United in the Spirit
1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”
9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Divided We Stand
In a space of just 34 words, the Apostle Paul uses the word “one” 7 times: “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.” We are one. We are united. We are united in the Spirit.
Paul’s words are needed today. We need to hear this message of good news that tells us who we are in Christ and in the Spirit. When everyone is telling us we are at odds with one another, we are enemies, we’re on opposite ends of the spectrum, we’ll never be able to get along, conservatives vs. liberals, liberals vs conservatives, we just can’t have conversations anymore, we can’t talk with family members or friends, we can’t have a simple family get together or dinner and just enjoy each other’s company, because we can’t even agree to disagree. It feels like almost anything thought or opinion or feeling about anything related to politics is an explosion waiting to happen. We don’t feel like we’re one. We don’t feel like we’re united. We don’t feel like we are a part of the same body. We don’t feel like what Paul says is true.
Unfortunately, this is even true in our denomination. In 2016, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met together as they do every 4 years and debated and argued over the inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically over the marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ persons. Surrounding conversations have been divisive, controversial and have threatened to fracture our church. The 2016 General Conference decided to hold a specially convened General Conference in February of 2019, just a few months from now, to make a decision theologically, doctrinally, and politically (in terms of our polity and how we are organized) regarding our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. A special group of United Methodists formed The Commission on a Way Forward that has brought forth three distinct plans that will be voted on at General Conference each of which will result in three radically distinct “futures” for our denomination.
If we have tried, as a church, to do our best to practice humility and compassion and love in arguments and disagreements so that we stand out from the rest of our society and culture, we’ve failed. Even in the church we’re at odds, we argue and bicker and fight and act like we’re enemies and that we can’t reconcile, there’s nothing to be done - “They just won’t believe the right thing. They just won’t do things the right way.” We use the Bible to thump people over the head. We hurt feelings, break relationships, perpetrate violence against our neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ. We do all of this because we say we’re trying to be faithful to the Gospel, we’re being faithful to the Scriptures, we’re trying to be faithful. Everyone claims they’re right and everyone claims they are being faithful to God.
Unity in the Spirit
Unity, for Paul, is not just about forming a little group and declaring that we’re united in being right and everyone else needs to come over here to our group. Paul tells us to “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Real unity, real family, real community only occurs through humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace. Real unity is about being able to give up your pride, let go of your ego, sacrifice being “right” so that you can be “one.” For thousands of years, the church has cared about being theologically and doctrinally orthodox. We believe in and confess the creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, we celebrate Communion and Baptism, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe that the gospel is true and we continue to practice the traditions that have been handed down to us because they are true. We should want to be true, not be right. The Bible can handle itself, it doesn’t need protecting. My grandfather always says, “The Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.” No matter how many times you try to hit it and twist it and get it to say what you want so you can claim to be right, the Word of God stands eternally and everlastingly true. We care about being true, not being right. So we preach truth, truth to the world that desperately needs to hear it, truth to ourselves who need to believe it, truth to anyone willing to listen to it, but we preach it “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Paul says we are united in and by the Spirit. And the Spirit moves. On Pentecost, the Spirit comes in a mighty rushing wind and flames of fire rested on each one of us giving us the ability to speak in different languages. The Spirit is fire and flame, wind, movement, change. That’s who created us. That’s who sustains us. We follow and worship and practice faithfulness to the Spirit. We follow the Spirit, not the Bible, not doctrine, not each other, not governments, not laws. We follow the Spirit and the Spirit unites us, connects us, fastens us together in the bond of peace.
I believe in the holy catholic church
It should not be surprising to us that when we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed directly after we confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” we also confess we believe in “the holy catholic church.” It is the Spirit that brings us together, that creates us and sustains us and gives us life. Because the one who gives us life is Holy, we also are called Holy.
The Apostles’ Creed is not actually the oldest creed we have. The Nicene Creed was first adopted by the church to confess their faith in 325 AD and many churches still use the Nicene Creed today. In the Nicene Creed, it says, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” You can almost hear the harkening back to Paul’s words, “There is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
What does it mean to say we believe in one, holy, catholic church?
We believe that the Church is one. As I’m getting to know Brevard I’m realizing that there are a ton of churches here. And there are all kinds: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, Non-denominational, 7th Day Adventists, there’s even a Unitarian church in town. And we have differences. We believe slightly different things about Holy Communion and Baptism and mission and politics and prayer and worship. And we’re structured in slightly different ways, some of us have bishops and vicars and priests, some have pastors, some ministers, some move there ministers around, some call their own minister. There are weaknesses and errors in all Churches. But there are not different Churches. The Church is One. We are united, by the Spirit. We believe in the Communion of the Saints, we are in communion with one another, not separate or cut-off or excommunicated, we’re one. None of us is perfect. None of us will ever be fully satisfied with the theology, or the worship, or the preaching, or the committees. Sin is present in every church. But if we ever leave and seek a different church and attempt to find one that is perfect, without sin, where the theology is untainted and the worship always uplifting and the preaching always entertaining and faithful and the committees always efficient and effective, we might find one, but we will be the only one in attendance.
We believe the Church is holy. When we say we believe the Church is holy, we do not mean we are perfect and without sin and the world, everyone else not in the Church, is full of sinners and pagans and people who are going to hell. When we say we believe the Church is holy, what we mean is we are set apart. We are a community that is set apart from the rest of the world, to preach to the world, to evangelize, to heal, to seek after. Really, it’s not that we believe in the church, we believe through the church. That the church is the means through which the Holy Spirit has chosen to call the world to holiness. We are holy because we are the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus himself. The work God does in the world, God does through us. We do not offer ourselves to the world, we offer the body and blood of Christ. Through Jesus, God has made us holy so that we can be vessels of holiness for the world.
We believe the Church is catholic. If you recite the Apostles’ Creed out of the hymnal you’ll notice an asterisk beside the word “catholic.” When we use the word “catholic” with a lower “c” we mean that the church is universal. We are not saying we believe in the Roman Catholic Church, although I would say you should because they are our heritage and the reason we are here today, but we are saying we believe God’s church in Brevard, NC is the same church in Asheville and Raleigh and Washington DC and Dallas and San Francisco and London and Moscow and Beijing. We have all been brought together by the Spirit to worship our Lord Jesus Christ. Our cultures make us unique, our languages make us unable to understand one another, our skin colors and bodily features make us appear different. But we are all the Body of Christ. We are one, holy, catholic Church.
This morning we come to celebrate the holy sacrament. There are different names for what we’re about to do: the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. This is one of our practices that has helped make us one, holy, catholic Church. We’ve been celebrating Communion ever since Jesus dined with his disciples on the night of his death. When Jesus offer himself to us and his body was broken and his blood was shed, that was the night when we became one. So we come now to give ourselves to our Lord and to one another. To offer up all that we are. To lay aside our differences. To be reconciled, to be made one, in peace. We drink from one cup. We share one loaf. We may not feel like what Paul says is true, we may not feel like we are one, we may feel distant and broken and angry and bitter. The world tries to tell us we’re enemies. God is telling us we’re family.
When we eat this bread and drink this juice, we become like the one who made us. We become the Body and Blood. We become united. We become one.