Pursuing the Unity of the Gospel: Part Five

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Part Five:

True Unity Has a MISSIONAL Nature

Years ago when I was a kid growing up in the 70's we sang a famous song in small groups, usually with a long-haired, bearded fellow playing the guitar.  The song was "They'll Know We are Christians By Our Love."  The song was written almost forty years ago, and it is outstanding.  I wish I could play it on the guitar today for my family and friends.  There's a verse in the song which goes like this:

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.  And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land.  And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  They will know we are Christians by our love.

The song nails it when it comes to the connection Jesus makes between unity and evangelism.  He could not have made it any clearer that when His people are experiencing and enjoying the unity with each other that He Himself has with the Father, then they will be able to accurately and effectively evangelize the world.

John Armstrong, my personal friend and part-time mentor in things missional and ecumenical, wrote sometime ago on his blog that, 
"While evangelicals are great at making discipleship and evangelism a priority they seem unconcerned about the damage they cause in the larger church when they refuse to make visible unity a much higher priority" (http://johnharmstrong.typepad.com/john_h_armstrong_/2011/07/a-global-survey-of-evangelical-leaders-unity-not-a-major-concern.html).  
John is dead on here.  As I said in my last post, what effectual good do our evangelistic and missionary programs, workshops, and resources do if we get "butts in the pews" yet are unable to retain them because they feel no intimate fellowship and love among the people?  Again, most of our efforts are all aimed in the wrong direction, I believe.  If evangelization and missional living is a fruit of true, spiritual unity then it seems our efforts must be aimed in the root direction.  Again, here's John Armstrong (from his foundational book Your Church is Too Small):
"A divided Church has no message for a divided world. Our failure to live in reconciled unity is a major obstacle to authenticity and effectiveness in mission. 
"A)    We lament the dividedness and divisiveness of our churches and organizations. We deeply and urgently long for Christians to cultivate a spirit of grace and to be obedient to Paul’s command to ‘make every 
"B)    While we recognize that our deepest unity is spiritual, we long for greater recognition of the missional power of visible, practical, earthly unity. So we urge Christian sisters and brothers worldwide, for the sake of our common witness and mission, to resist the temptation to split the body of Christ, and to seek the paths of reconciliation and restored unity wherever possible" (pp. 65-66).

The fact that this true unity must have a visible result turns our attention to the nature of that visible result.  In short, Jesus intends that the visible nature of unity be missional.  The visible result entails Jesus’ disciples being sent out into the world to win the world to Him, by means of their unity.

Jesus uses the hina clause in the Greek in verses 11, 21 and 23.  You can see that translated in most English translations through the phrase “so that.”  This means that the unity Jesus is praying for has a “so that” or a purpose and a result.  The purpose and result of Jesus prayer, according to verse 11, is “so that they may be one, even as we are one.”  Unity of the people of God is the content of Jesus’ prayer.

Then, according to verses 21 and 23, the purpose and result of His prayer – the purpose of that content in verse 11 – is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me…so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”  Unity of the people of God toward world evangelization is the purpose of the content of Jesus' prayer.  Let me break this down briefly through some helpful exegesis.

  • The first word in the purpose/result clause is “world.”  It is the same word used way back in John 3:16, and it’s the Greek word kosmos.  God loved the world so much He sent Jesus to save those in it who believe in Him.  
  • It would appear then that if God loved the kosmos and saved people in it who believed in Him, according to John 3:16, then God’s plan for bringing people to believe in Him in the future after He’s gone, according to John 17:21 and 23, is the unity of those who already belong to Him.  
  • This much Jesus makes crystal clear when He prayed, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (v. 18).  This means that the very function and purpose of their lives as a unified group of people is to bear witness to the Father and the Son.
  • And the most critical means of bearing witness to the Father and the Son is by living in such a way as to be a living-color answer to the prayer Jesus prays for us, about us, in us, and through us.  The means of bearing witness is true, spiritual, visible, missional unity.

In short, the world can’t come to know or believe that Jesus is the Son of God, Lover and Savior of the world, without those who are already following Him living a unified life together.  God loved the world and sent Jesus, with whom He was closest and most unified.  Now Jesus carries out the Father’s mission of love for the world and sends His apostles, with whom He was closest and most unified.  

Loving people, then, is rooted in mission.  And mission is rooted in going.  And mission and going both happen in an atmosphere, environment, and context of true unity.  When WE are one, the world will believe JESUS is God and Savior.
“In other words, the amazing transcendent love evident between the Father and the Son is not an exclusive glory that humans must be content only to admire from afar. The love the Father has for Jesus is the same love he has for believers, indeed for the whole world (3:16). For "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8, 16), and "there is only one love of God" (Brown 1970:772).  The believers are to embody this love and thereby provide living proof of God's gracious character, which is his mercy, love and truth. They will be an advertisement, inviting people to join in this union with God. The love of God evident in the church is a revelation that there is a welcome awaiting those who will quit the rebellion and return home. Here is the missionary strategy of this Gospel--the community of disciples, indwelt with God's life and light and love, witnessing to the Father in the Son by the Spirit by word and deed, continuing to bear witness as the Son has done" (Whitacre, Rodney A.  John, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series at http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/John/Jesus-Concludes-Time-Alone).
This work of “continuing to bear witness” is an ongoing work.  It doesn’t stop.  It’s about the gospel which produces true unity, when truly embrace and truly obeyed.  A friend of mine coined a term a few years ago which has stuck with me: ecumissional.  It is coined from the word for ecumenism, which is another word for unity, and missional.  We are on a mission to unite people to King Jesus and unify them with other believers.  That’s inherent in a biblical mission statement of any local church.  In my relationship with John Armstrong he mentioned The Lusanne Movement's Cape Town Committment, whose mission statement includes the following about being ecumissional:
'Three times Jesus repeated, ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ Three times Jesus prayed ‘that all of them may be one, Father.’ Both the command and the prayer are missional. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ ‘May they be brought to complete unity so that the world may know that you sent me.’ Jesus could not have made his point more emphatically. The evangelization of the world and the recognition of Christ’s deity are helped or hindered by whether or not we obey him in practice. The call of Christ and his apostles comes to us afresh: ‘Love one another’; ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ It is for the sake of God’s mission that we renew our commitment to obey this ‘message we heard from the beginning.’ When Christians live in the reconciled unity of love by the power of the Holy Spirit, the world will come to know Jesus, whose disciples we are, and come to know the Father who sent him."
Now, this necessarily means that being ecumissional is a process.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  All processes have progress.  It’s built into the DNA of a process.  You’re going through motions in a particular order to achieve a particular outcome.  The mission at your local church is no different. It is about progress.  Jesus makes that pretty clear in His parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13.  I’m thinking specifically of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, where the seed is planted and the tree grows so huge over time that eventually all the birds of the air build their nests in it.  This represents the slow, progressive growth of the kingdom which eventually becomes a resting place for all of God’s people.  

In the next post, we'll discover the progressive nature of true unity to build hope for the answer to Jesus' prayer.

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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