June 2, 2020

Sunday’s Gospel: Unity—God’s Love in Action

By Chaplain Mike

Each Sunday, we present devotional thoughts based upon the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Today is the seventh Sunday in Easter.
Today’s Gospel is John 17:20-26
(NRSV).

Gospel Text

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

Thoughts
Last week when we were in Chicago, we were invited to a luncheon by John H. Armstrong put on by his ministry, ACT3. Afterward, we went for coffee and had a nice opportunity to get to know one another. John’s great passion is that the church, so divided and beset by conflict and schism, will grow to experience a greater oneness so that the world will see Jesus in her.

Of course, John’s vision is grounded in the passion of Jesus himself, and it is our Lord’s prayer in John 17 that has inspired John and those who are involved with him to work for the unity of the church.

Today, rather than speak my own words, I will let John speak. The following passage from his book, Your Church Is Too Small (reviewed recently on this blog) describes the unity that we are to have as “God’s Love in Action.”

Jesus’ prayer for unity, understood in the right way, is really a prayer about God’s love in action. Jesus prayed, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23, italics added). The theme of God’s love for the world is so common in John’s writings that I see it as the special emphasis of the apostle in both the fourth gospel and his letters.

Are we so comfortable with the idea that God loves us (John 3:16) that this great mystery no longer moves us? Have we been so conditioned to think of God’s love for us as individuals that we fail to consider what this means for a congregation? For a city? Or for the worldwide church of God?

The New Testament churches were made up of people from diverse backgrounds. Christianity was a religion with a universal scope and a global vision. It was a faith that welcomed everyone—regardless of social status, ethnicity, gender, or wealth—into a family in which relationships were founded on a common Savior and unity was formed out of diversity.

…But the church began to experience the loss of this shared love, even before the first century drew to a close. In the last book of the New Testament, we read Jesus’ words to the churches and find that things had already begun to drift from his purpose.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

Here is a church praised for keeping faith. These Christians worked hard, persevered in their faith, and dealt with false teachers. they had not grown weary as they endured hardships and suffering. but they lacked something vital that would eventually lead to the death of their congregation; they lacked love. The church of Ephesus is a reminder that we can have sound doctrine and a great ministry, but if we lack love and are marked by divisions and quarrels, the consequences are severe. Right doctrine and good deeds are no guarantee that a church truly loves others.

Jesus’ prayer for unity teaches us that even when we disagree on matters of doctrine or practice, we should avoid building barriers between ourselves and other Christians. We must be willing to accept those who are accepted by God and belong to him. May our prayer reflect the will of Jesus, as we pray that our love will prevail by the power of the Spirit—for the unity of God’s church.

Your Church Is Too Small, pp. 47-49

Hymn: “Thou, who at Thy first Eucharist didst pray”

Thou, who at Thy first Eucharist didst pray
That all Thy Church might be forever one,
Grant us that ev’ry Eucharist to say
With longing heart and soul, “Thy will be done.”
O may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.

For all Thy Church, O Lord, we intercede;
Make Thou our sad divisions soon to cease;
Draw us the nearer each to each, we plead,
By drawing all to Thee, O Prince of Peace;
Thus may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.

We pray Thee too for wand’rers from Thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
Back to the faith which saints believed of old,
Back to the Church which still that faith doth keep;
Soon may we all one bread, one body be,
Through this blest sacrament of unity.

So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,
May we be one with all Thy Church above,
One with Thy saints in one unbroken peace,
One with Thy saints in one unbounded love;
More blessèd still, in peace and love to be
One with the Trinity in Unity.

Words by William H. Turton, 1881

Comments

  1. I am all for church unity. In fact, some of my fellow Protestant friends consider me a bit liberal in my ecumenical views. Although, theologically I believe they are in error, I consider Catholics and Greek Orthodox my brethren in Christ. There are those even within the Protestant church who are in error too, so even I cannot make this claim. Nevertheless, all Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have one thing in common: Jesus Christ is the living Son of God who suffered and died for the redemption of our sins so that we can once again be reconciled to a Holy God. And this is precisely what our faith rests upon.

    How then, in order to achieve unity do we reconcile some of the other more major doctrinal and theological differences between the three major confessions of faith within Christendom? As a Protestant, how do I reconcile my views with those of my Catholic brothers who profess an authority under the Pope rather than Scripture alone (sola scriptura)? Or, how about faith alone (sola fide) versus works?

    In order to achieve this unity, do we look past these differences, turn a blind eye, and pretend there is no elephant in the room? On the mission field these differences don’t seem to matter much. I have worked alongside Catholics, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox, and Charismatics. Perhaps in works and deed these theological differences don’t matter. But, in faith and worship, they might.

    Ultimately, judgment is for God and in the meantime I will press on towards the goal. (Philippians 3:14)

    • Good comments, and I appreciate your spirit. John Armstrong’s book is a good place to start this discussion, and I recommend it. You might check out the reviews we did on iMonk if you haven’t read them already. John suggests that mission is indeed one of the keys to achieving more unity—he calls it “missional-ecumenism.”

      In my view, another key is recognizing our differences, but being able to talk about them charitably, which in itself would lead to a greater witness to the world.

      • Thanks Mike. As a missionary currently in preparation for overseas missions to Albania I am very interested in this book. I have thus placed it on my Amazon wishlist.

