Christian Unity - Let's Make It Happen
by Aneel Aranha
"I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 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." (John 17:11,20-23)
This is a prayer that Jesus made in the Garden of Gethsemane. Though he was about to face a very tortuous death, his prayer was not for himself, but for his disciples, that they remain one. Barring a few minor power struggles, all sorted with equanimity, the disciples Jesus left behind did stand united, as did most of the members of the early Church. Jesus would have been very pleased with them.
I doubt he'd be anywhere near as pleased with us. Jesus wanted us to be united too, because in oneness lay the key to being effective witnesses to the world of God's love. We are anything but one, and so severe are the divisions that exist between us there aren't many who believe that unity is ever going to be possible among Christians.
Yet, unity IS possible—God would never ask us to do something that wasn't—and if Christians, especially Christian leaders, are prepared to step out in boldness and do what it takes to achieve it, I believe that we can see Christian unity, and in our lifetime, at that. To learn what it is going to take, let's go to the Master who not only taught us what to do but demonstrated it as well.
Shortly before his death, Jesus told his disciples what was going to become of him. Rather than be perturbed about his fate, they seemed to be more concerned about their own, and two of them—James and John—went to him with a rather cocky request. "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." (Mark 10:37) Bemused, Jesus told them that the seating arrangements in heaven weren't up to him; the places belonged to those for whom they had been prepared.
The other apostles were outraged when they heard what James and John had done. Undoubtedly they had wanted the positions of honor for themselves. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all." (Mark 10:42-44)
As with everything Jesus told his disciples to do, he led by example, going as far as washing their feet on one occasion. Christian leaders need to learn this lesson because it shows the importance of "servant leadership", of which humility is a constituent part. Leaders who seek glory for themselves by making followers of others will build up personal fiefdom's, either creating sects or very person-centric groups within a church.
Leaders who are humble, however, and who understand the concept of servant leadership that Jesus demonstrated, will be less focussed on themselves. Consequently they would be less reluctant to place themselves under authority, a major failing among leaders who have never understood what Christian leadership is all about, and which is one of the greatest causes of division in Christendom today.
Humble leaders build the body of Christ, and in doing so often secure some element of glory, which they may or may not seek. I have noticed that some of the most successful ministries belong to humble people who seek to grow the kingdom of God, rather than their own. Consequently they open the doors to their homes, hearts—and churches—to anyone who has similar goals. How the church grows!
Moments before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples that they were going to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, but before they began doing anything they were to wait in the city until they were "clothed with power from on high." (cf Acts 1:8, Luke 24:49)
Jerusalem was a dangerous place for them to be in at the time, because the city was in turmoil. The Romans were turning the city upside down in a hunt for the disciples, because they believed that if they found them, they would find Jesus's body, which they had been told had been stolen! Yet, the disciples stayed put in obedience to Jesus's instructions.
Fifty days after the resurrection, ten days after the ascension, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles in great power and Peter's first speech following this tremendous outpouring resulted in the first wave of converts to Christianity. Had Peter and the other apostles not waited as instructed, the church might not have grown in the manner that it did.
Obedience does not come easily to people, and there are many in the church today who arrogantly do whatever they will, neither listening to God nor to the people God has placed over them, believing themselves to be "the chosen ones" directly under the authority of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who does not place himself under authority, leaves himself open to corruption by the enemy, who is a master of deception, and can cause tremendous division in the body of the church.
The most famous parable in the Bible, and one that most of us know, is that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Despite its popularity, however, little attention is paid to the elder brother, who is in many ways more representative of the modern Christian than the younger son who squandered his father's wealth and then, poverty stricken and dying of starvation, returned home repentant.
The elder son wasn't happy with the extraordinarily loving reception his brother received from their father and sulked outside the house. When his father went to fetch him, he complained: 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' (Luke 15:19-20)
The silly boy never quite understood his father's love for him. He thought he had to earn it, not realizing that being a son meant being an heir, inheritor to everything that was his father's. And because he never quite understood his father's love for him, he couldn't understand his father's love for his brother—and the forgiveness that he was instantly given.
