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Mystery and Objectivity in Christian Unity

Fr. Matthew Olver, in his essay “Unity’s Fire,” gives us a powerful account of why the question of Christian unity stands central to the task of discipleship. He recounts how the diversity he found in an international space modeling event echoes the deep diversity in the Church while simultaneously highlighting that such diversity in no way subtracts from the common unity found there. Diversity plus relationship equals community.

He turns his attention more fully to the Church in his citation of Hebrews 10,  which pushes us to consider the importance of our lives together as Christians. Then he says, “Central to the vocation of the Living Church Foundation from the very beginning has been the pursuit of real unity, the sort that is grounded simply in the Person of God in Christ.”

This means that there is a foundational relationship before all other relationships — each person’s relationship with Jesus. It is common today to so emphasize the communal aspects as to dim the individual to the point of extinction. This clearly should not happen. Otherwise, we end up with no way to invite the individual into the community. We end up with sentimental drivel that speaks only of “welcome” and “belonging” without wrestling with the fact that there is a point when the individual crosses over and enters into a new world.

How does one “cross over”? This is a disputed point. Fr. Olver points to an answer with a long pedigree: baptism. This has strong biblical warrant: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Others have stressed the need for belief and might quote Romans 10:9: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Still others (with what seems much less biblical support) will require some kind of conversion experience. When faced with this question, we must maintain the mystery, because, strictly speaking, we do not know the answer.

Fr. Olver points to a significant factor in the temptation to remove any mystery: “serious disagreements between Christians.” If we disagree, it is very tempting to claim that we are “not in communion” and that you are not my brother or sister in Christ. The fact is, we cannot know with anything close to certainty whether someone is incorporated into Jesus. The fact that someone has not been baptized, has not made a Christian confession, or has not had a conversion experience does not prove a thing. God has a way of ignoring the rules we have from time to time discerned. Leaning on the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30), we should apply ample agnosticism to the question of who is in and who is out.

In an Anglican context, the fact that you have been baptized is prima facie evidence that we share unity in Christ. This is not, however, the end of the discussion! This unity will be strained, maybe to the breaking point, when we ask, “Who is Jesus?” If our unity is based on our common relationship to Jesus (however that is defined), and we discover that we are not talking about the same person, then what?

The tension here shifts to one side of the basic answers to the question “Who is Jesus?” Those for whom Jesus is simply a great teacher, moral philosopher, religious figure on the order of the Buddha and Muhammad, or simply a made-up figure who represents the mythical aspirations of humanity, disagreement on who Jesus is will not be much more than an academic discussion (why they would bother with historic Christian organizations is a discussion for another day).

Those for whom Jesus is (in Fr. Olver’s words) “the head of the Church, the author of our salvation” disagree among themselves about how one’s answer to “Who is Jesus?” affects whether there can be unity. Those who believe that baptism works ex opere operato tend to see baptism as sufficient for unity, while those of a more evangelical bent believe that correct belief is necessary for unity.

There are no easy answers for these final questions. The beginning of TLC’s mission statement  provides a hint:

Rooted in the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, the Living Church Foundation seeks to champion the catholic and evangelical faith of the one Church and to hasten the visible unity of all Christians.

God calls the Church to be one and to sustain a common faith and order “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21)

Championing the faith of the Church and hastening unity can go together, although it will take constant effort. The end hope is worth the price:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23, emphasis added).

1 COMMENT

  1. This brief article touches on a basic question: what is a Christian? There is what one believes, and more importantly, there is how that is reflected in that person’s life. The question is sharper when it becomes, “How do I become a Christian?” It involves the community, because there is no way to follow Jesus without knowing anything about him, or knowing someone else who follows him.
    A castaway on a desert island finds a (legible) Bible on the shore. Never having heard anything about Christ, the person can after a while decide after reading Scripture about responding to Jesus’ call to follow him. Obviously, living alone does not offer any opportunity to share the faith or do good to those who hate you, and so on. Is this person justified by faith?
    I answer yes. For while the Church is the vessel of the Gospel, it is so because of the Spirit. The Spirit has moved in that poor person’s life through the most important Spirit-led and filled product of the Church’s life, and now our castaway knows Christ. Certainly the Holy Trinity can take care of their own.
    In ordinary life, not desert islands, we are social animals, and the Church is a divine society. We cannot in the long run do without a congregation, and no congregation can do without a genuine witness to the living God. That witness begins with worship, and worship such that visitors will say, “Surely God is here!” How visitors (“inquirers”) became members is to walk with them as they follow in the way of the castaway, the discovery of God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. And how that gets lived out.
    (And I do hope a ship comes along soon…)

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