“in Christ” equals community in Christ

Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I often boast about you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation; I am overjoyed in all our affliction.

For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way—disputes without and fears within. But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us.

2 Corinthians 7:2-9

Like any community and any person for that matter, there are difficulties which are not easy to work through. The letters in the New Testament are to anything but tidy churches. If there isn’t a problem which needs serious attention now, there will be one soon. And that’s in part because relationships and building them, seeing them mature, just holding on to them is neither automatic nor easy.

But the life of Christ is found in community. Yes, between oneself and Christ, but it never stops there. God never meant humans to live alone. As we’re told at the beginning of Genesis, that’s not good. I am convinced that just one of the major tactics of the enemy is to isolate us, make us feel like we’re alone, divide us, anything but promote unity. Unless it’s a unity set against Christian unity. And even that unity is more than precarious.

I believe there’s a true sense in the thought that we find Christ in each other. But that doesn’t mean in everyone, and not even everyone who names the name of Christ. And this is especially the case when we’ve been absent for awhile or when life has hit us particularly hard like when we face threatening opposition or feel that all is lost and we as well. We need each other in Christ.

This coming together is about appreciating God’s grace in each of one us in Christ, thankful for the strengths and in love looking over the weaknesses. Holding each other up in prayer. It certainly includes ongoing repentance along the way.

The difference between night and day, despair and an adrenaline of hope, life and death. All in the love of God by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

the priority of the unity of the body of Christ, the church

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours

1 Corinthians 1:2

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

A priority which ought to mark every church is the desire for unity among all of God’s people in Christ, among all the churches. This is a difficult task since so many churches are given to an independent mindset with more or less the idea that only churches of their kind are truly Christian, or at least are the most sound and authentic to the Christian faith. That plays right into the hands of the spiritual enemy, actually coming from its hands as well.

A church is not worth its salt which fails to make unity within its own congregation a priority, and makes expression of the unity all have in Christ a priority as well. Decades back, ecumenical for me was a dirty word. Instead, we ought to downplay our differences as much as possible, and highlight our agreement, indeed our oneness in Christ. I would think on the ground that means churches should participate in ecumenical associations: Protestants with Catholics with Mennonites with Baptists with Pentecostals with the Orthodox and so on. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness along with sin, death and “the flesh” are out to divide and destroy. Christ by the Spirit is present to redeem, save and heal. We can hopefully learn to appreciate our differences as distinctives to be brought into the whole. Yes, we have our different theologies, and that often seems to make the push for unity strange at best, and certainly strained and sometimes it can make it seem worse than that. But we can learn much from each other if we can look past our differences. Without thinking we have to be in complete agreement. It is only in and through Christ that complete unity will be found, and completely so at his return. Until then we’re to seek to find unity where it may be found by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

Especially the first sentence of the last paragraph was written under the influence of Tim Gombis’s excellent book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry. My application of that, so that what is amiss here cannot be blamed on Tim.

when Christians disagree

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Philippians 4:2-3

It’s inevitable that no two people who think very long at all are going to think exactly alike. We all bring a different intellectual and moral calculus to our deliberations in making judgments on life. Certainly our experiences factor in as well, as does a whole host of other matters, so that it may seem at least on the surface that we disagree with each other. It can be a case of talking past each other in misunderstanding, but there are times when we do disagree. Or for whatever reason we might even be disagreeable simply because we don’t easily get along with someone else.

Whatever the case may have been, Euodia and Syntyche, two ladies who contended at Paul’s side for the gospel were at odds with each other. For one reason or another, they weren’t getting along. On some level, evidently they weren’t seeing eye to eye. And there was division between them. This was not something tolerable to Paul, certainly understandable when you consider this entire letter.

Paul counsels them to be of the same mind “in the Lord.” I consider “in the Lord” key, because that can make all the difference in the world when there is honest disagreement. We might be helped to see that the other person might have a point, that we might possibly be missing something. Or at least that our disagreement is not to be compared with our agreement in the power and truth of the gospel. So that even if we’re not in agreement on something lesser, we can at least recognize that it is indeed not as important as what we agree on. The problem sometimes is when one or the other, or both simply won’t let go of the disagreement instead of agreeing to major on what they do agree on, perhaps finding ways their agreement in the gospel, in Christ addresses their problem.

