Eager for Unity
It was our first anniversary. I had planned a weekend getaway at Elkwater in Cypress Hills. I had purchased Aimee a nice gift and we were staying in a nice place and I had all the ingredients in place for it to be just perfect.
But then things fell apart. I chose the part of the drive right as we were getting there to share something critical with Aimee—some helpful thoughts on something I thought she needed to change. Perfect timing for setting the tone! And then on the next day I reacted quite poorly to an event which put a ton of emotional distance in between Aimee and I. We spent the whole next day barely talking to each other and it took most of the five-hour drive home to work it all through.
Our first anniversary had all the ingredients of being perfect. But I wrecked it anyways.
Today we’re almost at the very end of our series on the church. We have one more week next Sunday for a big summary and review, and then on July 5 a string of guest preachers will begin our summer series in the Proverbs. And I hope we’d all say that it’s been a good journey. At the very least, I hope we’d agree that God’s word has given us everything we need to understand what the church is and how it’s supposed to work.
So here’s a question. Now that we’ve walked through all of this truth, now that we understand everything we’ve learned, does that mean that we’re good? We’re just automatically going to experience a healthy, unified, beautiful life together as a church now?
I think we know it’s not that simple. I can think of many churches—churches which believe the Bible and love the Bible and teach the Bible—who really struggle with being the church. They can understand what the church should be like, from Scripture. But their life together is marked with broken relationships and church splits and ugly resignations and power grabs and control trips and disunity on all sides.
We’ve can have all the ingredients for a healthy church, but actually being a healthy church doesn’t happen by itself, does it? Each one of us has the dangerous ability to sabotage the health of the church by our own sinful actions. And that means that each one of us has the responsibility to pursue the health and the unity of the church with careful deliberation.
That’s what our passage is about today. Ephesians 4:1-6 shows us that healthy, unified churches don’t just happen by themselves. It’s not enough to have the ingredients in place. God’s people need to make unity a priority and intentionally, deliberately, eagerly work at being the church together.
I’ve heard it said before that if you hear a pastor preaching on unity, you know there’s a problem in the church. “Things must be bad; he’s pulling out the unity sermon.” But I disagree with that, because I think Ephesians 4 disagrees.
Ephesians 4 shows us that unity needs to be an always-on priority for all of us at all times. It’s not automatic. It will only come as we intentionally work at it.
The Context of the Passage
So that’s where we’re going today, as we listen to what Ephesians 4:1-6 tells us about unity and our responsibility to pursue it together. But before we get into the passage itself, we need to stop and consider where this passage sits in the book of Ephesians. Because that’s actually really important for how we understand it.
Ephesians is six chapters long, and is divided fairly evenly in half. The first half is focused on God’s great plan of salvation. It’s full of theology and worship and gospel truth.
We’ve spent some time in those first three chapters of Ephesians in recent months. We made a stop in chapter 1 on Resurrection Sunday, where we heard about Christ’s super-exalted place above all earthly powers, and our identity as His body. We’ve been to chapter 2, which spoke about His power in resurrecting us from our spiritual death, and His work today in making us a spiritual temple. And thapter 3 talks about God’s plan to bring glory to Himself through the church.
And then, at the beginning of chapter 4, Paul pivots, and he spends the next three chapters telling his readers how they now need to live as a result of everything that God has done.
Given that God has saved us through the death and resurrection of His Son, given that we’ve been raised from our spiritual graves, given that we are His body and His temple, given that we’ve been called to so great a salvation, we need to act and behave and live in a certain way.
And that’s what Paul writes in chapter 4 verse 1, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). And he spends the next three chapters unpacking what this worthy walk or worthy way of life looks like.
Aren’t you glad that God doesn’t wait for us to be worthy before He calls us to salvation? He graciously made us His body and temple and bride long before we were worthy of such a status. But now that this is our status, he summons us to live in a manner worthy of this calling.
Worthy Living = Eager Unity
Now I really want us to make sure we don’t miss something so important in our passage today. And so let’s think about us here in North America. When we think about this matter of the Christian life, of living in a manner worthy of the gospel, what sort of things so we tend to think about right away?
