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.
Those of you who didn’t make it to the ‘Iftar Interfaith Dinner’ last Sunday night at Granville mosque missed out on what was one of the highlights of the year for me.
It was an excellently well planned and well attended event, and what impressed me most about the evening was that it really did include representatives from a variety of different religious and political persuasions.
There were Catholic and well as Protestant Christians, Shiite as well as Sunni Muslims, Zionist Jews as well as more liberal/progressive Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Indigenous religious representatives and more! And everybody there managed to show an enormous degree of respect to one another!
The night concluded with a panel discussion, where a number of those representing the different religions sat alongside each other and fielded questions from the audience, each written-out on little slips of paper.
I was on that panel and fielded a number of questions, but one of the most challenging questions (in my opinion) was passed to the representative sitting on my immediate right. The question was, “how do you build community while encouraging people to maintain their individuality?”
The question, as I say, was passed to the representative on my right, who was a young African man – a Sunni Muslim from Liberia. He indeed turned out to be a lovely young man, and I knew that he was a Sunni Muslim from Liberia because of the way he answered the question.
In answer to the question, “how do you build community while encouraging individuality?” he said, “you have to be confident in who you are. I am a Sunni Muslim man from Liberia, and I feel good about that. That is why I can be a part of a community without feeling threatened.”
I thought his answer was profound. At the same time though I wondered if it really answered the question? He told us how he managed to fit in to the community while maintaining his individuality but he didn’t actually address the broader question of how your build that community. He was young, and so he spoke as a participant rather than as a community-builder.
Even so, his emphasis on feeling confident in your own individuality is fair enough, I think, as our pattern (in the church at least) has regularly been to build up our communities by stamping out individuality and encouraging uniformity instead – emphasising our common creed and the various dogmas of the faith that we must all subscribe to, and the solid leadership structure that we must all (happily) find our place in.
And one could be forgiven for thinking that St Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus pre-empted all of this, using words that could be interpreted as extolling the virtues of uniformity:
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 4:3-6)
I don’t know whether you find that sort of language encouraging or alienating, but it seems to me, at first glance, to be the language of exclusivity!
“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” … there is only one way, and it’s our way or the highway. Is that what St Paul means?
Maybe it’s just the cleric in me? I hear ‘one baptism’ and I can see someone saying, “Oh, I’m sorry but we don’t recognise your baptism in this church!”
This is the sort of issue we have all the time in churches: “I’m sorry, but we can’t marry you, bury you or baptise you here because you’re not one of us! So far as we are concerned there’s only one faith and one baptism and it’s OURS!”
I was having this conversation with my good mate, Father John, from our neighbouring Catholic church, who was telling me about the difficulties he has in trying to marry someone if they’re not Catholic. My response was that we don’t mind if you’re not Anglican, so long as you haven’t been divorced! We’ll judge you for your moral failings rather than for your denominational affiliation (which may sound a little better, but which, I’d suggest, is equally unchristian).
Either way, it’s all about exclusivity – insiders and outsiders. Either you’re one of us or you’re one of the great unwashed! And this is the way we do things around here – this is the way we dress and this is the way we eat and this is the way we think, and if you don’t like it and you find that you can’t fit in then you’re welcome to leave (and burn in hell for the rest of eternity)!
This is what being a cult is all about, isn’t it? It’s about group-think. There’s no need to do too much thinking here as we’ve already done the thinking for you! Just listen to the priest/pastor/reverend/bishop/fuehrer (insert your own title) and he’ll tell you what you need to think! It’s what my dad used to call ‘Nuremberg Christianity’ – where the guy standing up the front says ‘Amen?’ and all the people say … ‘Sieg Heil!’
Group-think/cult/community-built-on-uniformity – it’s something that we are all too familiar with in this day and age, and it’s not as if religions have some sort of monopoly in this area either. Communism, Nazism, and any number of the ‘isms’ can equally well generate radical fundamentalists. Even so, it always seems particularly nasty when God is brought in to justify cultish behaviour in any of its forms.
Which brings us back to our original question: “how do we build community while encouraging individuality?”, to which we must now add an additional question, and one that is also very important for us as Christian people – namely, “was St Paul encouraging a sort of uniform group-think in his own communities with all his talk about ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’?”
If you know St Paul at all, you know that the answer to that second question – ‘Was St Paul trying to start a mindless cult?’ – is ‘No, not at all!’ And to see that, all you need to do is to take a step back and look at the broader letter to the Ephesians from which this passage is taken.
St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is his (often ecstatic) celebration of the diversity of the people God of God – rich people and poor people, slaves and free, male and female, and (most important of all to him) Jew and non-Jew!
