God’s Plan for Complete Unity

Matthew 16:13-20

What a joy to get to talk about unity with you this morning! Many of us have become discouraged in the past year(s): We see divisions forming in our Classis and Denomination. We see people walking away from the church, maybe forever. We have not been able to visit or spend time with our families and loved ones who do not know the joy of being a part of the family of God. We have not been able to spend time with our families and loved ones who doknow the joy of being a part of the family of God. All that to say, unity feels difficult these days.

I want to suggest to you, however, that the kind of unity that is difficult and painful and the kind of unity that Christ calls us to are rather different things. That, in fact, human unity comes from human strength, human power, and human ideas. This is a fragile unity—easily broken and painful to maintain. Meanwhile, unity from God comes from God’s strength. In God’s unity, we see God’s glory and experience God’s love. This type of unity is our world’s greatest joy! It’s what we were created for! What does God’s unity look like? Let’s take a look at Jesus’ words to his disciples.       [READ Mt 16:13-20]

This is one of the most foundational (and controversial) passages in scripture. Among other things, this passage contains the first reference to the “church” in the Bible. In Greek, the language Jesus spoke, “church” means “those called out from the world”. Roman Catholics use this passage to establish the papacy. Catholics say that Peter is “the Rock” and therefore Peter and Peter’s successors hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Protestants, reacting against this Catholic interpretation, have long claimed that it is Peter’s “rock-solid” confessionthat Jesus will build his church upon. In other words, Protestants have said that anyone who, like Peter, says that Jesus is “the son of the living God” will share in God’s Kingdom. But, while that is a true statement, it seems a rather unlikely interpretation of Jesus’ words here. So what is Jesus talking about? Where and how will he build his church?

From early childhood, I have always loved reading. I loved closing my eyes and imagining the world of what was going on in the story. I invite you to join me now, close your eyes if it helps!

Location Matters (Where Christ Builds His Church)

Matthew tells us what’s going on. Jesus is standing in the area of Caesarea Philippi. It’s a hot day in the desert climate. They all are! Hot and dry. The sun beats down on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, which is the only major thing standing in the area of Caesarea Philippi. If you were an Israelite reading Matthew’s words, then you would be eerily familiar with this area. You would have known that Mt. Hermon was the home of Baal (Canaanite god); it was the mountain of Marduk (Babylonian god); and that, before the Romans came and it was renamed after Caesar, the name of this region was not Caesarea, but Bashan. Avid readers of the Old Testament might remember “Og, King of Bashan”, one of the undefeated enemies of God (Deut 3:1-11). Bashan means “place of the serpent”, a common biblical reference to Satan. According to Apocrypha (1 Enoch 6:1-6), Mt. Hermon was the place where the sons of God came down to mate with the daughters of men (Genesis 6), rebelling against God in the process. Why am I telling you all this nerdy history? Mt. Hermon was, time and time again in the Old Testament, the place where spiritual forces and humans gathered against God and God’s kingdom. 

If an Israelite audience closes their eyes as they hear Matthew’s gospel, they cannot help but feel a chill, despite the sunny hot climate! You see, the Israelites believed, because of what I just told you (and more), that Mt. Hermon was the gateway to hell and the door to the realm of the dead.[1] Now Jesus is standing on the doorstep.

Jesus is standing on the slopes of Mt. Hermon—the ancient home of all these false gods and all this rebellion against God in the spiritual realm. And then he says the words, “On this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not prevail against it!” Jesus gives Peter and the rest of his disciples a vision for a united and strong church—a collection of those “called-out” from the world to be a part of God’s family and a part of his mission. Jesus proclaims the triumph of his church and the coming of his kingdom right on the enemy’s doorstep! Jesus is that confident that God’s kingdom will come and his church will be built so that the world will know God’s salvation. 

Glory and Love (How Christ Builds His Church)

Christians today often wrongly interpret Jesus’ words here as meaning we should watch out for demonic attack. But hear Jesus’ words again! The “gates of Hell” are not offensive weapons, but rather defensive structures. Jesus is standing on the enemy’s doorstep. This is not “defence against the dark arts.” Jesus intends that we his church be united in our offence“not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12).. Jesus proclaims boldly that the glory and love of God’s coming kingdom will permeate even to the depths of the earth. Nothing will stand against the onslaught of God’s church!

Jesus shares his vision for the church (those “called out” from the world) again in John 17: 

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—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. (Jn 17:22-23)

Christ has shared his glory with his church. He has loved us fully and perfectly, just as the Father loves the son fully and perfectly. Jesus does not speak about unity as a nice possibility. For Jesus, unity is his expectation for his church; it is the inevitable conclusion that his people will achieve. Then, he says, the world will know Him—when the church is united. 

But Jesus isn’t just talking about the world we see around us. The Greek word is one we’ve borrowed into English: cosmos. The cosmos is everything that exists, even Hades itself. 

How will Jesus build his church? By sharing the glory of the Father, by embodying the love of the Father with his people. Jesus built his church to be the (incomplete) representation of God’s kingdom on earth until he comes again. The unified church is God’s plan for redemption, renewal, and restoration. The unified church is God’s plan for building his kingdom. There is no plan B. God expects that his church will expand continually because the story of redemption is the story of our whole cosmos being prepared to share once again to see the Father’s glory face to face; to know and to receive his perfect and complete love! To use a military analogy, the church is the “beachhead” for the offensive of the Kingdom of God. God’s kingdom comes—his glory and his love come—first to the church and then, because of the church and through the church, to the rest of the world.

