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During this Lent 2023, we are reflecting on Christ’s repeated command to “love one another“. (Remember that ‘one another’ and ‘each other’ refers to our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, our local and global congregation. This is not to say that we don’t need to love people outside the church! No!! But it is true that Jesus emphasises the love we have for one another within the church, because it is by this that people will know that we are his disciples and will become curious to find out more about this Jesus.)
This week we focus in on the many passages that describe this love that we have for one another as being characterised by acceptance and unity.
In John 17:20-26 Jesus emphasises this unity. In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples and then for all believers, including us in the future who came to believe through their message. He prays “that all of them may be one”, and again “that they may be one”, and then clarifies that he’s praying that we (Christians) may be one “as we are one” – that is, as Christ and the Father are one. That is the quality of oneness that Jesus wants us to experience with each other! The same kind of oneness that the Father, Son and Spirit experience within the Holy Trinity. And so Jesus continues to pray “that they may be brought to complete unity” – not just any old unity, not just grudging agreement or apathetic compliance, but complete unity. Jesus has very high expectations for the kind of closeness and harmony he wants us to experience among each other in the church.
And he then says, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Sjoe, that’s a big ‘THEN’! It means that our oneness, our unitedness, is a condition for our witness. In other words, if we are fractured, splintered, out of touch with each other, unloving and critical towards each other, all these things – then we cannot be Christ’s witness to the world. Remember what Jesus said just a few chapters earlier: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). It cannot be clearer than that, can it? We have to be unified, we have to be one. It is Jesus’ core command.
So, how is the church doing? I leave you to reflect on how your own local church community is doing in relation to unity and oneness. But when we look more broadly at my denomination - the global Anglican Communion - like many denominations, eish, we are doing badly. Our church is on the brink of fracturing right now, over different views of sexuality and gender, and particularly over what defines a marriage. I think there is nothing wrong with different views on things - difference can be refreshing and difference is built into the New Testament image of the church (as we'll soon see). But when different views become hostile dogmatism, toxic judgement and name calling (like 'apostacy' and 'blasphemy' and 'heresy'), then we have totally lost what Jesus has called us to - to unity and oneness. Such dogmatic stances are a recipe for disaster.
But let us continue to unpack what the Scriptures have to say about love as acceptance and unity. In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul picks up on Jesus’ words about the love that the Father has for him being in us, and that he may be in us just as the Father is in him. This is the language of interpenetration – that we are bound up together as one, as a body, where all the parts are interconnected. This image of the church as the Body of Christ is most fully developed in 1 Corinthians 12. This chapter is so well known that I’m not going to talk about it here, but it is a great chapter to read again in this context.
In Ephesians 4, though, Paul writes repeatedly about oneness. In verses 4-6 he uses ‘one’ seven times! “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.” (Those last words are again about interpenetration, aren’t they?) This oneness of the church community is strongly emphasised in Paul’s thinking.
But he quickly goes on to speak about the diversity of the church community: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service” (Eph 4:11-12). Here we have extensive diversity – different gifts, abilities and roles – a kaleidoscope of difference.
Paul deftly hold these apparent opposites – oneness and diversity – together. In v12 he says that all these parts of the body are “held together by every supporting ligament”, that Christ “is the head” that helps us walk in the same direction” (v15), which enables the “the body of Christ [to] be build up until we all reach unity in the faith” (v12-13), that we must “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v3) and that this requires us to “be completely humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love” (v2). All this language speaks of intention, commitment and effort towards unity – it won’t just fall out of the sky – we have to work at it. We have to work at love.
When it comes to the things of the church and to the witness of the church to the world, Jesus and Paul repeatedly emphasise both our diversity and our unity. But UNITY or ONENESS is always the overriding message. And LOVE is the key, essential and only strong-enough force to bridge the gap between unity and diversity. We must love one another, we must accept each other and be united, we must become one body, we must celebrate and accept differences – this is Christ’s repeated command: acceptance and unity.
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