Christian Unity from Triune Community
Passage: John 17:20–23
Sermon from John 17:20-23 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on February 1, 2015
We come again to the prayer of Jesus the night before his death, and we look specifically at a request Jesus makes for Christian unity in verses 20-23.
Many of you have noticed that we will take the Lord’s Supper again this morning. And I find it a kind providence of our Father that we would land on the subject of Christian unity the day we take the Lord’s Supper. Because any of us who’ve read 1 Corinthians 10-11, know that Christian unity springs from what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf unites people in one body to God (1 Cor 10:17). And so it was simply unthinkable that the church come to eat the Supper when disunity prevailed in the hearts of the people (1 Cor 11:18, 33).
My hope is that today’s message will help you celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner. That instead of pasting over the disunity that may exist in your heart, God would bring forth true reconciliation and sincere forgiveness and genuine love for one another—all flowing from what Jesus reveals about Christian unity in this prayer. If you want to know the heart of God for the church—from the way you eat this Supper, to the way you serve in Nursery, to the way you walk together during the week, to the way you interact together in the world—listen to Jesus’ prayer. Verse 20,
20I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that 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. 22The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
As we come to verse 20, there’s a bit of a shift that occurs. Jesus’ requests have been moving outward in these concentric circles. He began with prayer for himself, that his own ministry would glorify the Father (17:1-5). And then he moved outward to his little band of eleven disciples; he prays that they might be protected and sanctified for mission (17:6-19). But now he broadens his requests even further. Now his prayers extend to all the people who will believe in him through the disciple’s testimony.
That’s the church. If you have believed the gospel, if you have trusted in the disciples’ testimony that Jesus is who he says he is, then this is what Jesus wants for you and me. And one of the main requests Jesus makes for you and me is that we may all be one, perfectly one. He prays for Christian unity—that Christian unity might permeate the final community he is gathering beneath his kind lordship (10:16; 11:52). And there are at least four things you need to note about this Christian unity.
1. Christian Unity Proceeds from Triune Community
First of all, Christian unity proceeds from triune community. It’s probably easy for us not to think all that much about unity. I mean, after all, isn’t their plenty of unity to be had in this world? People seem to find unity all the time, at least in some limited sense—unity in political vision; unity in what you like on Facebook; unity on projects at work; unity in cheering on the favorite team; unity in convictions about education; unity in culture, music, ethnicity. And on we could go of course.
But what becomes abundantly clear over time is that this unity doesn’t last. It doesn’t last because the bulk of it—in some way or another—is rooted in shared self-interests more than being rooted in anything substantial and lasting. You know, “I unite with you insofar as you agree with ‘me, myself, and I’; as long as you never ‘un-friend’ me on Facebook we’re united; we work on the same project together at work, but I couldn’t stand to eat lunch with the guy.” Entire nations team up with one another, not because they have a unified vision of a peaceful society, but because “you have oil and we want the cash.” It’s just a picture of the sin inside all of us. The world’s unity revolves around self, proceeds from self-interests.
But when we turn to the church, we find a unity that proceeds from something altogether different. We find a unity proceeding not from anything inside us or from anything natural to us. Unity within the church proceeds from something outside us. It proceeds from the supernatural. Indeed, it proceeds from the unity of the one true God, who eternally exists as a trinity of persons.
And in particular, Jesus points out that our unity proceeds from his own intimate relationship to the Father and our relationship to them. Look at it again 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.” Then again toward the end of verse 23, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.”
You see how it works? Any true unity that’s going to bring God glory doesn’t begin with something we do, or with something we can find in this world. All true unity that brings God glory proceeds from the very being of God himself. Here, in the being of God himself is where there’s no hindrance to unity; where no sin exists to divide persons of the Godhead; where no lie exists that would cause one to distrust the other; where no suspicion exists of whether the other has his best interest at heart; where no prideful impulse is present to one-up the other; where all that they love, they love together; where all that they plan, they plan together; where all that they do, they do together in infinite intimacy and truth and joy.
And we’ve seen this play out in the Gospel of John, have we not? Between the Father and the Son? We’ve seen that the Father and Son so mutually indwell one another that anything the Son does, we can also say the Father does it through him (5:19-20). The Father creates the world as does the Son (1:1-3). To see Jesus heal a man is to see the Father working (5:17). To see Jesus raise a dead man is to see the Father’s glory (11:4). To hear Jesus speak is to hear the words of the Father himself (8:28). Even to see Jesus is to see the Father in him (14:9-11)—all the while maintaining their distinct persons and role within the Godhead. The point is to show that the Father and Son are one—they’re one in love and purpose and mission.
