Week 9, Day 5: A United Church
Years ago, when I was still single and dating, I stumbled upon a revelation: in considering all of the things I wanted a potential partner to be, I realized that the person I wanted to be with was essentially me — I wanted her to be at exactly the same place as I was emotionally and intellectually and politically, to love the same books and movies, to have the same interests, to support the same sports teams. Now, of course, Carolyn and I will sometimes joke that when we met, the only things we had in common were a love for Jesus and football. Which also means that I’ve experienced — and had to deal with — more relational conflict than ever before in my life.
But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. One of the lessons I’ve learned through the challenges of doing life with another person is what it looks like to have unity without being the same, to hold oneness and difference together. I don’t need to make Carolyn into someone that looks like me, just as she doesn’t need to make me into someone who is just like her; we are committed to a greater story — our story — and that means that we navigate our differences and disagreements in order to build something together.
The theme of unity runs throughout the New Testament. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be united just as he and his Father are united; that was his desire for us to “be of one heart and mind as we are of one heart and mind” (John 17:11, The Message). What is remarkable is that Jesus’ disciples were very different: for example, one was nicknamed “a zealot” (Luke 6:15), probably because he was aligned with those who wanted to overthrow Rome by violent means; another was Matthew, or Levi, a tax-collector — quite literally a Jew who was selling out his own people for a profit. Somehow, Jesus held these two together.
Likewise, Peter and Paul and the other New Testament writers were also extremely concerned with maintaining the unity of the church. In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul wrote:
Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
Again, it is important to understand that these were not just wise words or high-minded ideals, but genuine appeals for oneness in the midst of great differences of background, opinion, understanding, socioeconomic status, and even theology.
READ: ROMANS 14
The tendency toward division strikes us at all levels, from members of churches to churches within cities to churches within nations to churches around the world. It is not difficult at all to splinter over differences; the challenge is how to stay together in spite of those differences.
This requires self-awareness, understanding who you are, what you believe, and why; it requires humility, recognizing that you don’t know it all, that your understanding is neither the fullest understanding nor the only one; it requires conversation in the midst of conflict, refusing to silo ourselves off into our corner with only those who agree with us; and it requires grace and graciousness, being quick to apologize and to offer forgiveness, giving others the benefit of the doubt, holding the space, even if there is unresolved tension and we would prefer to have quick answers.
At Christ City Church, we are a diverse congregation, with people from different backgrounds, perspectives, political ideologies, ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses. What binds us together, we hope, is not our similarities in those things — though it is always gratifying to find others like you — but rather our common commitment to Jesus and the work of his kingdom and to one another as we grow in faith through community and as we help each other grow.
We also believe that, just as the work of the kingdom is more than one individual can accomplish, so too is it more than one congregation can accomplish. So we love to partner with churches and organizations that are like us and churches and organizations that are not for the sake of the common good — to see more of the kingdom in our city and on earth.
Now, if I’m being honest, I’ve experienced ‘unity’ being used as a synonym for conformity, for not causing trouble, or not speaking up when I see something unjust. Perhaps you have too. Unity is never imposed or forced; it is not an excuse to silence dissent or disagreement; it is a work of the Spirit, bringing together people across differences to illustrate the beauty of the gospel and the kingdom.
I think one of the reasons Jesus and his disciples talked about unity so much was that they knew it is one of the hardest things to live out. It is far easier to look down on those who are not like us or those with whom we disagree, to turn up our noses at how they just don’t get it. But Jesus said the world would know his disciples by their love for one another (John 13:35); may we, though we are different, strive to be united in love.
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: What are some experiences you’ve had of the church working as one body, that is, well together?
Heart: What are some experiences you’ve had of division in the church?
Hands: What could you do in your conversations and your interactions to seek unity rather than division? Try not to say anything negative about anyone today. Report back to the group about how it goes.
ADDITIONAL: Continue writing a few sentences of blessing — words of affirmation — for each person in your small group. Send them to your group leader to collate and share. (This will likely take more than one day, so we’ll make more time for this tomorrow.)
Make us one as you are one. Amen.
Unity is never forced or imposed;
it is not an excuse
to silence dissent or disagreement;
it is a work of the Spirit.