One (Week 5)
Faith (Ephesians 4:4-6)
A while ago I heard a joke about a Catholic priest, a Methodist pastor and a fundamentalist minister who all died and went to heaven. So they meet Saint Peter at the pearly gates and Peter says, “Before you get to come into Heaven, Jesus likes to have a sit down with each person individually, just to talk you about your theology.” So all three sit down next to this little room and pretty soon Jesus comes out and leads the Catholic priest into the room. They’re in there for about an hour and when they come out the priest hugs Jesus and he says, “Thank you, Jesus. I was so wrong about some things. I can’t believe it.” Then the priest walked through the pearly gates and into heaven. Next, Jesus calls the Baptist pastor, so she gets up and follows Jesus into the room. They’re in there for a full day, but finally, they come out and the pastor’s eye and nose are a little red, you can tell she’s been crying. And she says, “Jesus, thank you so much. I didn’t realize how wrong I was on some things.” Then they hug and she goes into heaven. Finally, it’s the fundamentalist minster’s turn. So he and Jesus go into the room and they’re in there for an entire week. But finally, they come out and Jesus is just sobbing and he says, “I can’t believe it! I was so wrong about so much!” That joke is theologically terrible on so many levels… but it’s still funny.
We’re in the middle of our series “One” talking about the unity of the church. In Ephesians chapter 4 Paul encourages us to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace.” And he tells us to do this because he says that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
We started this series talking about how there is one Spirit and how that same Spirit resides in all Christians. We talked about how that Spirit of truth is guiding all of us into all truth. We also talked about how there is one body. We talked about how different Christians have different talents and abilities and gifts but that we still make up the singular body of Christ. Then a few weeks ago we talked about how all Christians are called to the same hope. That Jesus is redeeming the world and how we have been called to participate with him in that. And last week we talked about how Jesus is the one true Lord of everything. We talked about how he has power and authority and how he is responsible for putting everything in the world back to the way it’s supposed to be. This week we turn our attention to that next phrase, “one faith”.
In our, “These Three Remain” series a few months we were talking about Faith, Hope and Love. And when we talked about faith back then I mentioned how the word “faith” can sometimes be a metonym. A metonym is a term for when you use a single word as a stand-in for an entire system.
So, for example, you might hear on the news that Ottawa has decided to raise interest rates. But in this case, Ottawa would be a metonym for the entire federal government. Similar, maybe you’ve heard talk about how Wall Street is out of touch. When you hear that, people don’t mean the actual street but the entire financial system of America. In a similar way, sometimes Paul uses the term “faith” in the Bible to mean the entire system of theological beliefs and practices contained within Christianity.
In our passage in question, when Paul tells us we can be united because there is “one faith” this is what he’s talking about. He’s saying that we can be united because there is one single system of theological belief and practice that all Christians of all time can hold to. Which is, of course, a big, bold statement considering the state of affairs within the Church, not just today but over the last 2,000 years.
How does this work? What is Paul talking about and how can we find unity in our faith in spite of all the disagreement we see around us. Before we jump into it this morning, let’s spend some time in prayer.
Paul tells us that there is one faith. One system of belief and lifestyle that all Christians can, or at least should, agree on. And this is something that he seems to insist on again and again in Scripture.
For example, in Galatians chapter 1 he says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”
So here Paul suggests that there is one, clear gospel or good news and the danger is that the Galatians were tempted to turn away from that truth for something else that turns out to not really even be that good of news at all.
Later Paul wrote to his protege Timothy and in 1 Timothy 4 he insists, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Doctrine is another word for your set of held beliefs.
Here, as with most of the rest of this letter to Timothy, Paul is encouraging Timothy to watch or guard the beliefs he holds closely. Paul is saying that what you believe is important. And it’s so important, that it needs to be diligently watched.
Finally, in Titus, Paul is speaking to Titus another of men he has been mentoring and he says regarding elders within the church, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
So according to Galatians, there is one gospel and some people are trying to pervert it. In 1 Timothy, doctrine is something that needs to be watched or guarded. And here in Titus, there is a trustworthy message that has already been taught and elders must hold firmly to it. Furthermore, there are some in this world who would oppose this trustworthy message.
What Paul is saying in these passages is that truth is not relative. That there is such a thing as objective, absolute, right and wrong. That things are black and white, clear cut. There is one gospel and sound doctrine and a trustworthy message.
These are the kinds of passages people like when they talk about the necessity of defending the gospel or defending the truth. Scripture is very clear about morality. Things are either right or wrong. Are you with me so far?
But then just a little while later in Titus, after telling him that Elders must stand up for the truth and defend sound doctrine, in chapter 3 Paul says, “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.”
So we’re supposed to defend the truth and stand up for sound doctrine, but at the same time just go ahead and skip having debates and arguments and fights about the nuances of the law because in they end they’re not exactly beneficial.
And in Romans chapter 14 Paul says, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Are we supposed to celebrate holy days or treat all days as basically the same? And speaking of meat, in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 he says, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’ If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?”
In Romans, some people consider some days sacred and other people don’t and in 1 Corinthians some people have a problem eating meat and other people don’t.
