Summary: Through faith in Jesus we are already unified. Paul teaches us how to maintain that unity.
When you hear the word “Church” what kind of picture comes to mind? Do you think of our new church with its unique architecture and decorations? Or do you picture the people who gather to worship here? That’s really the better way to picture the word “Church” because the Bible uses that word to refer to believers rather than to a building. OK, so if the Church is the gathering of believers, how would you draw a picture of such a gathering? Would you draw people arm and arm with big smiles on their faces—one big happy family? Or would you draw the people in groups here and there, each one with arms folded and glaring or at least looking suspiciously at the other groups? Sadly, that’s often the reality isn’t it when it comes to Christian congregations? But it doesn’t have to be that way, not when we come to appreciate the God’s-eye view of the Church that the Apostle Paul will give us this morning in our continuing study of the New Testament book of Ephesians.
Paul begins our text with this encouragement. “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
Did you notice how Paul said, “Make every effort to keep the unity,” instead of “Make every effort to become unified”? The Church, including our congregation, is already unified! That shouldn’t surprise us, not when we hear Paul remind us that there is only one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. So although we were all baptized at different times and perhaps in different places, it’s the same baptism that we received and so the result is the same: we were each washed clean of our sins and given the gift of the Spirit—the one Holy Spirit who leads us in the one faith that Jesus is the one Savior from sin. In a way we’re like basketball players who have been given the same uniform. That makes us into a team so that during a game we’ll all shoot at the same basket.
But you know enough about sports to realize that just because athletes wear the same uniform doesn’t mean that they will work together. There’s often the player who thinks he’s the team all-star and shoots the ball every time he touches it. His teammates get annoyed at this and so stop passing him the ball. Before you know it, you have a team that is squabbling during timeouts. They might all wear the same uniform and be shooting at the same basket, but no one is having much fun on such a “team.” Likewise, Paul teaches us that while unity in the church is a gift, it’s also a task. It’s something we need to keep working at maintaining because Satan keeps trying to destroy the unity and uses our own selfishness to accomplish that.
That’s why Paul also wrote: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2, 3). The key to maintaining unity is humility. And note how Paul urges us to be completely humble and gentle—not just humble and gentle most of the time or when it suits our needs. But it’s hard to be humble and gentle when others, even fellow Christians, can be so hurtful! Paul understands that. That’s why he also urges us to “bear with others in love.” Jesus modeled what it means “to bear with others in love” when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus could have justly cursed those who were crucifying and mocking him. Instead he took the abuse, praying that these soldiers and others would see the error of their ways. And if they didn’t? Well, Jesus would leave that to his heavenly Father to sort out. Jesus hadn’t come to judge the world, not at his first coming. He had come to save the world.
Nor have we been sent to judge the world, brothers and sisters. We’ve been sent to save it by spreading the message of Jesus, and by modeling his patient love. Of course, bearing with others in love doesn’t mean that we will never point out when they have hurt us. But bearing with them means that we will also let them explain themselves since it could be that we misunderstood what they said or did. If it becomes clear that their words and actions towards us were indeed mean-spirited, we will urge them to repent. But our purpose here is not to rub their face in their sins. Rather, we also want to be able to announce to them that Jesus paid for that sin and God has removed it from his sight, just as we have removed that sin from our own sight too for Jesus’ sake, and for the purpose of maintaining the unity of the Church.