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Bible Commentaries
John 17

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

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Verses 1-26

Unity In Christ

Joh 17:20-23

What is Christian unity? Is it an affair of regulation, compromise, concession, toleration, for the sake of good neighbourhood, and easy social and ecclesiastical movement? That view of Christian unity certainly receives no support from the Lord's intercessory prayer. The deepest meaning of Christian unity is union with Christ, oneness with the Son of God, identification with Christ in spirit, purpose, and labour; and coming out of that, as a cause and an inspiration, union of Christians, genuine brotherly love and trust, a love that sees the Christian in the man and that sees Christ in the Christian. Christian unity is living sympathy with Christ; it is being so like Christ as to be almost himself; it is to be under the sweet dominion of passionate devotion to the blessed and all-blessing Cross of Christ. How strange it is that Christian unity should now need to be defined and to be guarded by most careful safeguard! Has Christian unity been interfered with, simulated, perverted, tampered with? Surely a relation so simple needs no definition, unless wicked hands have been laid upon it to force it into unholy and inadequate uses. In endeavouring to promote the cause of Christian unity, let us get rid of all the simulations and mockeries which have gathered around it; let us go back to that which is fundamental and biblically authoritative, and take our quiet stand there, and judge everything by the standard of the written Word. Suppose any man, or any body of men, should attempt to set up a doctrinal standard, saying, By this alone can unity be determined. Such men would assume a tremendous responsibility. Who are they? By what authority do they erect this standard? What are their credentials? How does it come that they claim to have a right to say for unborn generations, what is formally and dogmatically correct and orthodox? Are we quite sure that we do not inflict injustice upon such men by imagining that they would never have changed their view of things, and never have modernised their speech, and never have taken any account of progressive civilisation, science, and spiritual thought? Do we not ourselves overburden those whom we almost adore as fathers? Might not they in face of such a claim start up as schismatics, secessionists, protestants, saying that they never meant so to throw their thought over all the ages as to bind men; they merely adopted what, according to the light of their time, were the best definitions possible, and they only intended those definitions of doctrine to be accepted as the best expressions of the day? Suppose any man should now set up such a standard, he would make heretics; and no man has a right to make unbelievers. No man has a right to put up any such standard and claim for it finality. There can be but one final book, and that book is never final, namely, the Book written by the finger of God; and it is never final, because it holds within itself the very seed of truth, and is always expressing itself in new leaf and bud and blossom, and gracious fruitfulness; the same, yet not the same; always in substance and in grace, and in eternal gift, immutable, but as to its forms, phases, revelations, always part of the very time we live in, part of the very breath we breathe. So it is the ancient of days, and it is the gospel of this very hour; old as God's eternity, new as our present progress and immediate necessity.

Suppose any man should erect an ecclesiastical standard, saying, This is the Church, and outside of it there is no Church. That man also would assume a very onerous responsibility a responsibility which no man has the right to assume. A man should not attempt to go beyond his strength; his arm is so many inches long, and he must accept the length of it, and work accordingly. Who made us Church-makers? By what patent or authority do we say, This is the Church, or that, and there is none other? That we are at liberty to organise ourselves into companies and fellowships for mutual edification, instruction, and comfort, is (I was about to say) more than true, that is to say, it is a necessity of grace, the very sweetness of life, the gracious compulsion of sympathy and love; but having so gathered ourselves into companies of men who agree substantially, and see things from the same point of view, what right have we to say that we take in the whole horizon of truth, and that there is nothing hidden from us in all the counsel and way of God? We should hold a very different language. Our communion should be thankful for the truth which it believes itself to hold, and should always be on the outlook for more light, vision into further distances, and grasp of treasure hitherto unpossessed. What if it should take all Christian communions to constitute the Church? What if even some forms of superstition and even idolatry might claim a place just inside the boundary line? Who expects that we can all see everything in the same atmosphere, the same distance, in the same perspective, under the same colour, and can utter ourselves sufficiently and finally in one form of expression? There is no such monotony in God's kingdom. We have no right to create monotony, and call it peace; we have no right to create uniformity, and baptise it with the sacred name of union. Christian unity is broken by the very existence of such standards. In our attempts to unite, we actually disintegrate. Our idea of union, if founded upon doctrinal standards and ecclesiastical standards, prevents union. It does not begin with a right conception of the human mind; it is psychologically wrong, though it may be mechanically not without some superficial beauty. Minds differ differ in capacity, in temper, in training, in opportunity of development; and for all these psychological differences provision must be made; and they are made in the great prayer of Christ, in the sublime conception of the Son of God, when he founded the Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.

