Monday, July 30, 2018
This week, our congregation, having sought and received permission of the bishop for the "urgent and sufficient reason" of needing a sixth celebration for public baptisms, will celebrate the Transfiguration on Sunday (BCP p. 16). At some point during this week, I'll write about Transfiguration, but, since my focus is usually the RCL texts, I will start with lessons for Proper 13B.
What does unity of faith look like? In the reading from Ephesians 4, the author, quoting a familiar Pauline image, notes that God has given a variety of gifts so that "some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry,for building up the body of Christ..." This is foundational Pauline ecclesiology. It's how we function as the body of Christ--activated by the Spirit's gifts. But in this passage, the author goes on to envision the conclusion of that work, the fulfillment of the church's identity in a teleological way: "...for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." What is the Spirit's goal among us? To build us up to unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, which is our spiritual maturity.
Those are powerful words. It's a powerful vision. And, depending on who has the authority to define "unity of the faith," they can be dangerous. Who gets to decide what that unity looks like? Do we all have to agree on a single theology of atonement, or is it acceptable for some to be penal substitutionists and others to be Christus victorists? Do we all have to agree that Mary was "ever-virgin," or can some of us believe that the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus really were Jesus' siblings and not his cousins or half-siblings? Do we all have to believe in the virgin birth? In the empty tomb? Some would say, "Absolutely!" but others would say, "No thank you!" Who decides?
In the second week of the five-week discourse from John 6 on the bread of life, we hear Jesus use words that are echoed in the reading from Ephesians. The crowd asks him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" and Jesus answers, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." Some might argue that that is an over-simplification of the issue and that "unity of the faith" described in Ephesians 4 is more nuanced and complicated than simply believing in the Son of God, but I think there's more to what Jesus tells us than mere recognition. In the exchange that follows, Jesus and the crowd discuss the manna from heaven that was given to Israel while they wandered in the wilderness. That was the source of provision for God's people. Their faith in God was literally confidence in God's provision. And when they failed to trust God and grumbled about where they would get meat and where they would get water and about how much better things were in Egypt, God sent fire or snakes or opened up the ground to swallow them whole. Faith in God means trusting in God to save us. Faith in Jesus as the Son of God means trusting that Jesus is the means of that salvation. It doesn't mean obtaining a ticket to heaven. It means confidence in daily provision that is cumulative unto eternal life. Is that a confidence that all people share?
I like to imagine Jesus shaking his head or running his hands through his hair in frustration when he hears us focusing our time and effort on arguing over who is correct over a particular doctrinal point. What matters is unity of faith in Jesus as our savior. Jesus is the one who reveals and enables God's redemption of the world. If the doctrinal debate helps us see that more clearly, that's fine. If it obscures that fact, then we're off course. The Holy Spirit is at work, equipping us for various ministries. And those ministries and the Spirit that works through them are leading us to unity of confidence in God as the one who saves us through God's Son, Jesus Christ. What does unity of faith look like? Perhaps the one baptism that almost all of Jesus' followers share is a good sign. No matter what your baptismal theology, we recognize baptism as the means by which an individual is united to the body of Christ. Whether infant or adult, the individual is being placed into God's saving arms. The unity of the church is built not on universal agreement on a list of doctrines but universal dependence on God as the one who creates, provides, sustains, protects, redeems, and saves. That's unity of faith.