I really enjoyed speaking at Oxford Brookes Christian Union last week. In my former life working with UCCF I spent four years going to Brookes CU meetings so it was great to be back and see the CU really flourishing.

I owe a huge amount to the CU movement- as do many at Woody Road. My own experience as an OICCU student was absolutely formative for me. It was there that I heard the Bible taught as I had never done before and my time as a college rep and OICCU secretary were massively important in teaching me principles of biblical leadership. And I learnt so much from my time later as a staff worker and hugely appreciated the students and colleagues I got to work alongside. I am absolutely convinced that I would not be a pastor now were it not for UCCF. Whether or not that is a good thing I will leave for others to judge…

Given all this I mentioned at the beginning of my talk that I was passionate about CUs. However, that’s not just because of the benefit in the past to me. It is also because CUs are the only group who will unite Christians to witness together to universities. Churches may do outreach more slickly than a CU- but they do not unite all believers together on campus in a way that a CU does. That matters- because Jesus is passionate about unity.

“Passionate about unity” was the title the CU had given me- and I simply made the point that it mattered very little whether I was passionate about unity. The reality is that Jesus is. The evidence of that, of course, comes on the day we are marking today. It was the night before Jesus died when He prayed to His Father:

“My prayer is not for them [his disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 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 sent me.” (John 17:20-21, NIV)

I always find it moving that on that night Jesus prayed for future generations of believers- including us. But we must note what He prays for- it is our unity. Jesus goes on further- in v.23 He prays that we may be brought to complete unity to let the world know that the Father had sent Him.

There are four elements to that unity that the prayer picks up:

1. The Basis for Unity

Those who are to be united are those who have believed in Christ through the message of the apostles. It seems to me this gives us the extent and limits of our unity. I am not united with everything that goes by the name Christian (or those who think that the essential message of Easter does not include Jesus.) We are not to be united with those who proclaim a message different to that of the apostles. Although I didn’t make this point at the CU, it is one of the reason why Woody Road is not part of Churches Together– we just don’t think there is enough clarity about the apostolic message. But where people are expressing their faith in the unique Christ who bore God’s wrath for our sins and rose again as revealed in the Scriptures- then I want to be thinking in terms of the unity we share.

2. The Picture of our Unity

This is the exciting bit. What picture would you use to describe the unity of God’s people? A team? A family? Actually the picture Jesus uses is that of God Himself. He prays that we may be one just as the Father and the Son are joined together. That’s astonishing- the church is to display God in its unity. We are different persons yet one. The illustration on earth of the Trinity is not a three legged stool or ice, steam and water. It is to be the church. You can’t tell me that unity is unimportant- we are to image God.

3. The Strength for our Unity

Sometimes I hear debates as to whether Christian unity is essentially doctrinal (we believe the same stuff) or spiritual (we all sense the Spirit’s work in each other.) The answer has to be both. As we have seen, unity is based on the apostolic Gospel. But it is more than that- our unity comes from the fact that together as God’s people we are in God. That’s the language of v.21. It is the language of union that Jesus uses throughout the closing chapters of John’s Gospel- I will not leave you alone, I will come to you, the Father and the Son will make their home in you, I will be in you and you will be in me. Christian unity is based on the fact that we have union with God. My unity with my fellow believer comes from the fact that the Spirit of Jesus is on both of us. That’s important- because it means that our unity has already been achieved by the Spirit. This is the Father’s YES to the Son’s prayer. The basis message of the New Testament in this regard is this- You are united. Don’t muck it up. We have unity because of the work of the Spirit.

4. The Purpose of Unity

Throughout this prayer it is the unity of God’s people that will have an impact on the world. The person who is passionate about evangelism but unconcerned about unity is self-defeating because the oneness of the church is the key apologetic for the Gospel according to Jesus’ prayer. I have seen that happen in practice. I remember somebody from the church going through a difficult spell a few years back. Keith, who was pastor then, made a request for financial help for this person. A fair amount of money came in and it was possible to announce the following Sunday that no further help was required. This seemed fairly mundane to me- it was simply us acting like a church. But it had a massive impact on one non-Christian at the time. He was subsequently converted and baptised and later told me that this simple incident had made him reflect that there was something real and genuine going on amongst us.

So these two verses teach us a great deal about unity. It is massively important- it is the way we display what God is like to the world. So what would be potential implications?

– It does mean that we should support CUs because it is important that Christian students witness together to their university. It is why we continue to encourage students coming to Woody Road to be active in their CU groups. I am delighted that three Woody Road students will be college reps in the coming year.

– It matters that we preserve unity within us as a local church. Praise God- we are united by the Spirit. We need to keep that unity. If we have fallen out with another Christian, we need to sort it out. Perhaps that will involve forgiveness or an apology. Sharing Jesus’ concern for unity makes that a priority for us.

– We do need to work to express unity beyond our local church. It is good that we will be joining other FIEC churches tomorrow morning: I am excited at the way in which as a group we are doing more together and I would love that to increase. But it does seem to me that our unity does need to go beyond FIEC. It is why I am thrilled that Woody Road members are currently involved in the work to establish a united Gospel witness in Wheatley. And, thought it can be practically difficult, it would be great to see CUs established increasingly in places of work and so on.

The danger of being a pastor is that it is possible to get too focused on our own individual church. So I greatly enjoyed the chance to appreciate again the work of the CU movement as they seek to live out Jesus’ concern for the unity of His people in the sight of the world.