Christian unity, therefore, is not formal but spiritual. If we are looking for formal union we are looking in the wrong direction, and we are looking for the wrong thing. It is as if we should ask the question, Are men alive? and should then determine the answer to the inquiry by stature, complexion, accent, or by any other accident attaching to the individual. Who would assent to the doctrine that it is right to determine living humanity by such incidents or accidents? We should protest against the judgment; we should say, We are looking in the wrong direction, we are in quest of the wrong test and standards: life is wholly different from stature, complexion, or local position and attitude. Human love is not formal, it is spiritual. What is its shape, what its colour, what its bulk in plain ounce weight? Where is it? Yet we all know it, we all feel it; life would be poor without it: yet it resists organisation beyond a given point; it believes in organisation also up to that point, and most fully and sacredly. Love claims united love; love is the genius that presides over household life; love will unite even national life when political instinct fails to touch the necessity of the hour. Still, love is more than organisation. Love is always surprising us with new revelations of its beauty and goodness; love is always revealing to us some hitherto unknown or unrealised aspect of God. Human life is not formal, it is spiritual. Who has seen life? Where does life reside in the body? Put a finger upon the residence of life, saying, Here you will find it, and nowhere else. No man has seen life. Yet life is organised; life has its body, its tabernacle, its system of nerves, and its wondrous incarnation; it presses itself against these forms in palpitation that means that it is greater than can be confined within physical boundaries. Life, like love, is always surprising us by new energy, new passion, new capacities. Who can throw a line upon life and say, We will keep thee here, and bind thee like a beast of burden? The very life that could purpose to deal so with other life gives itself the lie; its own energy, its own aspiration after primacy, declares that it has miscalculated the quality and the quantity of that supreme mystery which we call Life. So it is with the Church of Christ. It has organisation; without organisation it could not live: but it has more than organisation. Emerson speaks of some men who are blessed with "over-soul" soul enough and to spare; soul that goes out in evangelistic yearning and solicitude after other souls less favoured, pining away in the desert or in the darkness. So with the Church of Christ. Its organisations are valuable; up to a given point those organisations arc sacred: but whose house has out-built all other houses and made them nothing but huts not worth living in? The house is sacred, yet there is a house next door, there is a house behind, there is a house opposite; the whole place is covered with joyous habitations lighted early in the winter-time, rich with flowers all the summer-time, and the children are so like one another in their laughter, in their innocent glee, that only their mothers can tell which is which. Is there not some analogy, or at least dim hint of meaning, as to ecclesiastical and religious life to be gathered from the life of the household and of the neighbourhood? When we lose the spiritual conception of unity, then the mechanical conception is exaggerated; it is set in false proportions and in misleading crosslights; we have lost the meridian, and men are keeping their time by their own guesses and their own wild conjectures and speculations. The moment we lose hold, so to say, of Christ's hand, we are the prey of the enemy, we are lost; we are like planets loosed from their centres; we plunge where we ought to shine; we dash against other parts of the universe where we ought to revolve in silent rhythm around the governing Flame. Men become controversial when they become unspiritual. When men cease to pray, they begin to argue and to fight. How wonderful it is that men are usually one in prayer! but the moment they rise from their knees and begin to state their opinions, the Church becomes a battle: pray, then, without ceasing.

Spiritual unity is the only unity that can permit and control honest diversity. That is my fundamental point. Spiritual union is so large, so energetic, so divine, that it can permit, and in permitting control, the widest divergences so wide as to amount to contradictions; yet they are all held in leash by a great spiritual ministry, and the men who are thus held say, One star differeth from another star in glory, but the heavens are one; no star holds any other star in contempt; differences in glory do not disturb the unity of the stellar Church. If we had more of the spirit of Christ we might even rejoice in the differences which prevail amongst us, saying, How large is the kingdom of heaven, how wondrous is human nature in its possibility of development and spiritual action! Behold in this diversity another miracle of him who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. All denominations may be right, and all denominations are right in the proportion in which they love and serve the Son of God. Why may not our creed be substantially reduced to one line "I believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world"? After that we might welcome differences, we might be pleased to hear diversity of speech and accent; and things hitherto called heterodoxies, scepticisms, infidelities, might be brought within the great astronomic action and made parts of the redeemed universe. Philanthropy sees the man through all ethnic differences. Philanthropy is not a geographical term; it has nothing to do with lines of latitude and lines of longitude; it asks not upon what river the city is built; as philanthropy sees the man through all ethnic differences, so Christianity sees the Christ through all creeds and forms and organisations, if the Christ is there. Christianity goes in search of the Christ. Christianity does not start out saying, I will number all the infidels that live today. I am not aware that Christianity ever made itself the statistician of infidelity, or ever went out for the purpose of taking a census of non-believers. It takes account of excellences, virtues, aspirations, prayers, sacrifices, and it gives back the cup of cold water with all heaven added. So gracious, so divine, is the spirit that breathes and burns in Christian thought and love! The cure of disunion is not in the abolition of sects, but in the abolition of sectarianism. Every man has a right to choose his companions, his spiritual fellowships, to work where he can be most at home, where all his faculties can be best developed, where all his spiritual hunger can be most healthily satisfied; but having entered into such relations as are involved in these inquiries he is not to enclose himself within impenetrable walls, saying that he alone has the key of the door, and they who are outside his door are in outer darkness. Astronomic action, as we have just said, levels the mountains. They are very huge from a geographical point of view, great overshadowing hills and crags, habitations of eagles: how stupendous they look! But caught in the action of the astronomic movement, where are they, and where the seas so turbulent, so tempestuous, so wrathful, so boundary-hating? where are they? The high places are low, and the tempestuous elements are quiet, and the great globe itself swings like a censer before the altar of God. Have we lost the astronomic action? Are we but geographers when we ought to be astronomers? Speaking of the Lord's Table, the late Dean Stanley has expressed the whole idea with his wonted sweetness and music,

