A sermon on John 17:20-26
In today’s passage, we have come to the final section of Jesus’ high priestly prayer to the Holy Father. As we have heard from the sermon last week, in the final section, Jesus changed his focus from the disciples to pray about the Church that will be formed in the future. This passage is therefore evermore important, because it is about us, that Jesus prayed for before his arrest and imminent death. This is about us, it is personal. This prayer is an intercessory prayer for you as it is also for me. We must understand and appreciate for ourselves what is the matter that Jesus is the most concerned about us, the future believers. Such is the gravity of today’s topic, for it is Jesus’ primary prayer to God about us. So, today’s sermon is less of a teaching, and more of a heart to heart sharing. For we acknowledge that through Jesus, God becomes a personal God to us. If today’s matter is of the biggest concern to Jesus, such that he plead to God about it, before his death, shouldn’t it be our biggest concern as well? And if we care not for this matter, are we say we love Jesus? If we do not commit ourselves into this matter, are we not breaking Jesus’ heart? This matter that I want to share with you today is on Christian Unity.
The first time I heard about this passage is when I was doing a video shoot for the Presbyterian Synod. During an interview with our Synod Moderator Rev HH, he shared about his work and the projects that are going on in the Presbyterian Synod. As always, I conclude the interview with a customary question, which is “if there is one thing you will like to share with all the members of the Presbyterian churches, what would it be?” What followed is a moment I have reflected upon to this day. The ever cheerful man grew silent, then he replied with a warm prayerful voice. “Learning to be thankful for being part of the Presbyterian churches in Singapore is a very important affirmation. The other is the ability to extend ourselves to come alongside each other. I am constantly reminded of a prayer of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Jesus chapter 17, that he prayed that the church be one, the disciples be one, even as the God the Father and himself are one. So that it be a witness to the whole world, so that people will be drawn to Jesus, because of this unity in him, and for him.”
This prayer of Jesus is a constant reminder for Rev HH. For him, if he were to share with you on one matter. It is not to ask you to sacrifice for the church, or to give money or to remember to do your QT. It is a gentle invitation to be one in the body of Christ. Upon my reflection, this matter is just as important today, as it is in the days of the apostles’ John’s Church, when they were facing persecution and heresy. If Jesus were with us today, would he say that we are united as one? Let’s make an honest assessment of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore. How many of us here know what the Synod is doing? How many of us are concerned about news of the other churches? Can you even name the names of 10 Presbyterian churches? I am not criticizing anybody today. But I just want to emphasize the reality of there is so much more we can do.
If we widen the scope and look at the churches of Singapore, are we united as one? It is time of some soul searching when there are churches with grand buildings paid for in a year, and others renting places and struggling with financial difficulties. And if we widen the scope further to include church all over the world, we can witness the charismatic vs. the conservatives, the fundamentalists vs. the liberals, and Catholics vs. the Protestants. In the Creed, we profess that we are one, holy, Catholic Church. When I hear some of the things Christians say about other churches, it is hard to believe the Church is one.
And if we narrow the scope to Jubilee Church itself, can we say that we are united as one? Do we know members of both services, do you know what the youth, the children, the elderly is doing every week? Even, among the cell groups of the Chinese service, how often do we dialogue with one another besides the leaders and pastors? Actually, as a pastor myself, I do know of many good things happening, so there is no need to be defensive. But, in my position, it has also allowed me to see the many areas we can work on and persevere. So, today’s topic on Christian unity, is not just the work of the pastors and the Church leaders. It is the work of everybody. We only need one person neglected, for one to become two. Let us all work together on Christian unity for it is Christ’s number one concern for us. Not only just Jubilee Church, but also with the Presbyterian Church of Singapore, with the national Council of Churches in Singapore, and with all the denominations worldwide. Even though, the work is immense, but I believe the task is possible. For this prayer of Jesus is not a plead to us, mere human. It is to God the Father. And He who is faithful will bind us all together. It is with great hope that I exhort you in this matter. For is not the work of salvation itself a work of reconciliation.
