The Unity of the Church, the Manifestation of Glory

Nate and Jenn Hosler – The Unity of the Church, the Manifestation of Glory (John 17:20-23)

            As all of you know, our current Congress is certainly dysfunctional.  The two parties do not get along.  Many on each side do not like some on the other side (or even those in their own party). Senators and representatives bicker and lurch to grab status or power.  They divide into factions.  Small groups within the larger body undermine the priorities of the whole.  Politicians threaten and hold the government hostage with their particular wants and priorities.  While they are defined as a singular body – “Congress” – they do not function or act in a way that is united, whether united in identity or united in purpose.

At various times, our churches are no better than Congress.  They are dysfunctional and without life, vitality, or productivity. Congregations, like Congress, can be consumed by bickering and church people at times lurch to grab status and power.  They divide into factions and small groups undermine the priorities of the whole.  Church members also threaten and hold the congregation hostage with individual wants and priorities. While they are defined as a singular body – the “Church” – they do not function or act in a way that is united, whether united in identity or united in purpose.

Today’s passage drops us into the middle of Jesus praying.   Like passing by a conversation, we catch just a glimpse of the whole scene. We know that Jesus prayed many times.  Out of all the times that Jesus prayed and the prayers could have been remembered, somehow, Jesus’ prayers before his death are the only extensive ones we have.  In John 17, we have a whole chapter of Jesus praying.  When interpreting Scripture, we learn from both what is said and what is not said.  Jesus is not recorded praying about sexuality, not recorded talking about church governance, certainly not recorded talking about what worship styles or preaching modes are best.  Clearly, as Brethren, we should learn from what Jesus didn’t mention and to value what he did say as extremely important for the church.  In John 17, Jesus prays for the disciples and the followers who would come after.

In Jesus’ prayer, there is a connection between God’s unity, our unity, and the glory of God.  It is when we are in unity that we are able to demonstrate God’s glory—that is, be the manifestation of God’s presence on earth through our relationships with each other and through continuing Jesus’ acts on this earth.

In understanding this scripture, it is helpful to place it within its context in the gospel of John.  The context begins in John 13, where Jesus celebrates the “last supper” with his disciples. During this time he washes the disciples’ feet and predicts Peter denying him. Continuing chapters show Jesus teaching his disciples. Among other things, he predicts both the world’s hatred and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus alludes to his coming death and the disciples are distraught and confused.  Jesus tells his disciples to have courage and that in him they would have peace.  He then proceeds to pray.  While our verses specifically are John 17: 20-23, it is helpful to understand what Jesus prays in all of chapter 17.

Jesus asks the Father to glorify His Son, that the Father might be glorified.  Jesus says that He has been working on earth and glorifying the Father through His work.  “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.  So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (17:4-5).

Jesus prays about his disciples – saying that he has worked to reveal the name of God to them.  Jesus declares that he has been glorified in the disciples and asks the Father to protect them.  “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one” (v. 11). Jesus prays not only for the disciples around him but also “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (vv. 20-21a).

So Jesus prayed that we, the church, might have unity.  What is unity?  Unity sounds like something we should all know.  It isn’t a big theological word like transubstantiation.  Unity is derived from the Latin for “one”. We see Jesus saying “one” a lot in the passage.  As a dictionary definition, unity generally means “the state of being united or joined as a whole, esp. in a political context” such as the European Union (New Oxford American Dictionary).  Unity also involves “harmony or agreement between people or groups”.  It has an artistic nuance: “the state of forming a complete or pleasing whole” (ibid).  In writing, coherence and unity are important traits of any work.  Unity in literature is understood as “The quality of oneness in a paragraph or essay that results when all the words and sentences contribute to a single main idea” (About.com).  A mathematical definition also exists, where unity means the number 1 (an indivisible number).  Broadly, unity tends to involve a united identity, function, and purpose.

Jesus doesn’t provide an exact definition of what unity looks like in our everyday lives or congregations.  He uses a metaphor that is both understandable and indecipherable at the same time.  Jesus prays that we would be one as he and the Father are One.  Jesus prays that we would be one together as the Father and Son are united and also that we would be one with the Father and the Son.  In verse 21, Jesus prays, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (v. 21).  In verse 23, Jesus asks “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (v. 23).

Jesus calls for us to be united and connects this with glory—glory that the Father gave Jesus and he is giving to his followers. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (v. 22).  Why is there this connection between unity and glory?  When thinking about unity and glory, a tale of two kitchens came to mind.

