I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. John 17:21 NLT
My church is in a time of transition right now, and as is usually the case at these times, there is attrition. Attendance has slipped. Energy and enthusiasm has given way to hesitant uncertainty. Critical decisions are coming up that will require the church to act in unity.
There are two important things about unity that are often confused. Unity is not the same thing as conformity. Unity is not the same thing as unanimity. However, unity is the hallmark of genuine discipleship.
Consider two of the guys who followed Jesus, Simon and Matthew. Zealot and Publican. A zealot was a militant radical. Let that sink in. We see plenty of militant radicals on the news. They are often masked, brandishing weapons, spewing threats and hatred at their enemies with a passion that infuses every part of their existence. That’s the kind of guy Simon was.
Matthew was a publican, a tax collector. He was worse than an IRS agent or shifty salesman. He was a traitor. A collaborator with the enemy oppressor. Worse than Benedict Arnold.
Simon would have applauded Matthew’s assassination. Matthew would have been satisfied with Simon’s arrest and execution.
It would be naïve for us to think that just because these guys were followers of Jesus that suddenly they became best buddies. In between the lines of the squabbles mentioned in Scripture were very partisan, very rancorous exchanges. Not just between these two. Not just when they first joined the group.
I like to imagine that when Jesus sent them out in pairs, He purposefully put these two together.
We haven’t changed much over the years. We are defensive and insecure. We look around at other believers, sneering at how liberal and permissive they are. Or we smugly point out how judgmental and legalistic they are. That’s not unity. That’s not what Jesus had in mind for us.
Our need for the grace of God every single day unifies us. We are all coming to the knowledge of the truth. We haven’t arrived. We are starting from different places, working on different facets of our lives at different rates. We have different challenges. We sin differently. We fail. We overcome. We grow. We fail again.
Our mission of advancing the kingdom of God unifies us. When Christ became a man to live among us, He was the perfect embodiment of God’s character and purposes. In this prayer, He passes that task on to us, His church. We are not perfect, but we are tasked with embodying God’s character– His love, His mercy, His grace, His forgiveness–and His purposes–the redemption of every individual.
Our experience and station unifies us. One body. One Spirit. One hope. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all an in us all.
Jesus prayed for our unity as the unmistakable hallmark that He was from God. Unity breeds respect, compassion, and consideration rather than suspicion, condemnation, and competition. Our fulfillment of the commission He gave us is inextricably tied to it. The measure of our faithfulness to that commission is dependent on it. Unity. Not conformity. Not unanimity.
Of need, of grace received, of purpose.