Today’s passage sheds light of the unity that we can have in three ways. Firstly, Unity in Word. We the church is gathered as one because of one common reason. That we believe in Jesus because of the words of the disciples. The word here refers to the Gospel. We may all have come from different backgrounds, we may have different culture, different passion in life. But the moment when we are called into the assembly of God’s people, we have become one. The faith in Jesus is our identity; Jesus becomes our common ground. But we do not only have a common past in Jesus, we have a common future in Jesus. Our conversion experience may differ, but we all await the same Second Coming. Not only that, Jesus unites us in our present for we are all given the common mission. This is the word that was given to us, that we have come to believe. This word of the disciples was passed down from one to another. Those who heard and believe passed it on. And on, and on, and on. Rev. Tom Wright says “The Church is never more than one generation away from extinction; all it take is for a single generation not to hand the word on.” We are bound together to make sure this word passes on to the next generation. The word is our common mission, it is our common goal. The church filled with conflict may do well to be reminded of a general who, coming on deck and finding two naval officers quarreling, turned them around and – pointing to the ships of their adversary – exclaimed, “ Gentlemen, there are your enemies!” That is right. We live in a world in darkness, and we have to fulfill this mission together. And this is the unity that we have and must cherish: the Unity in Word.
Secondly, Unity in Divinity. Our union is not only because of something we all share, but also because of the union between the Father and the Son. Last week, Pastor Daniel shared that the Father and the Son is an ontological union, two person, but one God. We will never fully comprehend this divine union, nor can our Christian union ever achieve such ontological unity. But, it is yet such a union that our Christian union is modeled after, such that it makes our Christian union itself divine. The reality of our union is not just an arrangement like putting together a class or a couple being matchmaked. Just as the father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father, we live within that unity. In living in the unity between the father and the son, the father can now be in us, and we can be in the father. Furthermore, Jesus says, “I want them to see my glory, the glory which you’ve given me.” This glory that Jesus is talking about, is the glory of him seating on the throne on the right side of the Father, high and exalted. The exalted high Lamb worthy of all praise and honor. How will we see this glory? We shall be the ones described in Revelations 7:9 onwards. The great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. V15 They are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple: and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. V17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, he will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. In the words of Bonhoeffer, to be united divinely means this “we who live in fellowship with Jesus will one day be with him in eternal fellowship. He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Our community with oe another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, it remains so for all future and to all eternity.” Our unity is in Jesus, and we shall see his glory in eternity. Such is the unity we have, a divine unity.
So firstly, it is Unity in Word, which is our common foundation and our common mission. Secondly it is Unity in Divinity, which brings out the reality of our union, both now and in future. Thirdly, Unity in Love. This unity we have, just like any human relationship cannot be forced. There can be no bullying, no manipulation. We are called into this unity to love one another. It is true that even true brother and sisters in blood may quarrel and conflict with one another. But as spiritual brothers and sisters, we have no excuse not to work afresh in every generation towards this unity that Jesus pray for. If we are, essentially, one in faith, there can be no final reason why we may not be one, also, in out life and worship. Sometimes, I think of Christian unity like a harmony of a choir. Those I often try to harmonise with the rest, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, I can’t help but be off-key. But remember today, that it is not by our efforts that this unity is possible. It is not true human love that we show for each other, temporal and shallow. It is with the love of God that we give to one another, eternal and deep. This love of God is the love that God the Father has for his only Son. The love with which the Father loves the Son will be in us, and with this love we will love one another and unite one another. Because we are loving one another with the love of the Father, we know that that is a self-sacrificing love. Therefore, we have to commit ourselves into loving service to one another, one that goes beyond the needs of oneself, one that is self-sacrificing. For God so love the world that he has given his only begotten son, what more we should give to one another. Such is unity in love. We can make beautiful music together.
If we manifest our unity in this three ways, in Word, in divinity and in love, the world will see and know that this is the work of God. This kind of community united across all traditional barriers of race, custom, gender or class, can only come from the action of the creator God. The world will see and believe. May our community be like the rainbow, that though we come in many colors, we are so well blend, so beautiful, it must be the work of the Creator. And when the colors unite as one, we become the light of the world that shines forth into all darkness. This is not a dream but a reality, for this is the prayer of Jesus to the Father. And what God put together let no man put asunder. Let us all remember this important wise saying: “The world at its worst needs the church at its best.”
I shall conclude with a funny story. A visitor to a mental hospital was astonished to note that there were only three guards watching over a hundred dangerous inmates. He asked his guide, “Don’t you fear that these people will overpower the guards and escape?” “No”, was the reply. “Lunatics never unite.’ Yes, brothers and sisters. The Christian walk is a long and difficult path. We will be crazy not to be united. Let’s pray.