“Eager for Unity”

unity“I beg you,” Paul told the Ephesians “…to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1; 3).  I know, I know, there is a scholarly consensus out there that says that Paul is not the author of Ephesians, but that’s not really my concern here today.  I’m not blogging this week about the authorship of Ephesians.  I doubt that I will ever blog about that.  What I am blogging about is something that is in the canonical text of Ephesians. And so, if it will keep you reading, then whenever I write “Paul” interpret that reference to mean whatever satisfies your intellect and imagination, and let’s get on with the more substantial task of trying to make sense of the moral and spiritual instruction that this “received” text authoritatively speaks into our lives and situations.

Paul didn’t beg the Ephesian Christians to create unity – that’s well beyond our capabilities as human beings, in fact, that’s Christ’s work, done on the cross Paul said, where He broke down the dividing wall that separated us from each other (Ephesians 2:14). This is how Christ has become our peace, Paul told the Ephesians (2:14). He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were nearby” (Ephesians 2:17), reconciling us to each other by His saving work on the cross. In fact, according to Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians, this was the whole point of Christ’s coming – He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10). This is what God is doing in Jesus Christ — He is working to heal the divisions of the world through His reconciling work of love on the cross, and when someone belongs to Him by faith, then our own inner and outer divisions get healed, and the work of healing becomes our primary assignment as Christians. As Paul put in in 2 Corinthians — “God reconciled us to Himself through Christ [our own experience of getting healed], and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” [our assignment to then be about the ministry of healing in the church and the world] (5:18).

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Harold Heie was for many years a Christian College Professor and Administrator. Seeing the way that both society at large and the church in particular were becoming increasingly and vociferously fragmented, he began a movement for what he calls “respectful conversations” among Christians (http://www.respectfulconversation.net/). Believing that Jesus Christ – the One in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)intends for His church to be a place where people who have different convictions about the hot-button issues of the moment can still sit down together and talk to each other honestly and civilly and still relate to each other lovingly, Harold Heie has been brokering respectful conversations between Christians on all of the difficult topics that are currently tearing churches, families, friends and the electorate apart.  And out of this experience, he has identified what he calls the three “preconditions” to which we must all be committed as Christians if we are to maintain and extend “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”- humility, patience and love.  Interestingly, these three Christian virtues correspond exactly to what Paul told the Ephesians must be cultivated in them if they were to have any chance at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – “…humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4:2).

mountThe first precondition is humility.  Paul Tournier, the Swiss Psychiatrist, told a wonderful story on himself. He had taken the train to Italy and there in the station he saw a travel poster on the wall with a picture of the majestic Matterhorn on it.   Being Swiss, Dr. Tournier said that he knew very well what the Matterhorn looked like – it was, after all, something of national symbol. And so he said that he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with this picture on the poster. As he studied it closely, he said that it finally dawned on him that that the distinctive peak of the Matterhorn was pointing the wrong way in the picture. “These stupid Italians,” Dr. Tournier thought to himself, “have reversed the image; they got it backwards.” Feeling all superior and smug, Dr. Tournier said that it only gradually dawned on him later that from the south, from the Italian side of the mountain where he was standing at that moment, the picture in the poster was what the Matterhorn would in fact look like!  He had failed to take the Italian perspective into consideration, and Harold Heie says that “respectful conversations” are only possible when we humbly admit that other people are going to have different points of view that we really need to hear and to try to understand. As a “finite, fallible human being, I do not fully understand the truth as God knows it, and so I can always learn from conversation with others,” and they can learn from me.  There can be no respectful conversation and no maintenance of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I begin by thinking or saying, “I have the truth, you don’t,” so agree with me or go away, or else I will.

 

The second precondition is patience. Writing about grief, the Christian poet Cecilia Venable observed –

In due season, your heart will be healed…
I know, for God has led me down this long, often confusing path…
[on this] weary but immeasurably worthwhile journey…
And I know that it is well to trust in His seasons,
until they become our seasons…

Trusting that “His seasons” are becoming “our seasons” is not just crucial for the healing process of grief, but also for the stretching process of spiritual maturation.  The bottom line is that we are all works in progress, all the time.  We are men and women who are only gradually being transformed by Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).  And this means that all of our actions and attitudes, all of our beliefs and behaviors as Christians are at this moment, and at every moment, still very much in the process of being formed. We’re not finished yet, and so we have to learn the delicate art of being able to balance ideas that we are willing to fight for and maybe even die over, with a stance of openness that says I am always willing to learn more and to be taught better.  In my senior yearbook from Glendale High School one of my teachers left me with this parting counsel: “Stand firm in your faith and keep searching for truth; you will one day discover that these two things are in conflict.”

 crossesRecognizing this himself, Harold Heie likes to say that he is “on pilgrimage.”  He says that as he walks through his life, “faithful to his present understanding of how he should think and act as a Christian,” that he also understands and fully appreciates the fact that “the very process of walking is going to lead him to further insights about how it is that he should be walking.” And if this is true, if we are all still being formed spiritually, then we’ve got to be patient with ourselves and with each other as together we continue to grow in conscience and conviction.  And we have got to resist the constant impulse to walk away from each other when we disagree because to do so is to cut short the very process by which we all will continue to grow and change.

The third precondition is love.  Jesus said that people outside the community of faith have every right to look at the way that we are loving each other inside the community of faith to determine both the depth of our commitment to Christ (John 13:34-35), and the validity of the Gospel itself (John 17:20-21) on the basis of what they see.  It’s easy for me to love you and for you to love me when we see eye to eye on things.  It’s much trickier for us to love each other when we disagree on a matter of conscience and conviction, but this fightis exactly the kind of love that the world will sit up and take notice of because it’s just so rare these days.  We’re so much more accustomed to people lining up on opposite sides of the street to hurl insults and throw elbows at each other when we disagree.  When people come down on opposite sides of a question about which they have carefully and prayerfully settled conclusions that involve passionate feelings, and they nevertheless choose to stay in relationship with people who have arrived at the opposite conclusion prayerfully and carefully and with the same deep feelings, even though it’s hard to do so, I believe that they are doing the very thing that Paul told Christians to do in Ephesians 4.  They are maintaining the “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” They are giving concrete and costly expression to their belief in Jesus Christ, the One who “holds all things together,” and who will one day “gather up all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth.” The church and the world are desperate for the emergence of people like this. And so I beg you, on the basis of your calling in Christ, the One who holds all things together, to become one of them. DBS+

 

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