This article is addressed primarily to members and leaders of the Sword of the Spirit, an ecumenical international network of communities. The practical wisdom and principles addressed here can be helpful for any group of Christians who seek to grow in the fruit of unity.
In naming a discussion about unity, several titles could be used, and this springs from the similarities found in a set of words: unity, union, communion, and community. It is difficult to address the overall topic of community without drifting at some point into a discussion of unity. The scriptures address unity in both specific and general terms, and in some cases, the fruit of unity.
Scriptures on unity, togetherness and body life
One of the most foundational Scripture passages addressing unity is found in Ephesians 1:9-10
“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
The importance of this Scripture cannot be overestimated since it presents God’s plan from before the foundation of the world.
“…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” .Ephesians 1:4
We might say or hear someone saying, “I wonder what the Lord is doing?” In a broad way, at least, we have an answer: he is “uniting all things in Christ.” Togetherness in worship supports God’s plan; togetherness in mission supports God’s plan. We do not always know exactly what the Lord is doing, but he has revealed his overall plans and purposes to those who want to live for Christ.
On the other hand, his enemies – the world, the flesh, and the devil – are diligently working to divide us and to disintegrate individuals, families, groups, denominations and even cities and nations. The world and the flesh are used by the devil to create chaos, division and disintegration. God integrates; the devil disintegrates. God brings us together in life; the devil disintegrates, takes us apart in death. A decomposing corpse is the tapestry of his best work. The resurrected body, united with Jesus, is the work of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
“A healthy tree bears good fruit, but a poor tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17 Today’s English Version). What does bad fruit look like? It looks like disunity, disintegration, and death. Of the Ten Commandments, the positive-sounding (“You shall!”) examples present behavior that unites. The negative-sounding ones (“You shall not!”) warn about behaviors that divide and disintegrate. Murder (and violence), stealing, adultery, lying and coveting all cause trouble and divide human groupings.
So we see in all of this a tool for discernment: does my decision, or behavior, or action bring God’s people closer together or further apart? Does my new house or new job mean more community? Or does it mean less community? Matthew 12:33c (Today’s English Version) says, “A tree is known by the kind of fruit it bears.”
Unity and prayer
“Again I say to you, if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.Matthew 18:19
Some have said, “When two people agree about anything, it’s already a miracle!” This Scripture is at least stating that people gathered together (even two!) are God’s plan for how we should intercede. It is often the case that sickness and calamity can have a unifying effect on God’s people, as they gather to bring the Lord’s power into a difficult or even impossible situation.
In my own family, when leukemia struck my grandson, all petty differences and disagreements suddenly were eclipsed by the need for unity in fasting and prayer which brought us closer together. Thirteen years later and defying all odds (including an episode with Ewing Sarcoma), he graduated from high school! Our family came together in prayer and we were joined by brothers and sisters in community, in the Sword of the Spirit worldwide, and in the broader church. One fruit of unity is power in prayer.
Signs of the times
“He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah”.Matthew 16:2-4
My wife and I love to watch the weather channel. For her, it is like a great adventure. “When Weather Changed History!” is one of her favorite shows. As a show, it symbolizes man’s interaction with the supernatural: 1) we are immersed in it; 2) we ignore it at our peril; 3) it can bring both blessing and calamity; 4) it can be studied but not mastered; 5) you can run but you cannot hide; 6) man’s machinations are subordinate to and far inferior to its power.
The weather can be embarrassing. At one time, I lived near our TV weatherman. One Sunday, while driving to church, I saw him shoveling four inches of “sunshine” (his prediction) out of his driveway. I tooted my horn and smiled in a pleasant (yet teasing) way.
On another occasion, I took two of my friends and their son out for a short boat ride on the lake. The wind came up and we never got out of the lagoon before we were swamped by the choppy water. Fortunately, it was only three or four feet deep and we were able to find their son who had slipped under the boat! I was (and still am) more embarrassed than the weatherman. Decades later, we are still friends and I have a much deeper boat!
The Scripture verse warns that we can predict the weather but we cannot interpret the signs concerning these times. It warns that people can be evil and godless and yet ask for a miracle. To be evil and godless is often to be sinning against the Ten Commandments, against God’s plan. His plan is to unite; the world the flesh and the devil are disobedient, divisive, and block the power of God for the miracle that is needed. Some hallmarks of our society are: negativity, slander, disobedience and division… godless evil.
So, to obey is to unite and usher in the power of God. To disobey is to divide people and to block the power of God.