In Jesus's time, the elder brother was representative of the self-righteous Pharisees. They followed all the rules to the letter, very often going beyond the law in their interpretation of it, avoiding people whom they considered "unclean" because they didn't follow the "law." They believed salvation was for them alone, and were rather shocked when they were told that God's love was for everybody, especially the "sinners" whom they despised.
Some Christians today have become like the Pharisees, hung-up on "laws" while forgetting the essence of the gospel message. And like the Pharisees, they also tend to believe that salvation is for them alone, ostracizing those who don't quite observe the rules in the manner that they do. This only serves to alienate the "law breakers" and further fragment the body of Christ.
Jesus showed us the way here too. Not only did he openly mingle with the "outcasts" of his time, he actually called one of them, a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple! And as if that weren't enough, he called another man, this one a thief called Judas who would betray him to his death one day, to be his disciple too! The lesson being taught here is acceptance. We have to learn to accept everybody as Jesus did/does, even so called "enemies." It might be a little easier to do this if we manage to remember that we all share one father in heaven.
Jesus picked twelve men to be his disciples. One day, he called them to him and blessed them with the authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. "Freely you have received," he said. "Freely give." (Matthew 10:8) He then gave them a long set of instructions, before he sent them on their way to proclaim the message that the kingdom of heaven was near.
He didn't stop with the twelve. Shortly after his transfiguration, he picked another seventy-two and dispatched them in a similar manner, telling them to go from town to town, village to village. "Heal the sick who are there," he commanded, "and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.'" (Luke 10:9)
Though there was one thing that only he could do—be the perfect sacrifice for our sins—Jesus shared his ministry with others, not only teaching his disciples what they had to do, but empowering them to do it as well. It didn't seem to bother him that they might be better than him at preaching or teaching; on the contrary he actually told them that they would do greater things than he did. (John 14:12)
An unwillingness to involve other people in our ministries, largely because of a fear that somebody good might usurp our following or prove to be a better teacher/preacher/counsellor/etc., results in groupism and petty politics, which is another reason why there is disunity in the Church. Cooperation, however, does not result in the dilution of a ministry but its success.
I have seen several ministries where leaders don't try to do everything on their own, even though a few of them probably could, instead empowering others to lead programs and activities, and they have achieved phenomenal success. And this is for the simple reason that one person, no matter how blessed, simply cannot do everything. Nor are we required to. On the contrary, Jesus "gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for the works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity ..." (Ephesians 4:11-12)
A very proud and arrogant man named Saul was on his way to Damascus, eager to arrest everybody there who professed themselves to be Christian, when he was thrown off his high horse—quite literally—and had an encounter with Jesus. So powerful was the experience, not only did it make Saul a Christian, it turned him into a zealous preacher of the gospel.
Not everybody was willing to accept his conversion. The disciples themselves were very suspicious of him, not to mention afraid, and it was only when Barnabas testified on Paul's behalf (he was no longer Saul) that they decided to trust him. Trust is an important element that builds unity in the church and one that is severely needed.
God is touching people all over the world these days. Most of these people burn with a fierce fire for Christ, as is usually the case with people who discover Jesus for the first time. They are, however, largely looked upon with suspicion by the general community, which has two results. In most cases, the fire burns out and once that happens, the community usually has no problem in absorbing them. In other instances, the fire continues to burn fiercely, and having no opportunity to share their "new" discovery with others, they move to join other churches or form splinter cells. The result: more division.
There is an alternative. Trust. We need to trust these people. We need to trust that God has a plan for them just as he has for us. Rather than discourage them or alienate them, we need to give them opportunities to do what they feel called to do. And while doing so, we can teach them the important foundational truths about their faith that they need to learn so whatever they share will be rooted in solid theology. This helps build the church, because the more people there are witnessing about Christ, the more Christians there will be.
None of the above qualities will work without a strong desire to achieve unity, however, and concentrated efforts to sustain it. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent down after his ascension into heaven is a Spirit of unity whose task is to bind us together, but it is not something he can do if we refuse to be bound.
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians told them: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:3-6)
If we make the effort, we can achieve Christian unity. Let's make it happen.
May the Spirit be with you.
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