I can think of many gospel presentations I’ve seen, where someone is led through a series of steps to confess Jesus as their Saviour. And then usually there’s a section at the end that shows them what they need to do now that they’ve believed the gospel. And usually, there’s at least three things on that list. First, read your Bible. Two, pray. Three, you can go to church.
Notice that the first two are individual activities. And the final one—about attending a church—is often presented as optional.
Let’s bring it closer to home. Do you remember the “You Are Here” series last year? When we got to the part of the series that talks about our place in the story, without thinking about it too much we ended up talking mostly about individual matters. And that wasn’t wrong, but it was lopsided. Which is one of the reasons that we did this series this year.
With all of that in our minds, let’s notice what Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us what it looks like to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. What comes to his mind first is unity—our relationships with each other in the church.
“Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1b–3).
When we think about “living out our faith,” unity should rise to the surface first. Healthy, peaceful relationships with one another should be at the top of our list.
And this shouldn’t surprise us too much, because it was less than three years ago that we encountered Philippians 1:27, which tells us, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
Letting our manner of life be worthy of the gospel means standing firm in one spirit—being unified in the mission together. That’s the same point as we see here in Ephesians 4.
And so right away, this challenges any notion that the Christian life, our walk with God, is primarily an individual experience. Just “Jesus and me.” Instead, this reminds us that being a disciple of Jesus is primarily a shared experience. We’ve been saved to be a member of the body, a part of the bride, a brick in the temple. Ground zero for practical Christianity is our relationships with one another.
And these good relationships won’t happen automatically. We each have a responsibility to cultivate the attitudes and the behaviours that will produce unity. And that’s what we see when we take a closer look at verses 2-3.
First, in verse 2, we see three attitudes described. Humility, gentleness, and patience. Humility has the basic idea of lowness or lowliness, of not thinking highly of ourselves. Humility enables us to associate with people who are different than us, because we don’t think we’re better than them or higher up the ladder than them. Like Christ, we’re willing to be made low to serve and love others.
Gentleness is connected to the idea of humility. A gentle person is not a weak person, or a pushover, but someone who knows when to hold their strength back. They know not to treat a lamb the same way you treat a wolf.
The final attitude mentioned here is patience. Knowing how to wait. Knowing how to endure. Knowing how to put up with things that are not ideal. Knowing how to hold your tongue. Knowing how to not rush in with guns blazing.
These three words, taken together, paint a picture of someone who is thinking about others instead of themselves. Most significantly, they are thinking about God first. They are aware that Christ was so humble when He stepped in to save us, and they know how gentle and patient He is with them. And knowing Christ has made them be this way towards others.
So our passage describes three attitudes that w need to cultivate for there to be unity.. And what we see next is that these attitudes spill into actions. Our passage describes two actions that mark a humble, gentle and patient person. The first comes at the end of verse 2: “bearing with one another in love.”
“Bearing” has the idea of enduring or putting up with. Do you see how realistic this is? God understands that we’re not in heaven yet. As He is building His church, he knows that we have sin that’s still being dealt with and personality quirks a-plenty. There is no guarantee that our church is going to be filled with people that we naturally, humanly, get along with. We are going to have to put up with, endure, bear with one another.
But we don’t do it with a groan and a sigh, a complaining or critical spirit, or looking for opportunities to vent and gossip at every turn. We are to bear with one another “in love.” We love those we bear with.
This is supernatural, isn’t it? To love someone that we are having a hard time with? To love someone that we need to endure? And this is what life in the church is like. Bearing with one another in love.
It’s a beautiful thing. But I’m so glad that it’s not the only thing. I’m so glad for verse 3. Because if all we had was verse 2, we might imagine that life in the church was just a tough slog of putting up with difficult people.
But verse 3 tells us that there’s a second action that should characterize us. We must be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). We’re not just passively saying, “Ok, (groan), I’ll put up with them if I have to.” No, we’re eager for this. Eager to maintain unity. Eager to be bound together in peace.
