For the past two or three years I have been involved with a group of leaders from the EMC who were trying to help bring peace because of some of the differences in belief in that conference. We were aware that there was some diversity in views on the peace position, acceptance into membership of people who had been baptized as infants and the issue of women in leadership. Our assignment was to put together a document which would help us maintain unity in the midst of diverse views on these and other issues. Our group was called the Harmony Project and in December of last year the document we produced was accepted as conference policy. It took a little longer to get agreement on that document on unity than we expected, which seems funny. The difficulty was in trying to be clear that unity is God's will for His people and that in seeking unity, we must nevertheless not compromise God's truth.
In every church in which I have been pastor, I have had to deal with differences of opinion. In some cases things went fairly well. People disagreed on some significant issues, but were able to continue to work well together. In some cases, people became so upset that they left the church.
I have also struggled with the question of unity at the level of my involvement with ministerial groups with other denominations. In those settings, I have heard some pretty intense debate and have also seen people quit attending because of disagreement. In those settings, I have learned to continue in relationship with people I did not necessarily agree with. I have even organized worship services together with Anglican, Catholic, United Church and other denominations.
The question is, how far can such co-operation and striving for unity go? In May 2007 MCC and Conrad Grebel University College hosted an academic dialogue with religious scholars from Iran and Mennonite scholars from North America. Was this event faithful to what it means to be God's people? The Washington Post reported that Rick Warren has participated in dialogue with the Islamic Society of North America. Not everyone has looked favorably on his participation.
Last week we looked at Ephesians 4:1- 2 where we were told that we need to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. At that time we learned that humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with one another in love are all part of what it means to live worthy of our call. In Ephesians 4:3, a fifth item is added to this list and that is to "maintain unity." Since we noted last week that living worthy of our calling is pretty important, it is also important for us to understand what it means to maintain unity.
Difference will surely exist. How do we walk in a way that is worthy of all that God has called us to in Christ when we recognize that there is difference?
One of the things we notice in this text is that we are not called to create unity, but to maintain unity. There is a difference between maintaining something and creating it. You cannot maintain what does not exist. So the implication of the call to unity is that it already exists. In Ephesians 4:3-6 we have a description of the unity that already exists.
The unity that already exists, we are told in verse 3, is "the unity of the Spirit."
The weekend after Labor Day there is a unity among most Manitobans that is directed against the Saskatchewan Rough Riders. The spirit of animosity towards anything green unites us. We have one heart about that issue.
As Christians, it is not a common feeling or one heart about an issue that unites us. It is, rather, the living Spirit of God who is present with every believer. We are united not by adherence to a creed, or agreement about truths or even warm feelings expressed in the same direction. We are united by all having the same person living within us.
Wood points out, “'One Spirit' indwells the body of Christ. By him the body lives and moves (1 Cor 12:13). The Spirit is its soul; apart from him it cannot exist. The same Spirit fell on the Jews at Pentecost and on the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius."
One of the great challenges of large corporations is to instill in all employees a loyalty to the corporation and a heart that is dedicated to the work of the corporation. If the heart of the president could be put into every manager and employee that corporation could accomplish great things. As Christians, that is exactly what we have. The Spirit of our master does live in every heart and that gives us a very powerful foundation for unity. We do not need to create that unity, but we do need to maintain it.
Verses 4-6 contain what some have called a creed. It is centered around the word "one" which is repeated seven times in these verses. The idea of "one" is that it cannot be meaningfully divided. When "one" is divided, it is no longer whole. "One" is the idea of being whole and complete which means that the words associated with "one" in these verses speak to the foundation of unity which is ours.
Although it appears that the unity described here is confessional, it is not the confession of a creed, but the confession of a relationship which is described here. The relationship described here centers around the Trinity. Verse 4 mentions the Spirit, verse 5 the Son and verse 6 the Father. It is in an appropriate relationship with Father, Son and Spirit that we have the foundation for our unity. Wood puts it this way, "Paul’s thought ascends from the realization of unity in the Spirit to the focus of unity in the Son and thence to the source of unity in the Father." In fact, we could say that it is the example of the Father, Son and Spirit who are three persons, yet one, which gives us our model for unity.
