Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church on August 13, 2017
“The Power of Unity”
Scriptures: John 17:13-23 and Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
In one of Aesop’s fables, he describes an old man whose several sons were constantly feuding with each other. The father had often exhorted them to live in harmony – with no success. One day he called them together and showed them a bundle of sticks tied together by a cord. He invited each son to break the bundle. Each one tried as hard as he could, but none could break the bundle of sticks.
Then the father cut the cord and told his sons to break them separately. This was accomplished with the greatest of ease. “See my sons, the power of unity” the old father said. “Bound together by brotherly love, you may defy almost every mortal danger. But divided, you will fall prey to your enemies.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes makes the same point in simpler words, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (4:12).
One of the things of crucial importance to God is the unity of Christ’s Church. There may be times when God would have us move on, take our gifts, abilities and energy and use them to serve another church. But too often selfishness, pride, unforgiveness, a mentality that the church exists to meet my needs prevails, so Christians divide for the wrong reasons. Churches have divided over whether the pianist should sit on the right or left side of the podium; over whether the Lord’s Supper should be served from the front to the back, or the back to the front; over whether a kitchen should be part of the new church building. Disunity grieves the heart of God and brings dishonor to His name.
“Unity” is at the very heart of the Gospel message. Without unity, the Church becomes powerless to proclaim the message of Christ’s love, reconciliation and peace in the world. In Jesus’ final prayer for us, He prayed to God, “I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
One of the most striking New Testament examples of a unified church is recorded in the Book of Acts. Although there were numerous differences in economic, social and cultural background, and at times heated debates, at its core the New Testament Church exhibited unity. This unity was not a uniformity of understanding on every issue; neither was it a sweet, superficial sentimentality. Nor was it some vague “oneness” where every person tolerated other peoples’
views in order to maintain peace and assure “one accord.”
To the contrary, New Testament unity was rooted in their love for the person of Christ, their commitment to the message of Christ, and their sacrifice for the mission of Christ. That core commonality brought together men and women of extensive diversity into a Holy Spirit inspired movement to impact the world. Let’s examine those three elements which constituted their unity: (1) the person, (2) the message, and (3) the mission of Christ.
Those first followers of Jesus were united in their love for the person of Jesus Christ. He was their all in all. They were charmed by His love; redeemed by His grace; empowered by His Spirit; and in spite of their differences, united in one body. In other words, they shared an indissoluble union with Christ.
Let me offer this illustration on how our personal union with Christ should form a union with other Christians. The grand piano in this sanctuary has been tuned to a particular tuning fork. That same tuning fork can be used to tune ninety-nine other pianos. That would result in one hundred pianos being in one accord, not to each other, but to another standard by which all 100 pianos resonate to a shared pitch. So, too, one hundred worshippers, each being tuned to Christ, are closer in heart to one another, than if they turn their eyes away from God and strive for some ill-defined unity. When hearts are one in Christ, they cannot be too far apart because Jesus Christ is the great unifier who tunes His disciples and breaks down the divisions between them (Ephesians 2:14-16).
Could it be that the disunity so evident in American churches today
Is a result of our drifting away from the heart of Christ? Is it possible that our personal opinions and ideas about a given subject cloud Christ’s will in our lives and create dissension between us?
I heard of a man who was stranded on an island for a number of years. When a rescue party discovered him, he wanted to show them how he had survived. He took them to his hut and said, “This is the home I built with my own hands.” Then he showed them another building and said, “This is the church I built with my own hands.” Then someone in the rescue party noticed another building and asked, “What’s that building over there?” The man replied, “That’s where I used to go to church.”
The unity of the New Testament Church occurred because believers unashamedly surrendered their wills to the will of Christ and to one another.
The second element which united the New Testament Church was their commitment to the message of Christ. When Jesus prayed to His Father for the unity of His Church, He prayed, “(Father), sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The unity of the New Testament Church was based on a common commitment to certain basic truths which Jesus taught. Those truths are expressed in the authoritative revelation of Scripture, salvation by faith, Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, and His Second Coming. Whenever this congregation recites the Apostles’ Creed in worship, those same faith truths are being affirmed. Those themes are the foundational truths of Scripture.
It is common today to hear Christians proclaim that all believers must come together to present a united front by putting aside our doctrinal differences. Such teaching is reckless and dangerous. The world may choose to glorify tolerance, diversity and conformity to popular opinion, but the truth of God is the basis for unity in the Church of Jesus Christ. We cannot surrender God’s truth in order to accomplish unity. The truth of God is far greater and grander than our personal opinions or even our individual convictions. When the people of God unite to proclaim the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, the earth receives a glimpse of the glory of God.
The third and final element which united the New Testament Church was a single-minded passion to share the message of Christ’s Gospel with the world. Overwhelmed by grace and awestruck by their salvation through Christ, those original Christians overcame their considerable differences so they could perform Christ’s larger mission. When the Apostle Peter was commanded by Jewish Sanhedrin to not speak about Jesus, Peter responded, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20). When persecution broke out against the early Christians, we would have expected them to go into hiding, Instead, we are told that, “Those who had been scattered went everywhere preaching the word” ( Acts 8:4).
Those early Christians had their differences – in fact, many substantial, long-held differences. At times, there had misunderstandings and even conflicts (Acts 15). Still they shared an unswerving, single-minded commitment to accomplish Christ’s mission of spreading the Gospel to everyone who would listen. They willingly sacrificed their cherished ambitions, personal preferences, for the sacred task to winning others to Christ. For the early Christians, church organization merely provided a structure to facilitate their sharing the love of Jesus Christ, learning more about the person of Christ, and performing the mission of Christ. Whenever a local church unites around those three elements, God’s people will realize the presence and power of the Living Christ in their midst.
Do Presbyterians accomplish this unity better than other churches? Let me answer with this account from the life of the English evangelist John Wesley (1703-1791).
John Wesley was very concerned about the divisions which were occurring among British Christians in the 18th century. He had a dream in which he was ushered to the gates of Hell. There he asked, “Are there any Presbyterians here?” “Yes!” came the reply. Then he asked, “Are there any Baptists? Any Episcopalians? Any Methodists?” The answer was “Yes!” each time.
Much distressed, Wesley was ushered to the gates of Heaven. There he asked the same question, and the answer was “No!” To this Wesley asked, “Who then is inside Heaven?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians here.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)