The Old-fashioned Way (John 17:20-26)
Rev. David French
As I mentioned last week, Jesus ended His evening Maundy Thursday with His disciples allowing them to listen as He opens His heart to His heavenly Father in prayer. And what we hear isn’t Jesus praying for Himself, instead we hear Jesus praying for His disciples and specifically for you and me or those who would believe in him through their word. He prayed that they and all Christians would be as united to each other and to Him as He is to the Father.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. We do confess to share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” But still, of all the things that He could have prayed for, what Jesus wanted us to know was that He was praying for unity to exist among those who believe in Him as their Lord and Savior. So, has God answered that prayer?
Well, that depends on how you look at things. On the one hand, the Holy Christian Church, the body of Christ, is and always will be united. Now, to be sure, I’m looking at it spiritually or, as I like to call it, realistically, because heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s Word will never pass away. So yes, all who believe that sin has separated mankind from our Creator and left us spiritually dead; and who by God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit repent of their sin; and who believe that when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, the debt for their sin was paid for in full; they are indeed united by the life and faith we have in Christ. Both through and because of God’s spoken promise, we are truly united with all believers of all times and places.
On the other hand, anyone can see that the Christian church on earth has a lot of divisions. You’ve got your Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians, just to name a few. And then, within each denomination, there are even more divisions. In fact, in the 1990 edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the U.S., there are over 200 denominations. Nine of those have Lutheran in their name. And, let’s be honest. Some of those points of division are really significant. So, if all Christians have God’s word to unite us, why are there so many divisions among us?
The simple truth is these divisions have come to exist because of our varying degrees of disregard for the Word of God. And, this has been going on for a long time. Even Peter writes that people “distort” some of Paul’s writings “as they do the other Scriptures.” Modern Christian leaders have, for the sake of so-called peace, allowed God’s Word to be compromised at differing points that have led to the divisions we call denominations that now exist among us.
In the last hundred years or so, there’s actually been an effort within Christianity to bring the different denominations back together. It’s known as the “Ecumenical Movement” which really sounds like a good and God-pleasing idea. The problem is, instead of being united around the Word of God, many are content to simply call agreeing to disagree “Christian unity.” Surely that can’t be the kind of unity Jesus had in mind when He first offered His prayer.
I mean, He prayed that we would be one just as He and the Father are one. You know, God of God, light of light, very God of very God. They are of one essence, one mind, and one will. What God the Father wanted for us, Jesus also wanted for us. When God the Father sent God the Son to pay for the sins of the world, He freely and willingly humbled Himself to be born of the virgin that He might fulfill His Father’s will for us.
Can the same be said of His people on earth, of you and me? Certainly, God through His Word reveals His will to us just as clearly as He revealed His will to His Son, but many believers today have come to see God’s Word as some sort of a buffet where we pick what we like and ignore what we don’t like.
Clear words of Scripture are ignored when it comes to the sacraments because - that doesn’t make sense to the sinful mind. Clear words reveal that God created us male and female, and He gave us natural desires for each other that are a true blessing when used as He taught, that is, within marriage. But today, many Christians, young and old alike, ignore that Word because they think it’s better to live together without marriage - even as those who gratify their sinful desires with members of the same gender are demanding to be married. What a strange picture the wisdom of man paints.
You see, when a Christian, and notice I did say Christian, ignores portions of God’s Word, which is what God uses to give and strengthen our life in Christ, then we, you and I, have a responsibility to be honest, not judgmental or harsh, but hones with them about the dangers of the path they’re on so that they, or we as the case may be, might repent of our sins and be forgiven. But understand, more often than not, you will be met with resentment instead of repentance.
Believe me, it never gets easier; but if we care, then we can’t just close our eyes and say nothing. It’s not enough for us to hold God’s Word sacred. We must also, by His grace, stand firm against those who, by word or deed, would take it from us.
The truth is, we are called to love one another as God loves us, and that means enough to point out sin where it exists, not because we’re so perfect, but because we really do care about their soul. That’s the kind of love we should show to each other whenever one of us begins to drift from the faith, for whatever reason. My friends, if your pets wander from home, you would put up signs and post on social media to get them back. Shouldn’t it be the same among the family of God?
And, we are called to love all for whom Christ died, inside and outside the walls of this building or the walls of our synod. When large groups of Christians depart from the clear Word of God, either by supporting immoral practices or burdening souls with works for salvation, we should, with one voice, condemn those errors. But then, who wants to go there? Who wants to be heard condemning other Christian churches? And besides, many of us have family members in those churches.
You see, it’s so easy to allow human reason and good intentions to become nothing more than another blow to the wedge that is dividing God’s church on earth. But then, most of us will never be a part of the conversations going on between church bodies. We deal with people not denominations. But, because only God can know the heart of a person, we have to make some assumptions. That is, if a person belongs to a certain church body, we assume that they believe what that church body publicly teaches. That is, if you’re a member of a Missouri Synod congregation, it’s reasonable for others to assume you’ve been taught the Christian faith according to the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions and still believe what you confessed before God when you were first confirmed.
Dear children of God, know and believe that Jesus’ prayer for unity has indeed been answered with a “yes” as loud as the resurrection. All who confess the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins will be saved. But still, we must, with God’s help, resist the temptation to reduce His holy Word to its lowest common denominator. We, for our part by God’s grace, must always strive to hold firm to the truth, and so, make and keep disciples the old-fashioned way, by baptizing and teaching them to observe all things Christ has commanded.
In His name, Amen.