Sunday, August 20, 2006

“Ties That Bind”[1]

Ephesians 4:1-16

My Grandpa was a die-hard Methodist. He had been an Elder and a Trustee of the First Methodist Church in McAllen, TX. When I announced to the family that I was going to become a Baptist minister, he was definitely undecided about it! On the one hand, he was proud that I was going to become a minister. As he explained it to me one day, the three top professions from his point of view were Doctor, Lawyer, and Minister! But I’m sure he would have been happier if I had become a Methodist minister.

Grandpa used to razz me at times about how divisive Baptists were. He used to say that fighting and splitting were the only ways that Baptists knew how to plant new churches! By contrast, he was clearly proud of the fact that he was a member of the United Methodist church. Even with his somewhat limited theological training, I think my grandpa had something there. From the earliest days Christians confessed that they believed in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

One of the hallmarks of our Presbyterian version of the Christian faith is that we believe there is one church. It’s not just that, as our General Presbyter Mike Cole says, there is one Presbyterian Church (USA) in Southeast Texas—the Presbytery of the New Covenant. It means that there is one Church in Southeast Texas—even though we do not relate to one another in any kind of formal organization.

It has been one of the fundamental beliefs about the church for almost all of Christian history—there is one church. This faith not only unites all Protestants—it also unites Protestants with Catholics and Catholics with Orthodox. There is one church. It is the product of God’s saving work in this world.

Unfortunately, that kind of unity is often not very apparent in our churches—we’re such a competitive culture. If there are two or more PC (USA) churches in the same location, the chances are they will view each other as competitors rather than companions. When you throw the different denominations and branches of the Christian faith into the mix, it becomes one big mess. Not much unity there—at least as far as appearances go.

What we have to grasp, however, is that the kind of unity that the Apostle Paul was talking about, and that the church has historically confessed, does not come from institutional structures or personalities or organizational systems. It’s not constituted by doctrinal agreement or shared political or theological convictions. It’s not the product of any special church growth seminar. No amount of organizational transformation can create the kind of unity Paul had in mind.

Paul was talking about the unity that God creates—the church is the one people of the one God.[2] He was talking about the unity that Jesus Christ creates—the church is the one people of the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He was talking about the unity that the Spirit of God creates—the church is the one people of the one Holy Spirit.[3] In particular, Paul attributes this kind of unity to the presence and powerful work of God’s Spirit in all our lives. It’s what makes the church live.[4]

Paul also calls the unity that the Spirit creates the “bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3; cf. “the peace that binds you together,” NJB). Paul is not just talking about the absence of conflict here, but the presence of genuine acceptance.[5] One of the signs of the health of any human community is that it has significant differences. The bond created among us by the presence of the love of God in Christ through the Spirit doesn’t eliminate differences. It means that the differences don’t divide us, they make us stronger.[6]

But the “unity of the Spirit” is something that has to be preserved. How do we do that? By practicing gentleness, humility, patience, and love—these are ties that bind us together. These qualities in our relationships with each other promote the unity that the Spirit creates.

So instead of reacting angrily or harshly next time one of your flawed and fallible fellow church members does something really thoughtless and rude, we respond gently, with patience, and in love. We bear with one another—we are slow to condemn, slow to anger, even if it’s not just the seventy-seventh time, but the “seventy times seven”-th time! We “grow up” into the “full stature of Christ” by building one another up.

As we practice the spiritual discipline of relating to each other with this kind of mutual acceptance, we are preserving the “unity of the Spirit.” We are realizing the unity of the Body of Christ in our congregation. We are taking one small step toward the ideal of a church that is one.[7]

[1] A sermon preached 8/6/06 at FPC Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1, 668; Hans Küng, The Church, 273.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 294, 337-38

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 291.

[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342.

[6] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 347

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1, 654.

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