A united church is a wonderful thing.
It’s one reason why I get us all together like this at least 4 times a year. So we can enjoy not being Kemsing 9.15, Kemsing 10.30 and Woodlands, but worshipping together, being one.
For a congregation to be united is a wonderful thing. For a pair of local churches to be united is a wonderful thing.
It’s one reason why I decided we’d look together at John chapter 17 during our combined services. Many people say this chapter is about unity. As I’ve studied it, I’m not convinced that unity is the only theme of this chapter, or even the main theme, but it’s certainly a pretty major one.
Verse 11: “… so that they may be one as we are one.”
Verse 21: “… that all of them may be one.”
Verse 22: “… that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
It’s an immensely attractive picture, and John 17 is one passage that will tell us how to get there. And some other things along the way.
But I take it we want real unity. So much that passes for church unity is fake, sham. Churches finding a statement they can all agree on, but only because they mean different things by the words in the statement. A unity that is about not letting our disagreement bubble over in public. That’s not real unity. How do we build real unity, lasting unity, deep unity?
The answer is: With great care. We need to get the foundations right if the building is to stand up.
Which means we need to follow everything Jesus says in this chapter carefully, and put it into practice. It won’t do simply to spot that Jesus wants his church to be one, to chop that out of the chapter, stick it on a calendar or on a meme, and tell each other not to be disagreeable.
So let’s lay the foundations.
When we finally get to build our church hall, it will need good foundations. Dig down deep. Build something solid. The other really important thing is the first brig you lay. If it’s at slightly the wrong angle, the whole building would be wonky.
Ephesians chapter 2, verse 20, says that the church is like a building. The stone at the corner, the cornerstone, that’s Jesus himself. The foundations are the apostles and prophets, the people who wrote the Bible. The apostles wrote the New Testament, and the prophets wrote the Old Testament.
The chapter falls into 3 sections.
Verses 1 to 5 were about Jesus. We looked at those in our combined services last year – probably too long ago to remember. He’s the cornerstone. He finished the work he came to do when he died on the cross. He’s returned to the glory he had before the world began. Now everyone can know him, and so know God, and so have life.
Then we get the foundations. The apostles.
You’ll see that our Bibles give verses 6 to 19 a heading: “Jesus prays for his disciples”. As distinct from verses 20 to 26, which is entitled “Jesus prays for all believers.”
The headings are right. Verse 6: Jesus is praying for those “whom you gave me out of the world.” In verse 20, Jesus’ prayer changes: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” So, 20 to 26: All believers down the ages, people like us. But first we’ve got 6 to 19: The first generation of disciples. Jesus is laying the foundations.
So here’s the big point: A united church must be built on the foundation of the apostles. That’s Jesus’ first disciples: Peter, James, John, 9 others, and then add James the brother of Jesus and Paul.
If we learn our Christianity from them. If the Jesus we follow is the one that they taught. Then we’re on the way to being a healthy and united church of the kind Jesus prayed for here.
But why them? What’s so special about these men that we must learn our Jesus from them?
And what does it mean in practice?
Why them? Because they were given to Jesus
Why them? For today, two answers, and I’ll dig out some more next time we come to this passage.
Answer number 1: Because they were given to Jesus. They were given to Jesus. Who by? By God the Father.
In this passage, we get a wonderful insight into the character of God the Father. He is first and foremost a giver. Verse 7: “Everything you have given me comes from you.” In verse 11, the Father gave Jesus his name. In verse 8, the Father gave Jesus all the words he was to teach. “I gave them the words you gave me.”
And amongst all the other gifts that the Father has given to his Son, there is one more – the gift of the disciples.
Verse 6: “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” And again in verse 9: “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”
Those disciples belonged to God the Father long before Jesus came along. And then God the Father gave them to be Jesus to be his.
There was nothing special in them, that meant they were chosen. Verse 6, they were given to Jesus out of the world. The word “world” in John refers to us as we organise ourselves to rebel against God. Just like the rest of us, these first disciples were rebels against God, part of the world.
Until, totally by grace, God the Father gave them, out of the world, to Jesus.
You can see that God has chosen them, given them to Jesus, by the way they responded to Jesus. They responded in trust and obedience. We are watching the Father’s gift working itself out in practice.
Trust and obedience. Trust comes in verse 8: “They believed that you sent me.” Obedience comes in verse 6: “You gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.”
Not perfectly. As we’ve read John, we’ve watched the disciples stumble around, frequently confused by Jesus, often missing the point. But in terms of their response to Jesus overall, they have indeed trusted and obeyed him.
Compare them to the crowd. Plenty of people followed Jesus superficially, but they would always drift away. Take John 6, the feeding of the 5000. The chapter starts with that huge crowd following Jesus. As he talks to them, they discover what he’s really about, they leave, one group after another.
By the end, just the twelve are left. John chapter 6, verse 67: “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’”
The disciple weren’t perfect. But compared to everyone else in their day, they believed. They obeyed. So we can see that they are the ones the Father has given to Jesus.
Back to what we’re talking about: This means they are the ones we need to listen to.
Here’s our problem: We have to hear about Jesus second-hand. There’s no way around that: He’s not here on earth any more.
When you hear something second hand, you always wonder whether you’ve heard the right version of things. You read about something that happened, and it’s easy to dismiss it as “what you’d expect the Daily Mail to say”, or the Telegraph, or the Guardian, or whichever paper it was. You suspect that if you read a different paper, that had talked to different sources, there might be a rather different spin on things.
