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Mar 24, 2013

Walking the Path...Together

Passage: John 17:1-26

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Path to Victory

Keywords: unity, one, trinity, witness, church


Jesus prayed that last night for his immediate disciples and all who would believe on Him through their witness. His prayer has to do with our unity to Him and the resulting unity we share with other believers. This message looks at WHY unity is so important for us and the world and what that unity does and doesn't involve.


Walking the Path to Victory…Together

John 17:1-26

March 24, 2013


CONNECT:  Tell someone about a memorable family trip or adventure you had as a child growing up.  What made it memorable? 

If you’re having difficulty remembering some of the stand-out adventures, perhaps this will refresh your memory. (PowerPoint slide)

What is it that makes family trips or “adventures” memorable? It can be over-the-top fun or unexpected failure.  Marriage coach Gary Smalley sites a study that was done to find out which kinds of family vacations were people’s favorites.  Camping won.  Why?  Because there was almost always some unplanned catastrophe that, given about two weeks after the event, became the one thing everyone was talking and laughing about.  But in the moment, it probably wasn’t funny or fun. 


Mountain climbers have a saying: The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home!”  J  Truth is, with a mountain of experience behind us and a mountain of challenges ahead, I need you.  I

need to be tied to you, and you need to be tied to me.  We need each other…to keep from bolting, fleeing in panic, and returning to the ‘sanity’ of unbelief. 


It’s amazing how important unplanned experiences can be to molding families together.  The same can be true of your spiritual family, God’s church.   


So this week is Holy Week…and today is Palm Sunday.  It is, of course, a week of intense contrasts

Palm Sunday reminds us of the celebration and joy that comes with honoring Jesus Christ as Messiah.  Back in John 12 we were told about how the crowds in Jerusalem all but thrust Jesus into the role of national leader, a populist king, as he entered Jerusalem on an unbroken colt of a donkey.  That in itself was a miracle if you’ve ever been around horses much.  Riding any unbroken, four-footed critter is a trick. 

But this was a clear fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy in Zech 9:9—

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This is the passage from which we get that term “Hosanna!” that we sing.  It’s a term that we think means literally “save” or “Savior.” As used by the crowd, they were joyfully declaring that they believed Jesus was there as the messianic savior, “The King of Israel!” (John 12:13).  It probably looked and felt a whole lot like one of our major political party conventions once the Presidential candidate has been selected and everyone is waving their sign, shouting and cheering. But, as we all know, crowds are extremely fickle.  And this one in Jerusalem would, in a matter of a few short days, become a lynching mob. 


But our passage today in John 17 takes place around the dinner table…in the Upper Room…where Jesus and the Apostles are all celebrating the Passover meal together.  It’s been a pretty gritty evening.  There was the bickering about who was greatest.  Then there was the awkward scene where Jesus, the only one in the room who shouldn’t have taken the foot-washing slave role does.  Peter’s been acting like the classic suck-up, swinging from the extreme of not letting Jesus wash his feet to asking Jesus to be his massage therapist who will give him a full body bath.


And then Jesus stops teaching and just starts praying (vs. 17:1).  Maybe that was just sort of normal for Jesus.  Lifting his eyes to heaven was his most frequent posture for prayer recorded in the Bible.  But it still had to catch a few of the Apostles a little off guard. 

            In vss. 1-5, Jesus talks to the Father about his work and the timing of things.  Jesus is well aware that “it’s time.”  He states that he has “finished” the work the Father had given him to do, at least with his Apostles.  And now it’s time to return to the Father from whom he came and assume once again the glory that he shared with the Father before he took on humanity and veiled his awesome glory behind human flesh. 


In the middle of this paragraph in vs. 2, Jesus starts talking about “eternal life.”  He makes it clear that eternal life is something that comes to us from himself.  Vs. 2 says he “gives eternal life to all those” the Father gave to him.  Then Jesus gives us a very clear definition of “eternal life.”  He says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” 

Eternal life is not something that you get some day after you die.  It is not something you acquire and park on your living room mantle piece over the fireplace.  Eternal life is something that is all about relationship with God the Father and God the Son. 

ILL:  Don’t we understand intuitively that life really is about relationships?  For life to be considered good, we must have a couple of things in relationships.  1.) We must actually have other people/beings to experience life with.   And, 2.) the caliber of the people/beings we have relationship with must be good.

1.)    We are meant to experience life with people.  How enjoyable would it be to go to, say, DisneyWorld all by yourself? I don’t mean you’re in the park without a good friend or family member.  I mean there is no one there—zero, zip, nadie!  You spend the whole day taking the amusement rides alone.  There are no ride operators, no other patrons, nobody.  DisneyWorld would be just plane creepy that way, right? 