Unity (That the World May Know)

What does this all have to do with unity?  Jesus says something (or, rather, doesn’t say something) significant in his prayer in John 17. Given the western culture in which we all live, we might well expect that Jesus would say “the world will know when you tell them the truth about who I am!” But this is not at all what Jesus says. Instead, he says, ‘the world will know that you, Father,  sent me when the church is brought to complete unity!’ (see John 17:23).   So what does this “complete unity” look like? And what does it mean for River Park Church to be “brought to complete unity”?

I hope what I said at the beginning is clear now: Jesus is not talking about unity the way our world does. Worldly unity looks like uniformity. It’s unity by power group; it’s unity in an ethnocentric way. Different groups have different ways of trying to “force” unity. Examine your own heart! If you have a picture of unity and diversity as opposites; you can be sure that you are thinking of unity from the world’s perspective. Worldly unity comes from human strength and human power. Unity from a worldly perspective ends in hurt and division; it lasts only a short time. But what about the church? What does God’s complete unity look like for those “called out from the world”?

Again, location matters. Soong-Chan Rah tells the story of a gang member in Boston who was shot and killed. When his funeral was held at a local church, violence broke out in the church during the funeral service, resulting in a second man being stabbed to death inside in church building. Rah comments, “the church had not gone into the streets, so the streets had come into the church. The suffering in the city was unfettered. The church had failed to be the shalom in the city.”[2] The response was the Boston TenPoint Coalition: “Led by key African American church leaders, TenPoint employed multiple strategies to curb youth-related violence. School visits, home visits, nightly patrols, prayer vigils and cooperation with the police were all part of the strategy.” During this initiative in the 1990s, the Boston homicide rate dropped 80%. It became known as “the Boston miracle.” Think of the diversity of people, skills, jobs, genders, generations, abilities and, of course, ethnic groups who had to be involved in this incredible work! And think about the sheer scope of this work. Again: School visits, home visits, nightly patrols, prayer vigils. Soong-Chan Rah goes on to tell the story of police partnering with pastors—two by two—and knocking on doors to talk with at-risk youth. How could God’s church possibly be divided when they were so preoccupied sharing God’s glory and love with a city that was literally dying around them?

Again, location matters. We are not standing in Boston. We are not standing on the slopes of Mt. Hermon. God has brought us together from all over the world to stand and to stay in one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada. He has given us a vision to reach out, draw in, and create mosaic community. Our vision calls us to go on the offensive with Christ! We are not going on the offensive against our world, but for our city and for our world against the powers and principalities of darkness. And friends, there is so much to do! How can we possibly be divided when we allow the glory and the love of God for this city to fill our hearts!

If the mission of RPC is for our city, then it is for all of us who inhabit our city. Multiculturalism is not for “others” but for all of us. In the Kingdom of God and in the church, everyone has a role and a part. Each of us in a necessary participant, brought together from different circumstances; each of us has a unique dignity and a unique depravity to us. God brings the diversity of his people together so that we might begin to glimpse the breadth of his love, the multidimensionality of his glory and that the world might know—so that Altadore might know and that Calgary might know—that the perfect love that God the Father has for Jesus is the same love that Jesus has for our world.

This past week in the US it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was a meaningful opportunity for me to again reflect on our deep need for multicultural and multiethnic partnership both in the US and here at home. In a sermon on the Good Samaritan, Rev. Dr. King talks about the difference between a worldly view of unity and God’s view. You know the parable of the good Samaritan: a man is beaten and left to die on the side of the mountain road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Again, place matters. A Levite and a priest pass by the man on the other side of the road; while a Samaritan, a man from another ethnic group, enemies with the Jews, stops to help him and takes ownership for his recovery. This is Rev. Dr. King’s comment:

“I imagine that the first question which the priest and Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” He concludes, “The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”[3]

Worldly unity is afraid of diversity. It looks at someone different from us and asks, “If I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?” But the unity that is from God asks in love, “If I do not stop to help this person, what will happen to him?” How do we know that this is the unity from God and not from our world? This is the love that God has for us. This is the love of Jesus, the true neighbour who gave up his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others. Jesus is one who came to us, when we were beaten and bloody, defiled and dirty, left for dead on the road of life and he healed our wounds with his blood, he clothed and fed us with his body, he set us on our feet and allows us to stand in right relationship with God. It was Jesus who ushered us into God’s glory! Because he welcomed us and cared for us as if we were his own family; we became his family. Our unity is not in our diversity. Our diversity testifies to the immeasurable glory and infinite love of a God who has given himself fully to each of us; so that, different as we are, we might see in each other the glory and love of our Heavenly Father. When we see our Father’s glory in one another, and when we love each other the way our heavenly Father loves us—then we will be completely united. Then the gates of hell will tremble.

Let’s pray.

[1] The Unseen Realm. Michael Heiser. Lexham Press, 2015. p.201.

[2] Soong-Chan Rah. Prophetic Lament. IVP, 2015. pp.115-116.

[3] Martin Luther King Jr. “I See the Promised Land”. Found in Reparations by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. p.167.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: