A Journey Towards Unity – Ephesians 4:1-3

Happy Easter! After reading that, you might be thinking to yourself, “You’re a little late bro…Easter was a few weeks ago.” And to that I would say… “You’re right, but that was only the beginning of the Easter season.” We are now in week 4 of Easter building up to the Christian crescendo of Pentecost (7 weeks after the Passover/Easter), the moment the Church become truly alive, filled with God’s Spirit and thrust out into the world to display the beauty and worth of Jesus’ kingship. Pentecost lands on May 23rd this year (my 2nd child’s 9th birthday!).

What’s unique about the end of the Easter season this year, in Phoenix, is that on the day of Pentecost (May 23rd) there is a multi-denominational gathering of Catholics and Protestants coming together to celebrate the oneness they have in Jesus, to come together based on their faith in Jesus, and not to stay divided based on their doctrinal differences.

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So in the Easter spirit of being united under the oneness of Jesus, I wanted to share a journey through Ephesians 4:1-16 that may help you understand this oneness in Jesus, and to embrace this movement of unity that is essential to the calling of every person who has faith in Jesus, and to take Jesus up on his invitation to go deeper with Him.

Here’s day one:

The Called Body – Ephesians 4:1-3

1 I urge you, then—I who am a prisoner because I serve the Lord: live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. 2 Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. 3 Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together.

This is the opening of the second part of Paul’s letter to the church in the city of Ephesus. The first three chapters of Ephesians contain Paul’s overview of the doctrinal and liturgical formation of the church, and now he’s doing what should always be done with doctrine and liturgy: applying it to the whole of life! As Paul draws the Church, the body of Christ, into the life it ought to be concerned with, regarding the good news of what Christ has done for her, he begins by reminding her of the calling that the whole body has been given.

Paul urges the Ephesians to “lead a life that is worthy of the vocation to which you were called” (vs. 1, New Jerusalem Bible).

This is the call of the Church: to live, to embody, to display, to put into practice what God has made possible because of Jesus. In the Greek New Testament, there is repetition found in verse 1 with the two words vocation and called, which are derived from the same Greek word, kaléō. Kaléō means to call to someone in such a way that they actually listen and obey, much like sheep would recognize and obey the voice of their shepherd.

In this case, Paul is calling the body of Christ to respond to the vocation of humility, gentleness, and long-suffering, and to preserve the oneness of Christ’s body through the peace that is given to us through God’s Spirit. According to Philippians 2:2-5, Paul is clearly calling the body of Christ into the very character of Christ. This will become much clearer to us as we continue to give our hearts and minds to Ephesians 4:1-16 in the days to come.

Complete harmony is only found in Christ. No matter where our paycheck comes from, our true vocation comes from him, so we must be willing to give him our faithful allegiance. It is Christ Jesus who has conquered death itself, and all who follow his voice are assured that the same victory will be theirs as well. This is the beginning of all forms of unity, and we should strive toward this unity in the Spirit with all that we have.

A Prayer For Us Today

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, sinners. We long to hear and obey your voice, the voice of the Chief Shepherd, but there are so many competing voices today. These voices tell us false stories of happiness, success, power, and prestige. We often believe their lies. Be gracious to us as we learn to listen and obey and walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, the gospel that calls, cleanses, equips, and reconciles. Let us be drawn more and more into your character as you make us one. This is our fervent prayer. Amen.

For Those Who Want to Go Deeper

The gospel of Jesus calls for our faithful allegiance. What stumbling blocks are keeping you from being faithful to Jesus? What competing voices have you believed more than God? Today, confess these things to Christ Jesus in prayer, and consider confiding in a fellow brother or sister in Christ who is willing to walk alongside you on your journey of repentance. Be honest with yourself, but be kind as well. Don’t give yourself a personal beating… Jesus took the beating (and death) for you, and it was sufficient. We don’t have to beat ourselves up over our sin. We just have to be honest about our sin. Jesus isn’t a condemning to his children, so don’t be condemning to yourself. This exercise is meant to take you to the hidden places that you wish weren’t there, place them in front of Jesus, and say, “There you go. I don’t want these anymore. Renew my mind and work healing in the inner parts of my soul.” Go for it. Transformation awaits the honest ones.

Missional Ecumenism and the First-Century Church

Missional Ecumenism has been a big discussion over the last century of church life. If this phrase is new to you, in it’s simplest form, it means unity of the body of Christ around the mission of God. The word “ecumenism” comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means “the whole inhabited earth.”

