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Unity in Christ

When Jesus prayed for his disciples that they may be one, as we are one he had a high and holy purpose. From a human point of view you could hardly wonder at the reason for it. They were not an especially unified group. They tended to compete with each other and he had to speak to them about that (Mark 9:33-35). There is very little evidence of mutual support amongst them while Jesus was with them in Galilee, and in the early church there was a good deal of disputation. In the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 15) we learn of a conference that was held in Jerusalem to overcome differences which arose when Gentiles were included in the church together with Jews. Paul had some very strong things to say about Peter.

Disagreements sometimes led to divisions. After one dispute Paul and his companions divided into separate groups and went in different directions in their missionary work.

The church at Corinth was a hotbed of dissension.

The great words of love and mutual esteem that Paul wrote to them (eg 1 Corinthians 12 and 13), and which give us such a good model of Christian fellowship, were written precisely because they were not living that way. So he wrote

Jesus knew what he was about when he prayed for the unity of his disciples: they needed it! And the followers of Jesus have always needed his prayers as human aspirations conflict with the Spirit of God. There are many things which divide us and far from being trivial and easily ignored they are big and important issues, and we could spend a good deal of time on what is wrong, but it is better to lift up our eyes to the goal of unity. Today I want to remind you of the scriptural basis of the commitment to unity that is essential for the church and which was of such great importance in the movement that led to the formation of the Uniting Church. I have been distressed recently to see the special interests of particular groups and factions pursued as if they were more important than the health and unity of the whole body. Most disturbing of all is to see the church being used as a tool or the means to the achievement of the goals of some secular movement, and there is nothing new in that!

Amongst the things which seriously divide Christians today are attitudes to the authority and interpretation of scripture, the nature and discipline of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the relationship of church and politics, personal morality and social justice. There is much serious work to be done to resolve differences in these things. Perhaps I will be able to deal directly with some of them another day. But today let us focus attention on some of the great themes of scripture, most or all of which you will be familiar with, which bring to mind the positive basis for our belief in one universal fellowship, and the imperative of God's call to unity in Christ.

Despite the disputes and tensions among the disciples, it is still true that some records of the early church give evidence of great love amongst them. For example in the very beginning at Pentecost:

"How these Christians love one another," was a saying amongst pagan observers of the early Christian communities. It was even noted that the tender care they showed to the sick and dying amongst them, whom they would lovingly hold in their arms, was a danger to their own health.

Although there were tensions between peoples of different nations, races and traditions when they joined together, they could still celebrate their unity. A unity which they attributed to Christ, as we see in the letter to the Ephesians:

The oneness of the body of Christ, as their fellowship was understood, was a gift of God, a result of their dwelling in God and God in them:

There we see recognized a most important fact about the unity for which Christ prayed: the strength of their bond with one another was not achieved by human effort or wisdom alone. It is not something that comes from the way that the church is organised or the goodwill of the members in human terms to one another. It comes from their relationship to God. That is what Jesus prayed for:

The kind of unity they were to have was the kind of unity that Jesus had with his heavenly Father....that they be one, as we are one. This was developed further when he went on to pray not only for the immediate group of disciples, but also for those who were to believe because of their witness to him:

That text, the kind of unity for which Christ prayed and the purpose of it, was the subject of my sermon on this day two years ago --that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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. Let me reinforce it now with emphasis on the intimacy which is expected of the union in scripture. The union of Christ with his people which is the basis of their union with each other is compared with the feeling we have for our own bodies and with the union of a man and his wife.

Or in another context, faithfulness in the flesh is compared to unity in the Spirit:

It is not accidental that the human body is used as the image of the unity which is to be desired among the disciples of Christ:

There is nothing more profoundly characteristic of belonging to Christ than unity. It is constantly to be sought whenever one group is separated from another:

So too that there will be one table of the Lord, one communion fellowship as there is one baptism into that fellowship:

The scriptures make it plain that the unity of all Christian people, so that they are able to share the one bread, is of the very essence of the church and of the gospel. Whatever divides us at that point must be taken with the utmost seriousness. That does not mean that the differences can be ignored, or that individuals can do as they please and expect others to tolerate whatever they do: that is a modern perversion of the grace and freedom with which we are related to one another in Christ. If anything is serious enough to divide us, far from being ignored it should be confronted and dealt with in the name of Christ.

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