A small band of believers huddles in an upper room. They’re waiting. Their numbers are small but the challenge they face is great. They are to be Jesus’ witnesses—not just in Jerusalem but in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
But how could they be witnesses in this world without Jesus? Jesus has been taken up into heaven, leaving the disciples a puzzling message: they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. What’s that supposed to mean?
What’s more, these disciples can still hear the echoes of Jesus praying not for their escape from the world but for their protection in it (John 17:15). Concluding his prayer, Jesus prayed not only for this band of believers but for us—“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” (John 17:20-21).
2013 is a time of turmoil. Issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, capital punishment, gun control, and government health care show the fracture lines of division in our society.
Likewise, there’s division within families and within the church. Worship styles sometimes divide generations. And I once officiated at a funeral during which one side of the family changed the locks on the family home while they were all at the service.
Disunity rather than unity marks our lives and mars our witness in the world. If we can’t get along with each other, why would the world want to hear the gospel?
To understand the task of unity, we need to understand the gift that Jesus promises to send—the gift of the Holy Spirit. “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Do we really believe the promise of how the Holy Spirit will shape our lives and our churches to make us one?
Jesus identifies the exchange that will follow—his leaving and the Holy Spirit coming—as a source of comfort. We live in a world of grief. This week, I predict that each and every one of us will experience some level of loss, sorrow, and brokenness. In that moment, where do we turn? To whom do we turn?
As a pastor, I have seen Satan use grief and sorrow to isolate believers from the community of faith and even from God. I have seen parents drift apart from each other after the death of their child. I have seen men and women who lost their jobs in the “Great Recession” drift away from church because the offering time is a painful reminder of their empty wallets. I have seen those who struggle with addiction drift away from the body of Christ, believing that no one understands them. In their isolation there is loneliness, not “oneness.”
During our times of sorrow, we need to be reminded—another work of the Holy Spirit—that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit testifies that God is still Immanuel—God with us and for us.
The Holy Spirit Convicts Our Heart of Sin
Jesus testifies that he is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). One of the key barriers to unity is that we hold onto our own perspective as the whole truth or the truth for all persons. Sinners who acknowledge the deceptiveness of their heart are sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. They are less judgmental, more humble. When the Spirit is at work, people have tears in their eyes and listening ears. If we are going to see barriers be overcome and love increase, we need to be willing to understand the gift that comes when the Spirit convicts us of sin or prompts our own guilty conscience.
The Holy Spirit Points Us to True Righteousness
In John 16:8, Jesus speaks of the Counselor convicting the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness. There is a righteousness that comes from God and there is also a righteousness that we like to generate.
“Self-righteousness” is our preferred antidote to our sense of our own brokenness. We compare ourselves to others and secretly comfort ourselves by saying, “At least we are not like them”—in that moment dividing the world between “us” and “them.” The Christian story is centered on the righteousness that comes not from ourselves but from the pierced hands of Jesus Christ.
Righteousness is opening ourselves up to the gift of grace—not climbing a ladder of good works or “success” to get closer to God. Grace is seeing that God came closer to be “one” with us as prompted by his love, not our efforts.
The Holy Spirit Guides Us in Truth
The heart transformation that takes place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is constant. We will have good days; we will have bad days. But every day can be one where we submit ourselves to the triune God. Our submission and our obedience weave together to give us assurance of our salvation but also frame our continued sanctification as individuals within a community of faith.
I saw this process unfold, when, for example, a new believer told me that she’d never realized the coarseness of the language she’d used or the television she’d watched until now. That’s because the Holy Spirit had been changing her day by day, sensitizing her to it.
The Holy Spirit Builds the Body of Christ
We should never forget that the Holy Spirit came upon a band of believers—not random individuals—at Pentecost. The apostle Paul reminds us that the gifts of the Spirit are best dedicated to being part of a body—the body of Christ.
Our unity as believers is easily bruised. That bruising can come in a whisper of gossip. It can come in a fight over the color of carpet in a church remodeling project. It can come in a congregational meeting where people argue about freezing the pastor’s salary as a response to tight economic times.
Being the body of Christ does not just happen. It takes work, and we must exercise constant vigilance. At the same time, the coming of the Holy Spirit reminds us that the foundation of the church is the ongoing work of our triune God. When we are emptied of pride, self-righteousness, and envy, we may be filled by the Spirit.
David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Christians Are Leaving the Church . . . and Rethinking Faith identifies various reasons for disillusionment. As we listen to these voices, we should know that divisions and arguments between Christians are key factors of this decline in involvement in the church. The witness of Christians to the next generation, both inside and outside the church, is muted by disunity.
Are we bruised? Yes. And yet we are still the body of Christ. Jesus did not pray in vain. In the words of the contemporary testimony Our World Belongs to God, “Jesus stays with us in the Spirit, who renews our hearts, moves us to faith, leads us in the truth, stands by us in our need, and makes our obedience fresh and vibrant” (st. 31).
May we live in that hope together!