This ecumenical vision is both the mission to reconcile “the visible Church of every era” which is referred to as being ‘one body’ (Ephesians 4:1-4) and God’s mission to reconcile the “whole inhabited earth” (Matthew 24:14) as the concern of all who are God’s children (Genesis 12:1-3).

Unity of the body of Christ is always about mission. The mission of God is always about unity. One could also take the words “ecumenism” and “unity” and replace it in some way with the word “reconciliation,” which is the heart behind the whole gospel; Christ reconciling all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).

This reconciliation is wrought by men and women, who through faith in Christ Jesus, live a beatitudes kind-of-life, embracing the poverty of their own spirit, mourning over their sin and sin done against others and themselves, restraining their power to be used for good, and ultimately, working up a hunger and thirst for justice and goodness. This will lead to a life of mercy, purity, peacemaking, and in most cases, a life of persecution.

For a good example of what the beatitudes kind-of-life look like in story form, we could turn to the letter to Philemon, where the reality of reconciliation is employed in all it’s beauty, and missional ecumenism is seen from the very beginning of this Jesus movement.

In this letter we learn of a problem. Philemon had a run away slave named Onesimus, who fled his home, left Colossae and somehow ended up in Ephesus. We don’t know if Onesimus knew of Paul from Philemon, or if he was on the run, and heard Paul preaching while Paul was under house arrest in Ephesus. But somehow, he heard the gospel, received Christ, and became a disciple of Paul there in Ephesus, and falls head over heels in love with Jesus. Paul clearly sees the renewal that took place in this run away slaves life and wants to disciple him by having he and Philemon eventually live out a picture of the gospel; reconciliation.

It’s clear that Paul has in mind reconciliation with his letter to Philemon, because he urges Philemon to not just allow Onesimus back into his community, but to receive him as a brother, a partner in the gospel!

Go ahead, check it out for yourself. Grab a Bible and read Philemon real quick, it’s a brief one-page letter.

Did you see it? The gospel of reconciliation? Paul is crystal clear, he wants nothing less than the unity of two enemies who are now both unified under the Messiah, and one brother is to give the other brother emancipation papers. “Free him Philemon!”

In this letter, we read overtones of the Exodus narrative which was behind all of Paul’s letters and interpreted through Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul now wants Philemon to embrace the new exodus that Christ gave him (Philemon), and extend a new exodus to Onesimus. “Live out the gospel Philemon! Let Onesimus go free!”

We need to know that the punishment for a run away slave was likely crucifixion in this case. After all, if slaves run away without punishment, then who’s to say other slaves won’t follow suit unless somehow puts the hammer down. And what of Philemon if he goes along with it? What will other slave owners say? Will they try to harm Philemon? Paul is asking a lot, but if we continue to look at this passage, we see that Paul may be offering a lot as well.

This is why Paul also mentions, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (Philemon 18)

Notice Paul says to charge the cost of Onesimus’ offense to his account, which would mean whatever Onesimus would be given, or maybe whatever would be blamed on Philemon for releasing a run away slave, blame it on Paul. So Paul may be saying, “If he deserves the cross, then I’ll take it for him!” Or, “If you might receive punishment for releasing him, let the town know it’s on me, I’ll receive your punishment.” Paul is displaying the ministry of reconciliation here, he’s displaying Christ’s sacrifice in a tangible way.

Clearly after reading Philemon in this context, Paul has a much bigger view of reconciliation than we have after a casual reading of this text. Paul has an entirely different perspective. Indeed Philemon and Onesimus are a part of the new creation in Christ.

For Philemon to be able to receive Onesimus back, he had to think more of him than himself (poverty of spirit). He had to mourn over what he lost, what he’s going to lose in the community if he doesn’t punish Onesimus, and how he may  have wanted revenge or punishment against Onesimus. He would’ve had to restrain his cultural power and offer freedom, and this would surely fuel his hunger and thirst for more justice in areas of oppression elsewhere.

The cross of Christ is busting out of this letter to Philemon as Paul is able to say to Philemon, whatever he owes you, put it to my account, I will pay for his offense. This is the ministry of reconciliation that we are being gifted with as followers of Jesus, and this is what God is asking of us to live out for our sake and for His name’s sake.

