This is the most important service we hold each year – our quarterly combined services. It’s such a precious thing to come all together, to worship God as one church. There are good reasons why we don’t do it every week, but it’s vital that we come together, once in a while.
Indeed, the two PCCs have been going through the process of formally merging our two parishes. It is increasingly the case that our two churches work together in partnership, so we’re cementing that partnership for the generations to come. That’s a really good thing to be doing.
But unity is never straight forward. We need to work out what we do that is primary, that is core, that unites us. And what is actually secondary? Ways we may differ, but we can just live with that difference. We need to get these the right way round. If we insist on things that are secondary, we’ll fall apart. If we let go of the things that are primary, we’ll fall apart.
All of this is played out, of course, on the larger stage. The Church of England is an extraordinarily diverse national church. And at the moment, some of those differences are stretching things to breaking point. It would do our denomination good to step back, to ask how unity works. Get it wrong, the Church of England will fall apart too.
And so for a while we’ve been looking at John chapter 17 at our combined services. It’s a chapter that is often quoted in discussions about church unity. Because of verses like verse 11: “… so that they may be one as we are one.” Or verse 21: “… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Or 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.”
Just this past week, a group of us were discussing the dangers of taking Bible verses out of context. If you forget the context, you can make the Bible say anything you want, and we mustn’t abuse the Bible in that way. We need to listen to what it says, not make it say what we want to say.
Sadly, these verses on unity are often taken out of context. I’ve often heard people say that Jesus prayed for his church to be one. And therefore unity is the most important thing there is. And that there can be no greater sin than to divide a church or denomination.
Well, certainly Jesus does say that he wants his church to be one. But before we run wild with that one verse, we need to slow down and look at the context.
And that’s what I’ve been doing with us, once a quarter, when we all come together.
Structure of the Chapter
John chapter 17 divides into three sections. Today, we’re taking one last look at the middle section.
There’s a danger we lose the wood for the trees, so I want today to draw all the threads together. I want us to see what these first two sections are saying, and then we’ve got a firm platform to look together at the final section next time.
The three sections are the ones marked out by the headings in our Bibles. And, on this occasion, the headings in our Bibles are really quite helpful. In verses 1 to 5, Jesus prays for himself. In verses 6 to 19, Jesus prays for his disciples, the little group of followers who were with him on earth. And then in verses 20 to 26, Jesus prays for all believers, Christian men and women down the ages.
Let me just show you that the headings in our Bible aren’t making this up. Verses 6 to 19 is a prayer for those who have already responded to Jesus. Verse 6: “They have obeyed your word”. They are those who will be left behind when Jesus leaves this world to return to heaven. Verse 11: “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you.”
And then in verse 20, it all changes. Verse 20: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.”
The Grand Plan of History
The whole chapter is a prayer. Jesus is about to leave this world, and return to his Father in heaven. He wants to see his mission accomplished. For that, he needs to finish his work on earth, return to the splendour of heaven, leaving behind a group who can tell others about him, so that a great multitude of people can follow him from every nation on earth, and one day join him in all his glory in heaven. He wants to see his mission accomplished.
Which means we are part of some great plan. Here we are, gathered here to worship God, about a hundred of us. There you are, you kneel down one evening by your bedside and give your life to Christ, become a Christian. It feels small and insignificant.
But Jesus’ mission was to gather millions, billions of followers from all over the world. Jesus’ mission was to have those millions, billions of followers join him in heaven, to see him in all his glory. And our little church, and your little Christian life, is part of that grand, cosmic, eternal plan.
Imagine a railway engineer working on the Crossrail project in London. Maybe laying some cable in a tunnel. Or fitting glazed platform doors. They’re just working on their little bit. How it would help if their bosses found a way to help them keep sight of the fact that they’re not just fitting platform doors. They’re part of a grand plan to connect London from east to west, opening up jobs, housing, schooling and friendships.
God the Father’s plan is big. Jesus’ mission is big. A plan to gather billions of believers from throughout history, from around the world, around his throne in heaven.
And we are a part of that plan.
But before the plan gets to us, it needs to start with Jesus, then it fans out to his first disciples, and lastly it reaches us. That’s the flow of this chapter. Our part in God’s grand plan is built on two foundations.
Jesus’ Finished Work
The first foundation is Jesus’ finished work. Jesus’ finished work.
This is back to verses 1 to 5, which we’re not really looking at this morning, but it’s good to recap. We’re trying to see the big picture, after all.
Jesus looks forward to his death on the cross. It’s now less than 24 hours away. And with that in his sights he says this, verse 4: “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.”
It’s job done. He’s finished his work. By dying on the cross in our place, Jesus had done all that needed to be done to give eternal life to everyone who trusts and follows him. Verse 2: “For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” That’s why he came. Eternal life is to live in a relationship with the God who made us, and with his Son Jesus Christ. Verse 3: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Verses 1 to 5 say that he’s finished his work, and he’s coming home. Like the astronaut who went to the Space Station to carry out a particular task. Once they’ve done the job they went to do, they can come back home. Like the delivery driver who set out with an impossibly large assortment of parcels in the back of their van. But at 6pm, the last one is delivered, and they can go home to their family for tea. Like the builder who set out to lay the final tiles on the roof of the house. As he places that final tile, he looks up with a great smile. He’s done it. Topped out. He can go home.
It’s job done, but it’s not yet mission accomplished. Because the mission is for billions of believers to be gathered around Jesus in heaven, to see him in all his splendour, the glory he had before the world began. For that, he has to be restored to heaven, restored to that splendour, restored to that glory. And for that, there have to be billions of believers who are safely brought home to Jesus in heaven.
