I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Eph. 4:1-7 NRSV)
Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal Church” (Smyrn. 8:2). A few decades later Saint Iranaeus of Lyons wrote, “Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is the Church” (Haer. 3.24.1).
This Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, the liturgical calendar designates as Trinity Sunday; a celebration of mysterious idea that God is one in nature, revealed in three distinct persons. So we’re going to talk about Trinity this morning. But I want to come at it from a different angle. I won’t tackle this doctrine of the Trinity head on and do what my professor of preaching called a “brain dump”. I want to frame the Trinity with a conversation about the Church. I have to confess my dependence for this reflection on Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
The Trinity as Unity and Diversity
3 Persons Sharing One Nature
There is one God, not 3. Each person is fully God, but distinct from the other two. The church has historically tried to devise ways to talk about this mystery, and never does any definition capture it fully. Every attempt has led Christians into some form of heresy- adoptionism, sabellianism, arianism. Some emphasized the threeness and lost the oneness others emphasized the oneness and lost the threeness, some made a mess of both the oneness and the threeness.
The church basically came up with a strategy of defining boundaries, but not specifics. So we assert that God is one in nature, revealed in three distinct persons. He is unity and diversity at the same time. Theologians use terms like essence and energies to differentiate or use fun Greek words like hypostasis and homoousios. These don’t specify how this trinity thing works, but simply affirms God as God revealed in the Scriptures; 1 but also 3. We can say this much, but no more or no less as it gets a little risky. For a humourous look at the risks of bad analogies, see this video: St Patrick’s Bad Analogies.
God is a community, complete, bound in love.
God is love, and love cannot exist in isolation. God is not a narcissist. God is love doesn’t mean that God is abstract or a feeling or impersonal force, but he is a person. The love which is the quintessential characteristic and defining quality of God is such that it binds three persons together in oneness. God is in nature one, but in application three persons, braided together as one. Father, Son and Spirit form a single, unified being, because the defining quality of his nature is love.
The Church as Unity and Diversity:
One body, one Spirit, one hope
Paul let the Ephesians know there is one body, and one Spirit, calling us to a single hope. The church is a single unit. The church is the body of Christ, all unified by the fact that one Spirit is in and through all.
In recent times we’ve seen an emergence of what is historically a fairly new phenomenon- Christianity without the Church. Many who see things in the church which they don’t like (and yes, there are many, many things about the institutional church which are not what they should be) and jettison the church as a whole. One groundbreaking book came out a few years back called “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church”, which examined this phenomenon of people rejecting to be part of Christianity not because of Jesus, but because they don’t like what they see in the Church.
But biblically speaking, Christianity without the Church is impossible. God’s redemptive work includes the formation of a people. “Christianity is a shared faith. No separate or merely individual faith exists” (Snodgrass, Ephesians NIVAC, 198). Christianity is ultimately expressed in being of a people gathered by God. “Christians are to be part of each other and are to receive one another, think about one another, serve one another, love one another, build up one another, bear each other’s burdens, submit to each other, and encourage each other. Christianity is a God-directed, Christ-defined, [Spirit empowered, hence Trinitarian] other-oriented religion”(Snodgrass, Ephesians, 197)
We are to all be one body- “making every effort” (being zealous or eager) with regards to unity. “We are to value unity, be attentive to it, and invest energy in it so that it is not threatened.” (Ibid.) How much energy are we expending into making all Christians unified? But, be assured unity is from the Spirit. The energy we expend will not create unity by itself; only the Spirit can unify us, but the Spirit calls us to submit to God and each other, die to self, so that unity may come to us- to give up our selfish desire for the sake of allowing the Spirit to work in us and through to produce unity.
One Lord, one faith, one baptism
Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged about the church. Paul tells us there is one faith and one baptism. We look at the various denominational groups within the Church universal, and think, how can we call this one faith and how can we see one baptism when baptism is practiced and understood in a variety of ways. Gather 20 Christians from 20 different churches and ask them about baptism and you’ll probably get 20 different answers. How can we still say there is one baptism?
But the most important part of this phrase is “one Lord”. All Christians can be seen as unified in the declaration Jesus is Lord. It is this profession when put into practice which defines Christians- we are those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist Pentecostal, Mennonite/Brethren, Presbyterian can all be seen as one because we have but one Lord, Jesus Christ. Those same 20 Christians would likely all agree with the statement “Jesus is Lord” (they may have a different take on what that means, but Jesus is Lord is one place we can find common ground).
