Bride of Christ or Bride of Frankenstein – the Importance of Church Unity

This message was preached by Rev Peter Thomas at a joint service of Churches Together in Brentwood when he was their Moderator. It explains why church unity and ecumenical cooperation are vital, not only for Christians and the church but also for the world.

I believe in Church Unity! And I am convinced that working together with other clergy and other churches is not an optional extra for a Christian minister, but should alongside preaching and teaching, outreach and pastoral care, be a very high priority for every minister.

I didn’t become a Christian until I was 16 years old. And that was not because of any one church, but through the activities of Crusaders. Crusaders met in the buildings of a United Reformed Church but their leaders belonged to Church of England Churches and Baptist Churches and a Free Evangelical Church. The first church I was a member of was that United Reformed Church. At University I went to Services at the College Chapel which was Church of England, to a Baptist Church and also to a very way-out charismatic Anglican church. I also belonged to the College Christian Union. One friend from there is now a missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society. Another is vice-principal of a Church of England theological college. Another (who just happens to be a good Baptist) is Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

I first became a proper Baptist when I started teaching in Watford, but kept links with folks from all kinds of churches by working with Crusaders and for five years sharing a flat with a very long-suffering Anglican. I trained for ministry at the interdenominational London Bible College and 10 years later did further study there, so for four more years I was taught by and studied alongside Christians from every denomination, many of whom are now ministers and missionaries all round the world.

So I believe in Church Unity. I believe in Church Unity because although I am a good Baptist I know personally many many fine Christians who are not Baptists but belong to other church traditions. You know that I am committed to Church Unity. This summer I will come to the end of six years as Moderator of Churches Together in Brentwood, trying in various different ways to bring the churches of the town closer together. Church Unity has been on my heart ever since I became a Christian because it is on God’s heart. Church Unity has been a priority for me over 20 years of Ministry, because I believe Church Unity is God’s priority. And the reason I believe that is here in John’s gospel chapter 17 as Jesus prays what is called his High Priestly Prayer.

20 “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 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. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 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.

I could use this passage to talk about unity within that congregation which is known as Brentwood Baptist Church. But the Bible doesn’t really think of separate churches in different denominations in the same town. In the Bible and in the Early Church all the Christians in one town would be part of the one church in that place. So I think that Jesus’s prayer for Church Unity is really talking about all the Christians in Brentwood. May WE all be one, Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, Free Churches, Pentecostals, may WE all be ONE.

In this prayer Jesus prays for His church, for us! And his prayer tells us a great deal about the MEANING of church unity, and the MEANS to church unity, and the MOTIVE for church unity.

 

1.  The MEANING of Church Unity

THE ONENESS OF THE CHURCH IS TO BE A MIRROR OF THE ONENESS OF THE TRINITY

 v. 21   “That all of them may be One , just as You are in Me and I am in You” v. 22   “that they may be one as We are one”

 The church is called to be one as God is one. Unity in community, unity in diversity, not mere uniformity.

 I have visited McDonalds restaurants in many places – and everywhere they are all the same. Brentwood. London. Manchester. Paris. Switzerland. The United States. All clones. Even in Bulgaria – just the same. God does not intend churches to be like McDonalds, identical everywhere.

 1 Corinthians 12:14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 18  .. in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 

 What a strange body it would be if every part was the same!  At university at dinner every single person used to be served with an identical leg of chicken. We developed the theory that we were being fed on a new experiemental genetically engineered creature, the Centi-chicken – 100 legs, no wings, no white meat! What a strange chicken that would be. The body of Christ is not meant to be a Centi-chicken, every part identical.

 There are MANY DIFFERENCES between our churches – from styles of Worship to forms of Church Government.  Matters of Emphasis, Taste, and Conscience Divide us when they could unite us. Some emphasise historical continuity, others the need to respond in a relevant way to a changing world. Some stress written revelation whereas others seek immediate inspiration. Some have authoritative leadership whereas others look for the leading of God through the whole congregation. Some aspire to a heavenly liturgy whereas others practice enthusiastic spontaneity. Some stress personal faith whilst others recognize the corporate nature of salvation.

We do well to remember that we these different emphases are not just associated with different denominations. We can often find different churches poles apart over these issues within the same denomination, and sometimes that diversity even within a single congregation.

 NO church, denomination or tradition has a monopoly on God’s truth. God is bigger than our understanding of Him ever can be! We need to discover, and come to believe, that here as in so many areas of life the truth lies not in a matter of “either / or” but in “both / and”. The best is not found by choosing between extremes but in balancing the strengths of both.

“Do not take the bishop out of your brother’s eye until you have first taken the church meeting out of your own eye!”

