When Aesop, busy imagining tortoises volunteering for foot races, said “in union there is strength” he was acknowledging a truth that we all recognise. Like O2 used to tell us when trying to flog phone contracts, we’re better connected.
That’s easy enough to say, but when it comes to doing something about it we swiftly decide that unity may not be worth the pain it seems to bring. Turns out that we think being joined with others is the best way to achieve something worthwhile, right up until someone asks us to join with others to do that.
That’s how I tend to react anyway—it’s easy to say that people need other people until you have to actually do something with other people.
Unfortunately, we’re all a little bit more awkward than we would like, and our brokenness makes it hard for us to be in community with others. It doesn’t come that easily. The church is supposed to be united (Ephesians 4): a lofty and laudable goal, almost impossible for mere mortals. The biggest issue church unity has is that any given church is full of people. The biggest weapon in the fight for churches to be united communities is the Spirit of the living God.
You see, God isn’t like us. He’s united as part of his nature. He’s three persons, but somehow still completely one. God is Triune, and simple: somehow God can be diverse without being made of parts, three and yet more united than I manage when I’m just on my own.
And in Jesus we find even more union, he’s the perfect union of God and man. Paul’s favourite way of describing our state after Jesus rescues us is that we are ‘in Christ’. In Romans 6 he says we are united to him. We become one with him, and by extension with all of the Trinity.
Jesus then gives each one of us his Spirit to unite us to each other by shared experiences, speaking the same truth to each of us.
A. W. Tozer uses the analogy of tuning an instrument. When you tune lots of pianos with the same tuning fork, they are automatically in tune with each other. When followers of Jesus are tuned to Jesus by the Spirit, we automatically become in tune with each other. We don’t have to strive for unity to find it, we follow Jesus and find our hearts are knit together with our fellow travellers.
A friend of mine talks about a game he likes to play in the pub, looking around at groups of people who are sat together and trying to figure out what they have in common. You can usually make a decent guess. Maybe they’re work colleagues, or play football together, or they’re old school friends. If the church is working as it’s designed to, it becomes really hard to play the game. A group of people sat down together that seem to have nothing in common, at least at first glance. You sit there scratching your head trying to work out what that person could have in common with that one. That’s what the church is meant to look like.
So how do you tell who the other people are who are transformed by Jesus? If you can’t tell it’s hard to be united. Is it just the people who gather in churches? It’s not like we have a uniform, so what’s the sign that somebody follows Jesus?
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 about the church being a ‘body’. He’s arguing against an idea some people in Corinth had that certain kinds of gifts were better than others, and that people with the ‘better’ gifts were due extra respect. He instead teaches them that all gifts are equal in value and all are necessary. The body needs all of its different parts to function properly.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Paul is saying that the sign that the Corinthians are all united is that they have a shared experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Sprit is how we know we’re ‘in’.
We know that’s what he’s saying because of the idea he’s arguing against, and because of that phrase “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” that shows us he’s talking about all kinds of people. Sometimes people insist that because Paul says ‘all’ were baptised into the body and drunk of the Spirit, he cannot mean something experiential that it’s theoretically possible someone hasn’t experienced.
Here are 3 reasons I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it:
- He tells us what he means by all: Jews and Greeks, slaves or free. He’s using all to mean “all kinds of people.” Just like if I said “at the zoo I saw all the animals” I might mean that I saw every last gecko, gorilla and guinea pig on display, but I probably mean that I went round each enclosure and saw each kind of animal.
- The idea that not everyone receives this experience of the Spirit might be true based on our own experiences, but Paul would have been shocked. He expected every Christian to start life like that and it’s reasonable to think that the vast majority would have done in Corinth. We know this because when people receive the Spirit in Acts it’s generally right after they meet Jesus, and on the key occasion when that isn’t what happens (Acts 8), everybody thinks it’s really weird.
- Paul’s argument doesn’t work if it’s not. What he’s doing is appealing to their shared experience to show that everyone is equal even though they have different kinds of gifts. He’s going to move on to show how they use them all together for worship.
A great example of what Paul is saying is when Peter meets Cornelius and some other Gentiles in Acts 10. He was astonished that the Holy Spirit came upon non-Jews but saw that as the sign that they should be included too. That was the reason he was happy to baptise them straight away.
Paul is arguing for the same thing, the reason you know someone else is part of the body of Christ and the reason you should therefore unite and delight in each other’s different gifts, is because of a shared experience I would call ‘baptism in the Spirit’. We’ve got so used to inferring who is a Christian, that we’ve forgotten you can see it.
This doesn’t mean that you aren’t part of the body if somehow you haven’t had this, but it does mean that the rest of us can’t see that you are. We can infer it from your testimony and the changes in your life, but there is more available.
A renowned philosopher said says, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” Dumbledore knew more about fighting evil wizards than he did the formation of the church, but he has a point. Just like for Cornelius and those gathered with him, the sign that we’re ‘in’ is our shared experience of the Spirit. The church is strong when it’s full of unity fueled by the Spirit.
This post forms part of a serialisation of a short book on ‘Baptism in the Spirit,’ you can read the rest of the posts here.
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