Real unity - John 17:20-26

This is a sermon by Matthew Brailsford from the evening service on 4th April 2004.

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In a world like ours where could you find people born Palestinian Arabs & others born Israeli Jews sharing a common purpose amidst terrorist attacks & aggressive Nationalism?

Where could you find people from the Hutu tribe & Tootsie tribe in the midst of the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s sharing a meal together?

Perhaps less dramatically where can you find people with what's commonly called black skin, brown skin, white skin & yellow skin agreeing together about what's most important in life?

Where can you see people with different temperaments or social backgrounds who would normally find the other difficult, even distasteful, but who are able for some reason to share time together, even their homes & resources.

The answer to all those questions is of course the extraordinary phenomenon of a local manifestation of God's family; the church of Jesus Christ.

Human beings who would otherwise be divided, all over the world find through a relationship with Jesus that they have something in common that means they can overcome their divisions & find a unity of purpose that creates strong bonds between them. Such living communities are a powerful witness of the reality of Jesus to a divided & fragmented world.

This eve we're completing our mini sermon series considering John ch 17 (p 1085).

In Jn 17 it is the night before Jesus' death the night of the "Last Supper" (as it's often called.) Jesus has been giving his closest friends (those he designated "Apostles") his final words before leaving them. And now we have the privilege of listening in to Jesus as he prays to his heavenly Father.

Over the last 2 weeks we've heard Jesus' prayer for himself as the God-man a prayer that God would glorify him so that he could glorify the Father through his death & resurrection for the benefit of others.

Last week we listened in to Jesus' prayer for his Apostles that through the word of the gospel they would be protected in the world & sent out for the world.

This eve in v2026 Jesus prays "those who will believe in me through their (Apostles') message." That means we can listen in to how Jesus prays for his people throughout the ages since his time on earth - & that of course means us in the early 21st Century!

What is it that Jesus prays for? In a word "unity"; v20 "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in youv22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one."

In Jesus' prayer we see (as sermon outlines shows) the basis of unity, the model of unity & the purpose of unity.

1)  Basis of Unity: Truth

Christian unity has been a much-emphasized concept over the last century.

Usually by "unity" people have had in mind schemes for getting church organizations & denominations to recognize each other & to work together "structural" & "institutional" unity.

Whilst there may be a place for such ambitions this doesn't seem to be the main thrust of what Jesus is concerned for here as he prays.

In his prayer for Christians like us, Jesus prays for unity with the Apostles. So in v20 " we read; "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one

This is the starting point of any concept of Christian unity. It is the common believing in the message of Jesus faithfully proclaimed by His Apostles that is the foundation. Only this can make for genuine Christian unity.

There may be a unity of sorts with people who share spiritual ideals, or a common religious heritage or formal institutional structures but Christian unity is only real when it is agreement in the Apostolic message as recorded in the Bible.

This is the 1st thing Jesus prays for Christians who would come after him; that as his church develops there would be continuity with the message of the Apostles. It is a oneness for those who "believe in me through their (the Apostles') message" that Jesus asks his Father for. Real unity can only exist when what is believed by those who call themselves Christians is the good news of Jesus according to the Apostles which is their message available to us through the NT.

This is consistent with what Jesus has prayed for his Apostles themselves earlier in ch17. They are the model for what true believing is so, v8 "For I gave them the words you gave me & they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you & they believed that you sent me."

The major means to their unity, was loyalty to God's truth made known through Jesus. So again he prays to his Father for the Apostles v17 "sanctify them (set them apart) in the truth your word is truth". Commitment to the truth of God's word was Jesus'' 1st prayerful concern for his church.

The implication of Jesus' prayer shows that not all so called "unity" is a good thing.

Unity, which involves setting aside what God has made known in his word, "Unity" at the expense of truth, is not Christian unity according to Jesus & not what he is praying for here. Sadly at all times in church history there have been those calling themselves "Christians" for whom those seeking to be loyal to the Bible have found it impossible to be at one.

