Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Glimpsing the invisible, embracing the visible

They say, "United we stand. Divided we fall". Unity between Christians is highly sought after. Some love to denounce other believers but the gospel demands unity. How does it work? What does real unity look like....?

Unity Achieved!
One of the key things that the Cross of Christ achieved was peace between people - removing the dividing walls and hostility between those who were once separate from God and each other. It follows that every Christian is a member of the church global. This is not optional it is simply part of what it means to be a Christian. All too easily we make our message about person X needing to come into relationship with Jesus. That is true, but the full message of the gospel also includes person X being brought into unity with person Y and Z who are also in relationship with Jesus.

Unity is not a default thing. And its not just about wearing a Christian badge - it is a cross-centred cross-achieved thing. It occurs at the place where humbled believers can gather. Without the cross unity will not be unity.

Unity Enjoyed
Travelling around the world and the UK in 2005 I've been greatly enjoyed the experience of being part of God's new community. I've found myself able to express my unity with believers in Bulgaria this summer, and at Warwick and Bath Universities as I've visited as a guest speaker for their Christian Unions this autumn. We were united before and after these occasions, but that unity wasn't expressed. In all three cases we share great unity in the gospel, in our Biblical convictions and in commitment to student evangelism.

Christian unity is a beautiful thing. As Bonhoeffer said the idea of Christian Community is great, but the experience is hard. That's true. And we have to work that into the equation. The experience is hard because the experience requires expression in relationships. And that's where the challenge comes, Christians are forgiven sinners but they'll still sin. And sin hurts, especially in relationships.

Nonetheless expressed unity is great. Some of my great highlights this year have been those brief moments of fellowship with believers far away from where I normally am. Glimpses of the invisible. We live and work scattered and our unity doesn't require daily expression, but when it is possible the benefit is great. The best thing for me about the UCCF Forum and Word Alive and New Leaders conferences is the expressed unity as we pray together, have fellowship, worship corporately and recieve the same teaching.

Its a joy to be united with others. That joy though less intense is even greater in daily experience, the sorrow and celebration, smiles and irritation of the community I'm part of though my local church and in mission-field ministry of UCCF. Nothing compares to God's glorious power at work in the church and Christ Jesus.

How much unity do we need?
People celebrate that pastors meet together to pray weekly. Should individual congregations meet with other congregations with such frequency? Should they do everything together? Is that necessary? I don't think so. The local church has work to be getting on with and it takes time to build genuine relationships locally. We don't need big to be effective, small can even be more effective.

Broader unity exists between those who share common faith in the Cross of Christ. And between such people there should not be division. One should not however confuse not doing everything together with lack of unity. To step out of the church context into a Christian Union context, the Christian Unions at Surrey and Reading are united by the cross and by shared vision and purpose. But they work separately most of the time to do the work God has given them. So too the church must labour.

Unity in practice?
So what does Unity look like in practice. Some of it is clearly invisible. But it also has pockets of visibility. Christian Unity bridges the divides between people, divides of age, class, race. This is the formidable beauty of the church. Whatever my age, in the church I founded expressed unity with those of different ages and experience. Its amazing.

This alone is why University Christian Unions are not church, but only mission teams. They only have students in. I am utterly confounded by youth and student churches. Why would we purposefully deny ourselves one of the greatest things the gospel gives us? And we might say that these things are part of the broader local church - but such unity requires expression. A student is not in authentic church if they only ever get fellowship with students.

In our church we have four mixed congregations. The real unity happens inside the congregations. There is a badged-unity beyond that, and some other unity - we share leadership, teaching programmes and general vision for a geographic area and that is expressed occasionally as we meet as one. Essentially though we are four small self-contained churches in which unity happens between otherwise separated people.

Unity - in conclusion
Our unity exists. It must be remembered that unity is a cross-wrought achievement. No cross, no unity. This unity is largely invisible, being a reality for every believer around the globe and throughout history. There are those who will wear the christian badge and claim affinity with the church who are not truly church - and with them we cannot stand united - we can be civil and kind and gospel-sharing towards them, but nonethless at disunity. But for all such cases, there are many more with whom God has acquired for us great unity, in the glorious power of the Cross of Christ.

Our unity requires expression. Genuine relationships - people relating with people. Then the unity not only exists but is expressed. Its why the members of a local CU and local church should meet together regularly together and in smaller groups - to express the unity that the gospel has achieved and be encouraged together by that, and by the remembrance of the gospel that unites us. The testimony of God's united people is a phenomenal feat, it is supernatural. The world can look on and see our love for one another, and they can listen in to find out how this miracle has come about. That's unity worth having, we need to embrace the visible unity of the church.

Our unity requires expression. Developing relationships, networks and connections based on Cross-centred unity is of great value. We stand together. And we can learn from each other and support each other. We can share ideas, resources, news and pray for each other. Such unity risks having a merely ethereal existence. Even if local unity is the norm, glimpses of the invisible are truly precious.

The cross of Christ removes the dividing walls and creates God's new community. What is then required is the expression of that unity in the forming of relationships that would never have existed without the cross. I'm thankful to God for church, for expressed unity with other Christians.