Preserving Unity

Ephesians 4:1-6

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / May 8, 2005


This world of ours is a mess.


This world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan.


The Christian Church is part and parcel of the grand, cosmic, eternal plan of God.


God’s plan is for the Church to be the means whereby the Spirit of Christ functions in this physical environment.


In other words, the transformation of this troubled world begins with you and I. God has ordained for this world to be positively impacted by the work of the Christian Church.


To this point, Paul has spoken in general terms about how we are to function towards this end. Firstly, Paul has articulated the need for the Church to be connected to Jesus Christ—our Head, and our cornerstone (1:22, 2:20).


Secondly, Paul has identified some of the resources that are available to the body of Christ. Paul explains how “the manifold wisdom of God” is made available to the Church (3:10). Likewise, the “power” of Christ’s Spirit is at our disposal (3:16).


But now, Paul challenges us more specifically. In Ephesians, chapter 4, Paul details the kind of behaviour that should result when the wisdom and power of Christ is properly applied.


Therefore”, Paul begins (4:1)—because you are the body of Christ, because you represent Christ, because you are the means whereby the Spirit of Christ functions in this world—“therefore . . . I entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (4:1).


This is the introduction to the apostle Paul’s summon for Christian unity. I think we all would agree that unity in the church is very important. Paul has already established for us the motivation for our unity. We need to be united because God’s plan is to positively impact this world through us. And, if the Church is divided, if the Church is warring against itself, then our witness is compromised.


Surely, we understand how important unity is, but do we understand the nature of the unity we are called to? What does unity in the Church look like?


Our earliest glimpse of what constitutes Christian unity comes from the Lord Jesus Himself, who prayed “that (the Church) may be one, just as (He and the Father) are one”. Jesus prays, “that (the Church) may be perfected in unity, (in order) that the world may know that Thou didst send Me” (Jn. 17:22, 23).


            Immediately, we glean from this prayer that Jesus is calling for much more than a superficial kind of unity. Jesus does not call for organizational unity, nor does He call for a sentimental, handholding, kind of unity. But, rather, Jesus prays that “(the Church) may be one, as (He and the Father) are one”(17:22).


                        Now how are we to accomplish that? In order to preserve Christian unity, Paul prescribes a manner in which we must walk: we must walk “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love” (4:2).


First of all, Paul instructs the Christian to walk with "all humility". Why does Paul begin his instruction on unity with "humility"? John Calvin's asserts that "humility is the first step" towards unity.


I think John Calvin is correct. Unless there is humility, there can be no unity. The proud person says in their heart, "I am right. I know what is best and I am not changing my beliefs or my way of doing things". When pride reigns, there is no room for unity.


By contrast, the humble person says in their heart, "I am not perfect. My convictions are a work in progress. There is always room for improvement, and so I will be open to correction". Only where such an attitude exists, can unity prevail.


The second virtue Paul calls us to is "gentleness". Gentleness comes from the Greek word, praoteôs (prah-ot'-ace), which is often translated as "meekness". The best definition I've heard for meekness is "strength under control". This is why we refer to Jesus as being meek—He had the strength of God, but it was strength under control.


Meekness, like humility, is also necessary for the preservation of unity. We sometimes refer to certain people in the church as having "strong personalities". Strong personalities are fine so long as they are under control. However, where there are strong personalities without humility; where there are strong personalities without meekness, there can be no unity. If the first step to unity is humility, the second step is meekness.


The third and fourth virtues that Paul calls us to are very similar in meaning. Paul calls us to have "patience", and to show "forbearance" towards one another. Forbearance has to do with tolerating the faults of others. The word for patience, sometimes translated "longsuffering", qualifies the summons to forbear. Tolerating the faults of others is to be an ongoing practice made possible by our patience.


These virtues are extremely important because we recognize, and have come to expect, that the local church will be made up of people with different temperaments, different tastes, and different habits.


I do not hear Paul saying that unity requires the total absence of differences. What I hear Paul saying is that unity is preserved through the proper management of our peripheral differences. Unity in the local church is preserved when the members are marked by humility, meekness, and patient forbearance.


And, of course, we must not forget "love". Paul says that we are to exercise these virtues--humility, meekness, patience, and forbearance--"in love". This makes perfect sense. Unless we love the person, we will have no motivation to be humble towards them. Without love, we have no incentive to be meek. Without love, we will be incapable of patience and forbearance towards those who just 'don't get it'.


            If the Christian Church is not marked by love, division and disunity will dog us at every turn. Conversely, as we succeed in growing in our love for God and our neighbour, we can expect to experience a heightened sense of unity.


            Now, we have already said that unity means much more than just getting along with one another. Unity, rooted in love, requires that we get along, of course, but Paul details for us the key points for Christian unity.


Using the word "one" 7 times, the apostle Paul leaves no question about which points of faith we must agree on. He begins by telling us to "be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace"(4:3).


Notice, first of all, that unity is not something that is manufactured, unity is something that already exists within the Church. Our responsibility is to preserve unity, our responsibility is to guard unity, not to manufacture it.


In what sense does unity already exist? All Christians share the same “Spirit”—that is, the Holy Spirit. Every Christian shares the same “bond of peace”—and if you turn back to chapter 2, verses 14 through 22, you will see that the “bond of peace” refers to the atoning death of Christ on the cross.


So the basis of our unity then, is that we share the same Holy Spirit and the same “bond of peace”. Paul goes on to list some of the other key connectors for our unity: the "one body", the "one Spirit", the "one hope of your calling", "one Lord", "one faith", "one baptism", and the "one God and Father of all".


What is implied here is that our connection to one another comes through our common connection to these points. To state this negatively, we can have no real communion with one another except through these points.


A.W. Tozer articulates this notion well when he employs the analogy of tuning pianos. If a hundred pianos were merely tuned to each other, their pitch would not be very accurate. But if the hundred pianos were all tuned to one tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to each other. Similarly, unity in the church is not obtained through our attempts to be like one another. Rather, unity in the church is strengthened through our continuing efforts to be like Jesus Christ.


            As the Church, our chief objective is to bring glory to God in this world through our representation of Jesus Christ. And what I hear Paul saying is that our success depends largely on how united we are in our efforts.


When I think about the relationship between unity and progress in the church, I am reminded of my days as a competitive rower. In the late 1980s, I was on a rowing crew that was favoured to win the Canadian championship in the division of lightweight 8s. For one of our "tune-up" races, we entered the Southern Ontario Rowing Championship. Since we were expecting to win easily, we were extremely disappointed when we finished 2nd.


Our coach was so disappointed that he decided to punish us by making us race again as a late entry in the heavyweight division. Now, I need to tell you, that the heavyweights and the lightweights are in different divisions for good reason. These heavyweights were the strongest of the strong. Because our crew was quite good, however, we expected to beat some of the crews in the race. But winning the race would be very difficult because we would be racing against our own heavyweight crew. You see, if any of the boys in my crew were better than any of our heavyweights we would have been in that crew and not with the lightweights.


As it turns out, our group of eight, 150-pound teenagers, won the race. We beat all the heavyweight crews that day, including our own.


How did we do it? We rowed together. We were all in sync. Individually, there was not a member of my crew who could out-pull an individual from our heavyweight crew. It did not matter that the heavyweights worked harder and pulled harder than us. They did not pull in unison and so they could not win the race.


As I think about this congregation, there is no doubting how hard we work. There is no doubting how much effort is being invested by a multitude of individuals . . . But let me ask you this morning: If our congregation were a rowing crew, how would we fair in a race?


One thing I learned from competitive rowing is that working hard does not always guarantee success. To succeed, we must not only work hard, but we must also work together.


This world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan.


God’s plan is for the members of St. Giles Kingsway to work together as we represent Christ in central Etobicoke. Amen.