Unity in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16)

As part of our celebration of World Communion Sunday this weekend at Burke United Methodist Church, we had as our guest preacher Pastor Medardo Serrano of the Centro de Formacion Gran Comision, a Hispanic congregation that meets in our church building. I translated for Medardo, so I wanted to share some of the points that he made in his sermon along with a little bit of my own commentary. The text he preached from was Ephesians 4:1-16. The topic was “walking in Christian unity.” Medardo split the text into three parts: the attitudes that create unity (vv. 1-3), the doctrines of unity (vv. 4-6), and the diversity within the unity (vv. 7-16).

The Attitudes of Unity

Ephesians 4:1-3 describe several basic dispositions of character that are critical to being able to establish any kind of unity in a community. The first is humility, which is the cornerstone of unity, just as its opposite, pride, is the root of most conflict within a community. Humility allows me to be a team player since I don’t need to be recognized as the most important contributor on any given project we are undertaking as a community. Humility also allows me to navigate differences of opinion with caution since I don’t presume to have the right answer to everything or even understand another person’s thought-process that has led to a different conclusion. A second unifying attitude is gentleness or meekness, which complements humility as sort of a compound disposition. I take gentleness to refer to our capacity not to be easily riled up. Whereas humility is the mentality, gentleness is the ability to exude humility in my responses to others.

The next quality to be named by Paul is patience. It’s important to understand that patience is not simply the ability to wait. In its original meaning, patience is literally “long-suffering.” Paul connects patience with the phrase “bearing with one another in love.” Patience indicates a willingness to tolerate others’ baggage and idiosyncrasies without making a big deal about it. If others know that I’m being “patient” with them, then I’m not really being patient.

In verse 3, Paul speaks of keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. I see two ways to interpret this phrase. My brother Medardo made the point that the only way we have unity and peace is through the power of the Holy Spirit. So if we were to put this in the form of an attitude, we could say that an attitude of surrender to the Spirit is what creates the bond of peace. We can also say conversely that a community which lacks the bond of peace has lost touch with the Holy Spirit. If I have no interest in seeking peace with others in my community, it doesn’t matter whether I am armed with an arsenal of Bible verses to support my position on this or that issue; I have left the guidance of the Holy Spirit behind.

The Doctrines of Unity

In verse 4-6, we see a summary of how each member of God’s Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) is the basis for our unity as Christians. We start off with the reference to the Holy Spirit — one body, one Spirit, one hope. The Spirit weaves us together into a single body of people through the hope that we share in God’s final victory and the joy of His heavenly banquet which is our destiny.

The next doctrine of unity has to do with Jesus, God the Son — one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Our unity is rooted in the fact that we all trust in the same Lord and have been baptized into a new citizenship in His kingdom. The word faith does not refer to a set of doctrinal opinions that we’re supposed to have about Jesus (as it has often unfortunately come to mean in Protestant Christianity today); faith is better understand as trust in a person than stated agreement with an idea.

The third doctrine of unity refers to God the Father who is said to be over all, through all, and in all. I think it’s important to name the fact that Christianity is unique in identifying God as our parent. Other religions may use “father” as one metaphor for God among many, but for Christianity, He is uniquely a Father rather than an emperor, an artist, or cosmic synthesis of energy, because that’s how Jesus talked about Him. Since God is our Father, the unity we create is not just an organization but a family. My brother Medardo stressed the importance of the nuclear family in his sermon, but I’m going to push back a little bit. Jesus and His disciples were single as was the apostle Paul. In our society, we have a tendency to look out for our nuclear families to the exclusion of others. Doing “what’s best for my family” is how we justify being stingy about what we share with people in need. The body of Christ not only depends on having unified nuclear families; it also gives us the power to transcend flesh and blood in how we define family.

The Diversity within the Unity

Verses 7-16 describe two different ways in which there is diversity with the unity of the body of Christ. On the one hand, all of us have been given different gifts and different roles to play within the body, none of which are more or less important than any other. The implications of this difference is that God needs to shape each of us differently according to our gifts and vocation. That means that when I read the same Bible verse as you, we should be expected to have a different interpretation according to the purpose that God has for each of us in reading it. People who need for every verse in the Bible to have only one “clear,” possible meaning are not going to be able to live in the unity of the body of Christ; they will constantly argue and splinter off into factions when they can’t get their way. It’s important to recognize that this need for “clarity” often comes from a need to be right and control others, which is a lack of the humility, patience, and submission to the Holy Spirit described in verses 1-3.

In addition to having different gifts and roles, we also have different levels of spiritual maturity. I’m not sure we should understand this in a purely linear sense. People who are young in the faith can be closer to God than people who have been on their journey for a long time and have acquired a sense of confidence in their righteousness that has blinded them. A sign of spiritual maturity is the capacity to listen to God speak through others and take their insights seriously regardless of where they are in their faith journey. We are not supposed to create a hierarchy within the body of Christ, though we should all take responsibility for nurturing and edifying others as we gain enough stability in our own walk to be outwardly focused.

One example of diversity within unity came up as I was translating Medardo’s sermon this past weekend when he made a comparison that I was a little uncomfortable with. As a refugee from Colombia, Medardo comes from an environment in which the majority of Christians are Catholic and evangelicos like him can be persecuted for their beliefs. One of the fruits of being an evangelico convert from Catholicism in this kind of environment is that you’re taught to contrast the (presumably Catholic) “religion” of human-made rituals with the (evangelico) “salvation” that comes from God. But in my exposure to Catholicism, I haven’t really encountered confusion about whether salvation comes from God; the rituals seem to me a means of enjoying the presence of God rather than earning His grace.

My context growing up Southern Baptist has caused me to see a different contrast in which “doctrine” (human opinions) can get in the way of God’s “salvation” by making us think that believing the right things about Jesus suffices as a substitute for trusting Jesus as a person. When we trust in our beliefs rather than in Jesus Himself, it’s very hard to have unity with other Christians because we are constantly evaluating whether Christians with different ways of talking and worshiping are really “saved” or not.

In any case, the unity within the diversity between my brother Medardo and me is that we both desire to be transformed by the wisdom and beauty that comes from God uniquely through Jesus Christ who is the Truth rather than getting bogged down in the knowledge, rituals, and so forth with which humanity has responded to God. It is in the same spirit of unity that I sat today in the Monday mass at the national basilica not saying every Hail Mary with everyone else but knowing that the Holy Spirit was richly present in the room and believing that God can use the veneration of Jesus’ mother to His glory. There is a reason God has given each of the different branches of His ecclesial tree different ways of talking and experiencing His presence. Not every ritual or doctrine is from God; some are completely wrong; most are a mix of spirit and flesh; but we must be very cautious and discerning before we denounce what God may be using to draw other Christians with different gifts and roles closer to conformity with the image of Christ. This is why it is so critical to walk with humility, gentleness, patience, and peace as we learn how to be one iglesia that speaks many different lenguajes.

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