    • I think your sola lines in the sand are misplaced, that is I’ve hardly met any Protestants believe in sola fide as understood by Luther, faith alone means faith alone. Yes they are around but they are a minority even in the protestant camp. If you define protestantism more as a rejection of roman Catholic claims of authority then you may begin to find a universal. As far as sola scriptura is concerned it is quite simple, it is an illusion. Subjects interact with the object at hand the scriptures, whether you trust the guys with the funny hats or a army of scholars, or your keen mind, the scriptures never ever stand alone, someone is always interpreting, forever interpreting. The Catholic church places high value on interpretation over the centuries so much so they have given it a name Holy Tradition.

  2. Our (Lutheran) pastor made the point that unity should not be achieved at the cost of truth.

    • David Cornwell says

      Of course then the question becomes which version of “truth” we accept. All our divisions, it seems to me, are over this very point. Can we have broad agreement on the basis of love for Christ and each other and around perhaps the Apostles Creed? History tells us that we cannot.

      However even if the leaders of our churches tell us otherwise, this can begin at a personal level. But we must then bear individual witness to it in our speech and actions. For sure we cannot ignore this prayer of Jesus.

  3. One reason we think unity is reached at the expense of the truth is that we have codified truth in modern ways, not ancient. We thus create a laundry list with which you must agree with me in order to have unity with me. The Scripture, I am convinced, tells us to follow Christ and as we do we find others who also follow him, others in whom the Spirit resides with love and power. When we discover this we can then learn to walk together in deeper unity. We cannot know unity until we follow Christ, the “center” (Bonhoeffer). We want to agree first and then walk together as one. Thus modernity is a major problem for us at this very point. The ancient way was quite different. This does not mean there are no differences between the three classical Christian expressions, since there clearly are some big differences. However, it does mean that the apostles and early church fathers were not as interested in creating a check list to keep people apart from them as they were in teaching and urging people to be one in the faith. It was not easy to get into the early churches but they preserved unity. Today we get in and out far too easily. These habits have to be broken to even begin to pursue real unity with real people in different contexts from out own.

    It was my deep pleasure to be with you Michael. In getting to know you I feel like I saw how the love of Christ in you makes you the writer and person that you clearly are when you post your comments on this wonderful site that so many of us treasure.

    • Thank you, John.

      Your comment on different ways of knowing pre- and post-modernity is very important. It is at the root of many disagreements that emerge on this post, especially those of a theological nature.

  4. I remember being taught that the “first love” that the Ephesians had forsaken was love for Jesus himself; or alternatively perhaps, “we love Him because He ‘first loved’ us”.
    I can’t remember anyone proposing that the “first love” lost was the “love one another” command.
    I’m ot saying it’s untrue, it’s just that I’ve never heard this passage in Revelation explained this way before.

    • The text doesn’t identify the object of their “first love”—it just says they have left the love they had at first. This could include love for God and/or love for others.

      • Thanks for the clarification. It’s amazing how I can many years I can hear a passage interpretation that someone brought to the text.

  5. I believe that the kind of unity to which Jesus called His disciples in John 17 is something entirely different than the kind of unity that the church, for the most part, has tried to achieve or enforce over the centuries. Jesus expressed His desire that they be fused together (mind, heart, and spirit) in the same way that He is connected with His Father — a complete oneness where the self is submerged in a common, intense brotherly love. I’d say that the unity Jesus is talking about is more akin to the relationships that often develop between brothers-in-arms — who, through the stesses and experiences of war, attain a love that will lay down its life for a brother without pause — than it is to the kinds of unity produced by government, law, or recognized authority.
    History has made it clear that religious unity enforced and maintained by an all-powerful church or state is merely a heavy lid on a boiling pot — doomed to explode when the pressure becomes too great to contain. And the thin icing of unity spread over denominationalism is just a general agreement to disagree — a unilateral ceasefire, while we build institutional entrenchments to keep those who agree in and those who disagree out.
    Perhaps the reason that so many of the church’s historical efforts at unity have failed is because we’ve been aiming at the wrong target.

  6. Thank you for the lovely “thoughts” and following comments. I am a follower of the True Life in God messages. The mission of Vassula Ryden is the Unity of the Church, and in the messages we are told that the key to Unity is humility and love. Jesus has also said that if we can only unify the dates of Easter he will do the rest. To this end we have a website http://www.onedate.org
    A unity based on Christian love and humility is so important to acheive. If we could only start by unifying the dates of Easter.

    • Ann: I really warm up to the “humility and love” part of your appeal. Agreement over the date(s) of Easter, not so much. The resurection , of course, is a very big deal, but you’ve lost me about tuning onto a particular day. I don’t remember the NT making this important.

      Welcome to the IMONK discussion, by the way.
      Greg R

  7. The idea of ecuminical unity is one that I have believed since college, where I was challenged by some pretty liberal Roman Catholic priests. These guys preached ecuminism like I had never heard, and it convicted me terribly.

    The quote from Armstrong made me think of one question: “Why are we more willing to show love to the unchurched than those of a different background or denomination?” (Note: I am as guilty as any in this respect. No claims of perfection implied here!)

    • With whom is it easier to speak hurtful things, be rude or inconsiderate, take for granted, and express unwarranted irritations–your family or someone out in public?