Is the idea of being unified, of living fully at peace with one another, a thought that makes you eager? Because that’s what practical Christianity looks like. That’s ground zero for living a life worthy of the gospel. Eager for unity.
The Basis for Our Unity
Now let’s ask an important question: is this unrealistic? You might be thinking, “Get real; has Paul ever been a part of a church before? I might be able to put up with some people, and maybe do so in love. But being eager about maintaining unity? How is that possible when we are all so different?”
Just think about EBC and the differences we see between us. We’re different ages. Different life stages. We have different incomes. Different employment situations. Different family situations. Different relationship statuses. We were born in different places and have lived in Nipawin for different lengths of time. We have different interests. Different abilities. We get along with different people and fit more easily into different social groups.
We think differently. We have different opinions about many things. Different convictions. Different understandings. There is a lot that we can and do disagree about. We have different behaviours, making different choices about practices we will or will not engage in. We differ in our perspectives on what’s best in many different situations.
And I could go on and on. There are a lot of differences between us. And if we only ever focused on those differences, we probably wouldn’t find much eagerness for unity.
But what this passage leads us to do is focus instead on what we have in common with each other. To look beyond the surface and recognize that what we share with one another is way bigger, way more important, than any of our differences.
This commonality is first hinted at in verse 3, which speaks about the unity “of the Spirit.” The church is the work of the Sprit. Chapter 2 verse 22 said that we are being “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” We are not building ourselves. The Spirit is. The work of the Spirit is what enables and undergirds our unity. We can be united because we all share of the Holy Spirit.
And now listen to verses 4-6, as God through Paul shows us more of what we all have in common with each other: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6).
- There is one body. Only one body of Christ. There is not a separate church for people who get on your nerves. We are all a part of the body of Christ together.
- There is one Spirit, like we’ve seen. One Holy Spirit who has drawn us to Christ and is building us together in the church.
- We have been called to one hope. There is not a separate hope, a separate place in the New Creation for people who disagree with you. We’ve been called to one hope.
- There is one Lord. We all bow our knees to the one Lord Jesus. The same Lord Jesus who died for each one of His people.
- There is one faith. One Christian faith with one gospel that we all believe in. You don’t believe in a different or a better gospel than any other child of God.
- There is one baptism. We are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No disciple of Jesus has been baptized into a different or better baptism than any other disciple.
- And there is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. You pray to and worship and were created by the same God as every other disciple.
So let’s put some leather on the shoe. Think about someone in this church who is the most different from you, humanly speaking. Or perhaps think about the person with whom you’ve had the most struggles. Now run through this list in verse 4-6. Consider everything you have in common. If you are both disciples of Jesus, then you have way more in common than you don’t. And this is the basis for our unity. This is the foundation that enables us to be eager for unity.
Dangerous, Missional Unity
So that’s the thrust of this passage: the three attitudes, two behaviours, and seven foundations for Christian unity. And it’s all right there.
But why is it that we so often are slack with unity? We so often treat unity like some optional extra that is nice when we have it, but isn’t something we are really going to be eager about?
I want to suggest that it has to do with our whole framework for unity. And here’s what I mean by that: what comes to mind when “unity” comes to mind for you? What do we think about when we think about unity? What should be the picture in our mind of a perfectly united church?
Should we think about a bunch of people in a big group hug, with warm fuzzies everywhere? Should we think about a group of people swaying around a campfire as they sing “Kum Ba Yah”? Or maybe it’s a big happy family reunion, with all your favourite people all together having a great time together.
I want to make a bold suggestion here. I want to suggest that one of the reasons that churches struggle with unity is because of ideas along these lines. In my experience, our conception of unity is very often soft and fluffy. And this easily leads to an experience of unity will be soft and fluffy.
My suggestion for how we should think about unity, for the kind of picture that should come to mind, is less like a family reunion and more like soldiers out on a battlefield fighting together. Unity that is focused on achieving an objective and a mission. Unity that is soaked in blood, sweat, and tears. Unity that makes the difference between life and death.
