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. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4: 4-7)
As I read over the fourth chapter of Ephesians, the words there struck me as the best possible hope for the new year, which is why I’m using the text for this month’s newsletter. Paul envisions, not only the congregation at Ephesus, but all future bodies who assemble in the name of Christ, as having an essential unity. “One body and one Spirit” are the hallmarks of the Christian faith, of our calling to join and belong to not only our church communities, but also across time to our sense of belonging to something that is bigger than any one time, place, or denominational identification. We are grounded ultimately in our relationship to the living Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that identity, we can look at our fellow Christians and see commonalities, rather than simply differences. More than that—we can use the strength of that unified vision to act creatively to transform the world.
Differences among us certainly abound! In fact, we read that Paul’s churches were mixed even within each particular congregation. If we were able to use some sort of time machine to go back to Ephesus, or any of the Pauline churches in his day, we would see people who look different than we look, whose language and customs would seem very far removed from our own, and whose manner of interacting would appear every bit as strange as if we were transplanted into a village in the depths of Africa or the top of the Himalayas. Nevertheless, through Paul’s eyes, we can see that all these differences pale when contrasted to the essential unity that we find in Christ. Though he says that among them they have various natures, Paul identifies these not as problematic, but rather as “gifts of the spirit,” making some of them prophets, or evangelists, or pastors—and the list goes on. Furthermore, all these gifts come from one Spirit. Each person is valued because he or she brings those gifts into the community to be utilized, as he says, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 12) Paul’s response to such diversity is to embrace it as an abundance of riches, rather than categorizing it as a threat to the group. Such vision redeems, rather than disparages, differences among members of the Church.
As we enter 2018, what we see in our nation, let alone the world, is a confused mix of partisanship, of what one reporter called “tribalism.” We are very quick to identify ourselves ideologically as either for or against a whole laundry list of items. We have become less a nation with a shared vision than a mass of factions each of which only listen to themselves and to those who speak the same language or who say the same things we say. We seem to have lost our greater identification with one another, of sharing the recognition that we are all American citizens. I am disheartened by this continual factiousness.
But even if this is the case across our country, it cannot be allowed to characterize the Church. Call me a dreamer or a Pollyanna, but I do believe that the Church is still a sacred institution. I believe it is founded always on the presence of the Spirit of Christ, despite the way history has shaped and molded its particular contours. This is why I always return to our source texts in the Bible – the Gospels, the letters of Paul and the early apostles – as the foundational statements about Jesus Christ and about the Church as the witness to Christ both in that age and in our own. When we come upon a text such as Ephesians chapter 4, I believe we are given a kind of head slap to wake us up and remind us again of whom we are called to be.
Christians may vary in their understanding of how to deal with the problems of the world; Christians may approach political problems from a variety of perspectives; but ultimately, Christians need to test every other belief and application of our energies against the call of our Lord to be faithful to him and to the needs of this world. We will always remain different from one another – that is the nature of human identity and personality. And yet underlying our differences, there are basic human needs, such as the need to be loved, to be affirmed, to have purpose in life, to mourn our losses and to rejoice in our blessings: all these should unite us as humans. In response to this basic humanity, God’s response was to send the Word to embrace the flesh of which we are made and to dwell among us (John 1:14). Being among us as one of us, Jesus knew the full nature of what humanity could encompass. Yet we affirm that he came not just to first-century Jews, or even to those Gentiles who later in the century would embrace the message, but ultimately for the salvation and transformation of all peoples.
Mindful of our basic relationship to Christ and his call to us in our current state—limited, petty, egotistical, yet endowed with “gifts” of the Spirit—we can embrace Paul’s vision in Ephesians 4. Let us resolve in this new year to commit ourselves to accepting one another, perhaps despite our differences, as equal recipients of God’s grace and God’s call. Hearing Paul’s gospel, let us put aside our judgement of one another and replace it with the vision that makes us one Body called by one Spirit in Christ.