“One faith” does not actually speak to doctrinal uniformity. That is something worthy of our pursuit, but faith does not refer to our system of beliefs, our doctrines. Faith means trust. It means allegiance. It doesn’t refer to what I think, but who I follow. And so in this, we pursue unity, and in that unity, the understanding that we follow the same Lord, we finally find ourselves in a position to actually talk about the rest of the things that divide us. Doctrinal unity is unlikely to ever happen, but unity in love based on mutual submission under Christ- well that should be natural for us.
One God and Father…
Father completes the Trinity here. Our unity as believers has its origins in the Trinity, One Father, One Lord, One Spirit. This one God, because of the work of the Son and through the Spirit is over all and through all and in all. God is in all those who belong to Jesus. That same presence of God which is in you is in every person who belongs to Christ. Whether it’s Pope Francis, or Billy Graham, or the person in the Church that you just can’t seem to get along with, He (God) is in them just as he is in you. That should impact how we treat each other. We, as those who carry the Spirit in us, should not be in conflict with another who carries that same Spirit in them. That creates disunity and grief in God’s Holy Spirit.
But to each grace has been given
Yes, the Christian faith is inherently communal, but there is definite individual and personal side. Each of us who are in Christ has been given grace apportioned by Christ. Baptists have a doctrine called soul liberty which is one of several doctrines baptists defend tooth and nail even though most of us have no idea what it means. But basically, soul liberty is the affirmation that we each have to repent of the old ways and die to self, and respond to God’s invitation of grace and salvation. We receive grace from God and are delivered. This cannot be compelled or coerced by any person, but must be a genuine movement of the Spirit in an individual. But that deliverance includes being drawn into the unified body of Christ, becoming part of the ekklesia the gathering of those who are in Christ. Soul Liberty does not trump our call to be one under the Lordship of Christ. The eye cannot say to ear “I do not need you” (See 1 Corinthians 12).
The Church as the Image of the Trinity:
Reflecting God’s nature
We are made in the Image of God. That doesn’t mean our physical appearance is based on what God looks like. Does God have two eyes, two ears, ten fingers? It means we are embedded with qualities which we have in finite form, but which God has in infinite quantity. We have an innate ability to love, to create, to relate. We as human beings are designed to do and be like God in finite capacity, to take leadership over the earth on God’s behalf, and do so as God would do, in His name.
The Church is the image of this. The Church is to find it’s unity in the Godhead. We as a unified people should reflect the unity and diversity of the Trinity. Notice the way Paul’s confession in verses 4-6 is structured, a triad of triads, each associated with a person of the Trinity: One body, one Spirit, one hope. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God, Father of all, over all, through all and in all.
God’s people are to be inherently like God, who is unity and diversity. We are supposed to be unified. Our love for one another ought to make us like one person. We are to be “of one mind” as Paul says. This doesn’t means we think alike about everything. It’s ok for Christians to like different types of music, eat different foods, pray in different ways. Being of one mind means sharing the same commitment to the same Lord. We are of one mind in the sense that we are all individuals who proclaim Jesus is Lord, who receive his grace and respond to his call with obedience. We each die to ourselves and live in Christ, and become one.
We know that we will likely never see complete unity in the Church. Even when Paul was writing to the Ephesians he recognized that full unity was not there. Skip ahead in Eph. 4 and we see Paul telling us that God gives leaders to teach and disciple and build up the church in maturity with the goal of full unity (11-13). Full unity has always been beyond the grasp of those who proclaim to follow Christ.
But we are told to move towards unity “in love” (4:2). Keep the unity of the Spirit by gentleness, humility and love. God is love, the Apostle John tells us. When we move towards unity in love we draw nearer to the very core of who God is. Paul when talking about unity here in chapter 4 brackets everything with that phrase “in love”. “Everything in this ethic is marked by love” (Snodgrass, Ephesians, 195). Everything we believe about the Church and each other should be marked by God’s inherently loving nature. That’s why Paul tells us to bear with one another in love. He’s basically saying, ok, you guys are having trouble getting along- learn to put up with one another because you crave the unity that the Spirit can provide, and be conformed by God’s love.
Reflecting God’s character
We’ve been looking at Ephesians 4 today. Ephesians 5 begins with the command “be imitators of God”. When Paul wrote his letters he of course didn’t include chapters and verses. Those were inserted later. But if you read chapter 4 and the beginning of 5, ignoring those breaks, you see a seamless flow of thought. Ephesians more that any other New Testament book is impaired by the arbitrary insertion of chapters and verses and subject headings. There are several places in Ephesians where one sentence is broken up in a way that may make more sense in English, and then Paul’s whole point gets a bit murky.
My point here is, when Paul says be imitators of God, that idea flows naturally out of the content of chapter 4, which is advocating for unity and an increase in maturity and togetherness. The more we are unified and coming together as mature, humble, gracious disciples, the more we become like God, and the better we can represent God as his ambassadors in this world. Living out your life in isolation from Christian community is counter productive to discipleship and the calling of all Christians to be conformed to the image of the Son. You can’t grow in Christ likeness when you reject community. Christ was committed to community- both with the Father and Spirit, and with his followers. This doesn’t mean we can’t have times of personal space. Jesus did that too. But, we can’t retreat into ourselves permanently. I’m an introverted guy. I’d love to spend more and more time alone. But that wouldn’t push more towards loving like Christ loved.
We have to take this call seriously. In our day and age, Church affiliation is something treated with skepticism and even hostility. Some keep enough distance so that if the pastor says something I don’t like I can go up the street to another church and hear what I want and not be challenged to maybe change my opinion. And now, if nobody in town is saying what I like, I can do internet church, with no filter on what’s being said, no accountability. Diversity of opinion is a double edged sword. It can be a good thing, providing oppotunities for Christians to worship, pray and be lead in discipling methods which “speak their language” but it can also be a cop out and dividing line. I will stick to the people who think like I do, and won’t let anyone challenge me to broaden my horizons. I don’t need accountability. If I hear or see something I don’t like I can wash my hands of those people.
We should be committed to our community for the sake of our Lord. Our church affiliation should not be about selfishness, but a selfless devotion to service the Lord Jesus. It may mean you have to get challenged. But I am always so discouraged when I see Christians up and leave a community simply because something has happened which doesn’t meet some preconceived notion of what church should look like or because “I am not getting my way.”
Jesus didn’t get his way. His commitment to obediently do the will of the Father meant laying aside any preferences or agenda he had for the sake of the other. “This community [the Church] is to shine its light by continuing Jesus’s vocation of giving himself so that others might live” (Kirk, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?, 61). Jesus said if it’s posisble please take this cup from me, but your will be done, not mine. And we abandon our friends and our faith community because we don’t like the pastor’s fashion sense or his age or his musical preferences. Are you part of the Christian community for yourself and your own personal preferences or agenda, or because you wholeheartedly believe that Jesus is Lord, and you desire to be conformed to his image and share in his resurrection? If that’s the case, you will learn to live like Jesus- live and die for the sake of others. To sacrificially give of yourself to see another be blessed. “An understanding of God’s work is always an attack on the ego” (Snodgrass, Ephesians, 196). Take up your cross and follow him, not show up and have your religious preferences fulfilled. Church is not a consumer product, but a community of the redeemed worshipping and serving Jesus Christ the Lord in God’s mission of redemption.
Reflecting God’s mission
God’s mission was and is the redemption of creation, the making of all things new through the work of Jesus Christ in his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension and his eventual return. This is the missio dei (mission of God- but everything sound cooler in Latin). It is a trinitarian mission. The mission authored by the Father, fulfilled in the obedient work of the Son, and accomplished in and through and by the Holy Spirit which testifies to the work of the Son.
Are we about this mission? Are we engaged in God’s mission? The theologian Emil Brunner wrote, “The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.” Mission is the natural and proper posture of people redeemed and gathered together by God. Just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit naturally do mission, we too ought to naturally just do mission. Mission should be to the church what breathing is to each person. We live by mission. If we cease to be about God’s business we cease to be a Church. We have to be about God’s redeeming work or else, what’s the point?
The Trinity is mysterious. We have a somewhat limited insight into it, and human language will always fail to articulate what’s happening in the Godhead. We can only understand certain bits about the Trinity, but we can in some way live out the Trinity in the Church- we are partakers of the Divine nature says Peter (2 Peter 1:4). We are called to worship one God and Father, obey one Lord, and be lead and empowered by one Spirit. Understanding the Church without the Trinity is difficult at best, and perhaps, being authentic and real Christian Community may help us in understanding the Trinity.