“Unity and Concord”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You know, it’s really too bad that these last words of Jesus before He is betrayed, arrested, suffers and dies, this final prayer that He prays in the Gospel of John is not answered. Did you hear what He prayed? Four times in chapter 17, Jesus prays for His eleven Apostles and for those who would believe through the Word He gave them, that “they may be one” (17:11). “That they may all be one” (17:20), “that they may be one” (17:22), “that they may become perfectly one” (17:23). Judge for yourself. How many Christian denominations can you name? Did you know that there are over 30,000 denominations that claim the name “Christian”? 30,000. From everything we can see, it appears that Jesus’ prayer has not been answered. Now there are two possible responses to this prayer of Jesus.
The first is based on what can be seen. Many Christians, many churches, hear this prayer and say, “Jesus says we should be one, so let’s be one! Let’s get together, pray and worship, share pastors, and eat the Lord’s Supper together.” We rightly mourn and grieve the divisions in the Church. You know it as well as I do, because you, like me, have people in your families who belong to separated churches. You can feel that division in your body, the pain of separation. And when Christians join together in the true unity of Jesus around His Word and His Sacraments, we should be the first to rejoice. But if it is a false unity, we cannot and will not rejoice over that. And many of these unions are false, because they are not based on agreement in God’s Word and Sacraments, but about ignoring any disagreement. They say that the doctrine, the teaching, of the Church no longer divides. Well, it’s not a big step from believing doctrine no longer divides to believing doctrine no longer matters. If doctrine does not divide, then it does not matter. And these unions quickly collapse into irrelevance. They become just one more lobby. Just one more voice in American politics. Just one more point of view scrambling for a seat at the table, trying to make itself heard. In fact, the more it tries to be relevant, the more irrelevant it becomes. But the problem is not just that it is a false union, but that people think that Jesus is praying to them. If it is up to us to create the unity for which Jesus prays, then He must be praying to us. It’s not a command, it’s a prayer. And He’s praying to His Father. So, is the unity created by God or by us? That’s one possible response: the response of false union collapsing into irrelevance.
But there is another possible response. Maybe Jesus is praying for a unity that cannot be seen. Maybe we misunderstand Jesus’ prayer when we base our response on what we can see and measure. Maybe we’ve confused two different types of unity. Because there are two different types of unity in the Scriptures. We can call the first simply “unity,” because it is Christian unity at its most basic. The second we can call “concord,” which is the opposite of discord. Unity is not something we can see. That’s why we say “I believe one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.” If we said, “I see…” we would be lying. No, unity is hidden, and it is created and given only by God as He joins us to His Son in Holy Baptism. You can’t see it. The person looks exactly the same, but it is the most basic and fundamental unity. It is reality, though it can’t be seen. This unity can only be given, sustained, and preserved by God through His Word and through His Supper. We see only bread and wine, but it is the very flesh and blood of Jesus Himself. He is in us and we are in Him. This is the unity of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6, ESV). There is only one Jesus, so there can be only one Church. There is only one Head, so there can be only one Body. There is only one sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and there is only one Gospel that gives out that forgiveness to sinners. This is a unity among and between all believers in the one Christ. Only God can see and know this unity, because only God can see and know those who are His. That is the true unity for which Jesus prays.
But there is another unity we can call concord. It is concord in Psalm 133 when the psalmist says, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (v. 1). Concord can be seen. We work for it and pray for it. It is based on love, and bearing with one another. Bearing one another’s burdens. Forgiving each other because Christ has forgiven us. Overlooking each other’s faults and failures and shortcomings. Paul is speaking of concord when he tells the Christians in Ephesus to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). There is the unity of the one Body, but there are many members of the one Body, all with different and unique gifts and responsibilities, and all for the building up of the one Body until we all attain the unity of the Faith (Ephesians 4:12-13). We see both kinds of unity in Acts 2, when the disciples devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers (Ephesians 2:42). Those are the things by which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains unity. But out of that unity of the Word and the Supper flows the concord of love as they gave to all as any had need. There was no need among those early Christians, because there was both unity and concord.
And what happened? “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47, ESV). And that is exactly what Jesus prays. He prays that they may be one, the Apostles and all the believers, for the sake of the world. So that the world may know and believe that Jesus is the one who was sent by the Father to reconcile the world to Himself. And that is why it is the most important thing that we strive and struggle to have the pure teaching of Jesus and the pure Sacraments of Jesus: because they are not just words and symbols; they are life and salvation for the world. So St. John writes, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3, ESV). It is exactly so that the world can hear that pure Gospel, be joined to the one Lord by the one Baptism, and be joined to us in the one Supper of His Body and Blood. So we pray, “In these last days of great distress, grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness, that we keep pure Your holy Word and Sacrament” (LSB 585, st. 2). It is exactly in this pure Word, this pure Gospel, and these pure Sacraments that Jesus’ prayer has been answered and is being answered, even here. And it is Jesus, the one Lord of the one Church, who will finally lead us into the full and perfect unity with Himself and all the saints, when divisions will be, at last, no more. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Jesus Christ, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6, ESV).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/15/10