August 4, 2009

Maintaining the Unity of the Spirit

            The Epistle reading for this past Sunday is drawn from Ephesians 4:1-16.  Here Paul outlines how followers of Jesus Christ are to live, i.e., “worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Several expressions of life in the Spirit are detailed: humility, gentleness, patience, and striving for unity in the bond of peace. The foundation for these charisms is the one body and one Spirit; it is because of one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Sovereign of us all, that we can so live.

            Unity as a theological ideal is much easier to maintain than its actual practice. Until our unity is tested, the confession of oneness flows easily in our liturgical life. Yet, we tend to confuse our discrete practices with the “faith once received” even though we seek to honor the substance of this early Christian creed, which Gordon Fee calls the “one of the more certain and specific Trinitarian passages in the corpus.” The unity of the Spirit is required to bear the strain of differences as we appropriate first century texts for twenty-first century believers.

            Add to the challenge of Christian unity the larger challenge of religious pluralism. Each of our faculty members has been immersed in cross-cultural experiences this summer through travel to the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma, and Israel. We have engaged Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, as well as many other ecclesial traditions within Christianity. The key questions for discernment are these: How is the Spirit of God at work in these other ways of faith? How does God honor faith’s promise for those who do not yet confess Jesus as Lord? What faithful practices of these traditions can be instructive for Christians?

            I believe the practices outlined by Paul—humility, gentleness, and patience—form us to pose and seek answers to such questions. The Spirit of God is not confined to our neat theological syllogisms, but suffuses all of creation with longing for God that draws toward unity. Striving for the unity of the Spirit within the Body of Christ allows us to learn the expansiveness of the Triune God whose reach exceeds our grasp, truly.

            Molly T. Marshall

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