That’s how the Garden of Eden was for Adam before God made and gave him Eve.  As idyllic as it was, it was empty.  Life really has an awful lot to do with actually having other eternal beings/people to share experiences with.

2.)    Life is truly about the caliber of people we have in our life.  If all you have living around you are a lot of self-absorbed, selfish, sick, abusive people who beat you up physically every day, tear you apart verbally morning, noon and night…and torture you emotionally with mind games just to hurt you, life is horrible.  You’ve got to have the right kind of people/being relating to you for it to be a “good” experience.

So real life…a great life…is both about companionship AND the right kind of companionship.

Jesus is reminding his followers in this prayer that the best, longest and most important kind of life, “eternal life,” will only be found in relationship with THE BEST beings in the universe—God the Father and God the Son.  That just makes sense, doesn’t it? 

            That’s what Adam and Eve’s sin was really about:  abandoning THE best relationship possible with THE most wonderful Being possible. All for an empty promise that took them in precisely the opposite direction from where they hoped it would lead them. 


Yet people keep buying the lie.  They keep thinking that God is a cosmic kill-joy who will rob them of “the good life” the closer they get to him.  They know what He has done to restore them to relationship with the Father, the hear about his miracles and can find nothing to criticize about his life, yet they refuse real relationship with Him and think that life will be found in mere things and in relationship with other people who ignore or despise relationship with God as much as they do. 

In vss. 6-19, Jesus now prays for his own disciples.  They were the ones who embraced or “kept” Christ’s word (vs. 6).  They believed that Jesus was sent from the Father and they got to know the Father by getting to know Jesus.  And now Jesus is asking the Father to once again take responsibility for “keeping” or protecting them (vs. 11).  He is asking the Father to keep them true to their belief of who he, Jesus, was—one sent by God to reveal God to people.

            But WHY?  Why is Jesus wanting the Father to keep them true to their present belief in Jesus Christ?  Vs. 11 tells us, “…so that they may be one as we are one.” 

First of all, Jesus knows the high and eternal value of unity.  He knows that unity between him and the Father was the source from which flowed eternal joy in their relationship and eternal blessings to the whole creation.

What would have happened if the Godhead had not been “one” as they were?  We can only really speculate.  But since God knew that our universe would need a perfect substitute to take care of our sins forever, I doubt if Jesus would have agreed to submit to the eternal plan of God the Father if they were not truly “one” in purpose, desire, and heart.  I doubt that the Holy Spirit would have agreed to abide in the lives of people who still sinned, people who would abuse the grace of God and repeatedly fail even after experiencing the saving work and life of God the Son. I doubt that the Father would have been willing to turn his back on his Only Begotten Son at Calvary if their oneness was not deep and absolute.

But the nature of God is unity.  That is one reason the doctrine of the Trinity has profound implications for God being a relational god who places a huge value on being in relationship with us.  That is why God’s unity as a Tri-unity has huge implications for what He knows is good for us in marriages, in families and in churches.  That is why Jesus demonstration of how to depend on, listen to, communicate with and take his cues about what to say and do from the Father while he walked this earth have huge implications for how we are to “walk in the Spirit,” cultivating the same relational unity with Christ. 

“Unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (as Paul talks about in Eph. 4:3) is not an arbitrary value in God’s list of values.  It is a fundamental reality as a part of His nature.  As such, it is what he wants us, his children, to first experience with Him and then experience together as members of His family. 

That is also why, as Jesus continues to pray, repeats the same central request when he prays for us—all “those who will believe in [him] through their [the Apostles’] message,” vs. 20.  Read 17:20-21.


Here is Jesus line of reasoning. 

  1. His unity with the Father demonstrated that he was sent by, in union with and demonstrating the nature of His Father. 
  2. His disciples’ unity with Him in word and deed was demonstrating that they were really His, that they belonged to Him and were doing His will.
  3. Therefore, if anyone was truly united in unity to Christ through the Holy Spirit and the word of God, they would necessarily be in union with each other, demonstrating the united nature of God. 


And Jesus again gives a reason statement for why he prays that our unity with God the Father and Son will be as real and genuine as the unity between the godhead:  “…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  That reason is repeated and expanded slightly in vs. 23 when Jesus says, “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.” 

            I think that we misread these verses when we put the focus first upon our unity together first.  Jesus is praying for our primary unity to be with Him and the Father.  In vs. 21 it is the unity of being “in us”…in deep union with God the Father and God the Son…that will convince the world of Jesus divine mission to save sinners. It is our close connection with the Father and Jesus that will convince people of the love of God for human beings.

            If we try and find some kind of unity with each other or the larger body of the church either locally or world-wide based upon some people-focused commitment, it will never work. By his prayer Jesus is telling us that we must focus upon our union and life in Christ if we are to ever hope to experience that “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” which we are to be guarding, keeping and living in while on earth.  

E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), missionary to India, once said, “Talk about what you believe and you have disunity. Talk about WHO you believe in and you have unity.”

We can argue about theology all life long, right?  But when we humbly come to God and His word to see Jesus, to listen to His voice, to follow His commands, to walk in His footsteps, to pray as He did, heal as He did, speak as He did, live as He did, there is not all that much argument or dissension, is there?  HE is the ground of our unity if we are to have any unity here on this earth as God’s family.


Just this week I had two separate conversations with two different men about this very truth.  One was expressing his dismay at how divided, splintered, fractured and factious the people of God in Christ have become through the centuries.  The result is that today we have tens of thousands (30-44k by current estimates) “denominations” or “sects” of the Christian church. 

But keep in mind that those numbers don’t mean that we have 30,000 or 40,000 different theological positions or theologies about the same things.  People set up different organizations, associations or denominations of churches because of lots of different reasons, not just theological variants.  It is often due to cultural differences, differences of traditions, differences in the way they organize or relate to other churches, etc. 

So, yes, to the watching world, they can’t figure out WHY we feel like we have to separate ourselves from each other so much if we are really closely and genuinely following the same God.  But I would contend that it is not the different organizational groups and “denominations” that destroy unity.  It is, I think, a failure to make individual and corporate unity with Christ and the Father our objective and focus that is destroying our witness in this world.  We are trying to find unity in a bunch of other things which Jesus never promised would bring unity that is slicing and dicing us. 


ILL:  Remember that Peanuts comic strip that has Charlie Brown, sitting alone in his living room watching television?  In storms Lucy, demanding that he change the channel to a show she wants to watch, threatening him with her fat little fist in his face.  Rather meekly he asks her what makes her think she can walk in and take over.  She blurts out:  “These five fingers!” which she tightens into a fist.  It works.  Without a word, Charlie Brown responds by asking which channel she prefers.  Naturally, she gets to watch any channel she wants.  Slowly, he slips out of the room, feeling like a wimp.  He looks at his own five fingers and asks, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”


What do we know about the unity of the church in the first century? 

  • When God spoke either directly to his people in any given city of the ancient world (Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Laodicea, Philadelphia, etc.) he spoke to them as ONE church. 
  • When God (through Paul) addressed any divisions within any of those churches (as he did in Corinth [1st Corinthians] or Philippi [Philippians 4] or Antioch [Gal. 2—where Peter withdrew from the Gentile believers due to those demanding circumcision of Christians]), He chastised them for breaking fellowship with other believers over differing secondary theologies or different leaders in the church.
  • We know there was a lot of theological diversity in the early church.  It would take a couple hundred years for churches to come together and develop united statements on such fundamental theologies as the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit. 
  • Missionaries such as Paul, Silas, Barnabas and Timothy traveled and ministered to different churches in different cities even though they were facing different challenges, had different local leadership and may have had diverse beliefs about some things. 
  • The churches in very different locations (Corinth, Macedonia, etc.) actually gave money and support to other churches that were ethnically, geographically and probably in terms of traditions and some theologies different from them.


But what did they ALL agree upon?  In a word, JESUS!  They believed the Gospel of salvation by faith in the person and work of Jesus.  They believed in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, come to earth to redeem mankind.  They believed the same Gospel world over that Paul outlined in I Corinthians 15:3-4


Isn’t that where every single child of God can find “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”?

Here’s how I like to picture it visually.  (3 concentric circles, the smallest and innermost one representing the Gospel of Christ, the second larger one representing different areas of theology, and the third, largest one representing traditions and practices.) 

  • Every child of God through faith in Christ should be able to agree fundamentally on the inner core.
  • We will start to diversify and fragment as we move outward and define specific theological beliefs and practices. 
  • Unity at every level is important but also more diverse.


It is not unlike a family that flows from one grand patriarch.  What is it that draws extended families back together for big family reunions?  Isn’t it their common ancestry?  They all got their “relatedness” from someone back a few generations.  It is normal and natural that as the family grows and grows up, different members should branch off and start their own families.  They are still related, still communicate and at times even still reunite.  But family “unity” doesn’t depend upon them all living in the same state or city or house.  It is far more dependent upon their relationship to a common person. 

            And it is also far more related to their spirit of unity than to agreement about what colors they like, or what personalities they have, or what kinds of cars they drive or jobs they have taken.  If their unity depends upon those things, there will be no family reunions beyond probably the ones that take place every night when the separate families come home to share dinner together as a family. 


Unity demands commonality of connection, not conformity of belief. 

What happens when a group or church demands that you believe as they do on any other doctrine or a host of other doctrines and practices other than saving faith in Jesus Christ?  They may well be on the way to becoming a cult…or be one already.  To expand your circle of required core belief beyond saving faith in Jesus Christ is to move into the realm of a cult that now has added something to simple saving faith and has excluded a whole lot of people based on much more than saving faith.

NOTE:  This is different from eccumenicism which throws out the core of saving faith in Jesus and comes together on any basis or for any reason. 


There is a refreshing change happening in America today when it comes to this.  As the church gets squeezed and becomes more of a minority in this land, Christ-followers are discovering a renewed sense of unity with anyone who is “in Christ.”  Catholic Christ-followers are delighted to fellowship with and even pray with Protestant Christ-followers.  Baptist Christ-followers can be found worshiping God side-by-side with Presbyterian or Nazarene or Pentecostal Christ-followers.  Campus fellowships have the entire spectrum of Christ-followers as do concerts of prayer or regional youth events.  We are actually experiencing and enjoying simple unity of the Spirit around our common Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

            Just as that is good and right, so are distinct churches, fellowships, denominations, house churches and Bible studies or fellowship groups.  Diversity delights GodUnity directs the world to God.   




So can we now move from the more theoretical to the intensely practical side of unity in Christ?

What do you think are some of the misconceptions about local church unity that may be floating around today?

  • To be united, we all have to enjoy the same depth of relationship and bonding.  [That’s not true in the God-ordained closest unit of the family.  Why should we think it will be true of the church?]
  • If we aren’t all doing the same thing…what I think is important, we aren’t united. 
    • A variant:  what God has made me passionate about, everyone should be equally passionate about.
  • Because we have differing opinions and positions, we must not be living in unity?
  • Discomfort about diversity in the church (socio-economic, educational, racial, cultural, personalities, idiosyncrasies, etc.) means we’re not united.
  • If we don’t spend a lot of time together, we must not be united. 


What is required IF unity in Christ is to translate into unity in a church?

  • Love for and focus upon Christ Jesus must be paramount.
  • We must spend some time with each other building relationships that develop our souls, our character and our hearts.  WE cannot stop gathering together.
  • We must be living out the love of Christ in practical ways with one another…sharing our needs and resources, helping each other learn to live in love and unity, serving each other and a lost world, sharing meals together, studying God’s word together, praying together, etc.

TESTIMONYThe Altadena Experiment—Mike, Chuck, Flasha & Daniel

  • There will need to be challenge, conflict, difficulty and pressure in the church.  As in marriage and friendship, intimacy grows the more we share difficult experiences, resolve inevitable conflicts and press beyond personal preferences into divine priorities.  [Refer to memorable family trips or adventures.]
    • George Whitefield (1714-1770) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were constantly at odds over their theology. Whitefield believed that God alone was responsible for our salvation. There was nothing man could do to bring it to pass. He affirmed God’s absolute Sovereignty over every aspect of life. Wesley agreed that God made our salvation possible in a way we could never do. However, Wesley contended that the salvation of the individual rested on the choice of man. It was a sometimes strong disagreement (as it continues today).

One day Whitefield was asked by one his followers, “Do you think that when we get to heaven we shall see John Wesley there?” “No,” said Whitefield, “I don’t think we shall.” The questioner was very delighted with that answer, but Whitefield added, “I believe that Mr. John Wesley will have a place so near the throne of God that such poor creatures as you and I will be so far off as to be hardly able to see him.”

  • In effect, treating each other as Christ treats us and as he modeled for us when he walked this earth. 


Failure to be deeply united to Christ will make the kind of unity Jesus is addressing here impossible.  Conversely, in some way the level of unity we fail to develop with one another demonstrates a failure of personal unity with the Father and Jesus.  Don’t blame others for shallow unity; get your own shovel and start digging a life of love and service that others will find irresistible. 

Thomas Manton (1620-1677), the great Puritan preacher said, “Divisions in the church breed atheism in the world.”

Spartacus is a classic movie that retells the historical account of the great Roman slave rebellion in 71 B.C. Spartacus was a highly trained gladiator who escaped and led other slaves to freedom. As news of his rebellion grew, thousands of slaves joined his cause and followed him through victories and defeats. Near the end of the movie, a massive Roman army under the command of Senator Crassus (Laurance Olivier) captures the rebels. Although Crassus does not know what Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) looks like, he suspects that Spartacus is among the prisoners under guard. In full Roman uniform, Crassus gallops up to the mouth of the valley where the prisoners are being held and shouts an offer to them: they can escape death by crucifixion if they turn Spartacus over to him. Spartacus studies the ground for a moment and then nobly gets to his feet, intending to turn himself in. But before he can do so, his comrade to the left stands and calls out, “I am Spartacus!” Then his comrade to the right also stands and calls out, “I am Spartacus!” As the real Spartacus looks on, comrade after comrade in his slave army rises to their feet and calls out, “I am Spartacus!” until there is a chorus of thousands united.