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From Larry Rohrer, Belmont Mennonite Church, Elkhart, IN, May 24, 2009
For the past several weeks, we have been celebrating the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, first putting ourselves in the stories of those early skeptical witnesses to the risen Christ, and then increasingly coming to understand — post-resurrection — the new life and new relationships that Jesus modeled for his disciples. Just as those first disciples slowly but surely were freed from the fear of death, so each week since Easter we too have experienced the freedom and energy that comes when the power of the risen Savior enters our lives. But now the season of resurrection is rapidly coming to a close as we lean into the headwinds of the Holy Spirit and soon experience the refreshing breeze of the Spirit of Christ unleashed in our lives. Time marches on, and if you remember, even Jesus only walked this earth for 40 days following the resurrection until he was carried up to heaven, the ascension of which we celebrated this past Thursday evening. It was there that we remembered it was necessary for Christ to leave, so that the Spirit may come. And it was necessary for Christ to ascend to the right hand of God where he could assume the role of Advocate and Intercessor for his people on earth. In other words, the risen Jesus needed to leave the confines of this flesh and blood world, so that he could engage in uninterrupted, unlimited, timeless prayer for his church. However, if the role of the ascended Christ is to constantly hold the church up in prayer today, what is he praying for? If Jesus lives to make intercession for his church, maybe we should know the nature of his prayer. This is where we come to our text this morning.
It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to know how Jesus may be praying, for we would
assume that he is praying for many of the same things today that he held up to the Father in the first century. There is no clearer indication of the heart of Christ than John 17 where he pleads for a oneness among his people, both present and future. Jesus is praying for unity. I think it is significant to note that if we want to know Jesus’ hopes for his church, then we need to be aware that no less than four times did Jesus pray that his disciples should be one. Okay? Now think about all the teaching moments of Jesus in his three years of ministry, all those encounters with his disciples and the truth of God’s reign that he wanted
to pass on to them. Why does it come down to this? Why does unity matter so much to Jesus? Could it be that we have just discovered the heart of God?
Unity matters because it is the very center of God’s nature; the core of God’s purpose in every relationship, the very meaning behind God’s name. Jesus alludes to his earlier teaching in which he reveals that God so loved the world that God sent his only Son. . . –we are so quick to move on to the second half of that beloved verse, that we neglect the extraordinary relationship of perfect unity and love that exists between the Father and Son which serves as the catalyst for our salvation in the first place. Here we are given a glimpse into that relationship and the implications for the objects of Jesus’ prayer. Because of the perfect love within the Godhead, all those who call on the name of the Lord are already united under the redemptive power of Christ’s name. All those who are sealed in God’s name already give witness to the nature and mission of the One God, which is to reconcile
the world to God. Our Lord Jesus knew that the only way that the world would believe the truth about his reconciling love would be in the lives of his followers. If the world is to know that God abides in us and that God desires to make God’s nature known through us, it will be not in the eloquence of our words, not in the purity of our doctrines – but in our reflection of Christ through our lives and relationships.
So Jesus prays for those relationships – he prays that we may be united with one another through His Word, and that our message, our word of testimony in the life of the church today be one with the Word of truth who abides in us. Of course, as I think about the farreaching effects of that prayer, the skeptical side of me wonders if it is even possible to display that kind of oneness. I’m sure that most people have not even thought about the repercussions. Sure, Jesus is praying that we may be one, as a sign that the relationship within the Godhead is one. It’s a beautiful sentiment. At the same time, we also know how the church is made up of so many different kinds of people, with divergent viewpoints and varieties of personalities. Some of us might even be harder to get along with than others. [Of course, there is no one here like that.] The point being that if the ground is level at the cross, then the church is going to cross all kinds of boundaries, uniting people from a wide variety of origins and backgrounds. Peoples who will approach the Word from perspectives that are different than yours or mine, which in turn allows for all kinds of misunderstandings, disagreements, power-plays, and put-downs – friction of all kinds, breaking the heart of the One who came to break down the dividing walls of hostility. That’s the reality often seen and rehearsed.
