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Theological Track Standing: A User's Guide to Unity in Church and Society (Ephesians 4:1-16)

America's political divide is growing.

Nearly every issue of national concern -- from prison to education to tax reform, from health care to LGBT rights -- has become so polarizing that otherwise civil, intelligent human beings often digress to the level of obdurate toddlers staring down a bowl of broccoli.

Even as we jeer at our elected officials who can't seem to get their acts together, none who have spent any time in a church business meeting should be surprised at the level of strife and vitriol displayed in the American political arena. Seriously, it's getting as scary as Jack Nicholson's eyebrows out there.

If you live in any kind of an urban context you'll likely have witnessed the following scene.

You're at a stoplight in your car and up rolls a cyclist. Maybe he's a skinny-jean clad hipster on a teal and brown fixie (one lacking a freewheel mechanism in the rear hub), or maybe she's a spandex swathed road warrior on a steed that costs more than your car. Serious cyclists, or "roadies," wear cycling shoes that feature a cleat on the bottom, allowing the rider to clip-in to the pedals for greater traction and stability. There is, however, an art form to removing one's cleat from the pedal clip. Think about it: you're clipped-in to the pedal; how do you place your foot on the ground when you stop if it's already attached to your pedal?

To avoid constantly clipping-in and clipping-off at intersections, cyclists work to master the art of track standing. This is where the rider remains mostly stationary while holding the cranks in an approximately horizontal position with the front wheel steered to the left or right. She then pedals forward, and backward, which the steered front wheel converts into a side-to-side motion. Track standing requires great balance and strength.

Here's the parallel I want us to consider: unity, like balance, is much easier to maintain at speed. When church members or politicians begin to bicker about our core identity as a community or nation, or when they fight about vision and trajectory, the gears grind to a halt, leaving us with the difficult task of track standing to keep from toppling to the left or right.

Maintaining Christian unity is about as simple, safe, and straightforward as grooming a meth-cranked Wookie (#StarWars). It's not that Christians don't want to get along. We do--for the most part, at least. Words like unity, love, and peace are more than t-shirt slogans or tattoo fodder. Why then is unity so damned difficult to maintain?

I believe that Paul's petition for unity in Ephesians 4:1-16 offers insight into how we might move toward unity in the church and in society. He opens this section of his letter with an important conjunction ("therefore"), indicating that his words of instruction follow necessarily from what he has been saying up to this point in the letter. If we don't attend to the trajectory of his argument, we will fail to grasp the full significance of what Paul is commending here.

Paul opens his letter to the faithful in Ephesus by grounding Christian identity in election. In 1:4-5, Paul reminds us that we were chosen to participate in the way of God in Christ before the foundation of the world, and that God's election ought to structure a certain way of being in the world ("holy and blameless"). Just as Paul grounds the origin story for Christ-followers in primeval history, he also lays out the aim or goal of the Christian life: "to gather up all things in Christ" (1:10). It is this looking backward and looking forward that I wish us to consider for our contemporary religious and political contexts.

The central point Paul wishes to drive home is that Christians ought to be a people of hope. It is to hope that God has called us (1:15). This hope does not rest upon human effort or actualization; rather, it is according to God's infinite mercy (2:8-10). In Christ, God has worked to eradicate ethnic divisiveness (2:14). Note: This is not about obliterating or ignoring difference but about not regarding our differences as cause for enmity or mistrust. The love of Christ "surpasses knowledge," and it is out of such superabundance that we find ourselves filled with the very fullness of God (3:19).

Having established a certain ethos and sense of identity that ought to structure Christian consciousness, Paul pleads with the Ephesians to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called" (4:1). The marks of such a life are clear-cut: humility, gentleness, patience, solidarity, and "making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4:2-3). The calling, quite simply, is to be ever more like Christ (4:15-16).

The solution to divisiveness in the church and in the political arena is movement -- even better, momentum.

Momentum is a product of mass and velocity and is only possible when an object acts or is acted upon by an outside force. I think that's what Paul is up to here in Ephesians. Rather than rushing in and shouting, "Hey, y'all, get with the dang program," Paul sets the stage to build some momentum. He reminds them how they got here, how God was veiled in mystery until Paul himself was called by God as an apostle sent to proclaim the good news with the Gentiles (3:9).

At the same time, Paul points to the horizon, giving the Ephesian Christians both a reason and a direction in which to move. In short, he gives them an identity and a purpose sufficient to help them see beyond their petty squabbles.

Track standing is a helpful way to think about this from our present context because of the effort required to maintain your balance on a static bicycle. It is much easier to balance if the bike is moving. How, you may be wondering, do we gain momentum when the gears of our current polarized society are already locked?

Momentum arises out of the Spirit of God. When we lean fully into our calling, which is at once a part of history and lives in the future, we are freed to embrace a God-sized vision that will absolutely fail apart from God's empowering presence. This is, after all, what it means to be the church, the ekklesia -- the called out one's.

Bible Study Questions:

1. How might my church embrace God's Spirit to unlock the political stalemate in this country?

2. What might God be doing in our culture that is more reflective of God's kingdom that what I see going on in my church? How might we participate in that movement?

3. How might churches work to find unity across denominational, theological, and political lines? How might Paul help us to such ends?

For Further Reading:

McKnight John and Peter Block. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

Peters, Rebecca Todd. Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012.

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