I grew up camping. On one occasion when I was camping with my family, my dad sent me out on an important mission: to get water. I took a giant kettle and wandered toward the water spigot. I fumbled with the archaic pump, but I managed to fill the kettle and waddled back to camp, dripping water all the way. And that is when the struggle for unity began.
I asked my dad what he wanted me to do with the water. He was standing in front of a stove and he told me, “Put it on the stove.”
I thought that was weird, so I clarified, “You want me to put the water on the stove?” Now he seemed confused, “Yes, put the water on the stove.” “Really?” I responded, “You want me to do what?” “Put the water on the stove!”
So I took the giant kettle of water and poured it out all over the stove. Apparently, it had been a bit of a misunderstanding. He wanted me to put the kettle on the stove, not just the water.
Christians are called to share in the singular mission of the Church, but we struggle to achieve unity. Jesus ends his prayer in John 17 by petitioning the Father to help those who believe in him to be one, so that the world will believe.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21, ESV).
Reading this prayer for unity in light of Church history is discouraging. Church history is full of fractures, factions and schisms. The early Church struggled with divisions between Jewish and pagan converts to Christianity. In 1054, the Church suffered the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches. And then almost 500 years later an upstart monk would famously nail his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation. And that splintering and fracturing has continued.
Throughout Church history, we see that unity is hard. Even when we share a single mission, we disagree on how to reach the goal.
Leo Tolstoy noted that theology ought to produce unity in love among believers, but instead it makes enemies of those who ought to be allies.1 Still, this is the command Jesus leaves with his followers.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV).
In one sense this new commandment of Jesus is impossible. To love as Jesus loves is an impossible task. It would mean sacrificing everything. It would mean death. But even that wouldn’t accomplish anything in comparison to what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
Jesus did not come to establish an impossible standard that you will never measure up to; he came to provide a way for us to be united with God!
When my father asked me to pour out the water onto the stove, it prompted me to say, “Really? You want me to do what?”
The Gospels capture a similar moment before Jesus is betrayed. Jesus knows the plan. The Father knows the plan. The Father intends for his Son to pour out his precious blood on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the world.
Jesus asks his Father, “Really? Is there another way? Can you take away the cup that has been prepared?” But even in that moment, Jesus and the Father are in perfect unity. Jesus submits to the will of the Father and allows his blood to be poured out for the salvation of the world.
He gives his blood, so we can be forgiven. He is wounded, so we can be healed. He dies, so that we can live. And he rises, so that we can know him and make him known!
The Church of the Lutheran Brethren is entering a time of transition—a time of refocusing and seeking where God is leading.
Some of the changes may cause you to say, “Really?”
But here is what we can trust: God has a part for us to play in his mission!
Tolstoy went on to muse that the denominational differences disappear when you take a higher view of the Church and are left with one Body that knows Christ and is seeking to make Christ known through acts of love.
The Lutheran Brethren is a part of that Body, and we share in that mission.
The high view is helpful in getting the big picture, but it is also important to zoom in because while the Lutheran Brethren does not have a monopoly on truth, we have a unique part to play in the mission of the Church.
The Lutheran Brethren has always had a high view of Scripture and an emphasis on international missions. Now we are recognizing a need to be more active in our immediate communities. The Western world is changing, and the Church will need to adapt to better reach the lost with the unchanging and eternal message of the Gospel: Christ poured out his blood on the cross to save sinners, including us.
Our mission is to know Christ and make Christ known through acts of love.
And here is the opportunity we have: the Church of the Lutheran Brethren has been called, equipped and strategically positioned to reach people who may be out of reach for other denominations.
And you have been strategically placed to reach individual people who are out of reach for others.
May we see and seize this opportunity for the sake of the Gospel!
Rev. Alan Johnson is Pastor of Community Church of Joy in Sammamish, Washington.