Unity in Christ: The Gospel Truth Dressed Up in Many Guises

I have had occasion to worship in many different churches: different denominations (Apostolic Faith Mission, Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Mar Thoma, Methodist, NCMI, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Vineyard), different countries (Bolivia, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, UK, Zambia), different languages (Afrikaans, English, Portuguese, Sepedi, S. Sotho, Spanish, Sign, isiZulu), different buildings (ancient, modern, mud, brick, homes, warehouses, simple, ornate).  There is huge diversity in practices. Yet when people sing of Jesus and pray to Jesus and speak of Jesus there is an incredible sense of connection to a universal movement that stretches some 2000 years back in time and across continents and cultures.  Unity.  Unity of faith.

Yet unity and disunity are strange bedfellows in the Church.  The Gospel truths about Jesus can come in many guises. This was brought home to me on a Sunday when I attended a Mar Thoma service, hosted in our church building.

The Mar Thoma service was in the style of the ancient Syrian Orthodox church, but in the southern Indian language of Malayalam. (The Mar Thoma church was renewed by the Reformation).  Men and women sat separately on different sides of the church. The visiting Mar Thoma bishop in seriously grand regalia and two priests conducted most of the Eucharist service facing the front (backs to the congregation) from the midst of much incense. Except for two readings, the service was chanted. Communion wafers were dispensed by the bishop directly into the mouths of the communicants.  Ditto, the wine, which was decanted by a priest using a small spoon.  Those inside the “sanctuary” were shoeless as a sign of respect for the holy.  All this was utterly foreign to me, shoeless and robed as I was upfront with the Mar Thoma clergy.  I could just about follow an English translation of the service and therein I was struck by phrases proclaiming the Lordship of Christ and the duty and joy of worship by the Church.  Here, dressed up in another tongue and style, were Gospel truths being reaffirmed.  Unity. Unity of faith.

The great church planter, Paul said  “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized–whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ–but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.  I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (1 Corinthians 9v19-23: The Message)

I wonder to what extent our disunity is because we do not keep our bearings in Christ and on the things of Christ?  And that we just talk about the Message and aren’t in on the action!

The soup kitchen we host at our church has people from our local Baptist, NG (Afrikaans), Pentecostal, Methodist and Anglican churches united together by the desire to share and  be the Message to the poor.  The pastor of a local Assemblies of God church even wants to assist us in the new church plant we have started in a township area called Ext 44 and help spread the Message. These people have their bearings in Christ – his person, his passion and his priorities. Yet these same churches are divided on matters of doctrine (eg. Bible, Baptism, Holy Spirit) and on those other bearings are going in many different directions.

Unity, disunity and diversity are strange bedfellows in the Church.  And so it is that the Gospel Truth of Jesus Christ comes dressed up in many guises…