Sixty years ago the writer, M.E. Macdonald wrote: The real menace to life in the world today is not the hydrogen bomb… but the fact of proximity without community (M.E. Macdonald, The Need To Believe, 1959, p.82). And nothing has changed.
We see it exemplified on the New York subway where everyone avoids one another’s gaze by focusing on their phone or reading a book. Yet the barriers fall away when the unexpected occurs – perhaps the performance of a group of acrobats that can awaken smiles and even brief comments, before slipping back behind the mask.
Humility. In Ephesians, chapter 2 Paul the Apostle writes that God is building a new society of people drawn from all the nations of the world. Now in chapter 4 he develops expectations for this new community. It’s a theme he is excited about.
Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, he writes in verse 1. On the night of his arrest, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘A new commandment I give you: that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). Our problem is that we keep failing in this. Yet relationships amongst God’s people are so important that Paul tells us we need to work at them. He exhorts us: Lead a life worthy of your calling, 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 (4:2-3).
Consider the flipside of humility and gentleness: conceit and insensitivity. Wrapped up in themselves conceited people dismiss anyone for whom they have little regard. No, says Paul, you are called to humility and gentleness. These aren’t signs of weakness, but rather strength: it is only the strong who can be humble and caring.
To these qualities he adds patience, literally, longsuffering. The flipside is the quick-fire temper that explodes at the least provocation. Most of us have areas of our personality where we respond out of all proportion to a situation. It’s as though we have minefields in our lives. Some have very few mines and relate naturally and easily to others – even when they disagree. Others, however, have personality mines that explode when they encounter someone with whom they disagree. Indeed, it only takes one ‘walking minefield’ to destroy the morale and endeavor of a community.
How then can God’s people develop a vital community? We have a resource and a model that no-one else has: the character of God. God is not without his points of conflict with us, but he is patient and has provided the means whereby he can forgive us. He doesn’t hold grudges and he doesn’t let his anger turn into bitterness.
If we call ourselves God’s people, we are to reflect these qualities in our relationships with one another. In fact this is a request in The Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. We ought to be known as people who are forgiving, having a charitable spirit in all our relationships. It is inconsistent with our calling to be argumentative and explosive, resentful and complaining.
Now Paul is not saying that we should be long-suffering because we’re prepared to put up with anything. In verse 15 he says: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,… Being long-suffering doesn’t mean that there is no place for admonishment or exhortation. We are called to be non-judgmental. The quality we are to adopt is the spirit of love: love for God and love for one another: lead a life worthy of your calling.
Unity. 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 (4:4-6).
How easy it is in life, even when we are at church, to forget the mighty plan of the triune God – namely to draw together his people from throughout time and from all nations. Just as God is one, so his people are one, united through the work of the Spirit. As Jesus indicated to Nicodemus (John 3), it is the Spirit who gives us new birth and who awakens us to the binding power of the one eternal hope the Lord Jesus Christ holds out to us.
Furthermore, there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The one faith and one baptism are linked with one Lord because the Lord Christ Jesus is the object of our shared faith. We are not governed by a heavenly Committee but by a person – the exciting, awesome and powerful figure, Jesus Christ. He is the Lord who unites us.
Paul lifts our gaze and our wonder to God the Father when he says there is one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (4:6). In his Delighting in the Trinity Michael Reeves says, ‘It is only when we see that God rules his creation as a kind and loving Father that we’ll be moved to delight in his providence’.
Indeed, because from eternity the triune God exists in relationship and because God has made us in his image, we are made first and foremost for relationship with him and, in turn with one another. No wonder we long for deep and lasting, meaningful and true relationships. It’s an essential part of our DNA. The starting point is our relationship with God. Furthermore, as Paul has been explaining in chapters one through three, even though we have messed up and broken our relationship with God, such is his nature that he delights to love and give new life.
Surely we will want to pray that God’s Spirit and God’s Word will enable us to begin to experience the riches and beauty of God’s love and so awaken us to a united love for him and for one another.
In a world where, deep down, people long for meaningful relationships, where we’re all encouraged to explore our self-identity, there remains proximity without community. How much more should we bear witness in our own relationships with one another as God’s people, especially in the church we attend, to our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ who brings us and binds us together.
Tertullian, a 2nd century North African theologian and apologist wrote of the church of his time: ‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they (Christians) love one another’ (for they themselves, Romans, hate one another); ‘and how they (Christians) are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves, Romans, are readier to kill each other).
A prayer. Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and by your divine power to worship you as One: we pray that you would keep us steadfast in this faith and evermore defend us from all adversities; through Christ our Lord. Amen.