The Unity of the Spirit – July 21, 2013
Exodus 10:10-22, Ephesians 4:1-16
July 21. 2013
Over the years I’ve heard people say this. “If only we could get back to what it was like in the early days of the church, we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had ever since.” Have you ever heard that? I may have mentioned it before. “If only we could get back to the pure message of the faith, to the time before we added all the traditions and theology and denominational disagreements, we’d be better off.”
Well, let me just say that I like the sentiment of that. And I understand where the people who say that are coming from. But, that’s hardly an accurate picture of the first century church. The fact is that, in the early days of the church, the people were still learning what it all meant! And there were a lot of wild beliefs flying around! At first, people weren’t sure what to make of this guy Jesus, and some weren’t all that sure of how important he was! And there was a controversy over who was in charge of the whole thing. Then, throw on top of that the increasing persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire, and you’ll see that the first century was anything but a peaceful, tranquil time where everybody “just got along!”
We get hints of some of the difficulties they had in those days as we read some of the New Testament epistles, or letters. If we go to the beginning of First Corinthians, Paul comes right out with it. He wrote to them saying, “It’s been reported to me that there has been quarreling among you. Some of you say ‘I belong to Apollos.’ Some say ‘I belong to Peter.’ And some of you say you belong to me.'” Paul started with that. He was very concerned about the factions that were developing in that Church.
In other places in the New Testament we get hints of some of the other difficulties the people were having. There were questions about food that was sold in the market place, which had been used in pagan sacrifices. Was it proper to eat such food? There were questions about circumcision. There were questions about the gifts of the Spirit that were apparent in those early days, things like prophesying and “speaking in other tongues.” (That meant speaking in other languages.)
Those were just a few of the different problems they were experiencing in those days. And remember, reading these letters is like listening to someone talking on the phone. We don’t hear the other side of the conversation. We have to figure out what the other person is saying, by how the person we can hear is responding!
Well, Paul wrote this letter were looking at (again) today to the church in Ephesus. And in this case, he chose to write this letter as a sort of mini “theological essay.” He wanted take some time and organize his thoughts and try to answer some universal questions. He wanted to give the people some of the overall understandings of the Christian life and faith. And he wanted them to see some of the important principles of Christian living, one of the most important of which was “unity.”
Paul starts chapter four with these words. “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain (and heres the focus) the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Humility, patience, and forbearance, he said, lead to the unity of the Spirit. So, do we have those things? Should we have those things?
As you think about that, remember that Paul likes to use the word therefore. And when we see it, we should always try to see what its “there for.” So, if we look just before this, we find those wonderful benediction words we talked about last week. If you don’t remember them, go home and look on your refrigerator! There you’ll read, “Now unto him who, through the power at work within us, is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the Church and in Jesus Christ to all generations, for ever and ever, Amen.”
That’s what the therefore is “there for.” Because of that, because of the power at work within us, because of the abundance of Gods blessings, he begs us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” Because of his “power at work within us,” he says, “we are to live our lives with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I hope you’ll see how that all goes together!
So, I’m glad Paul started with those words. Because they show the spirit behind the christian unity he’s talking about. If he had simply started with the next words, “There is one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism,” we might feel obligated to figure out what the one understanding of those things are. (And believe me, there are some who take it that way!) But he didn’t start with that. He said started by saying that we are to uphold the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace. That means we are to seek the unity of the Spirit and the peace he gives despite the ways we might think or believe which are different from each other!
I believe Paul is trying to tell us that were all seeking the same Lord, having the faith in the same God, and looking to baptism as the mark that says we are his. But he’s not talking about one understanding of Jesus, one narrow way of belief, and one form of baptism. Do you see the difference? The way we are united in the spirit of God despite our differences is what makes for the bonds of peace! I hope you see that!
Unfortunately, this has been very difficult for the Church over the years. Too often, I’m sad to say, we have let our differences divide us. And too often we have fought with one another over our differences. Sometimes we have even literally fought one another! That’s pretty bad, isn’t it? Sometimes I think we Christians have made a poor showing over the centuries! How badly have we, at times, damaged our witness to the world? How much have we marred the image of Christ within us? How much does the world have cause not to believe us, because of our history?
Friends, let those things not be said of us! In fact, let us prove to the world that those failures are not the rule. Rather, let us strive to make the unity of the Spirit the rule! Let that be what the world sees!
And let us celebrate our successes! I’m glad to say that in our day there is a lot more Protestant/Catholic unity going on. And I think that’s great! Yes, we still believe differently, but I think were showing more respect for one another lately, and I’m glad! For too many years, I’m told, there was a semi-regular “slamming of the Catholics” going out from the pulpits of protestant churches. And I’ve no doubt the sentiment was returned!
I think the same could also be said about Christian/Jewish unity. I think there’s a lot more respect and cooperation going on today between those two faiths, too. I’m not sure where it will go, but I for one hope it will continue. And I hope it will help us Christians to be more diligent in connecting with our Old Testament roots! The Church Fathers thought those roots to be important enough, that they included the Old Testament in our Christian Bible! So may we discover, or re-discover those roots!
In all of this, I hope we will continue to listen to that same Spirit that brings unity among us. I hope we will think seriously about Paul’s call to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” I hope we will seek to do so “with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love.” I hope that we too will be eager to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
“And to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Eternal God, help us to hear the still small voice of your Spirit. Help us to know the Unity of the Spirit and the Bonds of Peace it brings. May our witness to the world be one of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. May people know we are yours by the way we love one another, and by the way we love them. Help us to do all of these things for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.