Wineskins Archive

December 6, 2013

It’s Not Our Unity (July 2012)

Filed under: — @ 12:30 am and

By James Wood

It was a stunning revelation to me, when I first read Ephesians 4:3. I don’t recall the words ever being arranged that way before. In all the times I’d read and studied Ephesians, I’d failed to notice the simple construction, the easy sentence structure that says so much.

Maybe I was eager to get on to the meat of verses 4-5 where I found all the reasons to exclude other believers – they have the wrong understanding of baptism, they have a wrong doctrine of Jesus, they don’t understand what the bible says about the work of the Spirit …

Maybe I was too quick to jump down to verse 11 and following so that I could figure out the right structure for the church. There, at least, was a great place from which I could infer church government and leadership principles. Then I could find ways to exclude people who didn’t obey the clear teaching of Scripture – they have too much structure, they don’t have enough structure …

Maybe I took the verses before, 1-2, and spent my time emphasizing the lack of humility, patience and love of the people around me. This one was easy to use if I ever got in an argument – “Are you being humble? Completely?” Then I could exclude all the prideful, impatient and unloving people …

Then verse 3 appeared out of nowhere.

<blockquote>“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”</blockquote>

That simple construction that sits right in the middle of the sentence must have been added when I wasn’t looking. I’m sure it wasn’t there before. “The unity of the Spirit.” Another way to say it is, “the Spirit’s unity.” Possessive. Genitive, if you want to talk about the Greek.

The unity belongs to the Spirit. It’s not ours. We can keep it, but we don’t own it; we don’t define it. Rather, I don’t own it or define it. Not like I’ve pretended to. Not like I wanted to. All that excluding I did wasn’t my job to do. That’s embarrassing. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

By the time you get to Ephesians 4, you’ve already had to wade through lots of unity talk. The idea of Jews and Gentiles being united into one body is clearly spelled out in chapter 3. Jesus brought the two together.

But that idea is murky to me. From my perspective, both Jews and Gentiles are ancient races with weird practices. They aren’t much different from the Amalakites or Jebusites, interesting archaeological artifacts, but not much more.

Yet the reality of Jews and Gentiles being brought together was stunning. It changed everything. Here were two groups so opposed to each other it seemed impossible they could ever agree on anything.

One group claimed to have all truth; they had special practices and rites that set them apart from everyone else in the world. They took pride in being separate and emphasized it whenever they had to deal with anyone outside their group. They stuck together, avoiding contamination in either practice or presence.
The other group hated them for it. They struggled with loose boundaries in practice, belief and life. Their inclusivity was an affront to the closed-group and so they despised the closed-group for being stuck-up, prideful snobs who were disconnected from reality.
Do either of these groups sound familiar? Could you find groups today that fit those descriptions? I know I could.

And Jesus brought them together. United them.
But the unity didn’t demand they give up their identity. The Jews were still Jewish and did Jewish things. They ate kosher, observed the Sabbath and circumcision. The Gentiles were still Gentiles. They still spoke Greek and Latin, ate their native diet, worshiped God on Sunday and weren’t circumcised. They were unified, but they didn’t have to look the same.
Because the unity wasn’t theirs, it was, and is, the unity of the Spirit.

If the unity is mine, then people need to look like me to be unified with me. If I have a club, then I get to set the rules for who’s in and who’s out. Or, I can join a club that has rules I like and then I have to abide by their definition of unity. If I don’t follow their rules, then I’m out of their club.

What Jesus did in unifying the Jews and Gentiles is to take away their ability to set the rules. It wasn’t their club anymore. It’s not our club either. We don’t get to admit people because they’re like us and refuse them because they’re not like us. Unity is still based on similarity, but it’s based on similarity to the person who founded this new club – Jesus.

When we’re like Jesus we’re a part of the club – we’re members of the body of Christ – and we get to keep the unity of the Spirit. But, just like the Jews and Gentiles, we don’t get to define that unity on our own terms. It’s not about what we eat or drink, where or when we worship, or which rites we practice.

Jesus himself set the standard, when his disciples asked about some rogues who were using Jesus’ name to perform miracles. His response then should be our response now, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)

But wait! What about the ones who do … what about the ones who say … what about the ones who wear … what about …?

What about it? How is it different from the division between the Jews and the Gentiles? Their theological  disagreements, if anything, were more pronounced than anything we deal with today. And it’s not our unity to keep. We don’t define it. We don’t control it.

It’s the unity of the Spirit. You can keep it or not.
But the way we’re supposed to keep it is through humility, patience and love.

What if we’re humble and say: “Maybe we don’t have everything figured out. Maybe we don’t have the final definition of what it means to follow Jesus. Maybe we can learn from other Jesus-followers.”

What if we’re patient and say: “Maybe we need to study this some more. Maybe they need some time to come around. Maybe healthy change can’t happen overnight.”

What if we’re loving and say: “They’re doing good things for the community and helping people. They’re giving cups of water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. They’re showing us, a little bit, what it means to follow Jesus.”

What if we stop trying to define unity and start trying to keep the Spirit’s unity?

I wonder if those other words of Jesus will be true of us. As he knelt, washing the feet of his closest friends, he gave them a new commandment, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

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