At the end of every summer, our church throws a picnic with lawn games galore, including the tug-of-war. And while tug-of-war at its core is about strength, a team working as one often overcomes a team of stronger individuals. Rather than a cacophony of each person pulling at their own pace, the best tug-of-war teams instead unify their pulling like a rowing team does in crew races. A good tug-of-war team staggers stronger members to support the weaker. The anchor person at the back watches progress to better time shouts of “pull!” Unity matters as much as brawn in sport. But unity, while celebrated by the Bible, is often in short supply in the Church. There are hundreds of rival denominations. Within those are yet further factions built around personalities, politics, or petty disputes. Even within any single congregation, unity is often in short supply, especially in this day and age where if the pastor displeases or programs aren't up to snuff there's another church just down the road, so maybe the grass is greener over there instead. Paul spent much of Ephesians 3 celebrating God's gift of unity to us Christians, yet we fall so short. And this failure poses danger not only to our collective witness and ministry... but to our individual spiritualities as well. Because ultimately, unity is indeed a gift from God... but one into which we the Church must mature both corporately and as individuals.
Paul begins Ephesians 4: “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I see this as the personal side of unity that deals with our behavior as individuals responsible for our own actions. I as a single Christian resolve to be humble or gentle, to imitate the goodness and love of Jesus, to do my small part to maintain the unity of the Holy Spirit. And Paul later writes: “The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,” to highlight how we as individuals each make a contribution, that a Christian must contribute her skills and strengths to the greater whole, must share the God-given abilities that make that her distinct. So there is an individual responsibility to work towards Christian unity. At the same time, the Church as a whole has a corporate responsibility, a joint burden to maintain its unity that goes beyond the work or whims of any single member. Paul compares the unity within the Church to the unity within God's own Being when he writes: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” We the Church—we as a congregation—have a joint responsibility to be one, just as God is one. And though Paul says that every believer has their own unique God-given gifts and skills, Paul clarifies that we are to use our individual gifts, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Every individual skill you bring to the Church—whether listening or plumbing or crafting—every person's gifts as a Christian are meant to be used to train and prepare other believers, to aid others in maturing into stronger Christians. All our individual strengths are meant to work in corporate harmony, using our personal talents to build up the faith of the collective we share.
But what is unity that we can say such things? Does unity mean we must agree on everything all the time? Like Ned Flanders or the Stepford Wives, does Christian unity mean we must become indistinct bland drones? Certainly not! Unity does not mean uniformity. If the unity of the Church is modeled after the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... we know that it is not uniformity. For Jesus pleads with the Father on Maundy Thursday to change his plans. And when Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to his disciples, it is a quite different experience of God than they had with Jesus walking the dusty roads alongside them. Yet still Jesus, Father, and the Holy Spirit are united in understanding, in overall aim, and in action. So too while not everyone in a congregation will agree on everything, we can find unity in the essentials of God. Paul writes here, “We must no longer be tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” In Paul's day, the storm of division he wrote about was a legalism that questioned whether non-Jews could be Christians or a conformity to pagan Roman society. In our day, the doctrinal divisions are different, yet still we find ourselves tossed to and fro between temptations to cruel legalism on one side and lax compromise on the other. In the midst of such choas, it helps to remember the foundation of our unity, the reason we Christians dare claim to be one despite all that might divide us: the light we have in Jesus Christ, the hope Paul has spent the last three chapters celebrating, the gift of peace with God and, through that, peace with each other. I know this congregation is divided politically, theologically, and socially. It's one of the reasons I came here. Because I'm thrilled to see how, despite all that might divide you, this congregation still finds unity and grounding in the mission of Jesus Christ.
But one could rightly point out that—even if unity is in common faith, common cause, common foundation—even then the Church is not united. While I know this congregation is a cross-section of a divided America that nonetheless finds its unity in Jesus... I also know how this church has split apart in prior years, how in-fighting or gossip caused many to leave. Perhaps the leaving was for good reason or perhaps not—I was not there and cannot claim to know—and I certainly had been in my own share of talks about leaving denominations, congregations, or affiliations. Even when Christians try to focus on what unites us—this wonderful story of good news, the faith we have in Jesus—even then we often must go our separate ways. As Presbyterians, we must especially wrestle with this problem, for our ancestors are Protestants, ones who protested abuses in the Catholic Church and were ultimately driven out of that church for their protesting, giving western Christianity an institutional disunity we've never overcome. And these divisions are not good, are indeed the result of sin whether it be our own or that of others. Divisions within the Church are at best they are the least bad option possible in a sinful, uncertain world and at worst plain evil.
But! But... Paul explains here that such divisions are not the end of the story for the Church. When Paul writes, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God... to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” that “until” is not a thing we will see on this side of eternity. Could any limited mortal fully understand the Almighty in this lifetime? Could any ordinary person every truly live up to the example of Jesus Christ here today? Those are the goals of every Christian, but they are ultimate, eternal goals that we anticipate in Christ returning when at last all is restored. It's like sanctification, if you remember our talk from two weeks ago. Justification is God declaring you clean and pure. Sanctification is the process by which God makes you so, and it takes your whole lifetime and is only finished in the next life. So too is it with unity. We mortals must work, train, and strive for Christian unity. But we must also have the wisdom to realize that our earthly unity will always fall short of the heavenly gift of true unity... until the day when heaven at last comes to earth. We practice unity as a Church now... in anticipation and preparation for what is to come.
In the American Revolution, Ben Franklin once remarked to his fellows: “We must all hang together, or most certainly we will all hang separately.” We Christians are not fighting the king of England but the prince of hell and all wicked powers that be. How much more must we stick together! Unity is a problem for the Church and for Christians. It is something to pursue individually in our ethics, in how we treat others, in our humility and love. And it is something to pursue cooperatively, ensuring unity by providing a space for others in our community, by majoring in the majors of faith and letting the minors be important but still minors, by remembering despite all fights over budgetary allotments or program planning that we are united in loving and serving Jesus Christ. This unity is a gift from God, but it is something into which we the Church must daily mature, both as individuals and collectively.
This idea of unity is ultimately best unpacked by Paul's own metaphor. Paul writes in verses 15 and 16, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” If the Church truly is a body with Christ as its head, then it is a body in the ICU undergoing repairs. Our head, our bodily overseer, is healthy and strong and mature... for Christ is the loving, almighty God. But the body itself is weak and atrophied like a coma patient. Each individual limb—each believer—must individually grow strong for that part to be healthy and the body overall to be called well. But without good connections—without the ligaments knitting us together as Paul says—without that the body would still be sick even were all its limbs well. So too does Christian unity depend not merely on the personal choices of every individual believer... but also on the collective, shared actions of us as a body united. We know one day God will make all well again, so we know the body does recover. But our task today in the in-between... is to start healing now, to strengthen our individual faith that we as members of the body of Christ might be strong... and to strengthen the faith of those around us, knowing that where one suffers we all suffer. For as Paul celebrates, our God is one. So let us the people of God be one as the Lord is one. Amen.