Take the awful chemical attack in Syria at the start of the month. Mostly, we were told that this was a direct attack by the Syrian government. Other people suggested that this was an accident when a chemical store was hit by rebel forces. Others suggested the rebels deliberately staged it to look like a government assault.
There is truth out there, but it can be hard to find out. So often, it depends on who you talk to. And which group of people will give you not just their version of events, but the true version?
There’s only one Jesus. But out of all his contemporaries, who should we be listening to, to make sure we’re meeting the real one? Might we get a different version of events if we asked a different editor, if they spoke to different witnesses. How do we know that the 12 disciple are the ones to give us the true version of events?
The answer is: They are the ones that God the Father handpicked to be the eyewitnesses of all that would take place. And having chosen them, he gave them to Jesus. And we can see they were given them to him, because they believed and they obeyed. Which nobody else did at this stage.
They were given to Jesus.
Why them? Because they were taught by Jesus
That’s the first reason why these are the men we must listen to if we want to meet the real Jesus, if we want to build a church on the kind of foundation that brings real unity.
The second reason is this: They were taught by Jesus. They were taught by Jesus.
We get that a couple of times in these verses. Verse 6: “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world.” Or, if you look at the footnote: “I have revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of this world.”
Jesus has revealed the Father to them. In Bible thinking, someone’s name is another way of saying their character. He’s not just revealed the Father’s name, he’s revealed who he is, and what his plans and purposes are.
Not that his actual name is irrelevant. Read these verses, and you see that Jesus has revealed his Father’s name. His name is “Father”. He is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. He prays to him as “Father” in verse 1. He does it again in verse 11, where the name becomes “Holy Father”.
He is the giver, who gives all good things to his Son. Who gives to Jesus, God the Son, all that he has.
These men were taught by Jesus.
We also get that in verse 8: “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.” Jesus has passed onto these men the very words that the Father gave to him to instruct them. That’s why verse 6 says this: “You gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” As Jesus has instructed these men, they have obeyed. And it is the Father’s word that they have obeyed.
They’ve been taught by Jesus. They’ve been taught about God’s purposes, how Jesus fulfils them. They’ve been let into what God is going. They’ve been given the very words that the Father wanted passing to them.
We don’t only want to know whether this particular group of men were the ones God the Father wanted to tell us about Jesus. We also need to know if they know what they’re talking about. Have they had their proper training.
I’m sure you’ve all had bad experiences with people who were not properly trained. Maybe a shop assistant demonstrating how to use something, when it’s clear they barely know themselves. And if you ask them anything that’s not on their sales-pitch script, they’re completely lost.
What a contrast when you phone up to get help with your broadband, and you discover (as I did) that you’re talking to someone in the UK who really knows how it all works, so they can properly help. Or when you’re staying in a hotel, and every member of staff you ask knows exactly what to do to do if you ask for their help with something. Thorough training.
We had to have our tumble dryer repaired a while back. The engineer who came was from an older generation of engineers. We talked about how he was trained. In the old days, the manufacturers would train their engineers carefully, on one model at a time – exactly how they work, what goes wrong, how to fix it.
Jesus’ disciples are not untrained shop assistants. He’s spent 3 years with them, passing on everything the Father wanted them to know. He can truly say: “I have revealed your name to those whom you gave me.” They’re not in the dark. They’re enlightened. When they speak about Jesus, they really do know what they’re talking about.
There’s more we can say from these verses about what makes these disciples so special. Why must we learn about Jesus from them?
But we’ve seen two reasons: Because they were given to Jesus by the Father, the men that God the Father wanted to be the ones to pass the message on. And because they were taught by Jesus, shown the ropes, initiated, enlightened.
But so what? What does all this mean in practice?
It means that if you want a church that is built for unity, you have to have the right foundations. That means the apostles, Jesus’ first disciples. Which means we need the New Testament. All of it. It needs to be the foundation of our life as a church, if we’re ever to see the kind of unity Jesus wants us to have.
Don’t mishear me. I’m not dismissing the Old Testament. We need that too. But today’s text is talking about the New Testament.
For many Christians, and for many churches, the New Testament is a book that sits on the shelf. We rarely open it, and we don’t really know what’s in it – apart from the 4 gospels, and selected bits of those.
The New Testament we have is the collection of documents that the early church could see were written by the actual apostles. It’s why they kept the documents they did, and it’s why they tossed the documents they didn’t keep.
The New Testament is how we get to listen to that select group: given to Jesus, taught by Jesus, that we might encounter Jesus as he wanted us to encounter him.
We need to read it, learn it, study it, hear it taught and explained, apply it, and above all live it. Including the bits that feel more unfamiliar, like Hebrews and parts of Revelation. Especially the bits that feel more unfamiliar, like Hebrews and parts of Revelation. Including the bits that don’t sit comfortably with what we might already think, like Romans chapter 1, or 1 Timothy chapter 2. Especially the bits that don’t sit comfortably with what we might already think, like Romans chapter 1 or 1 Timothy chapter 2.
If there are bits of the New Testament that we don’t know very well, or that make us feel uncomfortable, we cannot just put our heads in the sand. That would be to move off the solid foundation. That would be to move away from unity as a church. We need to build our lives and the life of our church on the 27 documents that make up our New Testament.
That alone won’t make for a united church. But it is the foundation. Without that, we’re not even starting in the right place.
A united church would be a wonderful thing. It allows us to demonstrate to the world how good it is when Jesus Christ takes charge of human society.
Let’s build for that. Let’s build our life on the Jesus these first disciples have to show us.
And if you’ve not yet discovered Jesus for yourself, please join us in discovering him. Start right here, in Matthew, Mark through to Revelation. Because he really is most wonderful.