Isaiah 53:6, a familiar verse, goes to the heart of why the Church lacks unity.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The picture here is of a flock of sheep that can hardly even be described as a flock any more because each sheep has chosen to go its own way and wandered off. They have become dispersed. They have no group cohesiveness. Each individual is left to fend for itself.
Why did these sheep do this? Oh, and lest we forget, why do we do this? For, as it says, we are like these sheep. The answer of course is sin — that’s what iniquity is. But how are we sinning? We sin when we turn to our own ways.
This may be a difficult pill to swallow because we live in a society that celebrates the individual’s “right” to be and to do as each so chooses (literally turning to our own ways). As a culture we are taught to take pride in diversity, letting each person find their own fulfillment by being as much as they can be. The impact of these social values is that it has become “normal” and easy for each of us to seek our own best interests first and to perceive success, social order and group dynamics through the filter of what we personally prefer.
Romans 8:5 describes this as walking according to the flesh and Ephesians 4:17 compares it to walking “as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds”. But Ephesians 4:22-24 says we are to lay aside our old self, be renewed in the spirit of our minds and put on the new self. So, what does putting on the new self and walking according to the Spirit mean?
Isaiah says “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all”. This of course is the Shepherd who was crucified, dead and buried, and then raised on the third day and seated at the right hand of the Father. But the Shepherd did not abandon his flock. He had prayed to the Father, “may they be one” (John 17:11; 21-22) and sent the Helper for this purpose (John 14:26; 15:26).
Unity is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of our faith: We are in God, while at the same time God is in us. Being one in Christ can only be accomplished when we walk in his Spirit – when we live by faith. Jesus said if we love him we will keep his commands (John 14:15). One of his commands was, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). What does that say about unity?
Obviously, the Church can only find unity in Christ alone. We each must deny ourselves and in humility count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We must love one another, which means many things, including patience, kindness, not envying or boasting or being proud, not being rude and not self-seeking. To love means not being easily angered, not keeping an account of wrongs, not taking pleasure in evil but rejoicing in the truth. Love is bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.
We’ve all heard that before (see 1 Corinthians 13). But to experience unity, we cannot simply be hearers of the word. We must be doers of the word (James 1:22). Putting love into action means forgiving, serving, encouraging, tolerating and being willing to work out our differences (see Matthew 18:15-17).
The issue of unity in Christ is not about what I think or what you think. It’s about being “in Christ”. It’s about “keeping his commands”, but not in a religious, legalistic sense. It’s about being the body of Christ together and letting Christ be our Head. Our unity can only be in Christ as each of us submit to his headship. We can never hope to attain to unity through our own human efforts. Unity in Christ means he is in charge and we are not.
If we truly believe that we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6) then we must agree with John the baptist when he said, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Unity in the Church will happen when we let our wills decrease and let God’s will increase; when we can deny ourselves because we have learned that we are crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Heavenly Father, help us to release our pride to you and be humble followers of your Son. Help us to remain in your will and walk obediently in the counsel and fellowship of your Spirit. All glory, honor, praise and victory to you, in the name of Jesus. Amen.