• Revd Simon Austen

Unity in the body of Christ

There is no doubt that Christians should take the matter of unity very seriously. It is something for which Jesus prayed (John 17:23) and it arguably an essential requirement for our witness to the world (John 13:34,35). And yet no-one has to be a Christian for very long before realising that unity seems a long way away from the inter-denominational and inter-church battles that beset God’s people today. We can easily find ourselves asking if there is any hope for the unity for which Jesus prayed to be a reality in the contemporary church.

In his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, the apostle Paul gives a clear instruction about the pursuit of unity. ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,’ he writes (Ephesians 4:3). But as with all our bible reading, it serves us well to step back from this perhaps familiar verse and to look at it as if chapters and verses had not been added – for this verse is part of a letter which not only commands effort to to be made but tells us how unity might really be achieved.

Note that Paul’s command is not to create unity – that is something fallen sinners could never do – but rather to keep it, to ensure that what has already been achieved in Christ, in the heavenly realms, might be seen in the church today. But in order to understand what this means, Paul spend a considerable amount of time reminding people what they were – and that humanly, such unity is impossible, particularly in the midst of the hostile Jew-Gentile relationships of the first century.

And so he says of the the Gentiles (‘you’) “were dead in sin” but “like the rest [including Jews] we were objects of God’s wrath.” He asks Gentles to “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” In each situation, Paul reminds Jew and Gentile that they were alienated, both from God and from one another. But in both relationships – the ‘vertical’ with God and the ‘horizontal’ one another – the grace of God in Christ has triumphed, such that the dead have been spiritually raised with Christ Christ and the spiritually alienated reconciled through his blood. The result of such powerful, comic rescue is what we know of as the church, a people m