Sunday 6 August
Dave Richards is the Rector at St. Paul’s & St. George’s Church in Edinburgh and is on the Council of the Evangelical Alliance UK. On day two of New Horizon 2017, he spoke from Ephesians 4 on the theme of “unity”. Here is a summary of what he had to say… brought to you by NH Media.
This evening we are looking at something that is essential to who we are as Christians but it is something we struggle with. If you are a member of a church, this affects you. You have contributed to this one way or another, for good or bad. We are looking at the whole area of the unity of the Holy Spirit.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was given to every believer. The church – this diverse mixture of millions of people – came into being on that day. But very quickly things started to go wrong.
Jesus prayed for His followers that we might be “one” in order that world might believe. What does that mean and how does that work out in practice? We are not going to be completely one until Jesus comes again but what does unity look like in everyday life for you and me?
“One – Unity in Diversity” by Steve Clifford is a book that charts a history of one person’s journey as he was about church unity. Towards the end of the book, the author recounts the story of the immovable ladder in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This is on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Nobody knows how the ladder got there and it is now the source of dispute between six different denominations. In 2008, a violent fight between monks went viral. People were hospitalised because of this dispute over a ladder.
We may laugh or weep over a story like that. But in each denomination, stream or tribe we have our own ladders. They might be historical or theological. Your ladder might be music. Your ladder might be baptism. It might be the role of men or women in leadership. It might be how a church is structured or governed. Or it might be the work of the Holy Spirit. We are all parts of churches, denominations, streams and tribes that have metaphorical ladders.
When we start to look at the subject of unity and diversity I’m entering dangerous territory but scripture calls us to work out what it means in practice to be “one” in order that the world might believe.
Paul wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus. This was a difficult place to be a Christian. It was a huge city with a very chequered spiritual history. Its population numbered a third of a million people. It was sports-mad and sex obsessed. It was a large bustling centre of trade and was the religious centre of the region. In Ephesus, there were three temples where people could worship the emperor Nero but dominating the city was the temple to the goddess Artemis. It was four times the size of the Parthenon and it employed 20,000 temple prostitutes.
In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul was laying out what we should believe as Christians. In chapters four to six, we instructions for how we should behave in light of what we believe. If you believe in Jesus, it will affect how you live. It is striking that at the start of what we call chapter four, Paul makes this plea for unity.
Paul lays out what it means for churches to be united (not uniform). He says, “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” and the first thing he highlights is relationships between Christians. Paul is utterly realistic in the advice that he gives and the things he asks for.
Paul is saying if you are going to live distinctively different lives as Christians you are going to have to do things differently.
The mark of the Holy Spirit will be primarily in distinctively different relationships in marriage, in the workplace, with between parents and children and within the community of the church.
v3 says “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
What does that mean? What is true humility? CS Lewis described it as “not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Philippians 2 describes what Jesus did. Humility is right at the heart: as Jesus comes down to our level. We hear those things and think, “Yes that’s Jesus.” We don’t realise how radical it was in the ancient world when humility was considered a vice not a virtue. When Christians said we are to be people who are characterised by humility, that was radical, counter-cultural and shockingly different to the society of its time.
“Humilitas” by John Dickson is a good book explaining how radical it was to consider humility as a virtue in the ancient world.
Paul is practical – “think of others better than yourselves.” Too often we compare ourselves with others. Do we honestly think that everybody in this tent is better than we are? It is not thinking less of yourself (rather it is having a sober estimate of who we are… not “worm” theology which is prevalent in Scotland…) but neither does it mean thinking more highly of yourself than others.
Kindness and Gentleness
Someone asked a psychiatrist, “What is the mark of being a mature human being?” The psychiatrist answered, “Kindness, tenderness and gentleness. The ability to look at somebody else and not judge them. The ability to listen to somebody else and not judge them. The ability to touch somebody else and not judge them.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the church of Jesus Christ became known for its kindness? Too often the church is known for what it is against rather than what it is for.
We live in an instant culture but Paul calls us to be patient.
The early church re-defined love. When people think of your church, is the first word that comes to their minds “love”? If you asked people in your community what they think about your church, how would they describe it? Would they describe your church as loving, kind, humble, gentle and patient?
We had a guest speaker who was an expert on Celtic Christianity. There is a lot of nonsense talked about Celtic Christianity. There were lots of good things about the Celtic church but this person told us that the letter to the Galatians was written to a Celtic Church. Galatians was written to people who were “Gauls” – they were Celtic Christians. If you look at Galatians, one of the central themes that Paul is begging with them to avoid is “legalism”. If you look at the church in Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, we have such a history of legalism. It seems to be something in the Celtic soul that becomes a default.
It is interesting to see the markers of maturity as Christians are in relationships that are these characteristics of humility, gentleness, kindness, patience and love.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit is about radically committed relationships in marriage, the workplace and in parenthood. You can have the soundest, best, most thought-through doctrine but if your character is not becoming more like Jesus, you are not mature!
All these verses that we have looked at tonight are plural. The problems occur (and it affects must of western Christianity) when we begin to apply these verses individually. These characteristics were supposed to be worked out in community, in the church. God has set up this new community that is supposed to be a visual aid of what it looks like when God comes and lives in people. That is the purpose of the church.
I have been a Christian for 39 years. I became a Christian when I was 17 and have been in ministry for over 30 years. There have been so many times when I have said to God, “Being a Christian would be so much easier if it wasn’t for other Christians.” But the bad news is that people think that about me. The test of our maturity is not to ignore it or accept it but to see how we can be reconciled and how we can live with each other in the tension of those divisions and differences.
The church is made up of frail and weak and damaged people. Dallas Willard said, “The natural condition of life for human beings is one of reciprocal rootedness but when we deal with spiritual formation we start with our wounded-ness…”
Hurt people hurt people
The challenge is that we have higher expectations of our fellow Christians than we do with people outside. It is even more shocking and hurtful to find attitudes or behaviour that is damaging to us within the church. What is the equivalent of that ladder in “Jerusalem” for you? What incident has left you bruised and damaged and hurt and angry?
What broken relationships do we need to repair? Do we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to be kinder or gentler or more patient? Where do you need to forgive or ask for forgiveness? Jesus prayed that we might be one.