Think of the medieval Catholic Church. There was a very real visible unity the whole of Western Europe had one institutional church - but the world did not believe. Because it was teaching falsehood people were lead away from Biblical faith. It needed people (like Martin Luther who we learnt about a few weeks ago in a spotlight service here) to stand up for the biblical gospel. The consequences of this loyalty to Jesus & his message as the Apostles had passed it on were that institutional unity broke down, but true Christian unity, unity in the gospel was created & many truly believed in Jesus as a result.

Distressingly the same is true today, unity is impossible with those, whoever they are whatever title they own, who deny the truth of Jesus or who advocate behaviour at odds with what God has made known in his word.

One of the most significant international Christian leaders of recent decades has said this "Jesus made plain his longing that his people would be loyal to (t)his revelation & that their unity would be based on their common faithfulness to it. Insteadfear that some contemporary church leaders are guilty of serious unfaithfulness. A few are brash enough to deny the fundamentals both of historic Christian faith & of traditional Christian morality, while others seem as blushingly unsure of themselves & of their beliefs as an adolescent teenager." (J. Stott Contemporary Christian p 261) Indeed the Bible (2Tim 2:17) likens false teaching to gangrene or cancer. Teaching and teachers who reject the truth of the Bible are like a cancer in the Body of Christ. The church's unity cannot include them, or its life will be put in danger.

There can be no real Christian unity with those, whatever they call themselves if the clear teaching of the Bible is denied in belief or practice. But being one in Christ's truth as Jesus prays for, will bring with it a generous acceptance on matters of less importance that Christians disagree upon.

Just think of our church family here - there are differences amongst us on eg the exact practice of baptism, the political outworkings of the gospel, the precise understanding of how & when Jesus will return.

But when the essential truths of the gospel are in common such minor differences don't prevent real Christian unity. We can pray together, serve together, work together, share the good news with others, together. I'm thankful to God that in this church family that old motto works in practice; "In necessary things; unity, in doubtful things; liberty (freedom), in all things charity (love)."

It's also on that same foundation of unity in truth that churches can relate to other churches it's encouraging that at SJs we have links with other churches locally, nationally & internationally, churches of our own & other denominations, all who're seeking to stand in the truth of Jesus.

Jesus then, prays for Christian's like us, that we would be one in his truth.

But he also gives an extraordinary

2) Model of unity: Relationships of God

Jesus prayer for unity has a pattern. It's not just that Christians being one is a nice idea, it is something that is rooted in the very nature of God himself.

Do you see the extraordinary implication of Jesus' prayer in v21? "I pray" says Jesus "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you

Christian unity oneness between believers, is compared by Jesus to the kind of unity there is between God the Father & God the Son!

Jesus prays that his people would share in God's own relationships within himself. v22 "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me."

What Jesus has already taught the Apostles earlier in the evening in ch 14 has shown that Jesus lives in his people by God's HS; the "Spirit of truth" whom Jesus sends from the Father (14:16,17). As those who have been brought to faith in Jesus, Christians share in the perfect, loving, mutual relationships of God the Father, God the Son & God the HS!

We share together in nothing less than the life of God Himself & we share together in nothing less than the love God enjoys within Himself!

What an amazing privilege we share.

There is something very important here as we consider Christian unity. It means that there already is a spiritual unity between Christians.

Unity exists now it is a given. Formal organizations of Christians that may divide people structurally do not break this spiritual unity they may help or hinder it but it is not destroyed.

This is so encouraging in this sense Jesus' prayer has been answered we are one with God the Father through Jesus, an experience applied to us by the HS. As all Christians are indwelt by God's HS we are spiritually one in Jesus.

But Jesus prays for more v23 "May they be brought to complete unity

Unity is a given but it is also something in which Christians must grow.

The Apostle Paul's words in our 2nd reading are helpful here. He tells the Ephesian Christians (ch4;3); "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."

Christians have been given a true "unity of the Spirit. " Unity between Christians already exists because Jesus lives in us by his Spirit, but this oneness needs to be recognized & kept. Peace between believers needs to be maintained & lived out. (p)

Paul's letter to the Ephesians that we read from gives a wonderful illustration a few years after Jesus' prayer was uttered, of what a local church is to be like. Here is a community of believers from different backgrounds & with different temperaments & abilities but they are likened to the "body" of Jesus on earth.

v4 "There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- 5one Lord, one faith(truth again is what unites them).

