The Uniting Church has entered a critical period of its life over the past couple of weeks - a period in which we could be made or come completely undone. I believe it appropriate to read from the first paragraph of the Basis of Union - a document which we ignore at our peril.
“[The three churches] give praise for God's gifts of grace to each of them in years past; they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God's love with a full obedience; they look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people. To this end they declare their readiness to go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church; they remain open to constant reform under his Word; and they seek a wider unity in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this union these Churches commit their members to acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, to hear anew the commission of the Risen Lord to make disciples of all nations, and daily to seek to obey his will.” (Basis para. 1)
A great deal is contained in those words. Here we find themes that are spelt out later in the document, as well as critical foundations for our life together. It acknowledges that we exist to “set forth the word of salvation for all people” - “to make disciples of all nations”.
When Cec Schloss was Moderator, he took as his theme, “Forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church”. He expressed his concern at the use of “Forward Together” as a theme in isolation from its context. The Uniting Church will fail badly if we reinterpret this to mean “in sole loyalty to the Uniting Church”. Our ultimate loyalty is to Jesus Christ. In him we are one and able to “acknowledge one another in love and joy as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ”. It is an unbiblical heresy that thinks the Church should somehow be a “unity in diversity”. Our true unity is only in Christ the living Head of the Church. There is nothing intrinsically good in diversity. Some of our diversity results directly from our human brokenness and sin. But, flowing from our relationship with Christ, there are many good gifts of creativity and ministry - the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. We celebrate Christ and thank him for the diverse gifts which make us together his Body. We are, in fact, a “diversity in unity” - and not the other way around.
We are committed to “remain open to constant reform under his Word”. Some have tried to persuade us that in the Basis “Word” is always a reference to Christ and not to the Scriptures. But here at least “his Word” - i.e. Christ's Word - surely refers to the Word of God which is heard and known from Scripture. Certainly, para. 5 tells us that it is by the Scriptures that “[the Uniting Church's] faith and obedience are nourished and regulated”. Indeed, the Church's message is “controlled by the biblical witnesses”
The three churches committed themselves to “seek a wider unity in the power of the Holy Spirit”. Over the past twenty-six years this has been expressed in various ways. We have, for instance, had agreements on baptism with several denominations - most recently, a conversation with the Anglicans leading to the document, “For the sake of the gospel”. Sadly, we have sometimes failed to recognise that we aren't just Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian coming together - that was the easy part! Already, we were liberal, evangelical, liturgical and charismatic all mixed up and wrapped together in overlapping ways in this new denomination. What did we really mean by “unity in the power of the Holy Spirit”?
So we come to Paul's prayer for the Ephesians. He has acknowledged these Gentile believers, not as a second-best divine afterthought, but fully belonging in the purposes of God, fully part of the family of God - “heirs together”, “members together”, “sharers together” (v. 6).
Paul has two particular prayers for them - both involving “power” or “strength” (two different words are used) which is fully available from the Father's “glorious riches”.
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (vv. 16-17a). A Christian is indwelt by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul's second prayer for them - “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (vv. 17b-19).
Receiving Christ into our hearts through faith is the foundation of Christian life and experience - “rooted and established in love” - that's God's redemptive love for us and now active within us.
“Power, together with all the saints” - that's all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles. He is praying for the Ephesians, but not for a different experience or measure of God's love from what he would pray for all God's people.
Paul wants them to grasp the all-encompassing magnitude of the love of Christ (“how wide and long and high and deep” it is) - yet it is far greater than we can grasp (it “surpasses knowledge”). What he wants for them is not just an intellectual appreciation of Christ's great love, but to know that love in experience, and, knowing it, to become the expression of it in the world - “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (v. 19b).
Do you watch the News? There are some people who don't watch the News on principle - it's too depressing! Often we wonder, not what will happen, but where it will happen next! And we don't have to look “out there”. We can recognise in our own country, our own community - and ourselves - the evidence of human brokenness, of self-seeking, self-centred living. We can recognise it in our church - and in ourselves.
That has never been God's purpose - we know that! God has never intended to leave any of us where he found us in that first encounter. His purpose? “that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”. The plan for reconciliation is fulfilled! All are now called to repent and believe the good news. The promise is that God will live, not just “with” us, but “within” us. There can now be a different way of life, a different kind of living - God's kind of living and loving and unselfish caring.
Don't settle for less! God can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (v. 20). If we do settle for less, we will cease moving toward the vision and commitment we expressed when we came together on 22nd June 1977. More seriously, we will be unable to “give him glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever”.
Christ is depending on you and on me. Together we must depend on Christ. Let us not fail his trust!
© Peter J. Blackburn, Devotions, Southern Zone, Presbytery of North Queensland, 26 July 2003