And here, Jesus prays that we come to share in this unity, that we become partakers of this unity. That we, who live in a world that knows no such unity as this, who live in a world that can’t even begin to fathom or create the depth of such unity like the Godhead’s unity, in a world where, even if we agree we must brush our teeth, we’re not united on where to squeeze the toothpaste—Jesus prays that we become a people so intimately connected with God, that we even mirror the unity of the triune community.
This is what he’s fixing to give his life for—that every sin keeping us from fellowship with this triune God might be dealt with once and for all; that his death might open a way for us to encounter the multifaceted-yet-always-united beauty of the Father’s relationship with the Son. And even more, that Father and Son themselves take up residence in us through the Holy Spirit. We saw that in 14:17-23: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you…If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” How? By the Spirit.
So the idea is that through the work of Christ on the cross and through the mediating work of the Spirit, we gain fellowship with the triune God. And our dependence on the triune God—our union with God in Christ then produces unity between all God’s people, such that our unity even mirrors that between Father and Son. It’s incredible!
2. Christian Unity Is Impossible without Trust in Christ
Second, Christian unity is impossible without trust in Christ. In other words, nobody just stumbles into Christian unity; nobody just discovers the unity proceeding from triune community. This special unity is something granted only to those who believe the gospel, only to those who trust the testimony that the disciples give about Jesus.
If you don’t accept the disciples’ testimony about Jesus, you’ll never enjoy the unity proceeding from the triune God, because you’ll never have a relationship with God. Your sin is too great. All you’ll get is separation from God—what 2 Thess 1:9 calls the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. But if you trust in what the apostles’ preach about Jesus, when their words become your banner, your joy, your treasure, your dope—whatever word of preciousness you want to call it—only then will you gain a vital relationship with God, which then leads to the unity spoken of here.
That’s the point Jesus makes in verse 20: “I do not ask for these only [and he means, these eleven disciples], but also for those who will believe in me through their word”—meaning, through the disciples’ word, through their preaching, through the words the Holy Spirit inspires them to write on the pages of your New Testament (14:26; 15:26; 16:13-14). Now, that’s not to discredit the Old Testament’s witness to Jesus (5:46). It’s just to say that with the coming of Jesus, all access to a relationship with God hinges on whether one embraces the disciples’ testimony about God coming in the flesh; whether one believes that all the Old Testament finds its center and fulfillment in the gospel of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
It’s through the preaching of Christ that we know where peace with God and peace with one another flourishes. It’s through the preaching of Christ that every person is exposed for the sinner they really are—no person can say they’re better than the next. It’s through the preaching of Christ that we find acceptance with God, such that we don’t have to compete to find acceptance with others—God’s is enough. It’s through the preaching of Christ that we learn of the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile being torn down in Jesus’ crucified body. It’s through Christ that we say, “There’s neither Jew nor Greek, there’s neither slave nor free, there’s no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Without faith in Jesus as preached by the apostles, Christian unity is non-existent. People get this so backwards sometimes. They know unity is important. And so they lift it up and try to do everything in their own power to create unity; and they bring all kinds of strategies—we’ve got to have more game nights, some bowling adventures, watch some video on how to be united, and then make sure everybody has their own affinity group and if not create more affinity groups.
And I’m not saying that any of those things are inherently evil, or that any of them couldn’t serve to deepen relationships. I’m just saying that if Christ isn’t being lifted up as the apostles preach him, then all our strategies are vain. We’ve flipped the table. The Lord has given the church his strategy for unity, and it’s this: keep Jesus Christ lifted up through the apostles’ word, so that people believe in Jesus. And I don’t mean, so that people believe in Jesus once upon entering the church; I mean, so that people in the church keep believing in Jesus—they keep trusting in him.
Find disunity in the church, and there you will find a lack of trust in Christ. Find division in the church, and there you will find failure to apply the apostles’ words. Find tension in your heart towards another brother or sister, and there you will find the need to remember Christ and him crucified. Christian unity is impossible without trusting Christ. Without faith in Christ, we have no access to the triune God and no gospel truth to transform our relationships.
