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Until his recent death, Lee McCarty was the most famous potter in Mississippi, if not one of the most recognized in the south and possibly the nation. Using clay dug from the Mississippi Delta, he created both functional and decorative pottery, some of which has even been featured in the Smithsonian – each piece trademarked with a dark brown squiggle, representing the Mississippi River. Since McCarty passed, there is no more original McCarty pottery being produced, so if you are into it, you better hang on to it or be prepared to pay for it. And my wife, Kristy, has been into it as a collector for over 25 years.
A few weeks ago, when transporting a McCarty serving bowl from the dishwasher to the cabinet, it slipped and smashed on the floor. Most people would have been satisfied to sweep up the pieces and throw them away. But this was McCarty pottery. So, Kristy gathered up each precious piece, reached for the super-glue, and began the intricate process of reconstruction.
Can you see how this is what Jesus has done with the church? Although broken, we are treasured, and rather than throw us out, God was determined to reconcile us to himself and to each other as the body of Christ, the Church. And the glue that God uses to accomplish this reconciliation project is not super-glue, but gospel glue. As the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 2:13-14, “13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Thus unifying Jew and Greek into one church.
So the super glue of the gospel is the blood of Jesus. It is the glue that reconnects us to God personally, to each other in one on one relationships such as marriage, and it is what provides the bond for us to connect with each other and experience unity as believers.
Now, some of you were here in January when I taught a five-week sermon series on the Dynamics of a Healthy Church. One of those dynamics was and is unity. I want to address this theme again, not to be redundant or because some of you missed it, but to recognize how important, we could say, how critical, unity is in the church. It is not a secondary issue. It needs to be and will be a priority for us, because it was a priority for Jesus.
We see this in what some call his “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17, which takes place the night before Jesus is to be crucified.
In verses 1-6 of John 20, he prayed for himself. In verses 7-19 he prayed for his original disciples. Then, in verse 20 he begins to pray for us, specifically for our unity:
“20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
I. The first thing that stands out in this portion of Jesus’ prayer is that the foundation of Christian unity is theological.
You may have heard people say that doctrine divides and that the basis for Christian unity should be service – what we do rather than what we believe. While doctrine has been divisive on occasion and while I commend the desire for greater unity, I find the jettisoning of doctrinal propositions an ill conceived solution.
This is because Jesus himself, in verse 20, has grounded Christian unity in “the word” preached by the Apostles. When we examine the Apostle’s sermons and letters recorded for us in the New Testament, we quickly realize that they were primarily concerned about what to believe. Not only did they teach theologically, but their doctrine centered on the person and work of Jesus, specifically his death and resurrection, both of which are substantive doctrines that lay the foundation for Christian unity. This is not to say that they were unconcerned with the unity that is displayed when we serve together across denominational boundaries, but that the essential common denominator for what makes someone or a group Christian is determined by theological affirmations.
So, let’s not throw out theology for the sake of unity. especially when we realize that it is the apostolic teaching of the gospel that is super-glue that provides the basis for Christian unity.
II. And yet, this unity will be experienced at different levels.
It may help us to understand this by using the image of concentric circles.
- The outermost circle of Christian unity is the most basic, which represents global unity. For example, the Apostles’ Creed is a theological statement that is universally embraced. Within this historic confession, Christians of any denominational stripe may worship and work together. This is why we can express unity in community worship services here in Dahlonega and through service projects such as Side-by-Side. This partnership is the result of the outer circle of global unity.
- Fitting within the larger circle, the next is smaller and represents denominational unity. Because we have the first, outer ring, the existence of denominations does not itself undermine Christian unity, but actually may help to preserve it from Christians fracturing into even smaller, more disconnected pieces. Typically, denominational level unity requires believers to gather themselves, at least organizationally, into associations of churches that share theological distinctives beyond the general affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed. We could say that denominations need a stronger formula of gospel glue to maintain unity. For example, our denomination subscribes to the theological system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, as do those who serve as elders or pastors. Although individual members do not have to subscribe to our doctrinal standards, it is important for members to know the theological orientation of their local church so that they can help preserve and protect theological unity.
