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Unity in Christ

More often these days, I have been drawn to the idea of community. The theological word to describe the study of church/assembly is ecclesiology. But to just label ecclesiology ‘the study of a gathering’ doesn’t do justice to the revolution which the body of Christ is. Everyone can be a part of a community. What makes the Church different? Or as Paul puts it, what does it mean to be in Christ?

What we find is that Paul doesn’t see the church as just new communities with a different moral standard, but a new humanity, a new family, a new creation, incapsulated in Christ. Or as Karl Barth puts it: The gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. By the Gospel the whole concrete world is dissolved and established… The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ alter entirely the human situation. L. Ann Jervis adds that in Church Dogmatics, Barth says that the “Cross of Jesus ended human history”. For Paul then, to enter into New Life & Eternity is to unite with Christ’s death and join in His Resurrection & communion with the Father. This has a huge significance for our lives in relation to one another. (I realise this is quite meta, but it shows just how significant Paul saw Jesus' death and resurrection!)

Therefore, we are not talking about a new moral standard at all, but a unity. Something which binds us together, and that is found in the person of Jesus. So when Paul says that we are united in Christ, what exactly does he mean?

A New Humanity

To fully understand the weight of what Paul means by this New Humanity, we must remind ourselves of how we enter into Newness. This is shown in Romans 6 where Paul puts it explicitly: we are baptised into Christ’s death so that we, just like Christ, might walk in newness of life. Paul makes it very clear here - to be in Christ is to have died and been united with Him. Later, in Romans 8, Paul addresses this freedom from death as the work of the Spirit. L. Ann Jervis adds a further point, saying that “while Paul thinks that… God’s spirit allows for union with Christ, that union is with Christ. That is, believers are united with Christ through the Spirit but not with Christ as the Spirit.”

This illuminates other parts of Paul’s writings. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul’s main problem with the church is that they are divisive. Yes, the church in Corinth is enriched in speech and knowledge, and not lacking in any gift. However, in 3:1 Paul states they are not in the Spirit, but are in fact of the flesh. After a long dialogue on Spiritual Gifts and the importance of being one body in 12:1-31, Paul shares “still a more excellent way” which is of love. Because they are not united, they are, in a sense, denying the Spirit which binds them to Jesus and one another.

For Paul, union in Christ is bound with those who are also united with Him. It is impossible for us who are in Christ to use Him as a way to cause division, hostility and draw boundaries. Ephesians 2 talks of Jesus being the one who broke down in His flesh the dividing walls of hostility… that He might create in Himself one new human… reconciling us both to God in one body. It would appear, drawing on Pauls other writings, that this is the work of the Spirit - which can be a confusing topic in western Christianity.

Susan Eastman has some helpful reflections:

It is just possible that what Paul means by the experience of the Spirit does not fit into some contemporary categories of either "experience" or "spiritual." For example, Nicholas Lash criticises the unexamined assumption in many quarters that "religious experience" is by definition "private," "inner" and "subjective," and attributes that assumption in part to "the myth, at least as old as Descartes, that the real me, the essential person, lives somewhere inside the head." Within such a myth, the experience of the Holy Spirit would appear to be something individual, private, inside one’s own subjective sense of oneself, and therefore elusive for some, and for others seductively susceptible to charges of psychological projection or delusional thinking.

The experience of the Spirit on display in Rom. 8 simply does not fit such dualistic categories. First, Paul's language is neither individualistic nor collective, but personal—experience occurs in human hearts, but believers' hearts exist in relationship with others "in Christ." So we find the bulk of Paul's references to Spirit's working located in and among people, in the midst of the community.


To enter into what it means for us then, we might want to reflect on what Eastman has to say:

Because Christ entered fully into human existence, there is no unclaimed or "secular" territory of the self or society, because the Spirit continues that divine participation, there is no "unspiritual" experience beyond the reach of transformation.
Therefore, far from being individualistic, hidden and inward, the mindset co-constituted by the Spirit in and between "those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1) has practical, relational and mutual effects.

I want to ask a question that was posed by Tim Mackie upon reflecting on the Lord Prayer. The simple question is based on the second line of the Prayer; What would it look like for God’s name to be recognised as Holy, in acknowledging who God is in the first line?

This question brought the implications of this prayer right into the present day for me, it wasn’t this ‘up in the air prayer’ that we all know off by heart and reel off every week. It was a challenge. For Jesus, to recognise His father as Holy was to liberate the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted and heal the sick - and it was also to "take His body, bless it, break it, share it at the Last Supper and then give it away on the cross" (Laurie Green, Blessed are the poor?). Jesus’ strength and dependence in all He did throughout His life was from the Spirit; and that’s how He was drawn to live, and it was what bought the name of God - Jesus - to be recognised as Holy.

This question has an obvious answer for us then. And it follows from line two: to live in order that Jesus’ name be recognised as Holy, is first to ask that God’s Kingdom will be established here on earth as it is in Heaven - that the world would recognise the name as Holy, as it is in Heaven. It is then to ask God to give us what we need for the day as we seek to live that way, and to help us forgive as He has forgiven us. It is asking God to give us the strength to not be tempted by what once enslaved us. These are all acts of unity with Christ and to each other. These last three requests of the prayer also draw us to rely on the Spirit, who is the one who brings this Unity.

For the culture around us to recognise God’s name as Holy, it needs to see followers of Jesus for who we are; united in Christ. That happens by the power of the Spirit, drawing us to Jesus and to each other. It’s a challenge for us as a corporate church, a local church and for ourselves.

So, as Paul puts it: Let us live as citizens of Heaven, conducting ourselves in a manor worthy of the Good News of Christ.

That is what it means to be united in Christ. Let us not resist this work of the Spirit.


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