Despite our differences and denominational affiliations, it is possible, and indeed essential, that we live together in unity of purpose and faith. That said, this is no easy task. Here is a reflection I offered today at Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, on this very topic.
You can listen to it here; the text is reproduced below:
Listening to the Apostle Paul: Achieving Unity Through Humility, Gentleness, Patience & Forbearance
This morning I want to briefly reflect on the first two verses of the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Every time I read Ephesians, I recall my own visit to this city on the Western Coast of Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. It’s a spectacular place to visit, steeped in history and architectural beauty.
From 52-54 AD, the Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus, working with the community there, building the Church and engaging in missionary activity. Several years later, Paul wrote his epistle to the Ephesian Church whilst he was imprisoned in Rome.
Paul’s letter is replete with engaging language and imagery that is heartfelt; his affection and concern for those men and women of the Ephesian congregation is obvious. His purpose was as pastoral as it was theological; as practical as it was ethereal. Paul’s letter spoke as much to the day-to-day concerns of the Ephesians as it does to us here today.
So, what was the purpose of Paul’s communication with this fledgling Christian Community? It’s true to say that he had a number of concerns, but the scholar A. Skevington Wood gets to the crux of the matter when he writes: ‘In Ephesians Paul was able to demonstrate that this almost obsessive search for unity finds its ultimate goal only in Christ. It is he who represents the coordinating principle of all life. The ideal of world citizenship, cherished by the philosophers, is realized in the universal church. Human beings can be liberated from bondage to the principalities and powers that threaten their welfare only as they share the triumph Christ gained over them at the Cross.’
In Ephesians, it’s as if Paul is re-emphasizing the first verse of our Old Testament passage for today – Psalm 133: ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’ And so it is. But Paul was very much aware of the human frailties that get in the way of unity and undermine it, and in so doing, erode the witness upon which the Church was built. Paul was a realist with a nuanced understanding of human nature and its capacity for conflict and disharmony; he was also very much aware of the positive aspects of human nature, namely the ability of people to transcend those conflicts and to work in harmony for the common good.
With that in mind, we might want to ask this question: ‘what is Paul saying specifically to the Ephesians, and also by extension to all of those who are called by Christ to constitute his church?
Paul inclusive understanding of the concept of ‘calling’ encompasses all members of the Church family. We tend use the word ‘call’ more exclusively – in relation to our Ministers being ‘called’ to a particular congregation. But in reality, we are all ‘called’; each one of us has a ‘vocation’ to follow Christ to the best of our ability and in line with our God given talents.
Paul’s concept of unity was not that every Christian should be the same, but that we are all unified in Christ, despite our different perspectives, personalities and life experiences. But there are some common values that are essential when we consider the practicalities of our calling: humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.
We may possess all of those qualities, at least at some points in our lives. It’s more likely though that we struggle with all of them most, if not all, of the time. Our goal isn’t to reach perfection – that’s not possible – but it’s to be aware of where we fall-down and to try and remedy it, with God’s help. And we will fall down; but we will also get up and we will also try again.
When we can recognize our own short-comings, then we can be more forgiving and understanding of the short-comings of our fellow Christians. And this too extends to the wider world in which we live, work and interact with each other.
The American Episcopal Priest and Author, Robert Capon, expressed this ‘calling’ in a way that I find quite instructive: ‘The Church is not in the world to teach sinners to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; the Church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business.’ I like that.
When we’re in the ‘forgiveness business’, we show compassion and empathy in action. In the ‘forgiveness business’, we allow Paul’s four graces – humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance, to act in concert for the greater good. We recognize ourselves in the other and in-so-doing, we affirm their dignity….and our dignity in the process. It’s not possible to be dismissive or cruel when start from that basic premise. The author and researcher, Brené Brown brings this into focus when she writes: ‘There’s no courage in being cruel. People are easy to hate until you’re looking them in the eye. Then, if you’re in touch with your humanity, you will see their humanity’.
In Church circles we often face differences of opinion: some are minor, others are much more important and can have far-reaching consequences. These differences can precipitate schisms and lead to bitterness and enmity; just look at the history of the Church through the ages and that reality is all too evident. But let me suggest that there are also far more instances, not often making the headlines, of Christians coming together and fulfilling their calling in Christ. The Moravian Church, although far from perfect, exemplifies that spirit of co-operation – our Ecumenical outreach is significant in the Irish District, our Province and beyond. We see part of our mission in forming a bridge between the different expressions of the Christian faith and working together wherever and whenever that is possible.
In life, it’s impossible to avoid conflict; that’s an uncomfortable reality. But it’s not the absence of conflict that defines us, rather it’s how we deal with it in practice. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians has given us much to think about; his earthly experience and spiritual wisdom have coalesced to give us a pathway to follow as we make our faith journey, slowly and imperfectly.
Let us prayerfully approach this week ahead, and beyond, with humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,