“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)Ponder that for a moment. In the waning hours of His earthly ministry (and He clearly knew the end was right around the corner), how did Jesus spend His time? Well obviously He spent it with the disciples but what was He doing? Not giving them an exposition of the Five Points of Calvinism or a lecture on the importance of liturgy. He didn't have any words for them about the correct mode of baptism or the proper form of church government. No. He spent His last hours with His disciples breaking bread with them in the form of a meal, washing their feet as an example for them to imitate and in prayer for them, specifically for unity among the brethren.
I want to focus specifically on something Jesus is saying here, namely that unity is a form of witness to the world. I would point out that Jesus is not merely speaking of unity within His “inner circle” of the twelve but “also for those who will believe in me through their word”, in other words those who would in the future believe in Jesus, whether those who would believe on the day of Pentecost or a new believer who came to Christ this morning.
Jesus taught and prayed in His High Priestly prayer that as the church we are in Christ as Christ is in the Father, and through our community we are witnessing to the truth of the Gospel to the world and proclaiming Jesus as king. More specifically our unity with one another is one of the ways that people will believe that Jesus lived, that He came from the Father and was who He said He was. That is a pretty powerful and sobering statement and it really ought to be something that trumps our own personal preferences and pet peeves. Apparently it doesn’t because even among highly similar groups the notion of real, functional unity would be laughable if it weren’t such a sign of rebelliousness. We like to think that annual conventions or bi-annual conferences touting how “Together for the Gospel” we are suffices to override the fact that most of the time we see each other not as fellow redeemed sinners on a common mission for the Kingdom but as competitors who are doing something wrong on Sunday morning.
The flip side of the issue is far more troubling and often more pertinent in our day. If being one in the church is a witness to the world, doesn't it hold true that division is also a witness? Imagine that someone sincerely seeking to know Christ comes to a typical Christian and asks what they should read in the Bible. If they are like me, I would recommend the Gospel of John. Now imagine the confusion of this sincere seeker when they read what Jesus prayed on behalf of His disciples in His High Priestly prayer. Jesus prayed for one thing and those who claim to follow Him do precisely the opposite. If you needed further proof of God’s sovereign election in salvation it would be that anyone comes to Christ at all when faced with the splintering and division that the world sees when it looks at the church.
What does our division and disunity say to the world and also say to Christ?
It says we either don’t believe Him when He says that our unity is a witness or it says that we might believe Him but we don’t care, that our boundaries and creeds and denominations, our notions of doctrinal purity, are more important to us than winning the lost to Christ.