- Which brings us to the third, innermost circle, which is congregational unity. While subscribing to the same doctrinal distinctives as the larger denomination, the local church is defined not only by theological unity, but also by philosophical unity. Philosophical unity means that there is a common understanding and acceptance of why we do what we do how we do it. For example, if you were to be adopted into a new family, you’d need to adapt to that family’s way of doing things – to their philosophy of family life – such as when to eat, bedtime routines, chore schedules, embracing holiday traditions. It is the same way in each local church, where there is a unique philosophy of church life, which includes various traditions and practices when it comes to things such as worship style, children’s ministry, adult discipleship, shepherding methods, youth ministry, methods of communication – everything.
So, when we speak of Christian unity, it is helpful to recognize that this unity is experienced on different levels.
III. And yet, as hard as we try to deal with the external issues that promote unity by understanding its theological foundation and coming to grips with the different levels of unity, the ultimate source of Christian unity is our individual and personal “union with Christ.”
This is what Jesus teaches us when he prays in verse 21, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.”
In this verse, Jesus is alluding to the spiritual dynamic whereby, in the gospel, we as dead branches, are grafted into Jesus, as the Vine, who is the source not only of our spiritual lives, but also of the spiritual fruit that grows in our lives – fruit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness… and unity. Today, Jesus may have used a metaphor related to an electric appliance, which only has power – life – when plugged into a power outlet. The power is not native to the appliance, but to the source of the power that comes from out outlet.
Spiritually speaking, Jesus is the power source, the life source, of the believer. Just like Jesus is connected to the Father and Spirit, we are connected to them through Jesus. We are “plugged in” so to speak when we trust in Jesus – we abide in him – as our sin-bearer and righteousness provider. And as Jesus tells us in John 15, when this faith in the redeeming work of Jesus is active and we believe that we are no longer condemned, but justified and loved as adopted children, the Holy Spirit, as the sap of the Vine, or as the power through the cord, fills us and empowers us, producing within us new motives and abilities – even the enabling grace to experience unity.
This is also why Jesus prayed that we would live in faith union with him, because union with Christ leads to unity in Christ – a unity that the enemy will do anything to undermine, because our unity relates directly to the advance of the gospel in the world and to the influence of God’s kingdom.
IV. Which is why a final take-away from these verses is that a mission minded church can’t underestimate the impact of Christian unity on the watching world.
This actually is the end goal of Jesus’ prayer in verse 21, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Unity among believers is a key component of the broader mission of Jesus in the world and to the world!
There is something about unity that validates the claims of Jesus.
Like a car engine, human relationships tend to break down and tear apart if they are not well maintained. This is true in a marriage, or with our children, roommates… and with other believers in the church.
This is one reason why we always preach the grace of God in Jesus here on Sundays. We need to be connected and continually re-connected to the power source of our lives, which happens as we continue to hear the gospel and believe the gospel. We do not only need saving grace, but enabling grace if we are going to experience the unity for which Jesus prayed — the kind of unity that is supernatural and validates and authenticates the message and mission of Jesus.
We need this enabling grace, because as the apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 7, that the flesh, or the sinful nature, remains a powerful force in the life of the believer. Because of the presence of the sin nature, unity is always under attack and always being threatened–not just from forces outside of the church, but often is the result of an insurgency from within.
Sometimes the internal insurgency is theological, where a church member disagrees with the church’s position on some doctrinal distinctive. They quietly share their position with others, trying to convince them that the church’s position is wrong and that theirs is correct. Sometimes, those who are not theologically savvy enough to defend the church’s position get pulled in. And slowly, over time an insurgency is formed that can lead to various levels of division. You know how we talk of relationships that experience a split, or a break up. The same thing can happens in a church, and it can be ugly and painful and communicate to the world that Jesus is no more powerful than Muhammad, Buddha, or Aunt Bessie in Des Moines. You see, unity reveals the spiritual power of Jesus through his Spirit in the lives of his disciples.
