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THE FUNDAMENTAL UNITIES
This letter of St. Paul to the Churches of Asia is the most formal and deliberate of his writings since the great epistle to the Romans. In entering upon its exhortations and practical part we are reminded of the transition from doctrine to the strong urging and encouragement in that epistle. Here, as in Rom. 11:1-36; Rom. 12:1-21, the apostle’s theological teaching, brought with measured steps to its conclusion, has been followed by an act of worship expressing the profound and holy joy which fills his spirit as he views the purposes of God thus displayed in the gospel and the Church. In this exalted mood, as one sitting in heavenly places with Christ Jesus, St. Paul surveys the condition of his readers and addresses himself to their duties and necessities. His homily, like his argument, is interwoven with the golden thread of devotion; and the smooth flow of the epistle breaks ever and again into the music of thanksgiving.
The apostle resumes the words of self-description dropped in Eph_3:1. He appeals to his readers with pathetic dignity: “I the prisoner in the Lord”; and the expression gathers new solemnity from that which he has told us in the last chapter of the mystery and grandeur of his office. He is “the prisoner”-the one whose bonds were known through all the Churches and manifest even in the imperial palace. (Php_1:12-14) It was “in the Lord” that he wore this heavy chain, brought upon him in Christ’s service and borne joyfully for His people’s sake. He is now a martyr apostle. If his confinement detained him from his Gentile flock, at least it should add sacred force to the message he was able to convey. The tone of the apostle’s letters at this time shows that he was sensible of the increased consideration which the afflictions of the last few years had given to him in the eyes of the Church. He is thankful for this influence, and makes good use of it. His first and main appeal to the Asian brethren, as we should expect from the previous tenor of the letter, is an exhortation to unity. It is an obvious conclusion from the doctrine of the Church that he has taught them. The “oneness of the Spirit” which they must “earnestly endeavor to preserve,” is the unity which their possession of the Holy Spirit of itself implies. “Having access in one Spirit to the Father,” the antipathetic Jewish and Gentile factors of the Church are reconciled; “in the Spirit” they “are builded together for a habitation of God”. (Eph_2:18-22) This unity when St. Paul wrote was an actual and visible fact, despite the violent efforts of the Judaizes to destroy it. The “right hands of fellowship” between himself and James, Peter, and John at the conference of Jerusalem were a witness thereto. (Gal_2:7-10) But it was a union that needed for its maintenance the efforts of right-thinking men and sons of peace everywhere. St. Paul bids all who read his letter help to keep Christ’s peace in the Churches.
The conditions for such pursuing and preserving of peace in the fold of Christ are briefly indicated in Eph_4:1-2. There must be-
(1) A due sense of the dignity of our Christian calling: “Walk worthily” he says, “of the calling wherewith you were called.” This exhortation, of course, includes much besides in its scope; it is the preface to all the exhortations of the three following chapters, the basis, in fact, of every worthy appeal to Christian men; but it bears in the first instance, and pointedly, upon Church unity. Levity of temper, low and poor conceptions of religion militate against the catholic spirit; they create an atmosphere rife with causes of contention. “Whereas there is among you jealousy and strife, are ye not carnal and walk as men?”
(2) Next to low-mindedness amongst the foes of unity comes ambition: “Walk with all lowliness of mind and meekness,” he continues. Between the low-minded and the lowly-minded there is a total difference. The man of lowly mind habitually feels his dependence as a creature and his unworthiness as a sinner before God. This spirit nourishes in him a wholesome self-distrust, and watchfulness over his temper and motives.-The meek man thinks as little of his personal claims, as the humble man of his personal merits. He is willing to give place to others where higher interests will not suffer, content to take the lowest room and to be in men’s eyes of no account. How many seeds of strife and roots of bitterness would be destroyed, if this mind were in us all. Self-importance, the love of office and power, and the craving for applause must be put away, if we are to recover and keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
(3) When St. Paul adds “with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love,” he is opposing a cause of division quite different from the last, -to wit, impatience and resentfulness. A high Christian ideal and a strict self-judgment will render us more sensitive to wrong-doing in the world around us. Unless tempered with abundant charity, they may lead to harsh and one-sided censure. Gentle natures, reluctant to condemn, are sometimes slow and difficult in forgiveness. Humbleness and meekness are choice graces of the Spirit. But they are self-regarding virtues at the best, and may be found in a cold nature that has little of the patience which bears with men’s infirmities, of the sympathetic insight that discovers the good often lying close to their faults. “Above all things”-above kindness, meekness, long-suffering, forgivingness-“put on love, which is the bond of perfectness”. (Col. 3:14) Love is the last word of St. Paul’s definition of the Christian temper in Eph. 4:2; it is the sum and essence of all that makes for Christian unity. In it lies a charm which can overcome both the lighter provocations and the grave offences of human intercourse, -offences that must needs rise in the purest society composed of infirm and sinful men. “Bind thyself to thy brother. Those who are bound together in love, bear all burdens lightly. Bind thyself to him, and him to thee. Both are in thy power; for whomsoever I will, I may easily make my friend” (Chrysostom).