Yes, we will share similar histories, passions, hobbies, career paths, generational preferences, book interests—you name it. But none of these can be the center of our unity. Christ must be the center of our unity. You build unity on anything else and your house will sink in the sand! Christ is the rock of our salvation; and he is the rock of our unity.
3. Christian Unity Shows No Favoritism
Third, Christian unity shows no favoritism. Let’s not forget that Jesus’ prayer is part of a much larger narrative, a much larger story John is telling. And from this story we know that the Father has given a people to the Son out of the world. They were lost in sin, and God chose to save them from their sin by giving them to the Son. But it doesn’t take much for us to see that these people come from all kinds of places and backgrounds and ethnicities and religious practices and have all kinds of sins.
And so you’ve got a crew of Jewish disciples—mostly fishermen, one an influential tax-collector. You’ve got a woman who’s not just a Samaritan, but also an adulteress who hides her sin behind a religious veneer. You’ve got all those coming to Jesus from this woman’s home town. You’ve got a royal official in chapter 4; a blind beggar in chapter 9; some Greeks in chapter 12—all kinds of people coming to Jesus.
And then we get this in 10:16. Jesus says to the Jews, “I have other sheep that are not of this [Jewish] fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” When you hear they will listen to my voice, think 17:20, those who will believe in me through their word. And then he says this: “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Not a Jewish flock over here and a Gentile flock over there; not a black flock over here and a white flock over there. Not an educated, rich flock over here and a less-educated, poor flock over there. One flock under the care of one shepherd!
Then again in 11:52, “[Ciaphas] prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” God has children scattered abroad—they’re scattered into places you don’t want to go; they have lifestyles that’ll make you blush; they’ve got problems that are over your head; they’ve got political positions that’ll make you mad; they’ve got cultural smells that you won’t like. But Jesus died to gather them into one.
His prayer to make them one is part of this much bigger picture. It’s what’s behind the “all” of verse 21: “that they may all be one”—all, without distinction! Christian unity is indiscriminate, because God’s love toward the world is indiscriminate. His love extends to all kinds of people—red, yellow, black, white, or brown, young people and old people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, homeschool people and public school people, from moralists to prostitutes, from bad sinners to the worst of sinners. To show favoritism toward one type of person over the other is a functional denial of God’s work in Christ. And even more, it’s actually to join enemy ranks who oppose the spreading kingdom of the triune God. Christian unity shows no favoritism, because Jesus prays for all to be one before dying for all to be one.
4. Christian Unity Aims for World-wide Witness
Last point before teasing this out a bit more for our church: Christian unity aims for world-wide witness. You see, here’s what happens when Bryan the white plumber from Mississippi, and Rose the black business woman from New York, and Abdul the Arabic immigrant from Dubai who grew up in Islam, and Tasha the woman who never had a home, because she was sold so early into prostitution—here’s what happens when all these kinds of people believe in Jesus, are rescued out of their various sins, and wedded to the church reflecting the unity of the only triune God: the world is shocked. The world is stumped over the nature and depth of our unity; and the only thing that makes sense of it all is the Father’s work in Jesus.
Jesus says that much at the end of 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, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Then again in verse 23: “that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” What’s the goal of Christian unity? The goal of Christian unity is world-wide witness.
In other words, we’re the visible outworking of God’s work in Christ. We are the visible testimony that the cross saves sinners. We are God’s “object-lesson,” his tangible reminder to the world that through Christ’s death and resurrection God disarmed the rulers and authorities, he broke the power of your sin, and he’s bringing all things in subjection to Christ (Eph 1:9-10, 20-21; 3:10-11; Col 3:15; Heb 2:14; cf. 1 Cor 15:24).
When you pursue Christ and grow in unity with one another, you, as a local church magnify God’s glory in the gospel. You are—as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 8:23—“the glory of Christ” made visible.
Now, I want to spend some time teasing out what we’ve just heard, and I want to do it in respect to a few things I’ve observed hindering unity at Redeemer. Not all of these will apply to every person equally, but I believe we need to hear them as a whole body, in order to grow together into the picture we’ve seen here of Christian unity.
Our unity will be as great as our pursuit of God
So the first thing I want to mention is this: our unity will be as great as our pursuit of God. If true unity proceeds from fellowship with the triune God, then we must pursue him together. I heard one pastor illustrate this with an upside down cone, with the triune God at the top. And as all the members of his church pursue him and love him and know him and enjoy more of him, we all grow nearer to one another. The more we’re pursuing God, the more he will unite us.
