The Church’s Unity
It all started with a cotton swab. The anesthesiologist had administered the medication, and was monitoring the patient’s vital signs in the operating room as the patient, an elderly woman, sank into a deep sleep, free of any sensation. The nurse stood vigilantly nearby. The surgeon had more than two decades of surgical experience, and began the procedure. All was going well. At least, it looked like it. The date was October 24, 1991. The hospital was the Medical Center of Central Massachusetts.
No one knows for sure what words passed between them, but it quickly became clear that the two physicians in the room, the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, didn’t like each other. At all. Silently the minutes ticked by, and with each passing moment the tension in the operating room grew thicker. And thicker. It’s fairly common for two highly educated, intelligent physicians who perhaps don’t like each other very much for any number of reasons to set aside their differences and do their jobs together as professionals for the good of the patient. It’s common enough for people to not really like, or prefer to work with, one another. Most of us figure out a way to make it work for the greater good, or one of us changes jobs.
Well, no one knows why, but at one point during the operation, The anesthesiologist muttered a profanity in the surgeon’s direction. Almost without thinking, the surgeon flicked a cotton-tipped prep stick disdainfully at the anesthesiologist. Apparently, the surgeon was a good aim, because that tiny cotton swab hit its target and sparked everything that happened next.
The anesthesiologist retaliated. First came shoving. Then shouting. Then an all-out brawl between the two learned men of medicine. Fists flying and surgical goals forgotten, the doctors ended up punching, jabbing, name-calling wrestling match on the operating room floor. Fortunately, the patient slept through it all.
Finally the two men got tired, regained their composure, got up and finished the operation, only marginally worse for the wear. Not long after each was fined $10,000 by the state Board of Registration in Medicine, and ordered to submit to joint psychotherapy for their aggressive tendencies. So they had to go to couples counseling. And it all started with a cotton swab.
Sadly, the same thing happens in the body of Christ. It happens between individual followers of Christ. Churches split into cliques and factions. It happens between churches and we label each other …
… the country club church, where you can be comfortable and your lifestyle isn’t seriously challenged
… the holy rollers, who prefer more expressive and emotive styles of worship
… the little church, insignificant and barely hanging on
… the big, fancy church with the big-name pastor, focused on name and image
Conservative. Liberal. Fundamentalist. Evangelical. Calvinist. Wesleyan. Mainline. Non-denominational. Black churches and white churches and Korean churches. Catholic and Protestant. Denominational and nondenominational. And we have gotten to the place where these names are no longer simply descriptive. They’re derogatory with cultural caricatures attached to them. In John 17, Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” where he prays for his own disciples who were with him and for those of us who would come along and follow him in the future, Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one … “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (17:11, 20-23). When Jesus himself prayed for us, what was his prayer? That we would be … one. He prayed that we would be with him and see the fullness of his glory, and that we would be one.
Today, worldwide, there are roughly 45,000 distinct, different Christian denominations. That isn’t all bad. God doesn’t fit cleanly in any one denominational box, just as he doesn’t fit in any single political or social box. There is more to God than any one human brain, or even a group of human brains, can comprehend. God has created us with great diversity and wants us to come to him in worship and in praise in a variety of ways. The Christian denominational tapestry can be a beautiful thing. The problem comes when we emphasize our differences, rather than the thing we share in common. Turn with me to Ephesians 4:1-6.
The unity, the oneness, of Christ’s body, Christ’s church, is based on the oneness of God. For millennia the Jewish people have prayed the “Shema” every day. Found in Deuteronomy 6, it begins, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (6:4). And yet, within the oneness of God, there is diversity – the diversity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons, one God. So unified that God is one, AND ALSO three persons. All three spoken of in Scripture with words reserved for God alone. Jesus was crucified because, according to the people, he claimed to be God. And so the Nicene Creed, based on the Apostle’s Creed and developed at the first ecumenical council, the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, reads “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father … And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified. He spoke through the prophets.”
And like a machine gun firing round after round, Paul hammers home the oneness of God. Look at Vv. 4-6. ONE body. That’s the church. Why? Because there is ONE Spirit. ONE hope. ONE Lord. ONE faith. ONE baptism. ONE God. ONE Father of all, and that God is over all and through all and in all. God is one, and God is sovereign. The power of God, the righteousness of God, the love of God, the goodness of God, and the authority of God are unparalleled, unmatched, and unquestionable. St. James tells us, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (2:19). Satan himself knows and believes in the oneness of God, the all-consuming power of God, the ultimate goodness of God and it causes him to shudder in fear. Satan may be a lot of things, but an atheist isn’t one of them.
And just as there is unity in diversity in the nature of God, so there is unity in diversity in the body of Christ, the people of God in the world. Look at V. 3. Paul tells us to maintain the unity of God himself, the unity the Spirit of God gives to the people of God, in the bond of peace. And our unity as the people of God, our oneness, our ability to be one, grows from the character of Christ being developed in us by the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 4:16 Paul says, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” And in 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We are one IN Christ, through our common relationship to him, and we are one BECAUSE of Christ. We are the body of Christ. And our unity as the body of Christ begins not with unified structures and denominations and churches coming together and working together, although those are wonderful things. We are to walk in unity even when we maintain some diversity. The unity of the people of God begins in our hearts. It is maintained in hearts in which the character of Christ is being formed. Look at Vv. 1-2.
