43,000 Denominations on the Planet
If you’ve ever been a part of an extended family get together where from young to old everyone is talking happily and playing well together you will have experienced a little of the pleasure of God the Father when his children are one in love. I’ve just come back from a National Gathering dedicated to city transformation through the gospel via a unified Church.
God’s plan from the beginning has been for a unified family in a perfect city (Rev 21:7ff.). Obviously such unity between people is humanly impossible and can come to pass only through the Lord. Our Bible readings for today are quite emphatic about this.
Ten times in Jeremiah 32 God says “I will” restore the people; “I will give them one heart and one way” (Jer 32:39). Psalm 133 beautifully teaches that unity is a divine gift, as The Message translation lyrically puts it, “How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!”…. Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing…eternal life.” Because “great grace was upon them all” the believers in Acts 4 “were of one heart and soul”.
Most importantly however Jesus prayed, ““I …ask for…for those who will believe in me…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you… so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”” (John 17:20-21). God’s delight in a visibly undivided Church is undeniable. But look around us.
Jesus prayed that our visible unity would persuade the lost that he was sent by the Father but there are around 43,000 denominations on the planet, which the world instinctively understands is a sign that they don’t perfectly love one another.
Things have improved a lot since my mum told me the state school kids on one side of the street would shout out “Catholic dogs, jump like frogs, eat no meat on Friday”, and get back the reply, “Catholics, Catholics ring the bell, while the Proddies go to hell”. But I know churches both in this suburb and over where I live who have no interest in praying, working with and loving other believers.
Compare this dire spiritual situation with the Early Church in Acts.
One with One Another
vs.32 “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. vs.33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. vs.34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold vs.35 …and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)
So close to Jesus’ time on earth and the first outpourings of the Spirit it was easy for these Christians to believe the same things, but Acts emphasises not shared theology but the sharing of goods. This had nothing to do with either socialism or the first flush of spiritual enthusiasm but was the fulfilment of God’s promise in Deuteronomy that “there will be no poor among you” (Deut 15:4).
Whilst scripture nowhere commands Christians to pool their material goods this practice in the Early Church easily embarrasses us because of the power of possessions over our lives. Jesus unhesitatingly warned us, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21). If Christian unity costs us money and material goods our inner thoughts instinctively flip into the “Come into the real world.” mode (Heb 4:12).
Let me use 2 illustrations to explore this.
I was in a meeting of pastors a while ago and the speaker shared how their church was releasing finance to make it possible for another church in the area (of a different denomination) to employ a youth worker. Why did the room go quiet do you think…? here’s my second story.
Some years ago a Christian community of pacifists called the Bruderhof [(“dwelling place of brothers”)] who hold everything in common (no salaries or private bank accounts) wanted to move into an area in rural NSW; the shire council was keen for them to come. Guess how the local churches responded when they heard other followers of Jesus were coming to live among them – they vigorously opposed the proposal. God changes hearts, and at the conference we saw a short video of the current generation of church leaders asking the Bruderhof for forgiveness.
Both these examples show that a materially sacrificial lifestyle embarrasses the average Christian because of our failure to live out the love of the cross. Our resistance to living out the sacrifice of cross for the sake of other Christians humiliates us.
We can respond in two possible ways to the demands of Christ; we can hide our embarrassment and maintain the status quo, or turn to God’s promises to miraculously create unity between us. God’s “I will” in Jeremiah, the “the Lord commands the blessing” of Psalm 133 and the “great grace was upon them all” of Acts 4:33 harmoniously testify that supernatural Christian unity needs the miraculous presence of God. Jesus is this presence.
One with the Father
John 17 is frequently quoted in circles committed to Christian unity but in practice it doesn’t seem to have much impact because Western Christians usually turn what is a matter of the heart into a set of ideas. Jesus is not giving a lecture on Christian values in John 17, he is praying with a heart fully open to God completely conscious of the Father living in him as he is living in the Father (vv.21, 23). His prayer comes on the threshold of his entry into Gethsemane and on to the cross and so it is charged with a sense of ultimate importance. Crucial to our understanding of Christ’s prayer John’s Gospel has an emphasis on the cross dominated by glory.
And so Jesus prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (v.22).
This means nothing less than that through Jesus we share in the glory of the unity of the Trinity. But to understand the incredible depths of this final reality we must explore just what Jesus means by “glory”.
Earlier in John 17 he asked, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:3). What were the Father and Son doing together before the world existed?
Since the Bible teaches “God is love” we know that the Father and Son were in a perfect oneness of love in eternity (1 John 4:8).
Was this state of love an infinitely ecstatic feeling within the Godhead or did it take some form which has the power to capture our hearts?
The answer to this question has nothing to do with abstract metaphysical speculation but has everything to do with our expectations for eternity because towards the end of his prayer in John 17 Jesus asked, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
Whatever was going on in God before he created the world we will be share in forever in heaven.
We do not need to guess about these things for the scriptural testimony to the life of God before creation is unanimous. In the book of Revelation we read of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Rev 13:8); in Peter’s words, “you were ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you” (1 Pet 1:18-21); and as Paul puts it, God “saved us and called us …because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9).
We see that the eternal glory of the Son was to be chosen by the Father to give his life for the salvation of the world, and the eternal glory of the Father was to have a Son who loved him so much that he was willing to die for us. This was the all surpassing love they were sharing in eternity.
To put this more directly, the gospel expresses the glory of God as a perfect unity of love which has always united Father and the Son (Col 3:14; Rev 14:6).
“Do you know, my dear unsaved hearer, what God’s estimate of the gospel is? Do you not know that it has been the chief subject of his thoughts and acts from all eternity? He looks on it as the grandest of all his works.”
If you are a little lost at this point let me go a little deeper into John’s story of Jesus at prayer to help clarify things.
In John 12 Jesus prays using intense glory language, “vs.23 “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. vs.24 ...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit … Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. vs.28 Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again … Jesus answered …vs.32 “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” vs.33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12: 23ff.).
The death of Jesus is the high point and the radiance of the glory of God because it’s the place where the eternal inexpressible love of the Son for the Father is fully revealed. As the Father’s glory was actualised/made real in Jesus through sacrifice so it must be with us.
Sacrificial Oneness Today
(I originally heard this story about a church facing financial catastrophe from its pastor first hand.) A group of several hundred met to pray on the floor of their unfinished building. “An old lady slowly walked in my direction…tears were filling her eyes. She bowed and said, “Pastor, I want to give these items to you so that you may sell them for a few pennies to help with our building fund.”
I looked down and in her hand was an old rice bowl and pair of chopsticks.
Then I said to her, “Sister, I can’t take these necessities from you!”
“But pastor, I am an old woman. I have nothing of value to give to my Lord; yet Jesus has graciously saved me. These items are the only things in the world I possess!” she exclaimed, tears now flowing freely down her wrinkled cheeks.
“You must let me give these to Jesus. I can place my rice on old newspapers and I can use my hands to feed myself. I know that I will die soon, so I don’t want to meet Jesus without giving him something on this earth.” As she finished speaking, everyone there began to weep openly … A businessman at the back of the group was deeply moved and said, “Pastor Cho, I want to buy that rice bowl and chopsticks for one thousand dollars!” with that, everyone started to pledge their possessions.
My wife and I sold our small home and gave the money to the church.” Hardly a surprise that when the sacrificial power of the cross released a perfect unity of love in this congregation it went on to become the biggest church in the world.
“That’s wonderful for those Koreans, you may be thinking, but we are Australians and we don’t live like that.” You are right because the more affluent a society becomes the less sacrificial its Christians become.
This was seen prophetically expressed by an early man of God in America it as he witnessed his nations’ emerging culture of consumption, “Religion begat prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother.” (Cotton Mather).
Totally unlike the seemingly impractical behaviour of the Early Church, to the average Australian Christian leaving an inheritance for the kids seems much more real than inheriting the kingdom of God!
Is everything that Jesus prayed for our unity an impossible “wish dream” (Bonhoeffer) waiting until we get to heaven? If that’s true the gospel has lost its power (Rom 1:16).
When I was in Sydney last week I met with a young Chinese pastor who has a deep desire to reach out to white Australians, so far he has lots of Asians, South Americans and others but no one that looks like most of us. Guess what I said to him (try to be specific)? “Ask God what you can sacrifice in order to reach Caucasians, do what he says and some of them will come to Christ.” God always works through sacrifice.
Most unity movements in the Church, from young people setting up communal houses to local ministers’ fraternal’s to denominational amalgamation fail to bear fruit because they are based on our “wish dreams” and our dreams needs to be shattered by the cross of Christ (Bonhoeffer).
Our hearts are full of idolatrous wish dreams that drive the powerful presence of God out from amongst us – dreams about family, career, spirituality, health, marriage etc. Jesus has only one way of helping us today only one way of uniting our hearts as one with each another and his Father. He would have us pray for glory.
If Jesus needed the powerful presence of the glory of his Father to face the desolation of the cross, if the Early Church needed the resurrection glory of Christ to face the rejection of their Jewish countrymen, if the Bruderhof needed an unshakeable conviction of peace from God to stand firm in forgiveness for their persecutors, then we can only be united as one in love if we together join in Jesus’ prayer for the glory of God.
Those who desire and encounter the glory of God will find in themselves the power to sacrifice whatever it takes to the meet the needs of their brothers and sisters and to bring salvation to the world (John 17:23).
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 7th May, 2017 | St Mark’s
Author: Dr. John Yates