Oftentimes we develop an attitude, at least of weariness or of thinking that we can’t escape the issue being front and center. This is a problem in this day and age when we find a polarization in society, which is seen within the church, as well. How can we live together well with such differences? The answer is surely in our commitment to, not to mention our dependence on the gospel.

Paul counsels the church to help these women. It had become such an issue, that the church needed to step in, not to judge them, but to help them find their way to peace so that they could live well together in the reconciliation that is in Christ. And in so doing, they could become a model for others in how to live in the unity of the Spirit in their oneness in Christ through the gospel, in spite of what differences they had, or may have still had. Something we need to aspire to today, in a day when lesser things can impede and imperil what is first and foremost: our commitment to Christ and the gospel, and our unity in that. All of this possible in and through Jesus.

the gospel ultimately destroys all division

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:26-29

We in Christ all belong to the household and family of God. We’re one. That doesn’t mean distinctions no longer exist, though the seeds of abolishing slavery are clearly in the New Testament, in this passage, in the book of Philemon, etc.

The gospel destroys all division in the sense of people not being united. We are “in Christ” and therefore united as one in him. That seems so obvious, a truism even, except that it hasn’t always been played out that way. African slaves were baptized when they responded in faith to the gospel. Yet they remained slaves, as if the family status was somehow only spiritual. That flies in the face of the meaning of the gospel, the good news in Jesus. It’s essentially a family, household thing, full heirs of God’s promise in Christ, as the above passage points out. Likewise females who were often either considered inferior to males, or treated as such are equal in being heirs and members of the family.

We are bereft with deep divisions in the world today. And they only seem exacerbated as people live more deeply and advocate their own common unity, or community. It would be good if by common grace people from diverse backgrounds: racial, religious, whatever could find common ground so that they could live well together. But that kind of unity could never approach the unity that is in Christ. It is good and important in its place, but it’s certainly not a full unity.

The unity in Christ does not destroy the diversity present. Women are still women, men, men, cultures, ethnicity is not changed. And such diversity will be a challenge at times. We are one in Christ, in one household, of one family in him, the family of God. Yet living in that one family will require humility as we learn to grow together. And surely the diversity is used by the Spirit to help us grow up in Christ in ways we otherwise would not. We can see diversity as all gifts from God for the whole, similar to the thought in Ephesians 4. To help us toward full maturity in Christ. That same passage tells us that though we are united in Christ, we’re to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. So to live well within that unity, to not become divided is not automatic.

We have to let this unity have its full effect, and that is both passive and active. We receive all God gives us in Christ by the Spirit. And we contribute our part, in return. In love in the unity that binds us all together in and through Jesus.

simply Christian

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1

It seems like it holds true to the present: there are a number of Christian denominations and traditions which remain essentially divided over this and that, sometimes what appears to be significant matters over the gospel, and yet in the end, they would acknowledge that the ones they are dividing from are likely in Christ.

What if we simply got rid of the idea that we have to be united over this or that nonessential? But for many, unless one believes that the bread of Holy Communion becomes Christ’s body, and the wine is blood, then they can’t be in any kind of fellowship and working relationship. Or churches remain divided over this or that. It seems impossible to break the division.

We need to center on the gospel, and live with our differences around that. Maybe challenge each other in the process, but make it a priority to be united, insofar as we possibly can for our witness to the world, as well as the good of our own faith.

Reports from China years back said that the church was growing exponentially until they began to get divergent directions from different Christian bodies in the free world. The simplicity of the power of the gospel, and God’s grace in that was disrupted by human made rules and tradition. The work of the Spirit was thus undermined, if not thwarted altogether.

When it’s not the gospel that is central, or when there are certain aspects of our participation in the gospel which end up dividing us, we have work to do. We need to make provision for all who are in Christ to be united as one in faith and practice.

