Unity starts with Jesus.
[A Bonus Post for the Rally to Restore Unity]
This is completely unrelated to my post, but this is my favorite #restoreunity sign from the week thus far. Originally from Bryan Dormaier (link to original post)
OH, I also REALLY liked the Bill and Ted sign… whoever did that one.
Sure, unity is great.
But is it vital? Is it necessary?
After all, churches (in this country in particular) have been splitting and re-splitting like amoebas for decades…centuries, even! We know, somehow, deep down, that it’s bad… but at the end of the day, what’s the big deal?
Well, either it truly isn’t a big deal…. or, we have grown so accustomed to division, to digging in our heels and standing up for what we believe to be the authentic Gospel, that we have become numb to the fact that, according to Jesus, the Gospel itself is at stake when we fail to unify.
The stakes are too low in our minds.
Jesus Himself is what’s at stake.
Some examples— (following the jump):
Portion of the Western Wall in Jerusalem… the only remaining piece of the Herodian temple.
- Regarding the original church division issue (Jew vs. Gentile), Paul (or his followers) said these words:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2:13-16 NRSV)
The word “dividing wall” most likely alludes to the wall (sorek) in the Herodian Temple that separated the outer court from the central area of the temple, where Jews would enter to offer their worship, closer to the Holy Place where God was said to reside.
According to Paul/Paulinist, Jesus tore down that wall.
As the son of David and son of Adam, he brought Jew and Gentile together, restoring the original intent of the covenant made to Abraham— that the entire world would be blessed. No matter the ethnic or theological differences between the two; Jesus brought them together once and for all.
- To the Galatian church riddled with divisive Jew/Gentile debates about the value of circumcision, Paul responds by saying, first, Christ has given you a new identity, one that supersedes all others:
…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:26-29 NRSV)
Second, he tells them: “You’re missing the point!”
Faith, meaning, following Jesus. Love, being the primary means by which we follow.
With ALL our doctrinal arguments in the church…at the end of the day, if we’re hitching our wagons to Jesus (following Him), and we’re holding our lives up to the light of His Spirit and His life, then HE is the source of our unity….
…and by failing to live in unity (our orthopraxis), we betray the very thing that our adherence to doctrine (our orthodoxy) seek to defend: Christ Himself. Are we possibly failing to be faithful to Jesus Himself, by getting it confused with a faithfulness to doctrine? [That would certainly be easier. Doctrines and laws are static; Jesus is, as William Willimon likes to say, “peripatetic,” i.e., mobile. He is a person/being; not a state. He’s a moving target, impossible to control.] Humans make laws, and laws divide human from human; when Jesus took the law upon Himself, He did away with the need to divide….how dare we make laws out of THIS good news????
- Cyprian of Carthage ministered during one of the most difficult, but perhaps also the most inspiring, periods in the history of the church. Christianity had survived wave after wave of persecution, which further spawned a number of theological conflicts as well, involving how Christians should live in such a world, and how to deal with those who “cave” to the Roman Empire in the face of persecution when they wish to rejoin the church after the political climate would settle.
Cyprian was a conservative on virtually all of these matters, and wrote fervent treatises arguing his positions. But when push came to shove, Cyprian’s overarching concern was not doctrinal purity, but ecclesial UNITY:
The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 5)
Unity preserved despite diversity….because of Christ.
Does that mean that churches can be permitted to divide in function, in order to prevent further discord, because their unity is mainly spiritual, not structural?
He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother…He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, “I and the Father are one;” (St. John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “And these three are one.” (I St. John 5:7)…He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation. (On the Unity of the Church, 6)
Even the conservative Cyprian valued unity above all else. And he proved it by refusing to disavow the church even though he vehemently disagreed with the Roman bishop (the Pope) on a particularly heated issue.
Too much was at stake to split.
- Fast-forwarding 1800 years, and moving from one end of a continent to another…..
The people of the Reformed churches in South Africa understood what was at stake when in 1982 in a township called Belhar, the DRMC drafted a document stating plainly that the separation between people in the church, sanctioned and legislated by the perverse doctrine of apartheid, threatened the very Gospel itself:
- …Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
- …(U)nity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
- …(T)his unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23)…
Unity is a “gift and an obligation”…for those who claim Christ.
It sounds pretty vital and necessary to me.
Yet we seem pretty content with disunity, if you look around the church today.
Just last night, I heard a man at our church wrestle with recent changes in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) church, the only way he being able to make sense of it all was to label those making the changes with words like “evil,” “unrighteous,” “manipulative.” Is our church contemplating a split? That certainly would be easier than staying in fellowship, and considering them “evil” makes that choice even more apparent.
Just yesterday, Amy and I learned that a dear friend of ours is being dismissed from this position as a pastor at their church, predominantly because he was a young adult pastor, who did things “differently,” for the sake of being open and available to this oft-neglected population. This created too much cognitive dissonance for the head pastor, apparently.
These are only drops in the ocean of examples of the increasing fragmentations of our communities.
Unity is more than a nice idea.
It IS vital. It IS necessary.
And as cliché and naïve as it sounds… it starts with a commitment to Jesus.
Faithfulness to HIM (and thus His body)… and not to IDEAS about Him. (Which isn’t easy— in fact it means we love the BODY as we love God Himself, even in its brokenness.)
Because if we humble ourselves and are faithful to Jesus, even in our mish-mash of interpretations and understandings (perhaps, actually, because of that diversity)…
we will actually look like His body.
And our love that transcends our differences will testify.
And maybe then, we’ll have something vital to share with the world.