So, we need to be acutely aware that a primary way the enemy seeks to undermine the message and mission of the gospel is through creating division in the ranks of the local church, where our focus is turned inward toward fighting each other rather than outward toward reaching the world.
Of course, this type of division can also happen on the philosophical front. For example, someone joins a church from another church and discovers that the new church does things differently, or maybe not as effectively as their former church. So, they quietly begin sharing their “concerns” with others. Eventually, whispers and rumors turn into an insurgency of discontent and complaint.
Now, the leaders of Creekstone welcome input, concerns, and suggestions. After all, we are still a young church that has a long way to go and a long time to grow. So, when you do have a suggestion, please let us know, but also, please do us a favor and sign your name to any correspondence so that we can know the context of the concern and follow up with you in person. It may be helpful to know that, as policy we do not read nor act upon anonymous notes. This is because anonymous input, which is usually criticism cloaked in concern, feels like sniper fire to those receiving it. Since you don’t know where it came from, you can’t ask follow up questions. And there is no opportunity to explain why we do what we do the way we do it. And so, I have decided to protect our staff and leadership from sniper fire, which thankfully, has been incredibly rare here at Creekstone. If you are new here, I want you to know that we have enjoyed a church environment of sweet, sustained unity that I can only attribute to the work of the Spirit among us.
And yet, in light of Jesus’ prayer and knowing how the enemy wants to undermine the mission of the gospel through internal division, we cannot let our guard down and must do everything we can to preserve and promote unity, especially at the congregational level. For the sake of the mission and glory of Jesus, this means that, in the power of the Spirit, we have to pursue unity; we have to work at it. Because, like me and ballroom dancing, unity does not come naturally.
When Kristy and I were students at Ole Miss, we attended one of those fancy “coming out” debutante parties where some of Kristy’s sorority friends were “being presented to society.” One thing about that night stands out. What I remember most was Dr. and Mrs. Hilbun dancing. It wasn’t “club dancing.” It was the most beautiful ballroom dancing I’d ever seen. Although I know that their ability to dance together was the result of a lot of working on it, to onlookers it was seamless, beautiful, and compelling. Everyone just stood back to watch and savor the moment.
Wouldn’t it be great if all of our human relationships functioned that way? In marriage? In the church? But even as we “work on it,” we step on each other’s feet! So, what can we do? How will we ever have the kind of unity that will get the attention of the world and authenticate that the gospel is true – that the Father did send Jesus as a sin-bearing Savior for sinners?
One word. Yes, the secret sauce of Christian unity – in the church, in marriage – any relational context – can be captured in one word.
The one word is repentance. Not the kind of repentance where we confess our sin and need of forgiveness to God, but the kind of repentance where we confess to one another.
You see, when there is a conflict, what is natural? First, we deny the charges. Blame someone else. Make excuses. Split.
This is why repentance is the secret sauce of unity – it is not only rare; its beautiful. When someone is either confronted with a wrong or convicted about a wrong and says, “It’s my fault. I’m to blame. I was wrong. What I said or did was hurtful, insensitive, selfish or worse. I have no excuses and am so sorry. I wish I could go back and do it differently.” When someone humbles themselves that way… THAT is supernatural, and reveals the presence and power of the Spirit! Showing that Jesus has come!
I think that if we had more repentance we would have less division – we’d probably have fewer broken homes and split churches.
But the only way to repent like that is to know that you have an identity that transcends your sin. It is to know that although, in your flesh, you are more sinful and worthy of condemnation that you would ever want to admit, that in Jesus, you are more forgiven, accepted and loved than you could ever dare to dream – because all of your sin has been nailed to the cross and you bear it no more! In Jesus, in union with the Savior, you are no longer defined by your guilt, but by God’s grace.
And so, for unity to flourish among us, we must be a community of grace recipients who are bound and held together not by our goodness or any moral cause, but by the blood of Jesus – the super-glue of Christian unity.
Have you received this grace? Does it define your life yet? If not, this is where we all have to begin – we must be recipients of God’s grace in Jesus. If you are ready to receive that grace now, let me ask you to pray with me now as we close together.