Where do I get this picture from? Why do I suggest this is the way we should think about unity? It’s right there in verse 1 of our passage: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord” (Ephesians 4:1). Did the Apostle Paul live a life worthy of his calling? You bet. And where did it land him? In prison.
This is where our calling might land us. This is where the gospel might put us. And this is why our unity matters so much. Because it’s not about getting along for the sake of getting along. It’s about getting along because we have a battle to fight and a mission to fulfill. We see this same idea in Philippians 1:
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:27–30).
And if we go back to Ephesians, to the end of the book, do you remember the section on spiritual warfare? I don’t know about you, but for much of my life I’ve tended to read that passage in a very individualistic way. I picture me as the lone knight, suiting up to go fight the dragon.
But that whole section is not addressed to lone soldiers. It’s written to an army. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). And every single pronoun and verb in that passage is plural. Take up the whole armour of God, all of you, so that you, plural, may be able to withstand in the evil day (Ephesians 6:13).
If we think unity is just a nice experience, we won’t pursue it with the eagerness we’ve been called to. But when we understand that we need unity because we are—or at least should be—engaged in spiritual conflict for the sake of the gospel, then we will be eager for it it. We will pursue it like soldiers because we know we’ll need it to survive.
So, if unity is a struggle for you, either because you don’t find it important or you don’t find it possible, my encouragement is to get into the mission. Start building your life around being a disciple-making disciple. And you’ll find that when you’re putting yourself out there for the sake of the kingdom, you need the backup of your brothers and sisters. And many of the things that get in the way of unity won’t feel like such a big deal anymore.
In my experience, churches that struggle with unity, churches that get tied up arguing over petty things, are churches that have forgotten the mission.
They’ve stopped looking beyond themselves and they’ve forgotten what they are here for. They’ve started to exist for themselves.
On the other hand, the more that we remember that we are the body of Christ, that we are the representatives of Jesus Christ on earth, that we are here for a battle and a mission, to obey our master’s command to make disciples—the more we get that and dig into that, the more we’ll be drawn together in unity. Dangerous, missional unity.
So let’s make this very personal. What kind of distance exists between your life right now and the worthy life described in our passage today? How many steps will you need to take until you are walking “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3)?
If you know that there is some distance there, then what is your next step? What’s the step you need to take in moving closer to the unity we’ve been called to in this passage?
Do you need to take a relational step? Is there anyone you need to talk to, forgive, reconcile with? Are there any grudges you need to lay down, attitudes to repent of? Or, on the positive side, are there relationships you need to strike up? Phone calls you need to make? A coffee meeting that needs to happen?
Do you need to take a theological step? And here’s what I mean by that: the basis of our unity is verses 4-6. Maybe, as we read through those verses, these things don’t feel very compelling to you.
Maybe your differing opinions about lesser matters feel like a bigger deal than the one Spirit, one hope, one Lord that binds you together with your fellow disciples of Christ.
So maybe your next steps are theological. Why not do a Bible study on verses 4-6? That might look like reading through the New Testament and highlighting everything that you read about the body, the Spirit, the hope, the Lord, the faith, the baptism, and the God that we share in common with each other. And as you do that, ask the Lord to open your eyes to the greatness of these realities. To re-shape how you think so that the things you share in common with your brothers and sisters at EBC start to feel big and strong and worth fighting for.
Maybe your next step is missional. Maybe you need to intentionally make yourself uncomfortable for the sake of the mission. Strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Tell a co-worker you’re praying for them. Share the gospel with a family member. Start mentoring a younger person. You’ll discover quite soon how much you naturally need the support and prayers of your brothers and sisters—and how much joy is waiting for us as we boldly engage in the mission together.
Maybe your next step is ecclesiological. That’s a big word, but it just refers to the church. Maybe your next step in the path of unity is to become a member here, like we heard last week. Pledge yourself to these brothers and sisters for the sake of the gospel.
These are some suggestions, and maybe you can think of a few yourself. My summons to us today is that we would at least take a step.
God, through Paul, is urging us this morning to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. That worthy walk shows up in eager unity. The least we can do is take one step in that direction.
And as we do that, let’s ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who is the One building and binding us together in the church as the church.