That is what I’m coming to now. We might want to bring a believer along to understand and practice or even not think they have to practice certain things, arguably, but as long as they have faith in Christ, that should be enough for them to be fully united to us in our church body and witness to the world. The New Testament doesn’t know any believer who isn’t baptized, at least not as a rule, but differences there should not cause us to exclude each other.

What we need to press for is to maximize our oneness in Christ through the gospel. That needs to take priority over other matters. In spite of what differences we have, we ought to make provision for that. In the grace of God in and through Jesus.

hanging in there with each other

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good,to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15

Weak and strong have to do with the changes that were taking place with the coming of the new covenant in which many rules, even the schema of the old covenant, was being put aside since the fulfillment of it in Christ and through his death, had already come. It was not an easy time, a time of change. It was not like Christians at that time had to put all the old practices aside. But they had to accept the new reality that other Christians were not going to practice them, and would still be completely accepted by God, so that they too would need to accept them. They were the majority at first, but in a matter of a relatively short time would become the minority as more and more Gentiles would come to the faith.

We can apply this passage in a looser sense with strong and weak perhaps signifying scruples and religious practices. What might be out of bounds for some, might not be any problem for others. Of course I’m not talking about out and out sin, but rather things that might lead some, the “weak” into sin. What might not be a problem for me might be an occasion of stumbling for them, so that I won’t be acting in love if I flaunt my freedom in their presence.

Also I need to be careful not to judge others on things which in themselves are not sin, covered by God’s grace. I might possibly be termed as “weak” in those situations. God looks at the heart. Some practice might be better than others, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But oftentimes what we know is best for us, or what we’re accustomed to, we impose on others, and judge them according to those standards. Which might in fact not be helpful to them, even if they might possibly learn something from our own practice.

We must accept one another fully, even as Christ has fully accepted us, that we together might bring glory to God. A big part of that is simply learning to get along well with our differences, some of that contrast perhaps being uncomfortable to us like the sound of chalk on a blackboard. For this to happen, we need to pray, and be open to the work of the Spirit in drawing us together in harmony, so that in that, we might bring praise together to God. Getting along with each other is a high priority to God. And the essence of what it means to be “in Christ.” Of course as those who are seeking to live in the grace and truth of our Lord. In and through Jesus.

the oneness of all who are in Christ and therefore his church

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17

When I read or hear of the divisions within Christendom, or I mean the traditions of Christianity, then I want to think of it as something less than Christianity. Conservative Lutherans within a denomination which ironically is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals don’t consider themselves in full fellowship with Reformed people, since the Reformed supposedly divide Christ in their view of the Eucharist, not accepting the body and blood of the Lord in it. And therefore they won’t participate with them publicly. The Eastern Orthodox Church won’t seriously consider uniting with Roman Catholics, even after the overture for such from the latter. I wonder if all such in reality are the ones who are sinning against the Lord in not discerning his body (1 Corinthians 11).

I might hold myself to something of what Anglicans hold to in Holy Communion, that according to the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, something of the body and blood of the Lord is present in the Eucharist. And I might especially like John Calvin’s explanation of that more in terms of the Spirit’s presence in it, of course the Son and the Father also then being present by the Spirit. So that this presence is indeed spiritual, as opposed to physical. Hence I suppose the Lutheran charge that the Reformed reject Christ’s humanity in the Eucharist. I see Holy Communion myself as a sacrament, and more than just a symbol, and wish the Bible church where we’re taking our grandchildren, and where we’ll probably become members would hold to the same view, and practice Holy Communion once a week rather than once a quarter.

But regardless of our views on the Lord’s Table, all who are in Jesus by faith are one with him, and with each other by the Spirit. We are one, period. How dare we deny that oneness for the sake of tradition, or our interpretation of scripture? I notice that churches like the one we’re attending do not at all deny the oneness of all who are in Christ, and would fully participate with such, or at least let any professing believer participate in Holy Communion with them.

Also while I understand the view by which neither the Lutherans mentioned above, nor Roman Catholics (and I’m guessing neither the Eastern Orthodox) don’t allow Christians who don’t hold to their view of Holy Communion to participate with them in it, I am with the Christians who believe this is a case of tradition gaining the upper hand on scripture, and actually nullifying the word of God. Or what do the Lord’s words in the prayer quoted above mean?