We have a foundation for unity because the one Spirit of God has placed us all into one body, which is the church. The use of the word body instead of church reminds us of that unity. Churches can have various locations, and meet in different groups, but a body, by its very nature is one. When we recognize that we are brought together into one body by the same Spirit, we recognize that we have a foundation for unity.
That same Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance, as we learned in Ephesians 1:14. He is the one who assures us that we are all headed to the same place. We have one hope that keeps all of us focused and becomes a powerful motivation for maintaining unity. I have often thought that since we are all going to meet in heaven we must get along now. In heaven there won't be a room for Mennonites and another for Baptists. There won't be a room so just our friends can have fun together. There won't be a room for each group of people who have the same theology. We will all be in the same place and since that is where we are headed, we must live in unity now.
Our unity also is grounded in the one Lord Jesus Christ. The text says we have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." Wood suggests, "The three expressions may well be intended to convey a single idea, as Scott has surmised, i.e., “one Lord in whom we all believe and in whose name we are baptized.” In other words, it is faith in Jesus Christ alone marked by identification with Christ through baptism that puts us into relationship with the one in whom alone we have been set free from sin and been given eternal life.
In my relationship with other Christian denominations, this has become for me the foundation on which I am able to relate, participate and worship with people from many denominations. I have often wrestled with this but have concluded that although I may disagree with many theological and practical matters of what it means to be Christian, at the center is one common person, Jesus Christ, whom we all worship and serve. On that foundation, I have decided, I will continue to maintain unity.
God also is one and is the Father who is over all and through all and in all. God being one was an important part of the confession of faith of the people of God in the Old Testament whose key verse was Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
The statement that there is one Father over all is not a declaration of universalism. Rather it is an expression that it is the desire of God who is faithful to Himself that everyone come to know Him and follow Him.
Barth says, "Because God is one, his people are one and are to live on the basis and in the recognition of unity."
So the basis of unity which we have is a unity found in relationship to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Unity is an expression of the desire of God and has been brought to us through Jesus Christ and is a reality to us in the presence of the Holy Spirit. These verses declare unequivocally that we have unity.
As we have seen the foundation of our unity is found in relationship to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the same way, keeping unity must be in relationship with one another. That isn't an easy thing because we know that there are many things which can disturb that unity.
It is for this reason that Paul, being quite realistic and practical, says in Ephesians 4:3, "…making every effort to maintain" unity. In other words, we must work at it or as Barth says, "Yours is the initiative! Do it now! Mean it! You are to do it! I mean it!"
Anyone who has ever owned a swimming pool knows that it is a dreamer who will tell you before you put in the pool, "The cost is in purchasing the pool. Once you have it, all you have to do is maintain it." Owning a pool is never a matter of "all we have to do is maintain it" because maintaining it is work that will consume some time every day throughout the season.
As powerful as the unity we have in Father, Son and Spirit is, maintaining unity, is not a matter of "just keep unity." It is work and there is an urgency about it and there must be diligent work done in order to obey this teaching.
One important question is to think about which situations this addresses.
I mentioned earlier the dialogue which MCC hosted with Muslim scholars. Is the call to unity in Ephesians 4 a call to such dialogue? In the Old Testament, God was very clear that His people were to have nothing to do with those who followed other religions. If we go back to our discussion of the foundation for unity, we know that that foundation is not shared by people of other religions. Therefore, this call to unity does not speak to such dialogue. That does not mean that such dialogue is bad. In fact, it may be very good. But we do not engage in it in obedience to the call to unity given here. Rather we may engage in such dialogue in obedience to God's command to love everyone, even our enemies. Listening, even working together on humanitarian projects can all be done under God's command to love others. The call to unity, however, does not apply to other religions, since the foundation for unity is not shared.