Each one has been given undeserved abilities from God to serve their fellow believers with whom they are linked. These believers are growing together in love & friendship, they are using their gifts for the good of the church family so that v15 "in all things (they are) grow(ing) up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." There is a spiritual unity & unity in truth.

Now things are not perfect in this church as in any church, so they are told to 2 "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love."

We Christians remain difficult even though we have God the HS at work in us total perfection is not the experience of any Christian interacting with another.

This means unity is to be "kept", unity it is to be preserved, maintained. This calls for gentleness (when it would be easy to be angry), patience (when people are exasperating) & humility (because we know that we are often difficult as far as others are concerned!) Bluntly it means putting up with people when they are a pain in the neck, it means seeking to forgive those who have hurt us, it means, as Jesus told his Apostles earlier that same evening (15:12) "love each other as I have loved you."

It's worth asking in what ways we need to keep the unity of the Spirit at the moment? Are there things we need to do? People we need to speak to? Situations with other believers where we need to pray for strength to act in a way that keeps the peace; in our church family, our HG, small group or wherever, rather than fostering division that is contrary to Jesus' concern?

In this broken world we need to keep being reminded of these realities (because we forget) & we need to work hard to preserve the oneness we have been given (because we are still sinful & so selfish & sometimes blind to the concerns of others). That is why Church history is marred on occasions by unnecessary dis-unity & lack of love.

But the encouraging thing is that we can live in unity as believers we can live in significant harmony in a manner you won't find in the same way in the office or the common room or the football team because we are a group of people who are spiritually at one united in the truth of Jesus & united like God the Father & God the Son are united.

Finally there is a;

3) Purpose of unity: world might believe

Jesus prays that Christians like us would be one in truth & spiritual life like he is one with his Father v21 "that the world may believe that you sent me."

You may remember from last week that in John's gospel "world" is not the beautiful physical globe that we live on but a symbol of the rebellious God-ignoring world of people. Jesus is saying that the oneness of his people will lead to people in the world believing in him.

The idea is clear & challengingly obvious. Jesus' concern for the world continues with his church & the way his truth is communicated will of course be with words for the gospel is the "power of God" to rescue those who believe (Rom 1:16), but the good news will also be illustrated by lives & more specifically the lives of Christians united in church congregations. In this sense as someone has put it "evangelism is a community act. It is the proclamation of the church's relationships as well as its convictionsThe gospel proclaimed from the pulpit is either confirmed (&or contradicted ( & by the quality of relationships in the pews."(B Milne BST p250)

Jesus prays v23 "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me & have loved them even as you have loved me."

Jesus' prayer is that the love that God has for Jesus the Son is to be reproduced in relationships between Christians & this will show the world that Jesus is the God-man & rescuer he claims to be!

So the kind of barrier busting relationships I mentioned at the start people from different backgrounds sharing together, people facing difficulties who are comforted, lonely people who have found support, practical loving action to encourage fellow Christians, these actions of life illustrate the words of our lips & persuade the world to sit up & take notice.

And it's not just when we get it right that illustrates the gospel. How we deal with getting it wrong is important too. So the tolerance that is shown to people in the church family who do or say irritating things or the forgiveness which is offered when we've been hurt all because we know we belong to each other in Christ is like a powerful magnet drawing outsiders to recognize the reality of the Jesus who has inspired us.


We've had a great privilege this last fortnight. We have been able to eavesdrop on what Jesus was concerned about just before he fulfilled his mission in his death on the cross. We have been able to hear Jesus' prayer.

Listening in to Jesus we hear him praying for Christians like us & praying for unity between his people. Jesus' prayer is not a rebuke it is a prayer that should encourage us there may be family squabbles, disappointments & failures but Jesus prayer will be answered,

In a real sense there is already spiritual unity between Christians & much practical unity where there is commitment to the Bible's truth. And Jesus' prayer anticipates a day when Christians will experience a perfect unity v26 "I have made you known to them (Father), and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them."

One day when Jesus returns there will be ultimate unity - we shall fully know the love the Father has for his Son together & we shall experience fully Jesus presence in us, together.

The church is one. The church is becoming one. The church will be one. Completely.

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