I remember as a young man looking through shiny new car brochures and spending hours deciding on my perfect ‘spec’ for my brand new Volkswagon GTI. SO many decisions! Leather seats or not, electric windows or not, alloys and what colour of paint etc. etc.?
Of course in the end reality broke in and I reluctantly admitted that buying a new car was out of the question. I did manage to find a second-hand, 3 year old model that was in my budget. But that meant I was obliged to take whatever I got, option-wise!
When it comes to Christian unity, many churches seem to have pretty much the same approach as me and my car spec – it’s an optional extra. It would be a nice thing to have, if we could afford it, but actually, we can get along perfectly well without it.
Over the past few years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with this attitude towards Christian unity, mostly because I just don’t see it in the Bible.
When Jesus spoke of Christian unity He made some powerful statements about its significance.
‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23 NIVUK)
Jesus, is recorded here praying for His disciples before His imminent death, but He also takes time to look down through history and He prays for all those who will ever become Christians, everywhere.
A powerful moment, the only time Jesus does this in His life. So what does He pray for?
One thing. Unity.
He prays for unity amongst the Christians themselves and for their unity with God.
You might wonder why?
You might think there were other, more pressing, or more important things that Jesus could have prayed for. But His only recorded prayer for you and I, and all Christians down through time, is for our unity.
Why does Jesus consider this so important?
Well reading Jesus’ prayer shows us that Jesus believes our unity is vital because the success of our mission depends upon it.
He prays for our unity because it is what makes the world believe our message about Jesus.
He prays for our unity because it is what reveals to the world both Jesus’ divine nature, and God’s awesome love.
Jesus infers that nothing other than Christian unity can achieve this.
So is unity an optional extra?
Not according to Jesus. Rather Christian unity is the foundation of the Church’s success in mission.
Put differently, Jesus is saying to the Church, “Fail in unity and you will fail in everything.”
Recently I was struck by another text that powerfully speaks of the importance Christian unity.
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement
give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had,
so that with one mind and one voice
you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 15:5-6 NIVUK
Here, St Paul tells us some key things about unity;
Firstly, it can only come from God, He is the sole source of Christian unity.
In other words we receive unity, we don’t create it.
In our being related to God in saving faith, we ARE one with each other. Our challenge, therefore, is not to create unity, but to express it, to live it.
Secondly, unity starts in our minds and our thinking. We need to embrace God’s understanding of our unity and relate to each other as God would have us do.
Thirdly, unity is expressed in our combined action – working and witnessing to our shared faith.
Finally, unity brings glory to God.
Note that as “Man’s chief end is to glorify God”, (at least according to the Westminster Catechism) we cannot achieve our greatest human purpose without unity – it is that crucial.
Unity an optional extra? Far from it!
Christian unity is the foundation of success in everything the Church seeks to do.