This leaves me with an empty feeling as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic church in Wittenberg. And it makes me less apt to want to attend a Roman Catholic service. And in some ways even less interested in attending an Eastern Orthodox one. And I feel sad over all of this. Because I believe every person who by faith, and we might add baptism (the New/Final Testament essentially does not divide the two, but I would settle for by faith) are one with Christ, period. And therefore ought to be treated as such, especially in the sacrament in which this oneness is celebrated, remembered, and in a sense renewed, Communion. Christian traditions ought to figure out how to lay aside their tradition in honor of that oneness, yes, during the Eucharist, so that all in Christ can participate in that. The only explanation needed would be the reality of the grace of God in Jesus.

Until they do, I for one have a hard time taking them completely seriously. They see other Christians as sinning against the body and blood of the Lord, when the great sin in 1 Corinthians 11 was the failure on the part of some Christians to act as if other Christians were members of Christ’s body. Enough. Christ is not divided, period. Nor his church. They should adopt grace as overriding the letter of their tradition, even while they still hold to it. Are traditions set in stone? I believe in the gospel, and in the written word of God. I’m sure some Christians would pick at that statement. Regardless, let’s quit doing this, would be my plea, and let’s fully accept all who name the name of our Lord Jesus, and hold to that gospel as given to us in scripture (example: 1 Corinthians 15). Otherwise we fail to live according to our Lord’s words in his great high priestly prayer prayed on the eve of his crucifixion and death.

the ideal church in the US in the present

First of all, right off from the top, there is no ideal church. Unless one is going to push their denomination or way of being church, there are a number of differences, which actually was the case even in the earliest days of the church, once it expanded beyond Jerusalem. And so I’m going to accept those differences which are many, today. As long as we’re united by the gospel, the good news about Jesus, we can live with those differences. I believe that’s the case between Catholic and Protestant; Calvinists, Pentecostals and Anabaptists, etc., etc. As long as the good news in Jesus is intact, the teaching of his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return, even the details surrounding that we can see differently, provided that we accept salvation by grace through faith with works following. I am not one to quibble over justification with the Catholics, though I myself accept the solos which became theologically prominent through the Reformation. But now to the main point of this post.

We live in a nation which to a significant extent has been built off the backs of slaves. And even after their emancipation through the Civil War, you tell most any black or African-American that they are free, and they will qualify that. And we lived through one hundred years of segregation along with the Jim Crow era. There have been other prejudices, too, and all of that can fit into the point I’m going to make next, but given the history of this nation, and the current controversy over police and race relations, I will put a clear emphasis on blacks and whites and the church.

I believe that in order to be the witness the nation and the world needs from a church here, there needs to be a deliberate change and commitment to a racial reconciliation in which the African-Americans have just as much say and leadership in a given church as the white largely European Caucasians such as myself. In a small church, that might look like a black senior pastor, with a ethnically mixed board of elders and deacons (or deacons, if that’s the way your church runs). In a larger church, it might ideally somehow be two or more associate pastors who share the teaching and pastoral role, black and white, white and black, not in any particular order. But to be sure that the church is not still really run by whites, there ought to be an emphasis given to black leadership.

Of course there are many black churches and denominations. When I was young, blacks weren’t even allowed to step inside of Southern Baptist churches, and I’m sure they were marginalized in many places. But maybe black churches need to pray about their witness, as well. Maybe it’s time for them to purposefully integrate. But I can’t speak for them. If we’re to overcome what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most integrated hour of the week, Sunday morning, than your normal church, made up of whites with a few blacks and African-Americans here and there, must take the lead. We are the ones on the side of history of the oppressors. They are on the side of the oppressed.

To be color blind doesn’t mean we just remain comfortably in our place. It means we purposefully integrate, not from some law or order from government, but as part of the heart of the call of the gospel. To express by the Spirit the unity we all have through the good news in Jesus. Regardless of our ethnicity, background, political views, etc. But in the case of blacks and whites, this will require more.