 The Unity in the Holy Trinity is the unity of  RELATIONSHIPS – the unity of love and co-operation . Our churches should not be immersed in their own activities ignoring everybody else. We need to learn how to enjoy one another and benefit from the different gifts and contributions each can make within the one body. We need to build on the things we are already doing together. Christian Aid Week, the Schools Christian Worker Trust, Inter Church Action Group for the Homeless, Junction 28, Lighting Up Brentwood. We need to encourage folk in all the churches to help other churches in what they are doing. We need to find ways of showing love to other churches. And we need to look for new ways of interconnecting, of working together. Building relationships – Unity in Community. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus.

 I’m sure you will have heard the story about the man who died and arrived in heaven and was being given the welcome tour by an angel. Everywhere he went he saw the saints praising God and worshipping. Then he came to a part of heaven with a great big wall around it. From inside the wall he could still hear the sound of singing and praising God.

“What’s this?” he asked. “Who’s in there?”

“Oh, that’s the Southern Snake Handling Baptists,” the angel replied.

“They think they are the only ones here!”

 When we get to heaven there won’t be lots of different bodies of Christ, the Anglican body of Christ and the Catholic body of Christ and all the Methodist and Baptist and Pentecostal and new church bodies of Christ. There will only be ONE body of Christ. That’s how God sees us already!

 The meaning of Church Unity – THE ONENESS OF THE CHURCH IS TO BE A MIRROR OF THE ONENESS OF THE TRINITY

 

2.  The MEANS to Church Unity

THE ONENESS FOR WHICH CHRIST PRAYS WILL ONLY GROW AS WE EACH ABIDE IN CHRIST AND GROW UP INTO CHRIST

 v. 21   “May they be one even as we are one. May they also be in Us, … I in them and You in Me”

 

Our unity comes from Christ and our participation in Him! It is the gift of the Holy Spirit living inside us who makes us the church. Oneness of the body of Christ is supernatural, spiritual. NOT of human origin.

EPHESIANS 4:15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

The body grows and builds itself up in love only and inasmuch as we each grow up into Christ.

 

The church is like a wheel. The WHOLE CHURCH IS LIKE A WHEEL – God is at the hub, each Christian on a journey along one of the spokes: nearer you get to centre, nearer you get to other spokes!

 We grow nearer to each other as we grow nearer to God;   CONVERSE – we can’t claim to be growing nearer to God if we are not growing nearer our brothers & sisters in Christ.

“Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4)

WE cannot claim to be growing closer to God if we don’t care about other people.

 v.22 “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”.

 

One as God is one! That is Christ’s prayer for us. Church unity is NOT optional extra: it’s at the HEART of Christian growth & maturity – TOP  priority within a fellowship and between fellowships within the one church of Christ. There is NO place for exclusiveness or arrogance. We need to come to the point where we recognize and truly believe that we need to learn from each other if we are going to grow closer to God. The truth another denomination emphasizes may be the very truth my denomination is neglecting and needs to rediscover if we are to grow.

1 Corinthians 12:20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  … there should be no division in the body, but … its parts should have equal concern for each other.

This where we really need united services, pulpit exchanges, prayer gatherings, fellowship/Bible Study groups together. Not just as a gesture of unity. But as an acknowledgement that we each have truths that we need to learn and that we can only learn those truths from Christians of very different traditions. There is great value in 2 or 3 congregations joining together for united services. Learning from each other. And I am even happy to encourage every one of us to worship at other churches from time to time! 

The MEANS to Church Unity – THE ONENESS FOR WHICH CHRIST PRAYS WILL ONLY GROW AS WE EACH ABIDE IN CHRIST AND GROW UP INTO CHRIST

 

3.  The MOTIVE for Church Unity  

THE ONENESS OF THE CHURCH IS TO BE OUR WITNESS TO THE WORLD.

 v. 21   “So that the world may believe that You have sent Me”

THE NEW COMMANDMENT – “Love one another as I have loved you, by THIS will all men know you are my disciples”

 We have a glorious gospel of grace to declare to the nations – the Good News that God offers His gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ to all who choose to receive it by faith. And we live in a world and in towns which are in desperate need of that Good News, with so much selfishness and greed and suffering on our doorsteps.

We live in a world where 91% of the population have heard of Coca Cola. 74% have seen Coca Cola. 51% have TASTED Coca Cola. But less than 30% of the world are Christians! Surely the message of Jesus Christ is so much more important than the message of Coco Cola – HE is “the real thing”!

God’s purpose is that the church should be His visual aid to the world of the difference that His love and forgiveness makes. But what kind of an example of reconciliation must we be if the world sees the church divided and arguing. God’s love is unconditional, all- embracing, but so often ours is selective and limited to our own denomination or fellowship. God commands us to show His kind of sacrificial love to this sin-spoilt world, but He gives us other Christians to practice on. If we can’t even love each other, how can we begin to seek and save the lost?!