So what is it? Is it right or wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols? Are some days more sacred than others or not? To add to this confusion, James the brother of Jesus himself, writes in the book of James chapter 4, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
It is sin for them? But not for someone else?
Paul insists that there is one gospel, that absolute truth exists and that we need to watch our doctrine closely. And yet at the same time, when it comes to holy days some people have one view and others a different view. Some people eat meat and others don’t. And it’s all okay.
So Scripture simultaneous affirms that morality is clear-cut and absolute and needs to be held on to and yet at the same time that it’s kind of relative and sometimes fuzzy and apparently can be right or wrong on a case-by-case basis.
How does that work? What Paul is talking about here is the difference between essential and non-essential theology. This “one faith” that Paul calls us to in Ephesians has both some things that are very clearly black and white and also some things that are grey. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Yes, Paul would insist that he actually, literally did and he was willing to die for that truth. Is it okay to eat meat sacrificed to an idol? Meh… Let your conscience lead you.
There are some things that are very clearly black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, absolute, objective. There are other things that are grey, ambiguous, relative, subjective.
What the writers of the Scriptures are suggesting is that when it comes to the essentials of the gospel, that all Christians can—or at least should—agree. But when it comes to the non-essentially that we should be okay to let our consciences guide us. Or, as Rupertus Meldenius, the German Lutheran theologian put it during the 17th century, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity.” Of course, that should then lead us to ask the question, “What counts as essential theology?” The answer to that lies in the ancient creeds.
There are two creeds that all Christians for the last 2,000 years have agreed on: the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Both the Eastern Church and the Western Church; Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians have all affirmed the things that these two creeds have affirmed. The Nicene Creed takes a lot of the wording from the Apostles’ Creed and expands on it. Here’s what the Nicene Creed says,
“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried. The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified. He spoke through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come. Amen.”
These are the essentials of the gospel. This is the one faith that Paul talks about and claims we can be united in.
Now you’ll notice this creed says a lot. It affirms Trinitarian theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth, baptism, salvation… and much, much more.
But it doesn’t say anything about speaking in tongues (something many Christians hold different views on). It doesn’t mention election or free will, it doesn’t talk about what the right method of baptism is. It doesn’t say anything about tattoos or how to read the book of Revelation or what political party you should vote for. It doesn’t mention alcohol or talk about how to interpret Genesis 1-2.
That doesn’t mean that we as Christians shouldn’t have opinions and beliefs about any of those issues. But we need to recognize that they are less essential and we need to be okay with other Christians have a different opinion of those issues than we do.
In his book Common Ground, Keith Drury puts it this way, “Creeds do not replace the Bible but underscore its essential doctrines. They highlight the most important doctrines in the Bible—upon which we all agree… Every Christian ought to believe more than what is stated in the [creeds]; however, no Christian should believe less.”
All of us should believe more than simply what’s found in the creeds. But we should also be open to the fact that other Christians who genuinely love Jesus might view things differently.
The danger, both in Paul’s day as well as for us, is when we confuse essential and non-essential theology. There are some of us who want to declare everything as essential theology.
And I’ve been part of some churches where “right theology” or “sound doctrine” is so narrowly defined that the only people who are “right” and the only ones who clearly love Jesus are the ones who attend our local church. Those people lack humility. They believe that everything they think and believe and know right here, right now is true; that there’s nothing else to learn or discover or be taught. But it’s the height of arrogance to think that you know everything and that there’s nothing else to learn.
And the danger of assuming that everything is essential theology and that your group or your tribe or your church is the group that’s the most right is that it completely destroys our ability to witness to a world that’s desperately looking for truth and meaning and love and acceptance. They see a church that wants to fight over our differences rather than unity over our collective beliefs. There’s a danger when we try to turn everything into black and white and eliminate the grey.
There’s also a danger when we try to eliminate the black and white and make everything grey. Paul insists again and again in Scripture that Jesus did literally die and be raised to life. He insists that what happened on Good Friday fundamentally changed the course of human history. And he insists that our lives are radically changed when we understand what God did through Jesus. Which means that what you believe matters. How you understand what God is doing in the world has the ability to profoundly alter your actions. What you believe will impact how you live. And if you believe that all truth is relative, that there is no such thing as objective, moral truth, then your life will reflect that.
Think about it this way. If you want to be physically healthy, you need to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Now if you had a friend that had no idea how biology worked and didn’t understand that your weight and your overall health was impacted by what you eat and how active you are, then they might complain about their weight and their health. But you, being the smart person that you are, might say something like, “Hey, good news! We know the way to be healthy! You need to eat right and exercise regularly.” This is objectively true and until your friend accepts this truth, they will never be motivated to change their lifestyle.
This is how the gospel works as well. If we make everything grey, if we make everything subjective truth, if we tell people that it doesn’t matter what they believe, then we rob the gospel of its power. And it absolutely has the power to change lives.
What we believe matters. When it comes to the essentials of the gospel, it’s important that we share common ground. But when it comes to the non-essentials of the gospel, it’s equally important that we give each other room and grace to see things differently.
In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity and in all things charity.