This is the great ‘mystery’ that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Ephesians – the mystery made known through the church – that persons of all types and classes and races are being brought together in Christ, who has ‘broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ (2:14) that once separated us from one another.
I believe that we consistently fail to see the full significance of the racial issue for Paul, most probably because it is not much of an issue for us. We’re used to living with people from a variety of different backgrounds. Paul was not.
Mind you, I appreciate that not everybody, even today in this country, is used to living alongside persons from diverse backgrounds. Indeed, I still remember that back in my home church (which was a Chinese church) I invited one of my friends there to join us for lunch at our family home. She was nervous and I didn’t understand why. Eventually she told me, “I’ve never been in the house of a non-Chinese person before!” This was when I was in my early 20’s.
That probably sounds unusual in today’s context. For St Paul, ethnic uniformity was the norm. For Paul, going into the house of a non-Jew would have initially felt as if he was visiting somebody (or some thing) from another planet! These people – they eat different, they dress different, they look different, they speak different, and they think different because they are different, and yet (he came to believe) God is bringing us all together!
My point is that diversity and individuality within the communities Paul is speaking to is a given! Diversity is the context in which St Paul’s letters were written. Paul doesn’t need to encourage diversity or individuality. It’s already there in all its complicating abundance! Indeed, every colour of the rainbow is represented in the Christian community at Ephesus. What St Paul is asserting though is that, despite all appearances to the contrary, they are yet one!
“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all!” says, St Paul, and this despite all evidence to the contrary!
Once could be forgiven for thinking that there had been many baptisms – Paul had baptised some, the other Apostles had baptised others, and perhaps some people had baptised themselves. We don’t know. Paul’s point is that there was really only one baptism – Christ’s baptism – and that they all shared in that, regardless of differing individual circumstances.
There appear to have been lots of versions of the faith. Paul’s understanding of the faith differed markedly from any number of more traditional persons in the church at the time. Indeed, we have it on record in the Scriptures that even Paul and Peter had serious disagreements in the faith. There appear to have been many faiths – Paul’s version, Peter’s version, the Anglican version and the Catholic version and any number of other versions, but St Paul claims that there is only one faith – Christ’s faith – and that we all share in that.
Diversity, as I say, is a given. There were many personalities involved, many interpretations of the truth, many different contributions coming from different people of different classes, cultures, genders and races, yet Paul sees us all as being like the different members of one body, working together.
There are many different parts to the body – hands and feet and eyes and ears and mouth and nose and more – but despite their different appearances and different functions they are all part of the one body, deliberately fashioned by their creator to work together in harmony. And so Paul encourages the Ephesians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit by means of the bond of peace” (vs.3), and in so doing he isn’t asking them to manufacture something that is alien to them, but rather to live out the spiritual reality of which they are already a part.
Diversity and individuality are givens. Unity is also a given, at a spiritual level. All things are being brought together by Christ and the dividing wall that has separated human beings from one another through class, gender, religion and race is being brought down by Christ in His own body! Now all we need to do is to embrace that and do our best to reflect that in the way in which we live, which of course brings us back to our original question: “how do we build community while encouraging individuality?”
I think if we could ask St Paul that question directly – “how do we build community while encouraging individuality?” – his response would be, “Well … God takes care of that!”
I don’t think Paul himself ever had to worry about maintaining that balance. He just preached the cross and watched the miracle happen! But I think St Paul would say, not only that God would take care of that, but indeed that the reality of unity with diversity is a sure sign that the Spirit of God is at work!
A monochrome, uniform, group-think, homogeneous unit does not reflect what St Paul called ‘the multi-coloured wisdom of God’ (Ephesians 3:10). Where the Spirit of God is, there will be diversity. At the same time, where the Spirit of God is, there is unity – love, joy, health and peace. And as I say, this is not something that we need to manufacture for ourselves. It is a given at a spiritual level. It’s just up to us to embrace it.
I am told that on the Hawaiian island of Maui there is a church building there that is known as the ‘Miracle Church’. This special title has nothing to do with the number of miracles that take place within its walls, but rather reflects the way it was built! Apparently a storm struck the island one day and washed up enough coral such that they could build a stone church out of the materials! After it was built, another storm hit the island, and it washed away all the leftover coral! They received just what they needed and no more!
I think that’s the way it works for us too – that God washes in here just the right mix of people – young and old, black and white, straight and gay, rich and poor, male and female – to build our community, washes the rest away, and then He leaves us with the wonderful job of maintaining the unity of the Spirit by means of 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.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on August 5, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.