It’s the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity again, and I’m preaching at a united evening service today.
In my young Christian days, I used to go occasionally to charismatic renewal meetings held at a Catholic priory in North London – Christ the King, Cockfosters, where a wonderful priest called Dom Benedict Heron used to invite speakers from across the ecumenical traditions to inspire those who gathered.
One evening, however, someone gave a simple, short prophecy that has stayed with me ever since:
‘Weep, for my Body is broken.’
And I think that’s the default position we often adopt when it comes to Christian unity. The Body of Christ is broken. I wouldn’t deny it one bit. Schisms and arguments among and within churches are awful. It is an embarrassment to explain it to non-Christians. We have a hard job explaining it to ourselves, as well.
However, Ephesians 4 brings a different perspective. However much we may struggle with the disunity of the Church, Paul here assumes the unity of the Church. As I once heard an Anglican friend of mine, April Keech, put it: ‘Unity is a given’ in Ephesians 4.
Now I know, of course, that whoever Ephesians was written for, it wasn’t addressed to a group of different denominations like us. But even if part of the Christian unity struggle is about the unity we don’t yet have, another part we need to remember is the maintaining and growing of the fundamental unity we already do have. And it’s that which I want to address tonight: I’m not going to discuss how we deal with our differences over church government, the sacraments (or ordinances), and so on. We must have those discussions, but not this evening. I want to take the unity we all have, and look at what Paul says here are ways of building on it.
Firstly, unity is based in God. Listen for how God – whom we would later refer to as the Holy Trinity – crops up in Paul’s thinking as fundamental:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Verses 4-6)
One Spirit, one Lord and one Father are all central to unity. They are foundational. The unity of the Godhead is the basis for Christian unity. We, the people of God, are meant to reflect in our unity the unity of God.
Let me put it this way. Whenever I preach about the Trinity, I am fond of reminding congregations that the most basic statement about God made in the Scriptures is that which is said in 1 John: ‘God is love.’ Love is the very nature of God. This is who and what God always is, always will be and always has been. Now how can it be true that God is love before creation? Surely we find an answer to that in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father has always loved the Son and the Spirit; the Son has always loved the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit has always loved the Father and the Son. So there is an internal unity of love within the Godhead.
But furthermore, love has to reach out beyond itself. Otherwise it is a kind of mutual narcissism. Hence God in love chose to create. Most commonly, for example, a married couple will express that love in the desire to have children. However, that doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t always happen at first. When I prepare couples for marriage, I ask them how their mutual love is going to reach out to others.
And so I see these aspects of God’s loving unity as needing to be reflected in the Church. There needs to be an internal unity of love that characterises our relationships. But that love within and among ourselves needs to reach out.
So let us ask first of all this evening whether our unity is reflected in our love for one another and our love for the world – ‘that they may be one, that the world may believe,’ as Jesus prayed.
Secondly, such united love is a challenge to our character. The unity of which Paul speaks in verses 4 to 6 is the reason why prior to that he calls the Church in verses 1 to 3 to ‘live a life worthy of the calling [we] have received]’, to be humble, gentle and patient.
I of all people should know this. I went to a Church of England secondary school, my first theological college was an Anglican one, and I married a Baptist. My best friend since the age of seven (and who was best man at our wedding) is a Catholic. Before coming here, I spent thirteen years working in ecumenical churches with Anglicans.
But … the Anglican chaplain at my secondary school described me as ‘a rabid Methodist’. (The Methodists might be surprised by that!) I was never more Methodist than when among Anglicans, but I am never less Methodist than when among Methodists. When I conducted my first infant baptism service in the ministry, it was on a Sunday when the Bible readings focussed on the baptism of Jesus. I made an idle joke in my sermon about ‘John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist’, only to be introduced over lunch afterwards to some relatives of the twin baby girls, who were active members of … Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford.
It takes something to show humility and patience in building Christian unity. Sometimes we are so keen to trumpet the things we bring to the wider church that we forget the humility we need not to boast of our traditions but to receive with gratitude what our brothers and sisters offer us.
So I want to ask you if you can name what you appreciate about the other Christian traditions in our village. For me, I value the contemplative strands of Catholicism, the sense of history that my Anglican friends bring (we Methodists seem to think that church history only began in the eighteenth century) and the commitment to every member ministry that is at the heart of much of what the Baptist tradition values.
And that final example leads to the third and final point I want to share from Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 about unity. It is that unity requires diversity. I don’t simply mean the differences of opinion, referenced by the conversation at Christ Church Woking this afternoon between Steve Chalke and Peter Ould about Christianity and homosexual practice. Rather, I mean the diversity of gifts that we need in order to be more fully the Body of Christ.
So here, Paul talks about God’s gifts of ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers’ (verse 11) to equip God’s people (verse 12). Now I’m not specifically going to look at those five callings, which themselves need to be more fully present in every congregation, in my opinion – and which all our institutional structures militate against, sadly.
But I do want to say that there is a wider issue for broader Christian unity, the unity we have been given and which we are to live out. It is this. When I was going to train for the ministry, a friend who in my younger days mentored me said to me, “Remember that no one church is the whole Body of Christ.” Many are the churches that fail because they think they should do everything. However, it is together that we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit that all need in our work for the building of God’s kingdom.
That’s why a moment ago I listed some of the things I appreciate about the other Christian traditions represented in our village. To take just one of the examples I gave, let me say a little more about my appreciation for the more contemplative approach to the spiritual life that my Catholic friends bring. It is a much-needed corrective to the kind of spirituality often found in my tradition, that tends to value those who are busy and active. I am valued more for what I do and achieve than for a life of prayer. My tradition has an untold story of burnout. How fitting it is that our friends from St Hugh’s have invited the rest of us to participate in a Week of Accompanied Prayer in May – and how significant that the week in question ends with Pentecost. After all, if you know your Bible you will know that the Spirit fell on the disciples at Pentecost after a prolonged period of prayer.
I don’t want anyone to feel embarrassed about the good things their traditions enshrine, but I do want us to embrace the diversity of gifts among us. If we don’t, then the only Body of Christ we’ll have is an amputated one.
Indeed, that’s the danger if we don’t take Christian unity seriously. If we don’t see that our unity is based in the nature of God and that the God who is love calls us to love one another and his world, then we have lost something essential. If we don’t let the call to unity make us humble, we are going against the grain of Christ. And if we don’t embrace all the gifts God gives to his body, then we shall have a sick Body of Christ.
Of course maintaining unity is hard work – ask almost any married couple! But how can we who follow the Christ who went to the Cross bail out of the hard work? The prize is too great.
Let us make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Verse 3)