“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. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Question: Is “complete unity” (or, as some bible translations phrase it, “perfect unity”) among Christians even possible?
Amazingly, the answer is that complete unity is not only possible, it is assured. There will come a day when our unity will be made perfect, complete. But our present reality is that our unity is both imperfect and incomplete. As individuals, and as churches and denominations, we tend to elevate our own self-interests above the interests of others. We are prone to judge one another, and to gossip and slander one another. And we allow politics and issues of the day to divide us, even to the point of labeling those who disagree with us as “unspiritual” or “unchristian.”
This is ample reason for discouragement, honest reflection, and corrective action. But it’s also reason to cling to the truth that in John 17, Jesus does not thank the Father for bringing believers to complete unity, but that we might be brought to complete unity.
Jesus’ prayer is for the unfolding process that will one day result in complete unity among believers. Jesus’ prayer is centered in sanctification – our lifelong journey toward holiness. And since sanctification is an ongoing process for every believer, so too is sanctification an ongoing process for the church as a whole.
This represents both bad news and good news. The bad news is that the church has not yet reached complete unity – no surprise there! But the good news is that each day brings us that much closer.
In the meantime, it is a challenge to fix our focus on good news when it seems like bad news is so prevalent. We know that as Christians we’re called to be united in Christ, but so often we’re anything but united. In fact, far too often we’re divided, embarrassingly so at times.
A few years ago, Pastor Rick Warren’s son Matthew took his own life following a life-long battle with depression. Given that Rick Warren is a high profile Christian leader, you would think that this might have been a time when Christians around the world would have encouraged and lifted up the Warren’s in prayer. And while there was indeed a substantial outpouring of support and prayers, there was also ridicule and blame.
Mark Driscoll, who like Rick Warren is a high profile pastor-leader, posted on Facebook the day of Matthew Warren’s suicide that, “I teared up hugging and praying over my five kids today while praying for my friend Pastor Rick Warren, whose 27-year-old son died. Please pray for his family and their church family.” A few days later, in his blog, Driscoll wrote about the response he received from his Facebook post: “Most Christians responded with kindness and a promise to pray. Some, however, said some ugly things I will not repeat. They were not alone.”
Sad as it is, there are many Christians who are more interested in expressing opinions than expressing love. Rick Warren himself, just a few days after his son committed suicide, posted on both Twitter and Facebook that, “Grieving is hard. Grieving as public figures, harder. Grieving while haters celebrate your pain, hardest.”
“Complete unity?” Not hardly. But it will happen. Not through our efforts or good works, but through Jesus. It’s because of what Jesus has done, and is doing, that we can be assured that the church will come to complete unity – maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day soon.
So what do we do in the meantime? We don’t shut our eyes to our struggles and shortcomings, but we also open our eyes to how God is at work in people, churches, and communities. God is on the move. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is being advanced. The Kingdom is coming. And while the Kingdom is being ushered in by Christ, we have the privilege of being a part of His work.
As I write this, I am reflecting on a recent worship service I attended at my home church, Knapp Street Reformed in Grand Rapids. Knapp is a small church of around 120 in worship. Across the street from Knapp sits a satellite location of Ada Bible Church, a very large church that is easily ten times (and probably more like twenty times) the size of Knapp. The two churches are quite different, yet they share a wonderful partnership.
And so it was that when my family and I arrived early for worship on January 8, there were already around 40 cars parked in Knapp’s main parking lot. This was not a surprise, given that Knapp’s administrative assistant had sent an email earlier in the week letting Knapp members know that the youth group at Ada Bible Church were on retreat that weekend, and because Ada uses all of their parking spots on Sunday morning, we would be giving up some of our parking spots to Ada members who were leaving their cars through the weekend.
Toward the conclusion of that morning’s worship service, Knapp Street Lead Pastor Les Wiseman asked attendees to provide an extra blessing for our friends from Ada by clearing the snow off of their cars (it had snowed heavily the night before). When our brothers and sisters from Ada arrived later that afternoon, they found that their cars were free of snow and ready to roll.
I share this story not to brag about my home church, but because it represents a small sliver, a fleeting glimpse, of “complete unity.” And I share it because I want to challenge individuals and churches to strive for complete unity – with Christ and with one another – in anticipation of what is yet to come.
“And there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”