Many see the chief culprit of a divided church in the myriad of denominations as a sign of our dividedness. That is probably true to a certain extent when two persons or groups of persons would acknowledge that they no longer desire to remain in Christian fellowship with each other. There was a time when I would have leaned on that much more heavily than I do now. For while denominations and sub-denominations have arisen out of the sin of stubborn pride, it is also true that already in the first century there was a variety of churches, from the high mother church at Jerusalem to the charismatic fellowship at Corinth. From Judaistic to Hellenistic churches; every geographic area bringing rich new expressions of the one, true church, as evidenced by the uniqueness of Paul’s letters to each
church. The point being that, rather than merely a sign of our dividedness, the varied expressions of the church may well be a sign of the giftedness of God’s people, so that variety is not what is harmful to Christian unity. What is damaging are those attitudes which insist that “I am right and you are wrong.”
Perhaps what is needed for the reality of unity is a strong dose of humility – whether in agreement or disagreement. Who of us has a monopoly on the whole counsel of God? Who among us can say that they understand the full intent of the Word? Now don’t get the idea that I am promoting that we follow every which way the wind blows. There is such a thing as unity based on false teaching and counterfeit premises as well. It will not last. But I am saying that some of us can see certain aspects of God’s truth very clearly while being blind in other areas, and we need others to help us see the big picture. And that is true of whole denominations. We need each other to grow in the truth as it is revealed – whether in the
hermeneutic community of the local congregation or whether we engage in conversation with other denominations. For example, I am unapologetically an Anabaptist Christian who can see very clearly how the gospel of peace affects every facet of life, from the personal to the international to the cosmic scale. I would like to think that is one of our contributions to the larger Christian family. At the same time, I welcome the strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God stressed by my Calvinist friends, I lean on the grace of God as spelled out by my Lutheran brothers. I thank God for the Baptist evangelist who led me to a born again experience in Christ at the same time I am challenged to experience the joy of the Lord through my Pentecostal/charismatic sisters and brothers, or the call to holiness by a brother who took me to a Wesleyan camp meeting. And I have benefitted beyond measure from Roman Catholic friends who on a remote mountain in the Ozarks, taught me the priority of meeting God in a disciplined prayer life.
Indeed, it was in that holy experience one day that Father Martin Wolter, the attending bishop of the Little Portion Hermitage, took Sharon and me off the mountain to show us the Berryville, Arkansas community, including an Amish Mennonite settlement just a few miles away. Knowing that we were Mennonites, he rightly concluded that we might be interested in seeing this community. After making several turns onto back roads that I would never be able to duplicate, we came out into a clearing where there was a simple church structure that doubled as a school – the very location being a sign of the group’s separatist nature. We pulled near the building, and walked into the meetinghouse. Soon little faces began to peek around the corners, and a girl who looked not much older than the students themselves came and introduced herself as the teacher. She spoke primarily in PA
Dutch, and the priest, being Dutch, could understand enough to converse with her. If you can picture the irony of this: a Dutch priest conversing with an Amish Mennonite schoolmarm in PA Dutch, while I, the Mennonite, stood there without a clue as to what they were talking about.
Soon the kids lost interest and were herded back to their classroom, leaving Father
Martin and I to sit in the meetinghouse and reflect. We looked around at the plainness of the room with its plank benches, German hymnbooks and a pulpit on the ground floor in the front. We sat there not saying anything for a time, before Father Martin broke silence. He said, “You know, in the Catholic Church, we have our beautiful cathedrals with their matching symbols and actions, all of which are designed to lead us into the presence of God. But in the plainness of this Amish Mennonite meetinghouse, God is already present in the beauty of his gathered people. Then Father Martin just shrugged his shoulders saying, “Who is to say who is right?” as he offered a big grin. I grinned back, knowing that at that moment, I was looking into the face of my brother. A Catholic bishop and a Mennonite minister sitting in an Amish Mennonite meetinghouse becoming one, in the
presence of our abiding God.
We talk a lot about Christ as the answer to our prayers. But have we ever thought that we have the Spirit capacity to be the answer to his prayer for unity? As long-time charismatic preacher Francis Frangipane has said, “each time we choose to pray for others instead of merely criticizing them, we are answering His prayer. Every time we turn and forgive a brother or sister who has hurt us, we are fulfilling His longing. When we unite with other churches across racial or denominational lines, we are touching His heart.” Think of it. As ordinary as we are, we can be the answer – we can be the living witness of the very purpose of God — when Jesus prays, “Father, make them one.” AMEN