 “Why SHOULD we work for church unity?” some folk ask. Sometimes folk give up working for unity of church just because it seems like too much hassle with not enough benefits. What WE get out of church unity doesn’t matter. The most important reason for unity isn’t even that division within body of Christ grieves Holy Spirit of God, that division grieves Christ the Head of the Body, that division grieves the Father heart of God.

 We don’t need Unity for its own sake. We may not feel we need unity for our own sake. We may not care about unity for God’s sake. But unity in the church is VITAL for the sake of the world, that the world might believe.

 “The Christian Church is the one organisation in the world that exists purely for the benefit of non-members”  (Archbishop William Temple)

 Emil Brunner wrote, “The church exists by missions, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no church; and where there is neither church nor mission, there is no faith.”

 History tells us that this was the root of the modern ecumenical movement – a shared concern for a fallen world. Some say it started with the great 19th Century evangelist D.L.Moody, “the grandfather of ecumenism.” Early in the 20th century, the Life and Work movement brought Christians across the denominations together on social, moral and educational issues with its slogan, “Doctrine divides, service unites.” And overseas, denominations still divided at home worked together in unity for the sake of mission.

The great missionary Henry Martyn said, “The Spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions, and the nearer we get to Him the more intensely missionary we must become.”

The church exists to preach the gospel. Karl Barth wrote, “The life of the one holy Universal Church is determined by the fact that it is the fulfilment of the service as ambassador enjoined upon it. Where the life of the Church is exhausted in self-serving, it smacks of death; the decisive thing has been forgotten, that this whole life is lived only in the exercise of what we called the Church’s service as ambassador, in proclamation. A Church that recognizes its commission will neither desire nor be able to petrify in any of its functions, to be the Church for its own sake.

“The “Christ-believing group” … is sent out: “Go and preach the gospel!” … In it all the one thing must prevail: “Proclaim the gospel to every creature!” The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it that only now and then it sticks out its feelers and then thinks that the “claim of publicity” has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald. The Church … must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself. If the church becomes a purpose in itself, then as a rule it begins to smack of the “sacred,” to affect piety, to play the priest and to mumble.”  

Much of the work our churches are doing with children and young people is already a cooperative effort. Our Good Friday Procession of Witness is well established, and so now is our involvement in Lighting Up Brentwood. But it would be good for us to find more ways to express our unity in public before the watching world. There are two possibilities coming our way soon. 

This June Brentwood churches will work together to put on an event called “On the Move”. The idea is very simple. Each lunch time we will put out tables and chairs by the chapel ruins on the High Street, play some music and give everybody who passes by a free burger and sit and chat to them about Jesus. Michele is on the working group for “On the Move” and we will hear from the organizers next Sunday and have an opportunity to sign up to play our part.

 Then next year we are already involved in planning for Hope 2008 – a year of United Mission across the whole of UK. Churches working together in outreach and evangelism in ways we have never done before.

Unity within the Body of Christ, the oneness of the church, is right at the centre of our witness to the world .

v. 23   “may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me.”

We’ve started, but we haven’t finished – not by a long way!

Think of the story of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s tale of a medical student who took spare limbs from dead bodies to make an artificial man which he brought to life with the energy of lightning. The “man-made monster” has been the classic theme in horror and science fiction ever since – it haunts our dreams, the “post-modern Prometheus,” our “Frankenstein complex”.     The whole picture is terrifying in its ugliness – a body made up of stray limbs, angular, disjointed, sluggish – a revolting body made by a man rather than a body beautiful as God creates and intends bodies to be.

The apostle Paul describes the church as the Body of Christ. But when we think about Unity in the Body of Christ, the spectre of Frankenstein’s monster looms large. As we look at the churches we represent, and the wider church here in Brentwood, we are faced with a disturbing question. Are we really living and working together as the beautiful Body of Christ as God intends? Or does the church sometimes seem more like Frankenstein’s monster. Especially to those “outside” church life, do we appear to be any more than just a jumble of limbs, not fitting together, not working properly, because we are only a man-made organisation and not enough a God-fashioned organism

 The human body is an amazing creation. Just think of some of the things a body can accomplish when all the parts work together in harmony. Think of an athlete – say Jonathan Edwards doijng the triple jump – body supple and flowing, perfect balance and positioning. Think of the coordination of legs and hips and arm and eye! Somehow it’s hard to imagine Frankenstein’s monster doing the triple jump, or the pole vault or!     

 Or think of a violinist, Yehudi Menuin or Nigel Kennedy, or Vanessa Mae, the right hand guiding the bow across the strings to within a millimetre and a split-second, with just enough pressure and attack. At the same time the left hand has to be even more precise as it fingers the notes, kept in tune by the ear, with one eye on the music and the other on the conductor! It’s hard to imagine Frankenstein’s monster playing a violin concerto!

 Churches Together in Brentwood, WE are the body of Christ in this town. Our unity should be our witness to the world. What kind of body are we going to be? Body of Christ, or a Frankenstein’s monster!

 

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