Scripture also warns us of people who seem to be part of the Christian religion, but have in fact left faith in Jesus. There are many passages which speak about false teachers. Paul warns about this in his address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:30 where he says, "Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them." Does the call to unity apply in reference to false teachers? Once again we have to say that if the foundation for unity is not shared then the call to unity does not apply. Yet Jesus teaches us how to respond to such false teachers. He tells a parable in Matthew 13 about how the enemy has come and sowed weeds among the wheat. That describes the reality of people who have distorted the Christian message. His instruction is that we are not to pull out the weeds, but leave them until the judgment day. We must be clearly aware of the presence of false teachers and we are not called to maintain unity with those who do not share the same foundation. Nevertheless, we can still relate to them on the basis of love even for enemies, which Jesus has taught us.
Then where does the call to maintain unity apply? It applies among those with whom we share the same foundation. Yet even that does not make for an easy task. It involves seeking to understand whether or not we share the same foundation. If we make the boundaries too tight, we may be found to be violating this command to unity. If we are careless in defining the foundation, we may be found to be compromising the truth of God. That is why we are called to work hard at maintaining unity.
So how do we make every effort, not compromising truth, but still keeping unity?
One of the most practical passages dealing with keeping unity is found in Romans 14. The believers in this church had a serious and fundamental disagreement which was threatening to break unity in the body. The issue was whether to eat meat or not. This was not a question of whether or not Christians should be vegan. The issue was deeply religious and had roots in the relationship of Jews and Gentiles and the whole history of separation from pagan religions. The advice of Paul, however, goes beyond the specific issue.
Paul's advice to the members of this church is very helpful and practical. The division, as is often the case, was between those who permit something and see it as not being in violation of faithfulness and those who do not permit it and see participation as a compromise of faith.
First of all, he instructs in Romans 14:3, "Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat..." I have often observed that Christians who have freedom in some area, look down on Christians who do not share that freedom. Paul instructs that to look down on them is to violate the unity which is called for here. On the other hand, Christians who are more restrictive in their perspective often judge those who have freedom. Paul instructs them that they "must not pass judgment."
Paul builds a helpful foundation for such a call to unity when he reminds them that they must not judge each other because each person must stand before God and must be convinced before God about the stand they take. In Romans 14:5 he directs, "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds" and in Romans 14:22 he says, "Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve." This is a strong call to submit all of our opinions to God and to recognize that whatever course we take will be judged by God in the end. I appreciate that perspective. I heard a speaker a few weeks ago who was talking about victory in regards to sexual addictions. Part of what he was talking about was the issue of same sex relationships. I believe he was building on Paul's principle when he told us how he responds to the question, "What do you think about same sex relationships." His answer was, "it doesn't matter what I think, what matters is what God thinks and you really need to ask Him."
Another principle which Paul speaks about is found in Romans 15:2 where we read, "Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor." This includes making sure that we do not cause a brother or sister to stumble.
All of these things are hard work, but on the basis of the foundation which is found in relationship to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is up to us to do the hard work of keeping the unity we have.
It is in following these directions that we will maintain unity in the bond of peace.
In the first church in which I was a pastor, I did some teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the service, one couple, and their two teenaged sons walked out and informed me, with some anger that they would not be coming back. I felt that I had taught truth and that it needed to be spoken. Later I wondered whether I did right. I was aware that there were significant differences of opinion about the work of the Holy Spirit. I wondered whether I could have taught in such a way that unity would have been maintained. That experience influenced me to be more careful about how I state things. There is no doubt that I have my convictions, but I also know that God tells us that if we are to live in a manner worthy of our calling, we must maintain the unity of the Spirit.
But keeping unity is not only important as a way of walking in a worthy manner but also as a way of being salt and light in the world. In John 17:21 Jesus said, "As you, Father, 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." That is why I think it is so important to participate in such things as the One Heart service we had in January and also the "Love Winnipeg" campaign. By participating, we the churches of Winnipeg choose to maintain unity in the bond of peace.
So the challenge is to wisely, lovingly and obediently negotiate the divide between unity and truth so that, God's truth is declared, God's love is demonstrated, God's kingdom is built and God's name is honored.