Which is why he prays. He’s finished his work. He’s done the job he came to do. So in John 17 he prays for the mission to be accomplished.
What this means for us is that the way to heaven is open. We can be a part of that grand plan. We don’t have to build our own ladder, make our own road. The foundation is laid – it’s Jesus’ finished work.
Picture a rugged mountain, or a dense jungle. If someone else has made a path, you can walk up, or walk through. If they haven’t, you’d have to make your own path, which is hard work, but not impossible. If there’s already a path there, you’d be a fool not to use it. You’d be a fool to try to make your own. Either that, or you’re a pioneer with an unstoppable sense of adventure.
When Jesus died on the cross, he finished the work he came to earth to do. He made a path for all who trust him to join him, and his vast number of people in heaven. So we would be foolish to try to make our own path. But not like the mountaineer or the jungle explorer. For them, it’s foolish only because it’s hard work. For us, it’s foolish because there is no other path. You cannot make your own. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father, except by me.”
Sadly, many people today have a pioneer spirit. They’re not content to travel along the road Jesus opened up. They want to make their own, but they’ll never break through.
There’s our first foundation. Jesus’ finished work.
Jesus’ First Disciples
Then we come to the second foundation: Jesus’ first disciples. Jesus’ first disciples.
Their role is key, because it’s through them that we will get to hear about Jesus. That was verse 20 – we are those who will “believe in me through their message”.
As we’ve looked at these verses, we’ve seen a number of things about this first group of disciples.
Number one: They were God the Father’s gift to Jesus. Handpicked for the job. Some people might say that Judas questions God’s ability to choose carefully. In fact, we saw that the Old Testament foretold that one very close to Jesus would betray him, and would need to be replaced in the inner circle. Judas actually proves that God’s plan is right on track.
Number two: They responded rightly to Jesus, so proving that they were the ones who were chosen. They received Jesus’ teaching. They believed that Jesus came from God.
Number three: Jesus taught them all about him and his mission. Jesus says he gave them his name. In the Bible, your name is much more than just the label tied to your foot after you’re born. It’s your character, your purpose, your identity.
Number four: God protected them, so they remained in that name. They didn’t give in to the pressures of persecution. They didn’t drift from Jesus gave them, and move on. Jesus prayed for protection, and his prayers are always answered. They were kept safe. They were kept in the name Jesus had given them.
And so, number five: They remain united. Suddenly, there isn’t just Jesus, there are twelve people who can tell you about him. But they didn’t drift apart, teaching different Jesuses. Jesus prayed that they would be one, and so they were. Talk to Peter, talk to Paul; talk to Matthew, talk to John – you get the same Jesus.
So what we’ve got here are the perfect group of people for the job they were to be given. Picked by God in heaven, given to Jesus, taught by Jesus, protected from the pressures that might cause them to drift, all still teaching the real Jesus.
And so they are launched on their mission. Verses 17 and 18: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
That’s a very powerful picture. God the Father sent Jesus into this world. He launched him on a mission. Mission accomplished, and Jesus is coming home, but before he does he launches his disciples on the next phase of the grand plan. They’re fully prepared for this moment and now the time has come.
Come back with me to the jungle I took you to earlier. The path has been prepared to take you through the jungle. The only problem is that the person who prepared it is no longer here. The path is too well hidden to be found without a guide. There are too many potential wrong turns. Happily, at the car park, you find a rack, containing 12 maps. Each prepared by the person who made the path. They’re all different – different colour schemes, different scales, different map symbols. But you could pick any of them, and they’d all lead you to the path, and through the path, with complete accuracy.
We’re not in the dark. Jesus’s big plan was for billions of people to know and follow him for thousands of years. So before he left, he left behind a group of people, taught by him, and kept in the truths he had taught. Through their message, we can come to believe. And we won’t be misled.
That’s our second foundation, Jesus’ first disciples. We can’t do without them. We have no other access to Jesus. But through them, and through their writings, we do.
Some of you may ask: What about the Holy Spirit? He’s very active in this whole process. These same chapters of John are full of promises that the Holy Spirit will be at work in the lives of these disciples. He is the one who will lead them into all the truth. He will remind them of all Jesus has said to them. He is the one who will ensure that Jesus’ disciples stay on track as they guide us.
The Holy Spirit is at work in us, too. In 2 Timothy chapter 2, verse 7, Paul says that as we work to understand what Jesus’ disciples are saying, the Holy Spirit is at work to give us insight.
Jesus wants his church to be one, but we mustn’t take that out of context. Some people say we should avoid teachings of Jesus or his apostles that might be divisive. But the very foundation of the united church is the teaching of Jesus, which comes to us through his apostles.
Foundation number two: Jesus’ first disciples.
So there are the two foundations laid. Jesus’ finished work. And Jesus’ first disciples. He created the only path there is to heaven. And he left us an absolutely infallible map to guide us down that path.
Jesus’ grand plan, to be surrounded by billions of brothers and sisters in heavenly glory, is on track. The final part of his prayer is for us – and we’ll come to that next time.
But for today: What a glorious vision! Jesus, in splendour, in glory, in heaven. Millions, billions of human beings in his extended family, surrounding him. What a privilege to be a part of that, a privilege that comes for free to all who follow him.
Once that vision has captured our imagination, we’ll want to build our lives on those two solid foundations: Jesus’ finished work. And Jesus’ first disciples.