“Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” (Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”)
Unity is God’s desire for the church. Jesus prays and pays for it, Paul pleads for it, the Spirit works for it. Christian relationships are not primarily built around our personalities, our shared interests, or our commiserations. I have spent a good deal of time lately thinking on where I get hung up on turning relationships away from Christ and toward myself. There are MANY places, but I thought I’d share a few places I’ve found freedom:
- Secure identity in Christ alone. (Gal 2:20) This is the big one that the others flow from. It is true that we need to depend on other people and that Christ uses the body as a means to sanctify us, but we also work, and think, and die alone. Our salvation is both a group project and it is Christ’s personal application of his blood to individuals. While we need the church and friends, our position in justification rests squarely and only on Christ. Our true need, to be made right with God, is met by Christ, and his church exists to give him glory and remind each other about him, not about each other. Whenever we need ultimate affirmation that we are ok, (i.e. justification) from other people we will become oppressive in those relationships, demanding another sinner die for us. But of course, only Christ, the God-Man, has died the satisfactory death we need.
- Honesty. When we are secure in Christ, we are free to be totally honest. We are free to take ourselves before the Scriptures and consider our ways and our heart according to his law. And when we are examined by others, our answers are not filtered through how we fear the other person might misunderstand us or even use our honesty against us. We are free to say what is true about our sin and Christ’s forgiveness and leave it at that. One of my biggest fears is that if I confess sin or even where I disagree with someone, they won’t understand the nuances or the complexity of my heart and that I will be locked in to that identity forevermore. And the thing is, it will happen. People will use my honesty in a dishonest way (and I’ll do that to others), but that is to be entrusted to the one who judges justly (1 Pet 2:23). When I try to answer in such a way to stay out of trouble then I am robbing myself of the opportunity to confess sin to the body and be healed (James 5:16).
- Cheerful giving. Identify with Christ in his relational sufferings. We have not suffered pain or injustice that he has not carried and been victorious over. He has known loneliness, being lied to, his love spurned, his person misunderstood, oppression, relational misunderstanding. We are privileged to be worthy to suffer after our Master.Similarly, Christ has been tempted in every way we are yet without sin (Heb 4:15). We are not just victims of others relational ineptitude, we are predators. I am clumsy at best, often defensive and self-protecting, and at worst looking for my own glory in relationships. And here again Christ has both felt the struggle and conquered for us. He sympathizes with our weakness. Because of his suffering, dying, and living for us, we are free to give ourselves cheerfully, not under compulsion (Philemon 14). He is the one worthy to open the scrolls and judge, we don’t have to keep track of fair and unfair. We get to just give what we have received with a happy, thankful heart.
- Relationship trouble is sanctifying for all parties. Some of the times I’ve come closest to giving up on a relationship is when I am convinced that another person’s goals for me are just not something I’m interested in and that all the strife is a waste of time. But then I remember that maybe I’m not the only one being sanctified in the situation. Our God is efficient in his work and is likely working something out of them too. It could be at times that my job is to stand firm, cheerfully, honestly, confidently in Christ, and lovingly firm.
Unity is a word that people love to attach themselves to without much thought. But Christian unity requires counting the cost. To be united to each other we must be united through Christ, first and last. And that means death, to sin and self. And death can get expensive.
But Jesus rose on the first day of the week, and so it also means life, a glorious resurrected, paid for life where we will relate intimately and without fear to Jesus and his saints for all eternity. Go sell all you have, He is worthy.