Unity In Christ


Relational brokenness is everywhere. It’s a feature of our world as regular as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In the closed system of the universe, everything tends toward decay, disorder, and disintegration—including relationships. The cosmos is like a wagon wheel, and we’re the spokes, but the center is missing and we’re grasping for anything to fill that spot to hold it all together.

We like to try to build relationships on things like shared affinities, shared complaints, shared perspectives, shared goals. We feel that, if only we shared “X,” then we’d have real relational connections (where “X” = things like love of food and drink, parenting strategies, political views, favorite sports teams, musical tastes, et cetera). But these things can’t bear the weight of our relationships. Our interests wax and wane, and we’re constantly looking for excuses to separate ourselves from each other, anyway. Relationships can’t survive when the glue that holds us together is brittle.

In the church we’re not immune to this problem. We have what Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemns as “wish-dreams.” We have certain ideals that we believe, if we could just achieve them, would mean true community. We haven’t arrived there yet, but if we could just attain “X,” we’d have the true church (where “X” = things like whatever characterized the early church that no longer characterizes us, a perfect articulation of theology, a particular ministry or worship expression, et cetera). These things will never materialize in satisfactory ways for all of us, so we usually feel frustrated that the church isn’t meeting our expectations for community, for relationships. We cannot achieve a solid foundation for true community based on our own ideas or resources. Instead, Bonhoeffer proclaims the Gospel when he writes:

“Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us… Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.” (Life Together, emphasis mine).

True community, real relationship with one another in the church, is not something out there in front of us that we could attain if we just found the right glue. True community is a divine reality behind us, underneath us, already accomplished for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians, Paul says that the creation of the church out of fragmented, warring, divisive people is already a result of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. He is God’s plan for cosmic unity (1:10). He’s the hub at the center of the cosmic wagon wheel, and we are spokes that have already been reconnected to God through him. He himself is the substance of our relationships. All these other things we try to build relationships on, the shared affinities—even shared time—amount to nothing more than wispy cobwebs hanging between spokes on that wheel.

The unity that we have in Christ is spiritual, that is, it comes through his Spirit. The Spirit of God is the Uniter of Persons. From all eternity, the Father’s initiating, loving self-gift to his Son is the one Spirit, and the Son’s responsive, loving self-gift to his Father is the one and same Spirit. He is the Holy Spirit because he is utterly distinct from our spirits. Our spirits tend toward division. He is the Spirit of love, the Spirit of unity. Since all believers, together, share in the one Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:11-14), we all, together, are the one, holy, catholic (universal) church. The same Spirit who unites the Persons of the Trinity in love is the one who unites us to God and to each other in Christ, no matter what differences might otherwise characterize us. So, we already have a more profound, lasting unity in the church than we could ever hope to achieve apart from him.

“Good news! Jesus has created the church!” This actually is a historical, objective, cheerful reality, but it is not instinctive or obvious for us to celebrate. It is a matter for our faith. We must believe that Christ has done what we could never do in knitting us together in himself, because there is still the tendency toward division in our hearts. We must see one another in Christ. We must assess the nature and measure the quality of our relationships based on something invisible to us, on the fixed reality of the Gospel. We must let the spiritual nature of our unity determine our relational commitment to each other. Our commitment to each other should reflect our commitment to Jesus, who said, “As you did to the least of these my brothers, you did to me” (Matt. 25:40).

If, by faith, we can see our spiritual unity in Christ, we will have the resources we need to live in our relationships together. We can stay together, talk about and work through conflict. We can be patient and kind. We can open ourselves up, be vulnerable, and share our real struggles. We can ask forgiveness and extend forgiveness. In the body of Christ there’s no such thing as “irreconcilable differences.” In Christ, “unity” is God’s final word over the universe, and you can let that good word into your life and relationships now through faith in him, through your relationship with him.

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