Eph. 4:1-3 exhibit the temper in which the unity of the Church is to be maintained. Eph. 4:4-6 set forth the basis upon which it rests. This passage is a brief summary of Christian doctrine. It defines the “foundation of the apostles and prophets” asserted in Eph. 2:20, -the groundwork of “every building” in God’s holy temple, the foundation upon which Paul’s Gentile readers, along with the Jewish saints, were growing into one holy temple in the Lord. Seven elements of unity St. Paul enumerates: one body, Spirit, hope; one Lord, faith, and baptism; one God and Father of all. They form a chain stretching from the Church on earth to the throne and being of the universal Father in heaven.
Closely considered, we find that the seven unities resolve themselves into three, centering in the names of the Divine Trinity-the Spirit, the Lord, and the Father. The Spirit and the Lord are each accompanied by two kindred uniting elements; while the one God and Father, placed alone, in Himself forms a threefold bond to His creatures-by His sovereign power, pervasive action, and immanent presence: “Who is over all, and through all, and in all”. (comp. Eph. 1:23)
The rhythm of expression in these verses suggests that they belonged to some apostolic Christian song. Other passages in Paul’s later epistles betray the same character; and we know from Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 that the Pauline Church was already rich in psalmody. This epistle shows that St. Paul was touched with the poetic as well as the prophetical afflatus. He expected his people to sing; and we see no reason why he should not, like Luther and the Wesley’s afterwards, have taught them to do so by giving voice to the joy of the new-found faith in “hymns and spiritual songs.” These lines, we could fancy, belonged to some chant sung in the Christian assemblies; they form a brief metrical creed, the confession of the Church then and in all ages.
- One body there is, and one Spirit.
The former was a patent fact. Believers in Jesus Christ formed a single body, the same in all essentials of religion, sharply distinguished from their Jewish and their Pagan neighbours. Although the distinctions now existing amongst Christians are vastly greater and more numerous, and the boundaries between the Church and the world at many points are much less visible, yet there is a true unity that binds together those “who profess and call themselves Christians” throughout the world. As against the multitudes of heathen and idolaters; as against Jewish and Mohammedan rejectors of our Christ; as against atheists and agnostics and all deniers of the Lord, we are “one body,” and should feel and act as one.
In missionary fields, confronting the overwhelming forces and horrible evils of Paganism, the servants of Christ intensely realise their unity; they see how trifling in comparison are the things that separate the Churches, and how precious and deep are the things that Christians hold in common. It may need the pressure of some threatening outward force, the sense of a great peril hanging over Christendom to silence our contentions and compel the soldiers of Christ to fall into line and present to the enemy a united front. If the unity of believers in Christ-their oneness of worship and creed, of moral ideal and discipline-is hard to discern through the variety of human forms and systems and the confusion of ‘tongues that prevails, yet the unity is there to be discerned; and it grows clearer to us as we look for it. It is visible in the universal acceptance of Scripture and the primitive creeds, in the large measure of correspondence between the different Church standards of the Protestant communions, in our common Christian literature, in the numerous alliances and combinations, local and general, that exist for philanthropic and missionary objects, in the increasing and auspicious comity of the Churches. The nearer we get to the essentials of truth and to the experience of living Christian men, the more we realize the existence of one body in the scattered limbs and innumerable sects of Christendom.
There is “one body and one Spirit”; one body because, and so far as, there is one Spirit. What is it constitutes the unity of our physical frame? Outward attachment, mechanical juxtaposition go for nothing. What I grasp in my hand or put between my lips is no part of me, any more than if it were in another planet. The clothes I wear take the body’s shape; they partake of its warmth and movement; they give its outward presentment. They are not of the body for all this. But the fingers that clasp, the lips that touch, the limbs that move and glow beneath the raiment, -these are the body itself; and everything belongs to it, however slight in substance, or uncomely or unserviceable, nay, however diseased and burdensome, that is vitally connected with it. The life that thrills through nerve and artery, the spirit that animates with one will and being the whole framework and governs its ten thousand delicate springs and interlacing cords, -it is this that makes one body of an otherwise inert and decaying heap of matter. Let the spirit depart, it is a body no more, but a corpse. So with the body of Christ, and its members in particular. Am I a living, integral part of the Church, quickened by its Spirit? or do I belong only to the raiment and the furniture that are about it? “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” He who has the Spirit of Christ will find a place within His body. The Spirit of Jesus Christ is a communicative, sociable spirit. The child of God seeks out his brethren; like is drawn to like, bone to bone and sinew to its sinew in the building up of the risen body. By an instinct of its life, the new-born soul forms bonds of attachment for itself to the Christian souls nearest to it, to those amongst whom it is placed in God’s dispensation of grace. The ministry, the community through which it received spiritual life, and that travailed for its birth, claim it by a parental right that may not be disowned, nor at any time renounced without loss and peril.