That means you need to evaluate things in your Christian walk—like your pursuit of God in prayer and devotion to his word. If you’re not communing with God in prayer; if you’re not depending on God in prayer and drawing from God’s own circle of triune love, then what is it that you really want from Christianity? It’s certainly not the same things God wants. And how are you seeking to know him in his word? If his word is far from us, we will not be moving toward him together. Have you ever thought that devotion to God’s word isn’t just for your own sake—for your own joy in God—but also for the sake of the church and its unity? The disunity that some of you experience in your relationship isn’t because you know too much about God, but because you know God too little. Ask God to rekindle a love for his word and prayer. Pursue him together.
Beware of Satanic lies that threaten our unity
Another thing to consider is this: beware of satanic lies that threaten our unity. Christian unity takes place on enemy turf. Remember verse 15: “Keep them from the evil one.” Satan doesn’t want us united. He didn’t want the disciples united. He got one of them, Judas. We must remain alert to his subtle lies that are threatening our unity. Subtle lies, subtle false narratives that we impose on each other as the result of our sinful cravings and self-preoccupation. I’m not saying we can blame the devil for these lies; I’m just saying he uses them to divide us, to wreak havoc on relationships, or at least keep them from thriving.
There’s a great example of these subtle lies in an article I read recently by David Powlison on anger. I thought it might help point you to ways you may buy into similar lies, because of your cravings. He writes this:
A friend once came up to me after church and said, “I want to ask your forgiveness for something. I’ve been angry at you for eight months, and have just held it in trying to forgive you. But God has convicted me, and I want to get things solved between us.” I was grateful that she wanted to get things straight and that she’d had the courage and humility to raise a problem. But as she tried to describe an incident in the hallway at church where I had ignored and snubbed her, she lost me. What was she talking about? I couldn’t remember ever doing anything against her. Finally we pieced it together. During the worship service one morning I had started to feel nauseous. While heading for the men’s room I had passed her in the hall with the barest acknowledgement, no hello or conversation, and an unhappy look on my face. She had interpreted all this as directed at her. Eight months of anger resulted from perceiving evil where evil was not present. Her desire for acceptance had ruled. Or perhaps it would be better to say her craving for acceptance had conflicted with the desires of the Spirit in her. To be seemingly ignored and frowned at by a presumed friend is no fun. Where God rules, hurt and anger will move us to resolve things in a godly way, checking out our perceptions. This in fact she finally did, to the praise of his grace, and we were heartily reconciled. But [and get this] where false beliefs and cravings rule, our perceptions stay twisted; we get stuck in hurt and anger. To a degree this had happened, delaying reconciliation by many months ("Anger Part 1: Understanding Anger," Journal of Biblical Counseling 14 [Fall 1995], 49).
I wonder—no, I know that some of you can think of similar examples in your own life. Occasions when your own false beliefs and cravings twist your perception of others in this church, and instead of going to the brother, instead of approaching your sister, you sit on it. You stew over it. You cry yourself to sleep because of it. You don’t say anything in Care Group about it. You avoid fellowship so you don’t have to talk about it. And when you do talk about it, you start feeding the same narrative to others. And time just passes while the devil does his work to stifle unity.
Listen, the more we love God, the more we’ll hate the sin that divides us. The more we walk in his truth, the more we’ll be able to discern and work through the lies that separate us. The more we cherish the gospel, the more we’ll be able to annihilate whatever keeps things awkward and keeps us hulled up in self-preoccupation. Put on the belt of truth; and make war on sin and the devil. Don’t live by lies. Expose them and work patiently toward the truth, and then walk together in it.
Preserving unity isn’t easy or comfortable, but worth it
Something else: preserving this kind of unity isn’t easy or comfortable, but worth it. There are tons of exhortations in the New Testament where the apostles are pressing churches into deeper unity. And they’re usually associated with comments like this: “with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2-3); “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other” (Col 3:13); “aim for restoration…agree with one another” (2 Cor 13:11). At one point, Paul even calls out two sisters who apparently aren’t united, and he says to the elders and deacons, “I entreat Euodia and…Syntyche to agree in the Lord; help these women” (Phil 4:2-3).
The picture we get is that relationships in the church are oftentimes messy. They are relationships that require confession of sin, patience, forgiveness, intentional pursuit of agreement, firm accountability, rebuke, correction, setting aside personal preferences to live in harmony with each other. It’s not like everybody floats ten inches off the ground with a halo. Unity is hard when you’re dealing with people, who still have sin in their lives, who still have weaknesses, and blind-spots.
But here’s the thing: even though those relationships are worth the blood of Jesus, we often don’t want to put up with what’s necessary to preserve them. Tim Keller once said, “Everyone says they want community and deep friendship. However, because it takes accountability and commitment we run the other way.”
That’s so true; and we know it’s been true since Redeemer’s inception; and we know it’s been true for an even longer time in the broader American church. That’s why books get written like, Stop Dating the Church. Western consumerism is so much a part of the air we breathe, we don’t even pick up on the way it affects Christian unity. Whenever unity becomes inconvenient or requires uncomfortable effort and awkward conversations, we split. We go church hopping. Why bother with patience if I can just get something different down the street? Why wrestle over this doctrine when I can just go somewhere else that believes what I believe? Why waste time sharing my concerns when I can just go somewhere else that does it the way I like? Why bother with genuine reconciliation in this care group, when I can just hop over to the next one? Why bother sharing the hurt and loneliness I feel with anybody else, when I can just rearrange my life to escape it all? Instead of using the grace we’ve been given to strengthen weaknesses, or heal wounds, or correct pride, or address sin, we’re tempted to run.
Like I said, this isn’t just something we’ve experienced at Redeemer. I’ve talked—and am talking—with other pastors in the area. They see it, too. I participated in it myself. I didn’t draw near to leadership in my previous church before I left. I didn’t want to deal with the problems I was seeing; I didn’t want to wait patiently for things to change. It was easier to leave and come here.
But once the Lord opened my eyes to the nature of the church and the nature of church membership and the relationships that were worth the blood of Jesus and the longings of Jesus for deep abiding unity among his people, I called the previous leadership of that church, confessed my sin and my selfishness, and said I would’ve done it another way. He forgave me, and I stand united with him and his church in ministry.
Some of you need to have deeper conversations with each other than you’ve been having. A few of you need to have those conversations before you take this Supper. Please, for the sake of Christ have them. The prayers and work of Jesus Christ stand behind you. Our unity is worth his blood, it’s worth magnifying the greatness of the God who reconciled us, so that the world knows he sent the Son.
We must prepare to eat with all kinds of people
Which leads me to one last point of application: we must prepare to eat with all kinds of people. That’s the test right? That’s why Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11. Peter was happy eating with Gentiles, until some other Jews showed up. Then Peter drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And Paul calls it, “hypocrisy…out of step with the gospel.” Can you eat at this Table today with all kinds of people the Lord Jesus has redeemed? Can you welcome into your house tomorrow all kinds of people the Lord Jesus has redeemed?
The mission of Christ knows no limits in who it reaches in the world. God has chosen a people for his Son, and many of this people are in communities you are likely less than comfortable dealing with. As we keep preaching the gospel, God will win the hearts of all his elect. And some of them are in the LGBT community right now; some of them are feminist scholars right now; some of them are poor, uneducated, and in need of help. Some of them are tied up in those so-called “less acceptable” sins. Some of them are prostitutes and pimps. Are you ready to eat with them at this Table when the Lord saves them? Because if you’re not, you don’t get the gospel.
You haven’t felt the depravity of your own heart. You haven’t experienced what Jesus’ cross really does for people, when it washes them totally clean and takes away their shame and clothes them with glory. None of us deserve to eat at the King’s Table. But all of us are welcome to eat by faith. And the same is true for all people who believe, not just the ones we like. So, come and eat together this morning without hypocrisy. Come and eat as those loved even as God loves his own Son. Come and gather at the Table of the Lord with all God’s redeemed. And as you taste again redemption’s sweetness, prepare yourself to eat with all kinds of people. Prepare yourself to be a community that welcomes all kinds of people. Whatever the background, whatever sins they’re caught up in, whatever color of their skin, whatever their accent, whatever their needs—prepare to welcome them in Christ. And then go to all kinds of people and invite them to enjoy a unity they will not find in the world.
Redeemer, our unity is far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean we’re without hope. Jesus, the Son of God, prays for us to be perfectly one. And there was nothing he missed on the cross to make that happen. And his Father will be faithful to secure it for us forever, when the Day finally comes and all God's redeemed are gathered before the throne to enjoy his glory and grace together in perfect harmony. Let’s eat together.
More in The Gospel According to John
May 24, 2015Eyewitness Testimony to the Greatness of Jesus
May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus