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Years ago I was speaking to a friend of mine who is not a Christian. He said this to me: ‘I don’t understand. You Protestants and you Catholics, you look alike to me. You both have church buildings that look the same. You both say the Lord’s Prayer and do stuff with bread and wine. You look exactly the same to me. Whatever it is you disagree about (and I have no idea what it is) it has absolutely nothing to do with my life. However, whilst you are fighting each other I am not interested.’
It struck me then how damaging disunity is to the church and our witness to the world. No wonder Jesus prayed for ‘complete unity’ (John 17:23). And the apostle Paul was passionate that we should be ‘perfectly united’ (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Unity is at the core of our faith. We believe in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is unity in the Trinity. Disunity, on the other hand, has been the curse of humankind ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. Jesus died to bring reconciliation and unity. Each of the passages for today has something about the unity Christ brings.
1. Unity in relationshipsProverbs 19:3-12
Among the many words of wisdom in this passage is one proverb which is of utmost importance for unity in our relationships: ‘A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offence’ (v.11).
I have been challenged by this verse many times in my life. It is so easy to be offended. It is easy to hold a grudge. It is easy to seek revenge. If responded to in this way, even one offence can lead to the breakdown of a relationship. It can end a friendship.
On the other hand, there is something glorious about overlooking an offence. This means refusing to be offended. It means refusing to hold a grudge. It means refusing to take revenge. It is hard to do. But it is of utmost importance if we are to maintain unity in our relationships.
Lord, help me to overlook offences. Forgive me when I am too easily offended. Thank you that through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, you overlook our offences. Help me through that same power to overlook the offences of others. Help us to be a community where people do not take offence easily. Help us to maintain the unity of the Holy Spirit.
2. Unity around Jesus1 Corinthians 1:1-17
The people of Corinth were wealthy, hard drinking and sexually promiscuous. Of all the cities in the ancient world, it was the most notorious for immorality.
Corinth was a large cosmopolitan city which attracted people from every nation, culture and religion. In many ways it was similar to a city like London. It was a commercial centre. It was a centre for arts, recreation, literature and architecture. It was a place of museums and theatres.
In AD 50, Paul went to Corinth to plant a church. He stayed with his friends Priscilla and Aquila. He got himself a job and started preaching the gospel. He started a church in a house and stayed eighteen months until the Spring of AD 52. Then he handed the church over to Apollos and moved on to plant more churches.
Some time later Paul received a report that in his absence all kinds of problems had developed including division in the church. About five years later he wrote this letter to try and deal with some of the issues.
Quarrelling and disunity began very early in the church’s history. In Corinth it seems that the different factions were divided not so much by doctrine, as by mindset. Instead of being united in Christ they split into factions based purely on the leader they most respected – Paul, Apollos or Cephas (1 Corinthians 1:11–13).
Even before he starts his appeal for unity and love, we can see in his introduction and greetings how the theme of unity runs deep in Paul’s thinking. The basis of our unity is the person of Jesus:-
- Relationship with Jesus
Paul writes, ‘I send this letter to you in God’s church at Corinth, believers cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life. I include in my greeting all who call out to Jesus, wherever they live. He’s their Master as well as ours!’ (v.2, MSG).
Every other Christian in the world is someone who calls on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is their Lord and ours. We are all called into ‘fellowship’ with Jesus (v.9). The word for fellowship used here is koinonia. It is the deepest and most intimate relationship possible. It is the word used of the marriage relationship. We all love Jesus deeply and intimately.
- Grace of Jesus
Paul writes, ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus’ (vv.3–4). To be a Christian is to experience the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus. Grace means undeserved love. It is supremely shown in and made possible through the death of Jesus Christ for each one of us. Every Christian in the world, of every church and denomination, is someone for whom Christ died. His grace is the basis of our unity.
- Spirit of Jesus
Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift’ (v.7a). The Spirit of Jesus Christ lives in every Christian. Paul goes on to expound in this letter how each of us has spiritual gifts, because we have the Holy Spirit living in us. Every other Christian in the world has the Holy Spirit living in them just as he lives in us.
- Return of Jesus
Paul goes on to say, ‘as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (vv.7b–8). We all await the return of Jesus. One day we will be completely united in him. In the meantime, we have a common hope.
Paul is passionate about this unity. He writes, ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought’ (v.10).
He is not happy to settle for a superficial unity. He appeals for perfect unity. We may not succeed in our lifetime in seeing the complete unity of the church. However, we should never settle for less. We should pray for it and seek to do all we can to bring it about. Jesus prayed that we might be brought to complete unity (John 17:20–21).
Lord, I pray for unity. I pray for unity in our local church. I pray for unity in the Church of England and the Anglican Church around the world. I pray for unity between the churches – with the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and every other denomination. Thank you that you are lowering the denominational barriers today. Thank you that we see signs of a greater unity in the church. Protect us from further divisions. May we be brought to complete unity in order that the world will believe in you.
3. Unity under one King1 Chronicles 16:37-18:17
God’s desire has always been for unity among his people. Just as he wants unity among his people in the New Testament, so we see in the Old Testament that he desired unity for the people of God.
Sadly, the history of the people of God in the Old Testament was also one of disunity. There was only one period in Israel’s history where there was any real semblance of unity. That was the period which we now read about in the Book of Chronicles. David united ‘all Israel’ (18:14).
This was a period of great blessing for the people of God. Nathan said to David, ‘Whatever you have in mind, do it, for God is with you’ (17:2). ‘The Lord gave David victory everywhere he went’ (18:6b). ‘David reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people’ (v.14).
This unity continued in the reign of Solomon. The chronicler sees the unity of this period as the ideal. Writing hundreds of years later, the chronicler is not naïve about the failings of King David, and neither is he slow to point out the temptations of Solomon that spelt the beginning of the end of this golden age – gold, horses and many wives (see Deuteronomy 17).
After hundreds of years of disunity he hopes that one day Israel will have a king like David and Solomon who will bring, among other things, unity to the people of God. The fulfilment came about not through an earthly king but through a heavenly one.
Lord, we thank you for Jesus, the Anointed King, who more than fulfilled the expectations of Israel. Thank you that we have a king who unites not only one race, but has the power to unite the entire human race under his lordship. Thank you that one day we will see this unity. In the meantime, we pray for it and ask your help that we may do everything possible within our power to bring healing to the divisions within the church and seek its complete unity.
1 Corinthians 1:8
‘He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
I tend to feel a little nervous about the final (judgment) day. But it is encouraging that Jesus is going to keep us strong to the end.