It’s a little surprising that so many baptism, communion, and “gospel” passages point directly toward unity of the saints. I mean, it’s something everyone gives lip service to, but we really don’t take unity seriously, do we?
And yet … in Ephesians 4, the “one baptism” passage is all about the unity of God’s church. In 1 Corinthians, when Paul talks about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, he emphasizes the unity it symbolizes. And the gospel is repeatedly expressed in terms of the unity of all people and all nations.
N. T. Wright is fond of pointing out that a major theme of the scriptures is God’s work through Christ to expand his covenant with Abraham to include all with faith in his Messiah. The gospel is not only about salvation, it’s about bringing unity to a world in desperate need for unity.
And yet the church is anything but unified! We divide over doctrine, over race, over worship styles, over denominations created to fight over issues most of us don’t even remember — and over just about everything that divides the world. We are a sad and pitiful excuse for what we’ve been called to be.
(Col 3:12-14) Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Does this describe God’s church in the 21st Century?
Or how about —
(John 17:22-23) I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
To go back to Stanley Hauerwas’ teaching that the church is to be like a colony of resident aliens, people who live in this world but aren’t of this world, a people who show the world an alternative society, a better society — just how well are we doing at that?
Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus. (Resident Aliens p. 78)
You see, Hauerwas argues, simply enough, that if we’ll be like Jesus, we’ll be united. Makes sense. Isn’t happening. Therefore, we aren’t much like Jesus.
And so I think the path to unity — and to missional effectiveness — is submission to the life Jesus called us to. And this is hardly an easy thing, but surely we’re able to do better!
So how do we get to be more like Jesus? Well, lots of theories are out there, and few are out and out wrong. It’s just that most dance around the edges. For example, some teach that the path to being like Jesus is the spiritual disciplines — prayer, meditation, journaling, solitude, listening prayer, etc. And I’m sure these help, but they are merely helpers pointing us toward the genuine thing.
And some argue for deeper Bible study, which is a good and necessary thing, but Bible study often pushes us into over-focusing on theology and not sufficiently into doing the word.
Others focus on evangelism, which I’m all for. But evangelism is futility until we’ve first become like Jesus. Right?
Worse yet, we tend to call whatever we enjoy “evangelism,” so we start basketball and softball leagues for evangelistic purposes, or Weigh Down Workshops or bridge clubs or Fall Festivals. I mean, it seems that we can rationalize anything as evangelism … and when no one comes to Jesus through these works, we just keep on doing what we enjoy — which should tell us something about our true motivations.
As pointed out in by John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, pp. 130-131,
[T]here is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament. According to universal tradition, Jesus was not married; yet when the apostle Paul, advocate par excellence of the life “in Christ,” argues at length for celibacy or for a widow’s not remarrying (1 Cor. 7), it never occurs to him to appeal to Jesus’ example, even as one of many arguments. … [T]here have been efforts to imitate his prayer life or his forty days in the desert: but never in the New Testament.
There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds – but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus – and only thus – are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”
This is big. And it’s right. Yoder quotes numerous passages each of which urges us to be like Jesus in his suffering and submission.
(Phil. 2:3-14) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. … Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
(1 Cor. 10:33b-11:1) I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
(Matt. 20:25-28 ) Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And so, just a few concrete ideas about being unified in the Christ-like sense —
* At your church make a pledge not to do a single outreach event unless another church in town is involved. Do nothing by yourself. Make this a spiritual discipline: never compete, always cooperate.
* And when you invite another church to work with you, find a church that needs you more than you need them. Throw all thoughts of fairness out the window! Be sure that you donate, work, and volunteer more than your fair share. Take delight in being on the giving end rather than the receiving end. Don’t enable laziness. Rather, work with a church with fewer resources and volunteers than yours.
* At least once a year, take communion with another church in town — especially a church that’s different from you somehow. Share the table with a church of a different race or different denomination or a different way of worshiping. Cross barriers for Jesus.
* If your town has a league of cooperating churches — especially a cross-denominational league — join and be active. Announce their events in your bulletin.
* If you town doesn’t have one, start one. Now I’m not talking about lunches where preachers get to together with other preachers for fellowship — I mean a working group that coordinates the works of a town’s congregations.
* Don’t dare settle for the merely symbolic. It’s great if many churches get together once a year and paint schools together, but that won’t change the world. Rather, sit down with churches across town and decide how, working together, God might work through you to alleviate the worst social problems in town — in the name of Jesus. Don’t push for legislation. Don’t hire an inner city minister. Rather, get all the churches together to attack poverty, crime, drugs, or illegitimacy by changing the hearts of those who suffer from these spiritual ills.
* Make sure that the solution includes getting your church members involved in very substantial service and self-sacrifice. If the members aren’t doing this, then it’s the wrong plan. Being like Jesus means the members serve and sacrifice. Period. There is no other path for Christians.
Now, will this be easy? Not at all. It’s actually impossible — unless God is with you. So pray like crazy, get ready to make mistakes and have to start all over again, and get ready for changes you can’t even imagine. That’s how God works.
This is, of course, an entirely insane plan. But I think it’s God’s plan.
(2 Cor 5:13-15) If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.