Part 1: Why Is Church Unity Important?-- Praying With Jesus
This is part 1 in a 4-part series on Unity in the Church of Jesus Christ.
After my post last week on why my husband and I decided to become Catholic, I got so many responses of questions and curiosity about what it means to be a Catholic Christian. I want to tell you---that is SUPER encouraging. I wrote a blog post over a year ago about how listening starts with family. If we are to bring the love of Jesus to this world that is full of people who desperately need him, I think that we need to start with loving each other and asking good questions and sticking around to hear the answers.
My friend Adam asked me to write about what I think unity in the Church could look like. First I’ll lay out why church unity is important, and then I’ll provide 4 practical things we all can do to move the Church of Jesus Christ toward unity.
We need to grasp that the unity of Christians is really, REALLY important to Jesus.
There are so many reasons for us to seek unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the first is because it is the desire of Jesus.
In John 17, Jesus prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have give me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I 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” (John 17:20-23 ESV).
There is so much in that passage to drink from. First of all, wrap your mind around the fact that he is praying for us, those who have heard the word of the Gospel from the apostles and believed it. That’s me and you. Breathe that in--it’s amazing. He is so thoughtful and kind. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29 ESV).
Second, he wants us all to be one. What does he mean by “all” but all? That’s every person who has a relationship with Jesus Christ, no matter if they way they worship Jesus seems strange or foreign to me. Yes, there is a question of what it means to be a Christian--is it right belief? Right practice? A mixture of those by grace through faith? I take a twofold approach on this, deciding who God wants me to be one with. First of all, if someone claims to be a Christian and agrees with the tenets of the Nicene and/or Apostle’s Creed, I’m not going to question it. Secondly, everyone is somewhere in relation to the cross. I heard that from the speaker at Campus Crusade’s Dallas Winter Conference 2002. I don’t remember the person who said it, but it has rattled around inside my heart since then. If someone is turned toward the cross, looking to know Jesus more, I want that for them, and I want to do whatever I can to help them reach him (because that’s what I’m trying to do, too).
So, I am walking toward unity with these people--followers of Jesus who are working out their salvation with fear and trembling, even if it looks differently from how I am doing it. So much of how we understand the Gospel is culturally influenced. Jesus is always true, but he shows up in different flavors and colors all over the world--and that is a good, true, and beautiful thing!
Thirdly, In what is called is “high priestly prayer” in John 17, Jesus says he wants us to be one like he and the Father are one. What does Jesus mean by one? There undoubtedly exists great intimacy between God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit--the joy that flows between them is something I could spend hours thinking about and asking for more of (mental note: do this soon). Perfect communication? Yes. Perfectly hilarious jokes? Probably. Meals shared with good fellowship and conversation stimulated by self-sacrificial love? Yes. When Jesus prays this prayer, he has just given his disciples the most beautiful Meal: his broken body and his poured out blood in the bread and the wine. The Lord’s Supper is about the cross and about us inviting Jesus into our fleshly bodies after we confess our sins and shortcomings and receive him. Just like a bridegroom longs to give his whole self to his bride, Jesus gives us his whole self in his body. There’s nothing sexual about it--but the joy of marital union is reflected through the Eucharist (another name for the Lord’s Supper, coming from the Greek words “eucharisto” which means “thanksgiving”).
Now, I know that there is a lot of disagreement about what the Lord’s Supper actually is. Is it a symbol? Is it a spiritual reality made available to us through a sacramental reality? (You can read my thoughts on that here). The Lord’s Supper brings us to the cross. And that’s at least a huge part of what I think Jesus means by us being one--that we come to the cross together, as one family.
Right now, we are not unified at the table of the Lord, for good reasons. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions (and some Protestant ones) teach that we approach the table of the Lord with awe and trembling because we are eating and drinking the very flesh and blood of God and we should not do it lightly. (Thankfully, the Church gives us directions on how to prepare ourselves to do this with reverence and love for Jesus, so there need be no fear when our hearts are oriented towards loving obedience.) Even agreeing on this, there is still a divide between Catholic and Orthodox and we cannot feast at the table of the Lord together (yet!).
I'm not sure how we will get there, but I think that unity in Jesus’s Church will be manifested when we are all gathered together at the same table, remembering the cross and being fed with the true food and true drink of the crucified and risen Jesus. We worship the crucified Lord, as Galatians 6:14 and 1 Corinthians 2:2 remind us.
We must be unified for Jesus to be shown fully to the world. That’s what Jesus says: He is praying for us to be one so that the world will know that the Father sent him. That is HUGE. (Yuge?) This is why unity in Jesus's church is so important: so that the world will know that God sent Jesus. He's not just a good teacher or merely a prophet or a trouble-maker or a judgmental founder of a worthless religion. He is the one sent by God to be salvation, and we get to tell others.
How to pray:
1. Praying for myself: I know that I have to examine my heart for judgment against Christians who worship differently than me. I try to start there and ask for grace to love and listen better. Forgive me as I forgive those who trespass against me, and lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one.
2. Praying with Jesus: Get familiar with Jesus's prayer in John 17. Pray that we would be united around the cross of the crucified and risen Lord. Make us one as You and the Father are One, Jesus.
3. Praying for peace in the Church: Ephesians 2:13-22 is a good place to start. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility...
4. Praying that we will all come to the cross of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…Galatians 6:14
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified...1 Corinthians 2:2
Thanks for reading and I hope you will start to pray with me for this unity to be accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit.