I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to live in a way that is worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, along with patience, accepting one another in love. Do your best to maintain the unity of the Spirit by means of the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit. In the same way, you were called to the one hope of your calling. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
These words come from the centre of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, and they are the very heart of his message to them. He exhorts them to unity – a ‘unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, and it is a unity based on the common spiritual realities that bind them together: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all and in all’!
It is powerful and provocative language of a type that can inspire us to rise above our preoccupations with ourselves as individuals and to see ourselves of part of a great and glorious team. It’s the sort of language that can inspire us to do great things in the name of God and for the glory of the church! For this very same reason it’s the sort of language that worries me a great deal!
Perhaps it’s just the spirit of Soren Kierkegaard (my great philosophical hero) rising up within me. Kierkegaard always responded very cynically whenever anyone would say ‘let us unite’ as he always saw such statements as mechanisms for diffusing responsibility! We want to unite with others to pursue some great cause because we don’t have the guts to do it on our own or, worse still, we unite with others to commit some great evil because we don’t want to bear the responsibility for it all on our own!
“All human effort tends towards herding together”, says Kierkegaard. “Let Us Unite, etc. Naturally, this happens under all sorts of high-sounding names, love and sympathy and enthusiasm and the carrying out of some grand plan and the like. This is the usual hypocrisy of the scoundrels we are. But the truth is that in a herd, we are free from the standard of the individual.”
I think there is great wisdom in Kierkegaard. There is great unity of spirit in a lynch mob! There is great unity of spirit in Islamic State (ISIS)! Actually …, as I understand it, there is NOT great unity of spirit in Islamic State. There just appears to be.
I had a fascinating two-hour meeting last Friday with a representative of the Australian Federal Police where we discussed at length the disconnect between the perception many young people in this country have of Al Baghdadi’s glorious army, which is the dividend of their very sophisticated marketing department, and the entirely inglorious reality that they discover once they reach the battlefield in Syria!
From what I understand, the foreigners in particular are used as cannon-fodder by these people – pushed into the front lines as suicide bombers. And instead of enjoying deep bonds of spiritual unity with their fellow jihadists, these new recruits quickly realise that they are the expendable refuse of an organisation that is inhuman and sadistic to the very core!
‘Let us unite’ I hear them cry, and something within me responds with ‘No! Hang on a second! Perhaps we’d all be better off if we just did our own thing?’ That’s not the answer either of course for, without wanting to disrespect the great Dane, the truth is that it’s hard to accomplish much on your own!
I think it was the great feminist theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier who, when asked why she stuck with the institutional church, said “it’s hard to get much done without access to a photocopier”.
There’s only so much you can do on your own. I appreciate, of course, that Kierkegaard himself was an excellent example of someone who was entirely a one-man band and yet who did exercise an enormous influence on his society and on generations that followed. Even so, he was an exceptional individual, and he also burnt out early and died of a heart attack at the age of forty-two! Kierkegaard sets the bar rather high, and not many of us would want to jump that high anyway even if we could, but that does present us with a dilemma, and it’s a dilemma that I often think about, and one where I’m entirely open to the wisdom of others with regards to how it might best be solved.
Let me frame the dilemma this way: when you’re acting on your own you can set your own goals and maintain your integrity but you can’t get much done. We need to unite together if we are really going to make a difference, and yet once we form a group other factors come into play. Diffusion of responsibility was Kierkegaard’s greatest concern but the complications don’t stop there. Perhaps the greater danger of uniting together is the sort of group think that characterises groups like Islamic State, where we allow Al Baghdadi to do all our thinking for us!
This sort of group think is at the heart of every cult and every genocidal ideology, and yet it’s not obvious how we achieve any sort of unity unless we have some sort of authority structure and some set of common core beliefs!
I remember sharing with you once before a story I was told by an Episcopal priest when I was in the USA some years ago, concerning a visit made by an Orthodox bishop to his seminary. The bishop came to lecture students there on the traditional three creeds of the church that, for many centuries, have been recited by Christian congregations when they meet. One of the students though asked the bishop “what do you do suggest I do if I can’t bring myself to repeat some of the statements made in those creeds?”
The response of the Bishop was that he should practise – “keep repeating the words and after a while you’ll be able to make those statements with ease!”
“But no”, the student replied. “What if in good conscience I just can’t make those statements?” The Archbishop replied again “You practice! After a while even children can learn to recite these creeds flawlessly!”
Frustrated, the student said again, “but what if I don’t believe everything that’s written in those creeds?” The Archbishop replied “But they’re not your creeds! How old are you, son – twenty-five or thirty years old? You can’t be expected to know it all by this stage. Just keep practising and repeating the words and the understanding will come in time!”
I appreciate the wisdom of the Archbishop but, at the same time, is it really appropriate to sacrifice our intellectual integrity for the sake of the group?
“Do your best to maintain the unity of the Spirit by means of the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit. In the same way, you were called to the one hope of your calling. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all.”
