.
When Christians are one with Jesus and one with each other, the church is unstoppable!