In John 17 Jesus prays that we’d all be one. Why? What does he mean? It isn’t just so we can be more effective on mission. Jesus isn’t just saying, ‘If the church was more unified the world wouldn’t be so skeptical about us.’ That’s true, but it’s much deeper than that. This prayer that we would all be one, if we see it in the context of the whole flow of John’s gospel, is about the hope of God’s glory coming and filling all things.
Look at what Jesus says in John 17:22-23 – ‘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.’ So this isn’t just about our unity helping our mission – in a pragmatic sense. It’s much more wonderful. It’s about us sharing the same love, and the same glory as the Father and the Son have. So what will be true for the whole creation one day is already happening with us. The love and unity we exhibit is an advance sign to the world of what God intends for the whole creation.
We see this same theme throughout the New Testament. God’s plan is to rescue the whole creation from its slavery to corruption and decay. To defeat all the idols and false powers which have held creation and human beings in their grasp. And to complete at last the plan he had from the beginning – from Genesis 1 and 2. That the creation, formed by God’s powerful love and word, will become this cosmic Temple filled with his glory. Ruled over in wisdom and love by his redeemed people who themselves will be glorified. And the unity of the church is a sign, a foretaste and a means of God’s ultimate plan.
Theologian, NT Wright argues that this theme is almost everywhere in Paul’s letters.* For Paul, the unified community of Christ is the ultimate sign of the coming glory. Jew plus Greek, slave plus free, male and female in Christ – the one people of Abraham for the world.
If you look at Galatians 2, 3 and 4, Paul is actually arguing for the unity of the church. In the church Jews and gentiles sitting at the same table together. That’s not incidental, that’s the whole point of his argument.
And if you look at 1 Corinthians, again and again he’s saying, ‘Is Christ divided? No, you are all one.’ And it builds up… he deals with this topic, that topic… but arrives in chapter 12 with this vision of the body of Christ – the one body, many members. And then, in case you wondered how this could happen, in chapter 13 he writes this majestic poem on love. And then explores what that’s going to look like when we’re gathering together. And all of this is rooted in chapter 15 in the Gospel, which is about the new creation, the kingdom of God in and through Jesus’ resurrection.
And then when you get to the letter to the Philippians… How are we going to fulfill the command to let our public life as the people of God be worthy of the gospel of Christ, as he says in chapter 1? Answer: ‘If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any comfort from his love, if there is any common sharing in the Spirit… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and one in mind.’
Ever tried this in a group of 3 or 4? A group of 10 or 20? A church of 70 or 80? It is very, very difficult. It wasn’t any easier in the first century. But don’t think that just ‘cos we find it hard, that it’s optional. No, rather… Paul continues… ‘have the same mindset among yourselves as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be taken advantage of, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant… You know how it goes. Jesus went all the way – obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him.’ He has done what only the one who bears the name above all names can do. And it’s because of him, and in him, that we are called to do the same.
Then Paul goes on to say, ‘Do all things without grumbling and arguing, so that you may be children of God blameless and pure in a dark world in which you shine like stars. The unity of the church is the sign to the world that there’s a different way of being human.
Or think about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians… The unity of Jew and gentile in Christ (2:11-21) is the direct outflowing of the being justified by Christ (2:1-10) and the direct result of this is chapter 3:10 – that through the church this extra-ordinary multi-coloured, many-splendoured, many-ethnic, many-language people… through the one family we call the church, ‘the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and powers of this world.’
The unifying of Jew and gentile by the Spirit… what an extraordinary thing! It made Caesar shiver in his shoes. Within 100 years of Jesus’ death, Caesar was getting letters from Imperial governors around the Empire, saying, ‘What are we going to do with these Christians?’ Because it shows that Caesar doesn’t run the world – Christ does. And the same is true when we exhibit this same unity. The powers that be start getting worried. But as long as we continue to be fragmented, divided and detached from each other. And… ‘Who cares ‘cos we’re right and those other Christians are wrong.’ As long as we go that route – the powers of this world will fold their arms and watch us having our fun, because they’re still running the show. But as Paul says in Ephesians 4 – when there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Then something new has happened – and the gates of hell can’t prevail against it.
And it’s a cost. The cost of being different (Ephesians 5)… The cost of sustaining the male plus female thing we call marriage, in a world that’s always trying to tear us apart, and so on.
And then in Romans – Paul’s big gun, his canon. The whole letter builds to chapters 14 and 15, which are about the hard won, complex unity of the church. This unity results in the church, with one heart and voice, glorifying the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the climax of that is v12-13, which brings together and concludes the whole of Romans… The root of Jesse rises to rule the nations. And this is a letter to Rome! This is a letter to the city that rules the nations. No, the root of Jesse rises. The resurrection says Jesus Christ rules the nations. And in him the nations will hope. That’s Paul’s understanding of the church – a single worldwide people worshipping Christ as Lord.
And it’s a new temple view of the church. It’s saying, ‘You are the temple of the living God – together and individually.’ Ephesians 2 says the Spirit indwells us like the glory indwelt the temple. Or in Colossians 1, Paul says, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ Not as individuals – it’s plural. ‘Christ in you guys as the church, the hope of glory.’ But it’s not just about your hope of glory – or my hope of glory. The picture is that God intends to flood the whole creation with his glory. A time is coming when the most Spirit-filled person in the world, is just a pale shadow of what God is going to do for the entire creation.
This future is anticipated when a dozen people in Colossae, and 15 people in Philippi, and a few dozen maybe in Corinth, are meeting in the power of the Spirit. ‘Christ in you’ – you the temple of the living God, the sign of hope for a world that will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
So for Paul our unity is a very, very, very big deal! Practically this means being family together. And this means money-sharing, project-sharing and life-sharing (if you check out what it meant to be family in the ancient world). And loads of hospitality – which is why we eat together so much at Soma. And we see this lived out in the early church in the Book of Acts – life on life, life in community, life on mission. Operating as family – brothers and sisters loving each other. Deeply connected and involved. Not just in small groups… but in larger communities. Gathering together, working together, partnering together financially. Being a large network of people working for the greater good.
And this isn’t just a strategy to convince people Jesus is true. Though it is that – very much. But it’s more – it’s actually a foretaste of the glory that’s coming. Love isn’t just our duty, its our destiny.
And practically also, it’s not just – let’s all forget our theological differences, and smile at each other and be friendly. We can’t be unified on the basis of the lowest common denominator beliefs. Actually, reading John’s gospel, and especially Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17. Our unity is based on truth. Let’s unite around the highest theology we have – Trinity, Christ as God incarnate, the indwelling work of the Spirit, the victory of the cross and the resurrection, the remaking of creation, the coming together of heaven and earth, Christ in you, the hope of glory. This is the foundation of Jesus’ vision of unity. And this is why communion is so important. And our Gatherings are so important. They keep grounding us in the truths that unite us.
Also, unity is costly. It means dethroning our idols. And the world, and the powers of the world, will be trying to keep us apart. We need to recognise these pressures for what they are, and defeat them through the victory of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and the power of the Spirit. It’s hard enough to see idolatry in our friends… almost impossible to see it in ourselves. Yet if we are to be true to the Word we must make every effort… And pray with Jesus. Pray that his word will do its healing and re-creative work. Pray for God’s glory to be revealed freshly in our lives together. Pray above all, that the love the Father has with the Son will also be in us.
*see NT Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God, p. 385-419
By Dave Miles