I think much of the answer to the dilemma I’ve posed is actually here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and that there is a real distinction between the spiritual community that Paul speaks of here and the herd that is so disdained by Kierkegaard, and I think the starting point in recognising this distinction is the realisation that all the points of unity that Paul speaks of are spiritual realities!
Paul speaks of one Lord, one faith and one God and Father of us all. He never mentions one creed or one book, let alone one earthly leader! I’m not suggesting that Paul was against either creeds or books or earthly leadership. Even so, the forces upon which the community is founded and the forces that maintain that community are, according to St Paul, unseen spiritual forces.
Paul does speak of ‘one baptism’ of course, but this is almost certainly not a reference to the tangible earthly event of water-baptism, but rather to the spiritual baptism in Christ in which we all share. Once again it is a spiritual and unseen point of unity rather than any simple historical human event for which we were given a paper certificate. The significance of this is, of course, that it is impossible to prove your baptism except by the manner of life in which you live, and it is equally impossible to disprove anybody else’s participation in that one baptism!
One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all! It is these spiritual points of unity that define the Christian community, according to St Paul, and if you think his use of these terms may be just a matter of rhetoric, consider the nature of the religious community out of which he emerged.
The religious community of the old Saul of Tarsus had been a very unified community. Without wanting to downplay the spiritual dimensions that community may have enjoyed, there was one very significant point of unity that the early Saul shared with his religious peers just as his forefathers and foremothers had before him, and it’s a point of unity that is entirely absent from the exhortation in Ephesians. They were all one race!
They were one race and one gene-pool, and in Paul’s early experience they would have been one skin colour and one language too. In the good old days they had one temple as well, and one Davidic ruler!
These were the tangible earthly markers that defined the boundaries of the religious community that Paul grew up in, and is not by accident that they are all missing from Paul’s exhortation to unity in this letter as none of them were any longer remotely relevant! I that this is very significant, for it reminds us that the real community of the faithful is not easy to identify by normal human criteria. Indeed, it is an invisible community seen only by God. We are not able to pontificate on who is a part of that unified community and who is not!
Our forefathers and foremothers in the faith used to speak of the ‘church visible’ and the ‘church invisible’ and this distinction is vitally important for it reminds us that we don’t know where the spiritual community of the true church of God starts and stops! We don’t know who are God’s people and who are not, for we are limited to seeing only earthly, tangible points of unity.
We see common buildings, common institutions, people bound together by particular leadership structures and particular histories – one creed, one book, and one budget! What we don’t see because it can’t be seen is the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It can’t be seen but only experienced!
It is the invisible nature of the true church that should always prevent us as followers of Christ from degenerating into tribalism for we can’t very well extol the superior virtues of our tribe when we don’t exactly know who our tribe are!
I was reading an excellent article recently that was written by the head of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Jordan, Dr Nabeeh Abbassi. He was making the very important (if somewhat controversial) point that the goal of Christian evangelism should not be to change anybody’s religion! By this he meant to distinguish between religion as a tribal identity – the religious heritage of your family as stamped on your passport (as it is in Jordan and in most other Middle Eastern countries) – and faith in Christ. The goal of evangelism, Abbassi said, should be to change hearts rather than passports!
People “don’t have to call themselves Christians” to change the culture, he says. “They need to have hope, joy and peace with God through Jesus Christ to be able to impact their society.”
This is the reality of the church invisible. This is the unified community that St Paul spoke of in Ephesians. It is a spiritual community brought together by God and sharing together in the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
It’s something you can only see when you look upwards! I think if St Paul had focused only on the tangible human community at Ephesus he’d have seen the dog’s breakfast, particularly when compared to the very homogenous community out of which he’d come. There he’d had one race, one language, and one culture as well as one book and one creed. Ephesus would have been a circus by comparison, and yet Paul was able to look above and beyond both the swirling diversity of the community along with all their shortcomings and divisions to see a true spiritual community bound together by one Lord, one faith, and one baptism – one God and Father of us all!
I had the privilege of meeting again with the Grand Mufti of Syria last week. That is the fifth time we’ve met in the last three years. Of course I appreciate that not everyone shares my perception that the Spirit of God shines out of this man but I suspect that’s only because you haven’t all met him.
Despite the fact that it was a formal meeting mediated by translators my opening words to the Mufti this time were quite personal. I said “when I first met you some years ago I felt that I had already known you for some time. On reflection I realised that it was simply that the Spirit of God in me that had recognised the Spirit of God in you”. The Mufti nodded and smiled.
The Spirit of God has strange and wonderful way of bringing people together, for it is indeed the work of the spirit of God to bring people together. So much of what goes under the banner of religion nowadays moves in the opposite direction – dividing the righteous from the unrighteous, the true believer from the heretic – dividing and destroying. But the work of the Spirit of God is unity through the bond of peace. For there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all.” Amen!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 2nd of August, 2015.