Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter based on John 17:20-26
Dear Church of God: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus prayed and still prays that His Church would be perfectly one. He doesn’t pray that we would be similar or mostly in agreement or almost completely united. He prays that we would be perfectly one.
Seems pretty far-fetched, doesn’t it? I found 38 Lutheran denominations on an online list in North America alone. It is difficult to determine how many total denominations exist in the world, but it is in the thousands. Some estimate that there are over 33,000 different denominations in the world. I think that estimate is too high, but the point remains the same: the church on earth is divided not united. Certainly not perfectly one.
How can this be? The world looks at the church and says, “Look at all the division! You want me to believe in this Jesus but you can’t even agree on what He says?” It is an offence and a shame and the world is right with such accusations. They don’t know what to believe and we, as the church on earth, are not helping that.
Why are there so many divisions? There’s actually a simple answer to that question. It is because of our sin. It is because people would rather follow anything than what the Bible says. If God’s Word condemns your sin, the sinful flesh would rather dismiss God’s Word as irrelevant in this day and age than repent and turn away from sin. If God’s Word says something hard to understand, human reason would rather dismiss God’s Word as irrational than accept it as true. If God’s Word says something that doesn’t feel right to our sensibilities, our feelings would rather dismiss God’s Word as overly harsh than believe what it says.
There are those think the solution to our divisions is to dismiss and ignore the differences between denominations. They think that diversity in Christian doctrine is a good thing – something like giving people an opportunity to pick their favourite foods from a smorgasbord. That’s certainly not what Jesus prays. Jesus prays that we would all be perfectly one.
Saint Paul exhorts the churches in Corinth saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (I Cor. 1:10) Differing opinion on doctrine is not a good thing. It is harmful and sinful. It divides the church.
When Jesus sends His ministers to make disciples of all nations, He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20) Jesus doesn’t tell them to pick and choose what parts of doctrine they are to teach. He doesn’t tell them it’s acceptable to discard those things that people don’t like. Jesus instructs them to teach people to observe all that He has commanded. It is Jesus’ prayer that we are perfectly one.
There certainly are Christians in denominations other than ours. We have never denied that, nor should we. The concern is that denying the clear words of Jesus leads people away from Jesus and puts faith into peril of being lost. If you cannot trust Scripture that Baptism saves, how can you trust Scripture that faith saves? If you cannot trust Scripture that the Lord’s Supper is the true body and blood of Christ, how can you believe Scripture that Jesus gave His body into death and shed His blood for you? If you cannot trust Scripture that an indulgence cannot save you, how can you trust Scripture that Jesus has saved you? There is great danger in denying any matter of doctrine taught in Scripture because it leads you to question whether you can trust Scripture at all.
Of course this is not about finger pointing. Finger pointing gets us nowhere, certainly not to unity. Our primary concern must be what we believe. We must not take matters of doctrine lightly as if it doesn’t matter what we actually believe. We must study Scripture to learn God’s truth. We should study particularly those things in Scripture that our human reason would dismiss as irrational; those things that attack our sensibilities; those things that hit close to home, so that our stubborn sinful wills might be changed by the Word of God to align with God’s good and perfect will; that we would be one as Jesus prays that we would be.
Unity cannot be achieved by ignoring doctrinal differences as we already heard. Force or coercion won’t work either. You cannot force someone to believe anything. The only hope that the church has for unity is the Word of God. The Word of God creates unity. The church cannot create unity. We cannot create fellowship. God creates unity and fellowship; we simply recognize it where it exists. God creates unity through His Word as we learn all that Christ has commanded.
The sad reality is that in this sinful world, we are not likely to have unity in doctrine. Baptists aren’t going to start baptizing babies and Lutherans aren’t going to stop. The United Church won’t start caring about doctrine and we’re not going to stop. The Roman Catholic Church won’t stop granting indulgences and we’re not going to start. The sad reality is that the clear words of Jesus will not be confessed in unity by all. But this is not reason to despair.
Jesus knows His own. He knows those of us who belong to Him in our denomination, and He knows those who belong to Him from every denomination on earth. Jesus isn’t going to cast His sheep aside because they do not understand some matters of doctrine. He’s not going to forsake those who belong to Him because they belong to a church body that is not teaching what He commanded them to teach.
But since the danger remains for those who hear falsehood that they would believe it, Jesus prays that the church would be perfectly one, without division; that the church would be united in all that He has commanded. Thus we also pray that the church would be perfectly one; united in faith and doctrine. We pray that we would be guided in the truth of God’s Word and that God would heal all divisions among us.
Our church body and congregations are also under continual attack by the devil, that is why we see divisions even among us. We see congregations that wander from what we believe and confess, and introduce practices that are unscriptural. We see pastors who seek the easy road and cease teaching all that Jesus commanded. We see that we are not perfectly one.
Let us pray for unity as Jesus prayed for unity. Let us pray that God would make us perfectly one. Let us pray that God would open our eyes to understand His Word so that we would not be misled by false doctrine.
True doctrine is the most comforting thing in the world because it gives us Jesus. The doctrine of Baptism tells us God has made us His children and given us the forgiveness of sins. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper tells us that Jesus gives us forgiveness and strengthens our faith through His true body and blood. The doctrine of the Gospel tells us Jesus died for our sins and we have the promise of eternal life.
Let us cling to the truth of God’s Word and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. And let us pray that God would make us perfectly one through His saving Word. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.