Given our history, this unity is not just something we blithely put in place, even with some hard effort to accept and learn to appreciate our cultural differences. There must also be at the heart of all of this, reconciliation. And this reconciliation must include forgiveness on both sides: the blacks and African-Americans forgiving the whites for slavery in the first place, and all the mistreatment which followed. And the whites forgiving African-Americans and blacks for any and every sinful response that followed. And all of this, while it should be put into place in a church through the gospel, is a process in which we can’t imagine at a given point we’ve arrived. The wall of hostility is broken down through the gospel, through Jesus’s death, but the unity of the Spirit which follows requires every effort to maintain, and grow in. As we grow up together into the mature body of Christ that we’re called to become. A growth that is ongoing, and something we already are in Christ by the Spirit, but learning to live by and into the implications of all of that.

This is a great need in the church today. The way we do church just won’t do, I’m afraid, or at least it will be lacking, if this isn’t a priority well beyond just hoping others who are different might begin to trickle in. All of this in and through Jesus.

the blessedness of unity and the kind of unity that is blessed

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

God seems to put a priority on unity. In Jesus’s high priestly prayer of John 17, that is front and center in his petition for all believers, that God’s people would be one and be perfectly united, even as he and the Father are.

This begs the question just what kind of unity we’re talking about, the answer being self evident already, and especially so when we consider our Lord’s prayer in John 17, along with the context of Psalm 133. Unity is not merely for unity’s sake, as good as that may be. That can definitely be dangerous as well, in a world in which deception and following the crowd, or simply keeping in step with custom is either sacrosanct, or else expected, or at the very least what helps a person fit in and not stand out like a sore thumb.

There is a unity that God brings his people into through Christ, and which God blesses, and is indeed delighted in, and in which we should delight. But it’s not a unity of this world, let’s say some political unity, whether Democratic or Republican, or whatever it might be. Probably many of us are united in things like that, maybe not. But that’s not the unity referred to here. In fact many of the unions of this world are broken down, and shown to be suspect, I think now of such things as reactions to evil which may not be good, and may even end up evil themselves. We have to beware of the human tendency to unite in a way that ends up being in opposition to God, not in harmony with the unity of God, and what God is bringing about in and through Christ.

Only through the gospel, the good news in Jesus, can we enter into this blessed unity of God. This is a Jesus thing. But just because we have entered into it, doesn’t mean that it’s automatic, and we can coast from there. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that our oneness is evident and rooted in a number of ways: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But we’re told in that exact same passage to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are one body already. We’re to live out what we already are in Christ. And scripture makes it clear that this is an important and even vital part of our witness to the world.

We are already one in Christ. We’re to live that out, through all the complexitites and different circumstances and perspectives we find ourselves in. We each have our part in this in working toward a harmonious whole, which is both a witness to the world of the truth of the gospel, but is also central to who we are and what God is making us to be in and through Jesus.

the gospel breaks the color barrier

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3

Maybe my biggest disappointment with the church as I’ve seen it for the most part, with notable exceptions, is just how monochrome, or segregated most churches are on any given Sunday. It is understandable, yet sad at the same time, in my view. God’s grace covers us, and there’s a history behind it. And it’s not like churches who are white or black want to be segregated. There are different cultures involved, and people are at home in different places.

But the gospel is meant to bring together those who likely would never do so apart from it. What is true concerning Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God as one body (Ephesians 2:11-22) is also true of all peoples, bringing for example Palestinians and Jews together through the cross, through Jesus’s death, along with blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, everyone. The reconciliation to God extends no less to each other through the good news in Jesus, and the Spirit who makes us one in him.

As a witness to the gospel, and the saving power it brings, we need to show the world how we can work through the barriers, whatever they may be. How our unity in God through Jesus by the Spirit in the love of God in Jesus supercedes all distinctions, breaks down all animosities and hostilities, through Christ’s death, and our repentance and faith, and brings the promised healing and shalom. This new world is now present through Christ in his body the church. As a witness to the world, and as part of the salvation we ourselves need, in and through Jesus.