Prayers of a Savior: Complete Unity
Topic: Christian Living & Discipleship Scripture: 1 John 17:20–17:26
It’s no secret to most of you that I’m a big sports fan. And, really, it’s team sports that I love the most. The team mentality is just something that really excites me. Being able to see a group of individuals with different stories and skills come together and synchronize is just awesome, in my opinion. And it’s the differences in each athlete’s ability that allows them to pull off the feats that they do. Whether it’s a quarterback hitting a wide receiver perfectly in stride for a touchdown, or a baseball team pulling off a flawless double play to end the inning, there’s something fluid and thrilling about watching a group of individuals work together to do something that is so difficult but make it look so easy. And it’s feats like those that inspire kids to become athletes and to work hard, train hard, and set upon themselves the dream of being a pro. The coordinated, selfless, rehearsed actions of a group of people awe the masses and inspire the next generation.
Now, I want you to imagine this: Its Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. By some twist of fate, it’s the Cubs playing the Cardinals. Right away, I can see half of you are instantly more interested in my sermon than you were a moment ago. That’s ok. Anyway, Game 7. The winner goes onto the World Series. It’s the bottom of the 9th inning and the Cardinals are up at the plate. The Cubs are barely hanging onto a 4-3 lead. There is one out, with the bases loaded. Yadier Molina is at the plate with Brandon Morrow on the mound for the Cubs. Molina is facing a full count and is one swing away from getting the Cardinals to the World Series. A double play by the Cubs ends the inning and takes them to the big game.
The runners are off as Morrow hurls a crisp slider at Molina but Molina makes contact. Weak contact. The ball dribbles to shortstop, Addison Russel, who flips it beautifully to Javier Baez at second base. One out. One more throw from Baez to Rizzo at first and the ball game is over and the Cubs stamp their ticket to the World Series. But instead, Baez just hangs onto the ball and casually tosses it in the air to himself. Two Cardinals cross the plate and the game is over. Cardinals win, Cubs lose.
Everyone is going nuts and when an on-field reporter is finally able to get to Javier Baez to ask him why in the world he didn’t finish out the double play Baez says, “Well, ya see, Rizzo and I had a chat before the game and it turns out he likes to put ketchup on his hot dog. I can’t play with a guy who makes that kind of decision. Just can’t do it.”
Now some of you are realizing how utterly ridiculous this would be. Some of you are indignant that my made-up sermon illustration has the Cardinals beating the Cubs. This type of scenario would cause riots and uproar. It would be the most frustrating moment for Cubs fans and would not only tarnish the image of the players involved but could potentially turn off fans and viewers from sticking with the team. It would have a reaching impact in a negative way. Believe it or not, Jesus prayed that something like this would never happen. No, Jesus did not pray that for the Cardinals to beat the Cubs. But He did pray for unity.
We are wrapping up our “Prayers of a Savior” message series this morning, and we’re going to look at the last part of John 17. We’ve already examined the rest of the prayer Jesus prays in this chapter. We’ve looked at how Jesus prayed for Himself, and how He also prayed for his closest friends and followers, His disciples. This morning we look at the final words of Jesus’ prayer and the last thoughts he had before He was arrested and eventually crucified. And get ready for this: Jesus prayed specifically for you. We’re in John 17:20-26.
* Read John 17:20-26 *
So the final part of Christ’s prayer opens up with Him praying for “those who will believe in me through their message.” Friends, He’s talking about us. All of the people who would come to believe in Jesus Christ because of the witness and ministry of the earliest disciples are the focus of Christ’s prayer. And in case you’re wondering, that includes literally every Christ follower from that moment on. As those earliest disciples would marvel in the resurrection of their friend and Savior, they would go out in different directions and share the transformative truth of who Jesus is and the life He offers. Those who would hear it and believe - would then share it with others that they encountered. And so on and so on, until finally, we are here in the 21st century with believers of every tribe, nation, and tongue around the world. Before Jesus went to the cross to save us, He prayed for us.
And when our Savior prayed for us, what is it He asked for? Well, there’s a repeating theme here that should be fairly obvious: “that all of them may be one”, “that they may be one as we are one”, “that they may be brought to complete unity.” When Jesus was speaking to His Father and praying for us, the focus of His prayer was on unity, on oneness. And the reason for Christ’s emphasis on unity is critically important. Jesus says it Himself. He asks God for believers to be united, and these are the direct words of Jesus, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” For Jesus, the oneness of us as His followers – our unity - is absolutely paramount. At the end of verse 23, Jesus tells us that with complete unity, and again in the words of Jesus, that “the world will know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Our unity as a body of believers will be the declaration to the rest of the world that God has sent Jesus Christ as an act of unimaginable love. Just so there’s zero confusion here: Jesus is saying that our unity as followers of Christ will tell the world that God loves them.
It’s not the style of our church architecture. It’s not how we run a worship service. It’s not the list of theological beliefs we hold to. It’s not what Bible translation we use or what kinds of songs that we sing. It’s not what brand of Christianity we claim. It’s not even the work that we do. No, Jesus tells us that the one quality we can produce that will serve as a beacon of God’s love is our unity. When Ann and Conner and I went to the Orange Conference last year we had the chance to hear from a renowned pastor, author, and speaker named Andy Stanley. He actually talked about this verse and he said that “Unity is mission-critical.” The mission being Christ’s desire for all the world to know that they are loved by God. He went on to say that “Disunity disrupts the mission.”
