Summary: The purpose of the family of God is not to meet my personal needs, it's to meet our corporate needs. Thus, through the unity of the Church, my needs are part of the who body, but cannot override and work against any other member.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any fellowship with the Holy Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…” Dearly beloved of the Lord, hear St. Paul’s entreaty:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ,
if any fellowship with the Holy Spirit,
if any tenderness and compassion…”
Do you have any of these? Do you aspire to have them in increasing measure? I hope that I have some amount of them, and I pray that I grow in them. Through them, St. Paul is pointing us to a difficult truth. It’s not difficult to understand; it’s actually quite simple. But, as Jesus’ disciples grumbled, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn. 6:60). Here’s the difficult part—I held it back, just to be sure you were sufficiently forewarned. We must, if we are to receive our reward,
having the same love,
being one in spirit and purpose.”
If we are to come into the inheritance of our salvation, we must be united to Christ, but we also must be united to each other. Again, in order to receive our heavenly treasure, we must have unity with each other, and not allow selfishness and vanity to break our fellowship.
If we aren’t like-minded, then we are individualistic. And if we are nothing more than a bunch of independent religious contractors, how then can we have any encouragement from being united with Christ? Unity with Christ requires that we be one, one with Him and one with the members of His Body. One. One, that is what unity means. If we are separated from one another, then we dismember and mutilate the Body of Christ.
If we don’t have the same love, then how can we have fellowship with the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is love itself. And each of us receives the same Spirit in baptism. So when we do not have the same love, then we own a love that is not godly, love that is not divine, love that is not from the Holy Spirit. True fellowship with the Holy Spirit allows us to participate in the very love of God. So we share of the same love. It’s not that the love is mine and the love is yours; rather, the love is His, given to us, and we share it with one another.
If we are not one in spirit and purpose, then we lack tenderness and compassion. When we are separated in spirit, then I can see you in trouble, hardship, and failure, and simply congratulate myself on avoiding them or mock you for falling into them—the very antithesis of compassion. And when we are divided in purpose, then what concern is it to you when I stumble?
But we are one in spirit. Your dangers are of concern to me and your wounds I desire to bind up. We work diligently to be in harmony with one another, and we handle each other gently when we fall. And we are one in purpose. My setbacks are of concern to you, and you realize that they injure this, our fellowship together. When one of the members of the Body falls away or is harmed, all the members feel the loss. Our goal is that the holy people of God, particularly at St. Thomas, should arrive together before the throne of God to offer to Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
This all points to a great truth: we are members—cells, organs, limbs, organs—of the body of Christ. God, the great Architect, could have drawn up the plans of salvation however He wanted. In His perfect wisdom, He chose to create a community, a family. This very decision reveals a facet of God Himself. The Trinity is community. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are like-minded; they have the same love; they are one in spirit and one in purpose.
We, in our baptism are grafted into the stump of Jesse; we are shoots notched into the wood of the cross. We receive salvation by joining the community of the blessed, and abandoning the drifting, individual souls of the lost. The saved are God’s flock, watched over and protected, while the condemned are the solitary, lost, vulnerable sheep.
Life apart from the people of God is no more possible than being reborn into eternal life is possible apart from baptism. Christianity separated from the fellowship of believers is unachievable. St. Cyprian of Carthage puts forth explicitly how fundamental this is, saying,
“He who forsakes the Church of Christ cannot attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.”