Wait – together
“And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he said, ‘You heard from me.’”.Acts 1:4
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place”.Acts 2:1
Two of the most difficult things for modern, independent, individualistic people to do is to wait, and worse, to wait together. Our fast food culture teaches us that waiting is bad, fast is good. Doing it “my way” is better than doing it “our way.” No one getting to tell me what to do is seen as better than being “bossed around.” Even good leadership can be interpreted as “lording it over us.” These postures or mindsets leave us hopelessly incapable of dealing with God who: 1) has tons of time on his hands; 2) wants to be together with us; 3) thinks that he is in charge of this family of his; and 4) thinks that he gets to decide how it is ordered. Because the first disciples were able to “wait…together,” we have Pentecost, the birth of the Christian church.
Unity a gift – to be preserved
“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call”.Ephesians 4:1-4
Clearly, unity is a gift of the Spirit, and it is a gift that we preserve and we maintain. We make decisions in our lives in a way that respects unity and protects it. Again, we use the little discernment test: Does this decision yield more community (unity), or less?
One modern approach to Scripture
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord”.Jeremiah 29:11-13
A number of years ago, I had a long, serious, almost fatal battle with knee surgeries, infections, etc. My daughter, Jeanette, gave me a poster inscribed with the Scripture verses shown above. It was quite encouraging hanging from the wall where I could see it from my bed. My friend, Bill, sent the same Scripture passage to me in an email assuring me that the Lord had more for me to do.
Another encouraging Scripture verse that often gets printed on posters is from Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Personal at the expense of the corporate
Most Scripture passages can have a beneficial, encouraging effect on the individual (as in my example above). Due to our great division, isolation, and individualism, we often personalize Scripture verses at the expense of the corporate dimension being addressed. The Scripture verses cited above were actually written to groups or to a people. In Jeremiah 29, verse 14 says, “I will gather you in from all the nations.” So it is not originally intended just for my bedroom wall! Revelation 3:20 (Today’s English Version) is written to the church at Laodicea … Christians! Verse 21 follows: “To those who win the victory, I will give the right to sit beside me on my throne.” Verse 22 says, “Listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”
One more example: it is Our Father, not just my Father, at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer. Keeping the sense of “our” in my prayer orientation has a joining and a uniting effect on the body of Christ. It deepens our awareness and appreciation of the familial nature of Christianity and diminishes the tendency to over-personalize and isolate the individual. Because of the culture we live in and the way we live (often isolated in our homes), it would be difficult to over-emphasize the corporate nature of Christianity and the unity that is at the heart of God’s plan. There is something mysterious about unity and fruit, as in Jesus’ story about the farmer who plants a seed, does his part, and then does not really understand why or how it grows (Mark 4:26-27).
God’s plan, as Scripture reveals, is corporate, with unity in Christ as its goal. Yet, it has personal effect, application, and responsibility.
The fruit of unity
The fruit of unity can be assessed and evaluated from different perspectives. For example, I can examine the fruit of Christian unity in my own life, my own spirituality, etc. I can also evaluate it based on how my personal life has affected other groupings, the kingdom of God, or all of mankind. In the Fruit of Unity, different perspectives are intermingled in the rather long yet incomplete lists of fruit at the individual, family, community, regional, and international levels of our community life. The lists were compiled at a community forum of my community, the People of God. That is to say, after 35 years of community life, we were stepping back to see what fruit we could see in our life together. The lists were compiled in a one-hour session, and are not prioritized or defined.
Some examples of fruit
We will look at a few examples at each level, but it is worth noting that some of the identified fruit mentioned could be seen as “worthy of the investment” of time, money, etc.
Fruit of personal maturity
At the personal level there are a number of things that could be listed under the heading of discipleship: self-knowledge, character formation, teaching, accountability, etc. These are noteworthy effects on the individual, whether married or single, and are specifically intended results of the way our community is structured: initiations [in Christian formation] courses, small groups, pastoral care, etc. The maturing of the Christian disciple is one of the main objectives.
This is a two-part process: there is maturity that we gain from simply receiving the teaching and training, and then there is a second level of maturity that comes from putting the principles into practice in loving and serving our brothers and sisters in the Lord, as well as advancing the kingdom of God in the world.
The second level of maturity cannot be done for you by any leader or teacher, but must be personally engaged in to take effect. Sadly, many brothers and sisters level off after the first stage of maturity and never reap the full effects of Christian maturity that come from engaging the cross of service. In that sense, community life serves us by providing a good place for us to die to self. The phrase “a place to live, a place to die,” describes these two levels of personal maturity.
