Sermon 25th October 2020


Universal Church.          25/10/20

 

Reading  - John 17:20-26

 

The Universal Church; what does that mean, and are we part of it, here, in this ‘local church’?

The brief answer to that is ‘yes’. Every time we stand together and say the Apostles Creed, we declare, before God, and the world, that,

“1, (We), believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,” – with a small ‘c’! That is, Christ’s body in the world – past, present and future.

The Nicene Creed, affirms this – “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

Again, Christ’s body in the world, past, present and future, and ‘apostolic’ because our doctrine, is that taught by the apostles themselves, received directly from Jesus and His Holy Spirit, and handed down to us, without error, in all it affirms, as the ‘Word of God’!

The Belgic Confession – written by reformed churches during a time of terrible church persecution in Europe, during the 16th century, by the Roman Catholic Church – the time of the great inquisition, is succinct –

Article 27: “We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church – a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

The church has existed from the beginning of the world, and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is Eternal King, who cannot be without subjects.

And His holy church is preserved by God, against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time, it may appear very small in the eyes of men – as though it were snuffed out!

And so, this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited, to a certain place, or certain persons. But is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united, in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”

 

Article 29: “The true church can be recognised if it has the following marks:

The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments, as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline, for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself, according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it, and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.”

 

Now we know, what the Universal Church is, we need to ask ourselves, how we can achieve it! That’s what John 17:20-26, is all about – that vital ingredient, that holds the Universal church together; that defines it, not just theologically, and spiritually, but practically as well. Amazingly, this is the last prayer Jesus prays, before He enters the ‘place of crushing’, the Garden of Gethsemane. And it’s not for Him, it’s for us, and the Universal Church. It’s a private prayer, but we have the privilege of ‘overhearing’ it as

Jesus prays to His Father, vv 20 – 23,

 

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me, though their message, that all of them, ‘may be one’, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.

May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they ‘may be one’, as we are one: I in them, and you in me. May they be brought ‘to complete unity’, to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”

 

The vital ingredient, that holds the Universal church together, is ‘Unity’!

Not the unity, of man-made ecumenism, which often defines itself through the ‘lowest common denominator’; but the unity of the Holy Spirit, which always defines itself through the ‘highest common factor’, Jesus Christ and the pure, true, Word of God!

Unity, makes up for the many things – it makes a fool of human logic, and overcomes many false assumptions. For example, the myth of size and numbers always being victorious.

The disciples were used to the idea of a general, leading his troops out, against a much larger army. Their scriptures, in Judges Chapter 7, revealed how Gideon, led 300 men, to defeat a huge Midianite force, at the Spring of Harod. In their own time, the Roman generals did it for a living. Julius Caesar, had invaded Britain in 55 BC with only 10,000 men. He had defeated the Gallic tribes of France, at the decisive battle of Alesia in 52 BC, despite being outnumbered four to one! Everyone in the Roman Empire, often to their cost, knew that it wasn’t an army’s size that mattered, but its’ discipline and unity.

While the barbarians tended to rely on numbers and mob tactics, the Roman Generals, drilled their legionaries, to form a disciplined, ‘triple line’. If it was attacked by cavalry, it could quickly adopt a ‘square formation’!

If subjected to missiles – a hail of arrows, or sling shots – it could quickly adopt the ‘testudo’, or ‘tortoise’ formation, behind and under, a close formation of interlocking shields. If it saw an opportunity to rush an objective, it could quickly reorder, into a ‘pig’s snout’ or ‘wedge’ formation, which concentrated and channelled the soldiers’ combined strength, to punch through enemy lines. As the Jews and many other subject peoples, of the Empire knew, only too well, a disciplined, united army, doesn’t need to be large, to win the day!

That’s why these last seven verses of ‘Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, are an impassioned plea, for Christian unity. Particularly in the storm of opposition and persecution.

Jesus knows He’s about to leave about 120 faithful followers behind, but He also knows, that if His Father unites them, then they will not be overcome, by the mob tactics of the enemy. He therefore prays for all believers, now and in the future, to be as united, as the Trinity –each person different and distinct, and with differing roles, yet, at the same time, all entirely united as one!

It had happened fairly recently, so the disciples must have known about the disastrous Roman defeat, at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in 9AD. Despite outnumbering the German barbarians, by two or three to one, they had lost their disciplined order and unity, while passing through dense and narrow forest trails. Three mighty legions – 17th, 18th and 19th legions, supported by three cavalry regiments (alae), and six auxiliary infantry cohorts, had been strung out, over ten miles, in disunited clumps; so when the Germans, led by a Roman trained chieftain, of the Cherusci tribe, Arminius, feigning loyalty to the Empire, sprang a series of well prepared ambushes, blocking the route and further splintering the Romans, their superior numbers, were powerless to save them. the Roman legions were destroyed almost to a man, all because they lost their discipline and unity!

The loss of over 20,000 men, a tenth of the entire Roman Army, throughout the Empire, was a terrible blow, and the ageing Emperor Augustus, was said to have wandered around his palace banging his head against the wall, and crying out, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” Varus couldn’t hear him, he’d committed suicide during the disaster!

That’s why, unity, is more than an afterthought. Jesus explains or reveals, that unity is a function of laying hold of Christian humility and loving obedience.

Not long ago, the disciples had been bickering over dinner, about which of them was greatest, (Luke 22:24-30)!

