Guarding Unity

unityIn light of everything that is going on in our world today; shootings in churches, civil war, human trafficking, and constitutional decisions… unity is the last thing on our minds. We don’t want to find a way to be united with “those people”, you know, the ones who believe something different from us, the ones who obviously have it all wrong… but God calls the church to be united.

The following is an adaptation of a sermon entitled “Guarding Unity” written by Pastor Mark Peters at North Shore Alliance Church. Click here to hear the teaching in its entirety.

In speaking to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul wrote, “Make every effort to guard the unity of the Spirit.

God loves diversity and He calls His church to share this love. He calls together young and old, male and female, rich and poor, and people from every nation and language. Groups like this don’t naturally come together or stay together; there are too many forces keeping them apart: geography, ethnicity, language, values, beliefs, and preferences.

We are, as a human race, predisposed to mistrust, name-calling, division, and alienation. #justice Click To TweetWe are, as a human race, predisposed to mistrust, name-calling, division, and alienation. History has proven that humanity, left to itself, divides. But Jesus is the One who unites us—only Jesus can reconcile us to God and to one another—He died to make this unity possible. In Jesus we find level ground upon which all humanity can stand.

In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that unity isn’t something that we create, it’s something we enter into—it’s rooted in God. But while this unity is a gift from God, unity is also a behaviour—He calls us to treasure this precious gift, guarding it by the way we treat one another.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

In Hong Kong, there are a myriad of ways that the British influence can be seen. One of these ways is in their rail system. At the edge of the track, and on every train, the following words are written: “Mind the Gap”. When a train pulled into the station and people began to file on and off, a recorded voice can be heard saying, “Mind the Gap”. I think God is directing this message to us. None of us live up to the measure of our values and beliefs. In all of us, there is a gap between what we believe and how we behave.

In Jesus we find level ground upon which all humanity can stand. #justice Click To Tweet

For example, you might meet someone who is passionate about the environment, legalistic about recycling, but who drives a Hummer. You might coach athletes and preach the importance of training but never exercise yourself. Some financial advisors don’t take their own advice and wind up in personal financial crisis. You may want to be kind and loving but act in a cold, uncaring fashion.1Ben C. Fletcher, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-something-different/201203/are-you-living-lie

Hypocrisy isn’t a Christian problem, it’s a human problem.

The apostle Paul calls us beyond belief in Jesus to a faith that is marked by complete, undivided allegiance to Jesus.2N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, 43. If it sounds impossible, you’re quite right. None of us can live up to this call. But just as we invite Jesus to bridge the gap between us and God, we also ask Him to bridge the gap—to close the gap—between what we believe and how we behave.

On August 27th, 1996, three weeks before his unexpected death, Henri Nouwen wrote the following in his journal: “We who offer spiritual leadership often find ourselves not living what we are teaching or preaching. It is not easy to avoid hypocrisy completely because we find ourselves saying things larger than ourselves. I often call people to a life I am not fully able to live. I am learning that the best cure for hypocrisy is community. Hypocrisy is not so much the result of not living what I preach but much more of not confessing my inability to fully live up to my own words.

By the grace of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the help of a loving community, our thoughts, our desires, our words, and our action can be transformed. As we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, as we listen to Him and keep in step with Him, our belief and behaviour can become congruent.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Paul is really saying two things. First, he’s saying, “make unity a priority.” And second, he’s saying, “unity is something that needs to be treasured, kept, and guarded.” The unity of the Spirit is both precious and fragile. If it weren’t so precious and fragile, we wouldn’t need to make every effort to keep it.

Most division begins with a disagreement—you see things one way, and I another. Disagreement frequently leads to disruption, disruption leads to distance, and distance leads to distortion. I might say to myself, “You are different from me. This makes me suspicious, and it might mean you are dangerous.” When we distance ourselves from one another, it becomes easier to craft a one-sided, distorted, version of the disagreement. In the absence of conversation, a husband creates a story about why his wife doesn’t respect him, and wife creates a story about why her husband does love her the way she needs.

We move from “what” actually happened to thinking we see clearly enough to determine the “why.” By the time we have judged the internal attitudes and motivations of the other person, full-blown division has taken place. Like a small crack on a windshield, once division begins, it spreads in every direction.

Lucky for us, division needs more than a human solution. Unity isn’t something that just happens, but neither is it something we create—it’s something we are invited to enter into; unity is rooted in God.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

When you look at the passage above, which word is repeated seven times? One.

There is one Spirit, one Lord Jesus Christ, one God and Father of all. God is three and yet one; caught up in God’s very being is unity in diversity. The internal life of God is intended to be the pattern for our life together.

Not only is there one Spirit, one Lord, and one Father, there is only one body. Throughout the New Testament, the church is metaphorically described as the body of Jesus—we are His hands to serve, His feet to walk with people, His mouth to speak of God’s love for the world. Jesus only has one body—there may be many different churches, in many different locations, but together we form one body.

Unity is rooted in God, it’s a gift, but unity is also a behavior. Click To Tweet

There is only one hope, one baptism, one faith, and one common future that awaits everyone who puts their trust in Jesus. We’ve been rescued by the same Person, we’ve been adopted into the same family, and we’re being prepared for the same eternal destiny.

Unity is the direct result of God’s initiative and grace—it’s a gift—it came about because of His faithfulness. No one is worthy of His grace, each of us are equally undeserving of rescue, but because of His great love, He chose us to belong to Him and to one another.

Unity is rooted in God, it’s a gift, but unity is also a behavior.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

The Apostle Paul was writing to a church comprised of young and old, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew, Greek, Roman, and African.

Paul wasn’t blind to the differences in language, culture, gender, or economics but his attention was fixed elsewhere. The church is the masterpiece of God’s grace—the collection of people who have been rescued, reconciled, and restored regardless of what divides us. These former distinctions must all be filtered through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been united to God and to one another. And so, while there will always be differences in age, gender, culture, and preference, our new identity as the one people of God trumps every former distinction. What unites us is Christ, what we enter into is the oneness that exists in God—this is what has captured Paul’s attention.

Unity is rooted in God, it’s a gift, and it’s a behaviour to be cultivated. We make every effort to keep this unity when we invite the Holy Spirit to cultivate within us four essential character qualities: humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

We cultivate humility by renouncing self-centeredness. When we find ourselves in disagreement with another person, humility seeks to understand before distance, distortion, and division occur. The Holy Spirit is the One cultivates this humility as we keep in step with Him. As humility grows in us as a church, we will seek to prioritize the needs and desires of others by serving, praying, and giving. Jesus is our example—though He was God, He didn’t use power for His own advantage.

We cultivate gentleness by renouncing harshness and oppression. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Being gentle doesn’t mean spineless or weak, but it does mean dealing mercifully with those who criticize or disagree with us—it does mean defending the reputation of others and letting God defend our own reputation.

And finally, we cultivate patience and love by renouncing judgment and entitlement.3Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 218-219.

The call to unity is a call to journey with people who think differently than we do, and to bear with them in love. Of course, we are only passing on to others what we need, what we have received from Jesus—a patient, persevering love that gives others room to “fail, learn, and develop.”4Snodgrass, 219. We cannot withhold this love and claim to understand grace. We need the Spirit to close the gap between what we believe and how we behave.

Humility, gentleness, and patient, persevering, love. The Holy Spirit seeks to cultivate these character qualities in every disciple of Jesus, and, in every church—where these qualities abound, we guard the unity of the Spirit, and the mission of the church advances.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Ben C. Fletcher, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-something-different/201203/are-you-living-lie
2. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, 43.
3. Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 218-219.
4. Snodgrass, 219.