The purpose of life in Christ was always and will always be a mission of ecumenism, being reconciled to Christ, and laboring to be reconciled to one another. The former empowering the latter. This is at the core of being the church. May we not allow other things to become more important than this reality that Christ prayed for in John 17; that they may all be one… so that the world will believe.

The Ancient Catholic Church

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I am committed to this thing called ‘ecumenism’. It’s a funny word, I know, and it has multiple meanings depending on the context one hears it. In it’s simplest form, for me, ecumenism is referring to any inter-denominational movement towards unity or concerted cooperation among Christian denominations, including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. I’m not here to define clearly my view of ecumenism, which would be a good post for another day. As I have thought and prayed and connected outside of theological ‘tribes’ that I’m usually comfortable with, I have wrestled with what the word “catholic” means, and particularly, what did it originally mean when referring to the church.

Justo González, in his fantastic work of retelling The Story of Christianity (volume I), ends his 8th chapter with a small closing entitled, “The Ancient Catholic Church”. The context of the chapter is a discussion of the 2nd and 3rd century church’s “deposit of the faith”, which would be how the church would refute false testimonies about their lifestyle, their doctrine, and their traditions. Creeds, the canon of Scripture, and the apostolic succession were all a part of determining “the rule of faith” for followers of Jesus.

González mentions that the first time the phrase “Catholic church” is used among Christians, it was used to identify Christians in the 2nd century apart from Gnostics and Marcionites (google the meaning of those sects if you’re curious). The Catholic church was not only the church that was connected to apostolic successors (Christians who were discipled by an apostle in the 1st century or by a disciple of someone who was an apostle; see the first comment from Matt Marino for a brief background of the episcopal collegiality and why apostolic succession was so important in their apologetic), but it was also the church that was connected to the network of bishops or church leaders who desired to stay true to the rule of faith and who were approved as godly leaders by apostolic successors.

Many people may think of the word catholic as referring to the Roman Catholic church, and some creedal Protestants and Orthodox would understand the word catholic to mean “universal” in terms of being the “one” church of God. However, the ancient church in the 2nd century first used the word catholic to mean “according to the whole”, or “according to all the bishops and church leaders” who were interconnected by creeds, apostolic succession, and the canon of Scripture, to preserve the truth of the gospel.

González goes on to say that the ancient church understood this title to refer to “both its universality and the inclusiveness of the witness on which it stood… the total witness of all the apostles and all the evangelists.” This “Catholicity” among the church would be it’s claim to a true witness of Christ Jesus and his gospel. This was what kept the teaching of the person and divinity of Christ truthful, or orthodox, or catholic. 

The irony of this story is that after many centuries of church growth and polity, arguments and discussions about what the word catholic really meant began to be centered on “the person and authority of a single apostle–Peter”, more so than the authority “according to the whole”.

Now I’m not here to pick on any Catholic forms of authority, but I wanted to tell this story to draw our attention back to the ancient church’s desire to hear the collective voice of the whole, which provided a type of shared leadership that formed organically before it was institutionalized in the 4th century.

There is much we can learn from the ancient, or the first Catholic church, and their desire to have a collective voice together, protected by creeds, apostolic successors, and Scripture. There is much division among the body of Christ today, and there is no one answer, but there are on ramps to this movement for us today.

One on ramp that I am reminded of today is that we need to work really hard in each city to connect the whole body as much as we are able to, and begin dialogues and prayer gatherings, trusting once again the “forgotten” God of the Protestants, the Holy Spirit, to be the one to preserve the purity of the church and for Christian leaders stop living in fear of “going down the slippery slope” of universalism or theological liberalism if they were to embrace those who differ from them theologically.

God preserves his church and his people. We are to be so utterly confident in that truth that we can be free to reach across tribal boundaries and trust that Jesus’ people are in more corners of our cities than we ever imagined, and that if we were to be courageous enough to go to those places and extend a hand of friendship, that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 would begin to reverse some of the curse we see in modern day Christendom.

Ecumenism is an important endeavor for the bride of Christ, and for many, it will mean that you may lose friends and favor among some of your “Christian” circles. So be it. Be courageous and confident in the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus the Christ, to begin friendships and gatherings with those who claim to follow Jesus. Give God’s Spirit a chance to surprise you and sift through the junk of all of differing theologies.

I will close with the words of Pope Francis at a vespers prayer in St. Paul (Rome) last Sunday: “To plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another, and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts.”