Where the Spirit of Christ dwells as a vitalizing, formative principle, it finds or makes for itself a body. Let no man say: I have the spirit of religion; I can dispense with forms. I need no fellowship with men; I prefer to walk with God.-God will not walk with men who do not care to walk with His people. He “loved the world”; and we must love it, or we displease Him. “This commandment have we from Him, that he who loves God love his brother also.”
The oneness of communion amongst the people of Christ is governed by a unity of aim: “Even as also you were called in one hope of your calling.” Our fellowship has an object to realize, our calling a prize to win. All Christian organization is directed to a practical end. The old Pagan world fell to pieces because it was “without hope”; its golden age was in the past. No society can endure that lives upon its memories, or that contents itself with cherishing its privileges. Nothing holds men together like work and hope. This gives energy, purpose, progress to the fellowship of Christian believers. In this imperfect and unsatisfying world, with the majority of our race still in bondage to evil, it is idle for us to combine for any purpose that does not bear on human improvement and salvation. The Church of Christ is a society for the abolition of sin and death. That this will be accomplished, that God’s will shall be done on earth as in heaven, is the hope of our calling. To this hope we “were called” by the first summons of the gospel. “Repent,” it cried, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
For ourselves, in our personal quality, Christianity holds out a splendid crown of life. It promises our complete restoration to the image of God, the redemption of the body with the spirit from death, and our entrance upon an eternal fellowship with Christ in heaven. This hope, shared by us in common and affecting all the interests and relationships of daily life, is the ground of our communion. The Christian hope supplies to men, more truly and constantly than Nature in her most exalted forms,
“The anchor of their purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of their heart, and soul Of all their moral being.”
Happy are the wife and husband, happy the master and servants, happy the circle of friends who live and work together as “joint-heirs of the grace of life.” Well says Calvin here: “If this thought were fixed in our minds, this law laid upon us, that the sons of God may no more quarrel than the kingdom of heaven can be divided, how much more careful we should be in cultivating brotherly good-will! What a dread we should have of dissensions, if we considered, as we ought to do, that those who separate from their brethren, exile themselves from the kingdom of God.”
But the hope of our calling is a hope for mankind, -nay, for the entire universe. We labor for the regeneration of humanity. “We look for a new heavens and earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness”; for the actual gathering into one in Christ of all things in all worlds, as they are already gathered in God’s eternal plan. Now if it were merely a personal salvation that we had to seek, Christian communion might appear to be an optional thing, and the Church no more than a society for mutual spiritual benefit. But seen in this larger light, Church membership is of the essence of our calling. As children of the household of faith, we are heirs to its duties with its possessions. We cannot escape the obligations of our spiritual any more than of our natural birth. One Spirit dwelling in each, one sublime ideal inspiring us and guiding all our efforts, how shall we not be one body in the fellowship of Christ? This hope of our calling it is our calling to breathe into the dead world. Its virtue alone can dispel the gloom and discord of the age. From the fountain of God’s love in Christ springing up in the heart of the Church, there shall pour forth “One common wave of thought and joy, Lifting mankind again!”
- The first group of unities leads us to the second. If one Spirit dwells within us, it is one Lord who reigns over us. We have one hope to work for; it is because we have one faith to live by. A common fellowship implies a common creed.
Thus Christ Jesus the Lord takes His place fourth in this list of unities, between hope and faith, between the Spirit and the Father. He is the center of centers, the Lamb in the midst of the throne, the Christ in the midst of the ages. United with Christ, we are at unity with God and with our fellowmen. We find in Him the fulcrum of the forces that are raising the world, the corner-stone of the temple of humanity.