And the sad truth is this: This day and age, we as the people of God struggle with unity. In fact, it seems we find any and every reason to be anything but unified. I made up a sports analogy to show what this would like in something as trivial as a baseball game. Now imagine the stage being the state of world’s belief in God instead of the MLB playoff race. Maybe we don’t disrupt unity because of hot dog condiments but we sure do disrupt it for other reasons.
As long as Christ followers have gathered, one of the things we have argued about is theological correctness. Who has the best set of beliefs? Who is right and who is wrong? This has actually been an issue from the beginning. Different teachers emphasize different elements of the Christian faith, and then new branches of thought are formed. It’s why the early church would gather for councils to cut out heresy or false doctrine as well as to celebrate and champion true Christian teaching. But now the dispute over beliefs has evolved.
We disagree about so much, and instead of fostering conversation, we draw lines and build walls. I have friends, friends that I’ve had since high school, who are honest and passionate followers of Christ, but when Isaac was baptized as an infant, they challenged me about whether his baptism was biblical. One of my best friends is a Benedictine monk in the Roman Catholic Church, and we would wrestle and grieve together how I would not be welcome to receive communion with him in his church because of the different beliefs we have on the Lord’s Supper. Hear me clearly: I love these friends, and I believe 100% that they love Christ and serve Him with all their hearts. But we get so caught up in whose theology is correct, that we no longer look united to the rest of the world. We lack unity and because of it, our witness suffers. Andy Stanley said something that really struck me from that conference I mentioned. He said, “No one can see your theological correctness. They can only see how we treat each other.”
How we treat each other. That is one of, if not the way - that the world forms their opinion of Christ followers. And we’re mistaken if we think this only has to do with doctrine and theology. There are other things that divide the followers of Christ. Politics. Politics is an easy one. Some of us judge another person based on their party affiliation or which candidate they voted for in the last election. We see a Facebook post or hear it in conversation and we immediately place our own Christian brothers and sisters in a “them” category rather than an “us.” That’s not unity, that’s compartmentalization.
That is not what Jesus did. Jesus crossed lines and ignored boundaries. He went to places where no one else went. He talked to people who everyone else ignored. Jesus touched the untouchable and he loved the unlovable. He spoke dignity and value into the stories of people that all the rest of the world wanted to forget. And that’s because the love of Christ doesn’t have limits or exceptions. The terms and conditions of Christ’s love are simple: Everyone. No matter what. It is that love that serves as the foundation and soil for all that the people of God can and should accomplish in this life.
I’m not advocating for any political party and I’m not vouching for any specific leader in our government. What I am saying is this: The way that we treat, talk to, and live with other Christians who think differently than we do is witnessed by the world. For good and for ill. And that will play a role in whether they feel compelled to explore who Jesus is. This should make sense. If someone invites you to a party and tells you it is the best party they’ll ever go to, that it is filled with fun and joyful people, and that they’ll love it…and then you arrive and you see so many of those folks picking on each other or shouting at one another…what are you going to do? You’re going to turn around and go back home.
Listen, I’m not saying we can’t have convictions. Far from it. What I’m saying is our strongest conviction, our most passionate belief, has to be cherishing and emulating the life and love of Jesus. Our convictions can become idols. For years, I was aggressively naïve in my beliefs about Christian orthodoxy. I believed that if someone truly wanted to say that they were a Christian, that they had to adhere to all of these things, never do this list of things, and be this type of person. I was convicted. I was passionate. I was bold. I was also abrasive, cold, and judgmental. The very convictions that I believed made me a Christ follower had become idols. Idols that I used to evaluate and separate people, which I used to determine whether they were worth my time and friendship. And all the while, I was showing the world something 100% contrary to who Jesus truly is.
Christ’s prayer for us was complete unity. Jesus is God. He knows that we have different points of view and varying levels of conviction on a whole host of things. But His prayer wasn’t that we would figure it all out. Jesus didn’t pray that we would find the right set of rules and laws and build a fortress with them. He didn’t pray that we would be the ones who are always right. Jesus prayed that we would be unified, that we would have oneness. And He did, so because Christ knew what was and is at stake. And what’s at stake, then and now, is simple: It’s whether or not the people of the world know that God loves them.
So the next time you’re thinking about ignoring a brother or sister in faith because of their opinion about this or that, instead, lean into them and foster a conversation and a friendship that defies the world's expectations. The next time you’re getting ready to click “share” or “post” on a comment or a meme that only cuts and disparages another person or people, do anything else. Post a picture of your pets or your kids or your food. Or, better yet, do something that improves the world around you in some small way so you can show the world what the love of Christ looks like.
The Prayers of a Savior are comforting and inspiring, but they are also convicting. Throughout John 17, Jesus shows us how the prayers we pray for ourselves can actually be prayers for others. Jesus prays to His Father asking that we might be different than the rest of the world that we might be set apart for a purpose. And Jesus prays that we might have oneness. That we might step down from our soapboxes, and instead have something that displays His love better than any other quality or conviction could: complete unity.