No wonder Jesus prayed so hard for unity; He knew it would require a miracle! But, if the Holy Spirit produces these things, in them – and in us – Jesus says the world will see our selfless love, and recognize that Jesus truly is the Messiah, and that we truly are, the people of God! (v21) – “…that the world may believe you, (Father), have sent me”. (v23), “May they be brought to complete unity, to let the world know, that you (Father), sent me, and have loved them, even as you, (Father), have loved me.”

 

Jesus also explains that unity, is a simple function of our ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’, experientially. That is, personally, in a way that affects us individually!

In Acts 19:1-7, our other reading today, Paul reveals that baptism in the Holy Spirit, is available to all Christians, but clearly, not all Christians have yet received it!

There’s a difference between the Holy Spirit living within us, as the agent of our ‘new-birth’, and the Holy Spirit filling us, to overflowing and beyond, - equipping us with supernatural power, as Paul and newly ‘Spirit-filled’ Ephesians had been in Acts 19:8-20

They did, ‘extraordinary miracles’, with the sick, demonized, and those involved in the occult practices, that were common in that city! They healed and delivered them all!

So unity, Jesus explains, is a simple function of our receiving the Holy Spirit. He says to His Father, in v 22, that He has given us, ‘God’s glory’ – referring to His having prepared the ground for us, to receive the Holy Spirit – and that one of the reasons He wants to baptise us with the Spirit, is that this always leads to increased unity.

Paul picks up on this in 1 Corinthians 12:13, when he encourages us to be united on the basis that, “For we were all baptised by one Spirit, into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

People who are completely full of God’s Spirit, are too focussed on Jesus living inside them, to risk ‘quenching’ Him out; or ‘grieving’ Him away! (1 Thessalonians 5:19; Ephesians 4:30).

Jesus also explains that unity is a simple function of our believing the same Gospel.

The true Gospel, believed and lived out in every area of our lives, convinces us that every believer has the same Saviour; the same righteousness; the same eternal life, and the same glorious future! It’s surely nonsensical, to think that people who sit together with Christ, in heavenly realms, should be unable – or perhaps, unwilling – to share a place, a room, a church, together on earth, because of differences in emphasis or style!

Jesus is telling us that the true Gospel, has united us ‘already’, because each time He prays, He asks the Father, for us to ‘be’ one, rather than, ‘become’ one. He uses the Greek verb, ‘eimi’, which means to ‘be’ – not ‘ginomai’ which means to ‘become’!

Paul, similarly, in Ephesians 4:3, tells us to ‘keep’ the unity of the Spirit, not ‘achieve’ it!

 

Jesus also explains, that unity is a simple function of our joint partnership, in mission, fuelled by miracles and prayer; to “let the world know, that You have sent me and have loved them, even as You have loved me.” (v23).

 

The Universal Church, must leave its’ barracks – the local church buildings – and ‘GO OUT’!

When troops are left idle in camp, for too long, they begin infighting. But when they are led out, to war, their petty differences, are quietly set aside.

Jesus expects us to be so much on the front foot, for His mission, (all of us), that we are too busy, praying together, casting out demons together, pressing forward in signs and wonders, and miracles together, too busy preaching and spreading the Gospel, and baptising together, to have time in petty squabbling, back in barracks! – Acts 19:1-20 again, “In this way the Word of the Lord spread widely, and grew in power!”

Finally, Jesus explains, that unity is simply a function of our putting on the body armour He has provided, and showing ‘courage under fire’.

He’d told them, in graphic detail, what was to come – John 15:18-27, ‘The World Hates the Disciples’; and John 17:6-19, ‘Jesus Prays for His Disciples.’

One thing I learned in the army, was this; not many arguments take place between soldiers who are crouching behind a wall, or grovelling in the dust of a shallow fox-hole, under the ricochet of incoming enemy fire! It concentrates the mind, as you trust one another, to watch over one another. In the same way, our mission will always provoke a response, particularly persecution and anger – but we grow more and more united, as we bear hardship, together! Our Psalm, 46 – speaks of God, as our fortress, our refuge and our strength; an ever present help in times of trouble.

When we find ourselves seeking protection in the fortified tower of His Name, we will find ourselves behaving as one, even as the Trinity is one!

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?

Because, if Jesus’ army of Christians, missionaries all, are fighting each other, all the time, how will the world, not think that their Triune God is the same?

If Jesus’ followers bring shame on themselves, through their competition and pride, and their lack of grace and mercy, how will the world be able to look at them and see God’s glory?

If we forget this ‘Holy Spirit’ unity – then our plans and projects, are as likely to succeed against the enemy, as the disunited Roman Legionaries, who died in the dark forests of Germany!

Let’s not settle for simply being the very ‘local church’, here in this place. Let’s accept the challenge of being a part of the Universal Church, in the world.

Charles Handy wrote – “The Church is rather like a compost heap… the whole point of a compost heap, is that after due process of maturing, it should be ‘spread around’!”

Humility, loving obedience, the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, miracles, prayer, fellowship and partnership, courage under fire and spiritual body-armour, and our fortress, in times of trouble – all these will lead us to unity, so we can behave as unitedly as the 120 did, after the Day of Pentecost.

Divided we fall, but together, as part of the Universal Church, we can march out, as a united force, to reach the whole world, and to succeed, as one, for the Father’s glory!

                                                                                                                  Amen.      TCR

 


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