The kitchen in our home is quite small.  As a 100 year old row house in DC, there are some oddities.  The backdoor is in the kitchen, along with normal appliances like the fridge, stove, and dishwasher, and abnormal appliances like the stacked washer and dryer.  With the fridge, the sink, the washer /dryer combo, and the oven in the 8 foot wide space, there is little room for anyone or anything beyond a solitary cook.  If our cat enters into the kitchen, he is at risk of getting stepped on.  So, needless to say, when we cook at home, it is ideally a one person operation: one person with one plan and some vegetables. We physically can’t work together. Cooking in our tiny kitchen isn’t where we can demonstrate how well we work together as a team (but we have preaching, so it’s okay).

At the Brethren Nutrition Program, Washington City’s soup kitchen ministry, the preparation of meals takes on a more complex nature. With more eaters, we need more preparers and, thankfully, we have more space. The introduction of more cooks, however, introduces the possibility of chaos.  On a good day, these many cooks, choppers, stirrers, and servers act as a unified machine to complete the task.  Unified, they manifest the glory of a team.  There is glory in unity—and also pots of gumbo, mashed potatoes, and salad.

In Jesus’ prayer, we see that Jesus has given us God’s glory.  God’s glory is the Holy Spirit power to do God’s work in the world. It is God’s presence that gives us a share identity, shared function, a shared purpose, that makes us the church. God’s manifesting presence in the Holy Spirit has been given so that we might be united, so that we might be one.  Unity isn’t just nice or something mildly helpful.  Unity is how we manifest God’s glory, his indwelling presence on this earth.

In this passage, glory is not so much described as mentioned with the assumption of common understanding.  When recounting Jesus’ prayer, the gospel writer John knew that his audience would hear glory and connect with kavod, or God’s glory as presented in the Old Testament. There are numerous instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where the appearance of God’s glory is described. 

In Exodus 34, after encountering the LORD on Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments, Moses descends from the mountain and returns to the people of Israel.  Somehow, the presence of God was reflected in Moses’ face, which shined so brightly that the people were afraid and Moses needed to wear a veil.  In Exodus 40, upon the building of the tabernacle, the glory of Yahweh settles in the Tabernacle and Yahweh dwells with his people.

In the book of Ezekiel, God’s glory departs before the impending judgment.

In the New Testament, God’s glory is manifest through God incarnate, through the person of Jesus.   “The Word became flesh and walked among us” as John said in chapter 1, “and we beheld his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has been God’s active presence on earth.  Jesus mentions in John 17 that he has brought the Father glory by his work on earth.  He also says that his glory was given to him by the Father and that he is passing the glory onto his followers.  Jesus’ followers are promised the Holy Spirit and become the current manifestation of God on earth.  We, as the church, are now tasked with manifesting God’s presence and continuing the work of Jesus.  A key part of this is our unity.

            Just as the Father and the Son are one, so we too are to be one—unified in identity, function, and purpose.  In this way, we demonstrate God’s glory.  The primary manifestation of God’s glory today is the church: the body of Christ is Christ’s present presence.  What does this mean?  God is great and glorious always. He doesn’t change.  But we do not manifest God’s glory when we are not in unity.

The glory of God is made manifest in our unity. Do our own actions, does our own disunity affect how well God’s glory is overtly manifest on this earth?  It seems to be so.  If we do not have unity, then the primary ongoing exhibit of God’s glory is hidden.  This is somewhat scary—as it should be. For some reason, Jesus was willing to handover, to transfer the task of being God’s presence on earth over to us, as followers of Jesus indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

We as the church, the body of Christ, should understand it to be our weighty calling and burden.  We must labor diligently to put aside divisions and power grabbing and hostage taking and factionalism.  We must learn how to constructively work through conflict, learn to talk with one another, understand one another, love one another, and serve together continuing Jesus’ work so that God’s love might be known.  The manifestation of God’s glory depends on it; continuing Jesus’ mission and sharing God’s love depend on it.  Jesus prayed “may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Sisters and brothers, we must labor diligently to make unity in our own congregations, which have a tendency to die or be torn apart or to push pastors out by our infighting.  We must diligently labor as congregations in the same district to partner together, worship together, and learn from each other.  We must diligently labor as a denomination to fellowship together, serve together, and genuinely love each other despite deep theological differences.

To be clear, unity is not uniformity.  Our unity involves understanding our common essence (indwelled by the Spirit), common function (called to be the hands and feet of Jesus), and common purpose (to share the love of God together).   Our mission in this world depends on our unity.  The manifestation of God’s glory on this earth depends on our unity.

In Jesus’ prayer, there is a connection between God’s unity, our unity, and the glory of God. It is when we are in unity that we are able to demonstrate God’s glory—that is, be the manifestation of God’s presence on earth through our relationships with each other and through continuing Jesus’ acts on this earth.

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