Whatever hinders or jeopardises Christian unity thus understood seems to me by so much to be condemned as wrong. Suppose it is an Act of Parliament that hinders unity. An Act of Parliament may be repealed in one of two ways. If we have thought that an Act of Parliament can only be repealed in one way, probably we may have been mistaken. An Act of Parliament may be repealed formally; we know what that is: or an Act of Parliament may be repealed by the growth of public opinion which makes the Act an anachronism, throws it behind, and leaves it there to find its way into still deeper obscurity and oblivion. An Act of Parliament may be obeyed in one of two ways. We speak much of law; but who distinguishes as to the scope and action of law? Is law but a solitary term? Is all law alike? Is all law of one value? Is there not a law which is simply measured by the word "regulation," and is there not a law which is measured by the word "right"? The regulation may be modified, adapted, changed, abolished, but the right is as everlasting as God himself. When, therefore, men talk about "law," I must know what they mean by law in the connection in which they use it. But a law may be obeyed in one of two ways: first, it may be obeyed sympathetically; then the man who obeys it will say, This is the law, I adopt it, I re-enact it, I assume the responsibility of its correctness and goodness. I obey it because I accept it, and honour it, and love it, that is one form of obedience: but a law may also be obeyed regretfully, as when a man shall say, This is the law, and I am sorry for it; it is a very old law and not altogether a good law, but there it is, and I must now fulfil its letter, but believe me I do so with reluctance. I would it were out of the way as a thing too old for the present time, a thing too old for the progress which nineteen centuries of Christian civilisation have made. Understand, therefore, that a man in obeying a law is not shut up to one way of obeying it. He can obey it so as to modernise it and make it offensive: he can obey it so as to make it truly venerable and truly irksome. Everything, therefore, in my judgment, depends upon the way in which any law is obeyed. When Christians wish to come together, any man who hinders the approach on any plea or any ground whatever incurs a tremendous responsibility. Go and tell the Son of God that you wanted to come together, but were hindered by an Act of Parliament; you longed to mingle your prayers and to unite in a common testimony in relation to the Cross and the salvation of the world, but you were obliged to speak to one another through the dividing wall of an Act of Parliament. I will not go with any deputation that proceeds to report so to Jesus Christ of his Church on the earth.

Christian unity is not a mere sentiment, it is a gracious and operative ministry. It tells the world that they may be one, all one, "That the world may believe that thou hast sent me." Union is not argumentative. Union is not sentimental; it is practical. Who can answer a united Church? When internecine war ceases, when all domestic troubles are calmed by the genius and spirit of love, when the Church presents a united front as to its real trust in Christ and therefore trust in one another, the voice of unbelief will not be heard. What can speak like love? We have never yet heard the true music of love's voice, because the voice of love has been broken, strained, discordant; the voices have been answering one another instead of blending into one harmonious tone charged with the deliverance of a gospel to a benighted world. If any man should ask which of the divided parties is to blame, I will answer him. That party is to blame which will not follow the spirit of union. When men have asked me in family quarrels which of the two combatants is to begin the process of reconciliation, I have said You! Were I asked who is to blame I should say, Is there any attempt whatever at intelligent, reasonable, and honest approach? If there is, the people who resist that approach are, in my judgment, wrong. These matters will never be settled until we have more of the spirit of Christ, more of the love of God. I do not ask for ecclesiastical uniformity, for we can never have it, though we may claim it. I would have many regiments, one army; many folds, one flock; many waves, one sea; many stars, one great radiant sky. He who would understand union must often read the Lord's intercessory prayer. He who would obey the spirit of that prayer must make many a personal sacrifice. Let there be no misunderstanding about unity meaning monotony. Union means diversity ruled by substantial unity of thought and feeling. Unity means many people, but one human family; many accents, but a common language; many ways of doing things, but only one motive to serve God, to please the Lord Jesus Christ, and to answer the ministry of God the Holy Ghost.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on John 17". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/john-17.html. 1885-95.
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