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.

4 comments:

  1. Top stuff Bish, as always. I love what the cross achieves for us on so many levels. The unity that you mention is unique and amazing.
    Something that often seems to concern Christians is doctrinal unity, certainly in terms of whether or not one should sign a DB before serving/speaking in a CU. I think the best thing i've read on this was Little Mo talking about the penal substitution model in the Richard Cunningham interview comments thread: 'the God we believe in isn't the same. So there just isn't any unity there - no point in pretending that there is.' I'd have to agree with that. Yes, seek out, love, protect and enjoy the unity that the cross gives us with other believers, but not to the detriment of sound doctrine. As Mo points out, someone who doesn't hold to the penal substitution model of the cross basically doesn't believe in the same God i do, so how can i be unified with them? They believe the cross does something different than i believe it to, so how can that same cross give us unity.

    *oh the wonderful cross, bids me come and die, and know that i may truly live*

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  2. Thanks for that Bish. And thanks Ed! Good to read yor comment too.

    I love the unity we have as believers in the one true God. I love the fact that I can experience that unity -and community - not just in my home church where I've been for over 10 years, where I've grown up and where the people know me, but also with 'strangers'. I experienced it for the first time - well not the first time, but the first time I can remember - in Barcelona in September. I spent nearly two weeks with people I'd never met before and yet I felt TOTALLY at home. It was warm. It was nice (to say the least!). And our times spent together singing songs of praise, praying together, and reaching out to people with the message of the cross together, were immense reminders of how the message of the cross transcends culture and language. They were precious times. And they were possible because we are united. We don't have to wait till Heaven to be united - we're united now. Isn't that amazing! And what's more amazing, so much more important, is WHAT WE'RE UNITED IN. The love of God, which we experience through Christ's work on the cross, bearing our sins - MY sins, wow! That God sent Jesus as a 'sacrifice of atonement' (Romans 3:25) blows me away. That Jesus went to that cross - and beyond - blows me away. That, to me, demonstrates God's immense love more than anything else. I can't fathom it. I can but bow.

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  3. Also wanted to pick up on what you said about unity occurring "at the place where humbled believers can gather. Without the cross unity will not be unity.", and "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." It's true. I've been convicted a lot lately - through my own sinful thoughts/actions and conversations I've had with others - of how much we deny the power of the cross when we're not prepared to forgive - at least, not fully. When we refuse, in our stubborn, proud hearts, to forgive, we are making ourselves out to be better than them, as if WE deserve to be forgiven through Christ's work on the cross and they don't. RUBBISH! Freely we have received, and so should we give...

    But of course, we can't. When we feel betrayed, neglected, abandoned, whatever, by others - especially those we love - and when we, ultimately, feel wronged, the hurt can be so deep that we simply cannot muster the forgiveness that we need. And this leads to disunity.

    And that is why we need to remember our unity doesn't depend on our actions and feelings/emotions. It doesn't depend on our power to forgive. It depends on God. We stand in grace, and it is only through remembering that and allowing God's forgiveness to work through us that we can hope to keep this unity alive. It's not about us. Unity - and forgivenss - occur "at the place where humbled believers can gather".

    "Without the cross unity will not be unity."

    Indeed.

    PS. Sorry for the length of these two comments!

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  4. I can't just read that post and not comment in appreciation.

    Lots to think about, it is really HARD in practice. It's right up there with things I struggle with living out.

    ...I don't know.

    But thanks for your thoughts

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