Another fruit of unity: Family life
At the family level, marriage support, children (protecting the value of life), parenting support, peer support for kids, and understanding of the roles of husband/wife and mother/father are all significant fruits of community life. If we existed just to help marriages to stay together, it would be worth the investment.
For family life to have its full effect, children must be involved in both levels of maturing presented above: 1) formation; and 2) dying into family life. Refusing the second step retards their maturity.
As with the individual, families are also invited to go beyond the first stages and “die into” the broader life and mission of the community. This approach for family life helps to keep the membrane of the nuclear family receptive to the nutrients and support that can flow into the family, protecting it from a self-centered stagnation.
A third fruit: Local community
Because we stay together in unity, we are able to do things as a community that none of us can do separately: men’s retreats, men’s breakfasts, women’s retreats, conferences, summer camp, community retreats, University Christian Outreach, Life in the Spirit courses, healing weeks, etc. Our unity produces fruit that is not only beneficial to us, but to the wider church and to the world. As a group, we are a witness to the Lord, a reflection of the unity that has its root in the Trinity and is a gift of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). Additionally, our denominational life is supported as we celebrate weddings, baptisms, communions, etc.
As with the family, the local community also gets to serve and sacrifice at the regional level as we serve in trans-local community building, regional youth work, summer conferences, etc. Our local life and schedule are often disrupted for the good of serving and participating at the regional level.
Fourth fruit: International cooperation
Our North American region is one of the five regions that make up the Sword of the Spirit. The fruit of that international unity is first of all a bulwark: a community of communities that share a common way of life and a common mission. We are blessed with a global vision, teaching resources and courses, music gifts, mission trips, government, etc.
Further comments and summary
At the beginning of this chapter, I said that this could have several titles. One could be, “What happens when Christian individuals, families, clans and tribes stay together?” The answer is, “A lot!” Another title could be, “What happens when Christian people stay to themselves?” The answer is, “Far less.”
Our local community was initially inspired by two words from the Lord: 1) “Gather my people together”: and 2) “Build to last.” The first word implies community or some kind of body and not just a threshold ministry. The second implies some kind of approach or order or structure that serves the ongoing unity. We have tried to do that and we think that the initial fruit identified encourages endurance and faithfulness to the call and mission.
Discipleship: a change of plans
One of the hallmarks of a disciple of Christ is his ability to handle “a change of plans.” This shows up several times in the life of Joseph of Nazareth. He plans to “put Mary away” but is instructed in a dream to change his plans (Matthew1:20). He plans to stay in Bethlehem awhile but is told to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13). He plans to stay awhile in Egypt but is told to return to Israel (Matthew 2:20). We don’t know a lot about Joseph, but we do know that he followed the Lord and that he could lead his family in obedience to the Lord. Who among us could ask his wife to take a trip to Egypt as a new mother (Matthew 2:14)?
Being gathered together in a way that lasts involves a life of changing our plans, first for the new disciple, then for the new Christian family, and finally for the mature disciples and Christian families. Simply said, “Our ways are not his ways;” “Our plans are not his plans,” and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can move freely in the life of a mature disciple.
To see or not to see
All of this having been said, it really does seem that those who give the most get the most. Those who die into the Lord’s will get the most life. Those who see the most light and move toward the light seem to see even more clearly. Those who are most committed and determined to stay together seem to enjoy the most fruit of unity.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made So they are without excuse.Romans 1:18-20
The Bible says that God’s invisible qualities are perceived in the things that God has made. So, creation is evidentiary to the nature and existence of God. It is to be presented at the trial of the wicked and the godless. We would say, in a similar way, that the fruit of unity is evidentiary to the power and presence of God in our midst.
Even though we see a gap between the ideal of Christian community and the reality of its human expression, the fruit is astounding! So, we must get over any differences that we may have, stay together, and continue to produce fruit that is pleasing to the One who created us.
[This article is excerpted from Essays on Christian Community, copyright © Bob Tedesco 2010, published by Credo House Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Used with permission.]
Top image credit: A composite photo of grapes on the vine, from Bigstock.com, © by Andy Dean Photography, stock photo ID: 38764795. Quote from John 15:4 added.
Bob Tedesco is the founder of the People of God, a Sword of the Spirit community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA where he served as Senior Coordinator for 26 years. He has been involved in lay ministry for over forty-five years, and has served as Regional President of the North American region in the Sword of the Spirit.