Paul calls us to walk, to live with intentionality, in a manner worthy of our calling as the body of Christ. As followers of Christ, we pursue unity with one another by pursuing these traits. The first is humility. When Paul was looking for a word to use here, he had to use a word that was coined by Christians themselves, because the ancient Greeks had no word for humility that didn’t have a sense of disrepute, cowering, and ignoble attached to it. The key to understanding humility as Paul intended it is to realize that it focuses on our thinking. It means “lowliness of mind” in opposition to haughtiness. It has to do with our minds – with what, and who, we spend our time thinking about. Humility is my willingness to receive correction from others when necessary.
Second, we’re to be marked by gentleness. Some translations use the work “meekness” here. When many of us think of meekness, we think of weakness. But gentleness isn’t weakness. Gentleness is great strength under great control. Aristotle wrote often about gentleness. In his thinking, gentleness is the midpoint between the two extremes of never getting angry about anything and getting angry about everything. A gentle person is one who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time. So a gentle person might be someone who is angered by the wrongs and sufferings of others but never moved to anger by personal insults and wrongs suffered at the hands of others. Great strength, but under great control. Gentleness is my attitude toward those the world might perceive as being “below me,” those who might be less able or gifted.
The third trait is patience. Some translations call this long-suffering, and it’s a word that, in the Bible, has two primary meanings. First, it describes someone who will never give in, who will endure to the end. Patience means a lot more than just “waiting well,” or “waiting politely,” which is how we tend to view it. Patience means having a spirit that never admits defeat, that can’t be broken by any disappointment or discouragement, no matter how large. Patience looks a lot like endurance. It pictures a person who hangs on to the end, no matter what. This is the person who continues believing God, trusting God, hanging in there with God no matter how hard, difficult, or painful life gets. Patient people don’t necessarily enjoy their suffering and pain. In fact, they probably hate it and try to seek some means of alleviating it. But they never quit. They never give up. Their walk may slow to a crawl, but they’re still moving.
But the Bible, patience is also applied to our relationships with others. Patience is gentleness on repeat. Patience doesn’t expect people to get things right the first time. Patience gives others as much time as they need. As long as it takes. It is being able to endure, specifically the ability to endure rejection and injury from other people. Patience is the ability to endure attacks from other people and keep on loving and forgiving long after whatever natural human ability endure and forgive has been spent. It involves having the power to take revenge on someone but refusing to do so. This is patience not with people who are easy to love, but with people who are aggravating. Many churches deal with church splits. Some occur over significant issues of theology, but most are over much smaller matters. One such split actually went to court as each faction in the church tried to kick the other out. The government court handed the issue over to their denomination, so they called an ecclesiastical court, and one faction eventually won over the other. Sadly, when someone researched the split, he was able to trace it back to an elder receiving a smaller piece of ham than a child at a church dinner. That perceived slight, certainly not intentional and also not significant, started the whole thing. Of course, nobody knew that. What might have happened if humility, and gentleness, and patience with aggravating people marked the people in that church? How many marriages could be saved? How many families made whole? How much workplace drama could be avoided?
The fourth trait is love. Every time we turn around, the Bible mentions love as marking our lives as followers of Jesus. In fact, love sort of sums up everything else. If we’re living humbly, and if we’re living gently, and if we’re living with patience, then we’re able to show real love. And I love the phrase Paul chooses here. He says “bearing with one another in love.” I just love that! Do you know what he’s saying? PUT UP WITH EACH OTHER!!
The word for love here is agape. It means to love someone or something based on real appreciation and high regard for them. We sometimes refer to it as unconditional love. This kind of love isn’t just an emotion. It is an act of the will. It’s the ability to have an unrelenting goodwill towards the unlovely and the unlovable, towards those who do not love us in return at all, even towards those we really don’t like. It is loved that truly seeks what is best for the other, regardless of feeling or sentiment. Sometimes it means saying hard things because of love. But hard things don’t necessarily need to be said harshly. Hard things, disagreement, correction, can be handled in a spirit of humility and gentleness. They all go together. When my life is marked by humility, gentleness, patience, and love, the character of Christ being formed in his people, I will keep on serving and loving, even when it gets hard. Even when people complain about the food we prepare instead of being grateful for a warm meal. It is the attitude Christ showed toward all of us from the cross when he sought God’s forgiveness specifically for those who were taunting him, spitting on him, beating him, and crucifying him.
And we are to MAINTAIN the peace that the character of Christ brings. How do we do that? We maintain the peace of Christ among us when we …
… renounce self-centeredness and embrace humility
… renounce harshness and violence and embrace gentleness
— renounce the tyranny of our own agendas and embrace patience
And when we renounce our rights and embrace love, seeking the best for the other. It is here, in human hearts like yours and mine, hearts that are broken and selfish and self-centered but being transformed by the Holy Spirit to reveal the character of Christ, that our unity is born, and it is here, in healed and healing hearts, that it is maintained.
After an accident in which she lost her arm, a girl named Jamie refused to go to school or church for an entire year. Finally the young teen thought she could face her peers. In preparation, her mother called her Sunday school teacher and asked that he not call attention to Jamie. The teacher promised, but when he got sick on Sunday and had to call a substitute, he forgot to tell the second teacher.
At the conclusion of the lesson that day, which was about inviting friends to church, the sub led the class in doing the hand motions to the familiar children’s poem:
Here’s the church
Here are the people
Open the door
See all the people.
Jamie’s eyes filled with tears. A 13-year-old boy realized how she must be feeling. He knelt beside her. With one hand apiece, they supported each other, making the church, steeple, and people. Together they illustrated what real church is.