But let us mark that it is the one Lord in whom we find our unity. To think of Him as Savior only is to treat Him as a means to an end. It is to make ourselves the center, not Christ. This is the secret of much of the isolation and sectarianism of modern Churches. Individualism is the negation of Church life. Men value Christ for what they can get from Him for themselves. They do not follow Him and yield themselves up to Him, for the sake of what He is. “Come unto me, all ye that are burdened, and I will give you rest”: they listen willingly so far. But when He goes on to say “Take my yoke upon you,” their ears are deaf. There is a subtle self-seeking and self pleasing even in the way of salvation.
From this springs the disloyalty, the want of affection for the Church, the indifference to all. Christian interests beyond the personal and local, which is worse than strife; for it is death to the body of Christ. The name of the “one Lord” silences party clamors and rebukes the voices that cry, “I am of Apollos, I of Cephas.” It recalls loiterers and stragglers to the ranks. It bids each of us, in his own station of life and his own place in the Church, serve the common cause without sloth and without ambition.
Christ’s Lordship over us for life and death is signified by our baptism in His name. We have received, most of us in infancy through our parents’ reverent care, the token of allegiance to the Lord Christ. The baptismal water that He bade all nations receive from His apostles, has been sprinkled upon you. Shall this be in vain? Or do you now, by the faith of your heart in Christ Jesus the Lord, endorse the faith your parents and the Church exercised on your behalf? If so, your faith saves you. Your obedience is at once accepted by the Lord to whom it is tendered; and the sign of God’s redemption of the race which greeted you at your entrance into life, assumes for you all its significance and worth. It is the seal upon your brow, now stamped upon your heart, of your eternal covenant with Christ.
But it is the seal of a corporate life in Him. Christian baptism is no private transaction; it attests no mere secret vow passing between the soul and its Savior. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit”. (1Co_12:13) Our baptism is the sign of a common faith and hope, and binds us at once to Christ and to His Church.
One baptism there has been through all the ages since the ascending Lord said to His disciples: “Go, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The ordinance has been administered in different ways and under varying regulations: but with few exceptions, it has been observed from the beginning by every Christian community in fulfilment of the word of Christ, and in acknowledgment of His dominion. Those who insist on the sole validity of this or that mode or channel of administration, recognize at least the intention of Churches baptizing otherwise than themselves to honor the one Lord in thus confessing His name; and so far admit that there is in truth “one baptism.” Wherever Christ’s sacraments are observed with a true faith, they serve as visible tokens of His rule.
In this rule lies the ultimate ground of union for men, and for all creatures. Our fellowship in the faith of Christ is deep as the nature of God; its blessedness rich as His love; its bonds strong and eternal as His power.
III. The last and greatest of the unities still remains. Add to our fellowship in the one Spirit and confession of the one Lord, our adoption by the one God and Father of all.
To the Gentile converts of the Asian cities this was a new and marvellous thought. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” they had been used to shout; or haply, “Great is Aphrodite of the Pergamenes,” or “Bacchus of the Philadelphians.” Great they knew was “Jupiter Best and Greatest” of conquering Rome; and great the numen of the Caesar, to which everywhere in this rich and servile province shrines were rising. Each city and tribe, each grove or fountain or sheltering hill had its local genius or daimon, requiring worship and sacrificial honors. Every office and occupation, every function in life-navigation, midwifery, even thieving-was under the patronage of its special deity. These petty godships by their numbers and rivalries distracted the pious heathen with continual fear lest one or other of them might not have received due observance.
With what a grand simplicity the Christian conception of “the one God and Father” rose above this vulgar pantheon, this swarm of motley deities-some gay and wanton, some dark and cruel, some of supposed beneficence, all infected with human passion and baseness-which filled the imagination of the Graeco-Asiatic pagans. What rest there was for the mind, what peace and freedom for the spirit in turning from such deities to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Here is no jealous Monarch regarding men as tribute-payers, and needing to be served by human hands. He is the Father of men. pitying us as His children and giving us all things richly to enjoy. Our God is no local divinity, to be honored here but not there, tied to His temple and images and priestly mediators; but the “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all.” This was the very God whom the logic of Greek thought and the practical instincts of Roman law and empire blindly sought. Through ages He had revealed Himself to the people of Israel, who were now dispersed amongst the nations to bear His light. At last He declared His full name and purpose to the world in Jesus Christ. So the gods many and lords many have had their day. By His manifestation the idols are utterly abolished. The proclamation of one God and Father signifies the gathering of men into one family of God. The one religion supplies the basis for one life in all the world.
God is over all, gathering all worlds and beings under the shadow of His beneficent dominion. He is through all, and in all: an Omnipresence of love, righteousness, and wisdom, actuating the powers of nature and of grace, inhabiting the Church and the heart of men. You need not go far to seek Him; if you believe in Him, you are yourself His temple.
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