There’s a quote, widely attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo; it says “IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.” It was actually first used by the Archbishop of Split. Yeah, I know, God has an amazing sense of humor. You can’t make this stuff up. One of the most quoted phrases on unity came from a man whose ministry base was a place named Split. Not only that, but he managed to get himself branded as a heretic by both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic churches. Sounds like they had a difficult time agreeing on what the “essentials” were to establish a base of unity.
It has been said that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” so it is on that basis that I assert my primary qualification to jump into this fight. I am neither a theologian nor a historian. So let me present my chief credential—I am a fool. On that basis alone, I begin.
I am simply a Bishop who is foolish enough to believe that the Scriptures are utterly, totally, completely, and fully inspired by the Almighty. I don’t pretend to have a total grasp even of their contents, let alone the deep meaning and application of every verse. I wish I did! But even in my foolishness, I see within the Scriptures a clear and unmistakable call to unity in the body of Christ.
I am so foolish, in fact, that I believe that this is possible.
Which introduces today’s verse:
LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU
I read those words and I cringe inside. We have not loved one another well. Far from it.
I cringe because I know that I have played a role in building walls instead of bridges. I’ve focused on things that were not essentials of faith – like Jesus as the sole means of our salvation, by grace through faith – and allowed myself to to isolate myself behind less important doctrines. Jesus not only instructed us to love one another, He prayed that we would all be ONE in Him. And far too often I’ve gotten in the way of His prayer.
Jesus had a way of upsetting people’s preconceived ideas so He could introduce a deeper understanding. One day Jesus entered a Galilean synagogue on the Sabbath. One of the men worshipping inside had a shriveled hand. Jesus had just announced to the Pharisees that He was the Lord of the Sabbath, now He intended to illustrate His lesson. They attempted to trap Him by asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Impossible, they thought. Their position would be unassailable. NO WORK was permitted on the Sabbath. The doctrines and rules they had created about this were clear, specific, and detailed. And they were flawed.
The Lord of the Sabbath was about to explain how they had missed a critical element. He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!” In other words, I’ve got a news flash for you, fellas; it IS lawful to do good on the Sabbath!
His lesson is simple and direct. They had been focusing on what they shouldn’t do on the Sabbath. He said it was also necessary to look at what they should do. Jesus healed on the Sabbath as an expression of God’s love, to introduce a deeper understanding of God’s love of the people for whom He created the Sabbath! And He calls US to walk in that love with Him.
Another day He had Peter, James, and John accompany Him to the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler whose daughter had died. Jesus had just spoken to Jairus and told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” This was yet another impossible situation. (Have you noticed that Jesus never seemed to be bothered by the apparent impossibility of the things He prayed for?)
When He showed up at the house and announced the girl was not dead but only asleep, the gathered mourners mocked Him. Jesus was not deterred by their ridicule. Instead, He simply took the girl by the hand and gave a command—“Get up.” Her spirit returned, and she obeyed. Jesus restored the life of Jairus’ daughter as an expression of God’s love in order to introduce a deeper understanding of faith.
If I were to recount every example of Jesus walking into impossible situations and changing the anticipated outcome, this would be a very long devotional today!
But the point is this: Jesus was not concerned with the level of “possibility” or “impossibility” when He prayed that we would all be ONE in Him. To pray that His Church would have the same level of unity as He and the Father have is just one more “impossible” prayer, a prayer which He intends to see fulfilled. He must see it fulfilled, because the outcome of our unity will be that the world believes.
The Messiah is stating, in no uncertain terms, that when those of us who are in Him are able to stand in unity THEN (and, one might argue, ONLY then) will the world believe! And the world MUST believe! This is the reason Christ came to the earth. He gave His all to purchase our salvation.
So, if the world MUST believe, then we MUST become one! We must learn to love Him, and then to love one another as He has loved us. It is really as simple as that—simple and impossible. But don’t forget, Jesus isn’t afraid of the impossible!
The task is not impossible if Christ Himself has made the way. In fact, HE IS THE WAY!
The bible tells us if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! It lays this work directly at the feet of God, not us. This God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ took it a step further and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. He calls us to tell everyone the best news of their lives – that God is reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. He committed the message of reconciliation to us, we are Christ’s ambassadors. We are standing in His place, representing Him and sharing His message; as though God were making His appeal through us.
Is He really calling us to LOVE ONE ANOTHER and share the message of hope in Christ? Strange as it may seem, the answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!”
Being His ambassador is no small thing. An ambassador is the highest official representative that a head of state can send to another nation. He represents the full power of the one who sent him and is called to carry the message of his sovereign. The ambassador is expected to subject his personal interests to those of the one who placed him in his role, and to serve the interests of the nation or kingdom he represents above all else.
As ambassadors for the King of Kings, we are not so very different.
We are saved by grace through faith alone; unto good works. We are called to love one another as He has loved us; ambassadors of His message of grace.
This, then, is the core “essential” in which we need to find unity. The singular essential to the unity we are called to is our foundation of being in Christ. The question is simple – “IS THIS PERSON IN CHRIST?” If the answer is yes, then I am commanded, as far as it depends upon me, to be in unity with them.
God has chosen to deliver a righteousness from God to all who accept Christ’s lordship. We might not agree with His choices. The others He has chosen to accept in Christ may appear to be too different from us and our congregations. They may not embrace our particular method of worship. They may hold to some expressions of faith we find difficult to appreciate.
But I am forced to ask—knowing the struggles I personally face being open and understanding with some of my brothers and sisters in the Kingdom—who will be the final arbiter of who is in Christ and who is not? If Christ Himself has accepted them, if He has placed them in Christ by virtue of the washing, cleansing, and justification of the Holy Spirit, who am I to reject them?
There will be expressions of worship with which I am totally uncomfortable. There will be modes of dress I will not appreciate. There will be doctrinal positions (both to the left and the right of mine) that will likely cause me a great deal of personal struggle. In short, there will certainly be more to accept than I care to embrace. But if we are speaking only about those who are in Christ, then these issues amount to tools of the enemy intended for division.
There will be no end to the number of things the enemy will bring to my attention to stop me from loving as I have been loved; things intended to break the unity Christ prayed for, in fact, the unity He died to create in Him. But I dare not. Many of these issues may be opportunities for doctrinal growth on both sides of the aisle. But if we approach them in unity, we are much more likely to come to an understanding and resolve them.
I submit that the bottom line is a simple one—if Christ Himself has accepted someone, I must do the same. Because it is He who is Lord, not me.
Easy? Not at all.
But vital to the mission to which those of us who are in Christ are called.
If I am willing to accept all whom He has accepted as my brothers and sisters in Christ, it is His acceptance that becomes the basis of our unity. This is the beginning of seeing Jesus’ prayer that we be one fulfilled in this generation. This is the beginning of us loving one another as He has loved us.
If Jesus, Who died on the cross in their place, has accepted them, then I must. Because He said …
LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU