Easter 7 11 May 1997 | Comments & Questions | Return to Templestowe Uniting Church Page |

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.

(Galatians 2:11-13) But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; {12} for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. {13} And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

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.

(Acts 15:37-40) Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. {38} But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. {39} The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. {40} But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.

The church at Corinth was a hotbed of dissension.

(1 Corinthians 1:11-13) For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. {12} What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." {13} Has Christ been divided?

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

(1 Corinthians 12:25) that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.

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, but 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.

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:

(Acts 2:44-47) All who believed were together and had all things in common; {45} they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. {46} Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, {47} praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

"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:

(Ephesians 2:14-18) For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. {15} He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, {16} and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. {17} So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; {18} for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

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:

(Ephesians 4:4-6) There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, {5} one Lord, one faith, one baptism, {6} one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

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:

(John 17:11) And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they be one, as we are one.

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:

(John 17:20-21) "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, {21} 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.

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.

(Ephesians 5:29-32) For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, {30} because we are members of his body. {31} "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." {32} This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.

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

(1 Corinthians 6:16-17) Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." {17} But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

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:

(1 Corinthians 12:12-13) For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. {13} For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

(Romans 12:4-5) For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, {5} so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

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:

(John 10:16) I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

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

(1 Corinthians 10:17) Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

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.

(Colossians 3:15) And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

[© David Beswick] Comments & Questions | Return to Templestowe Uniting Church Page |