How is it possible to find unity in diversity? How can we expect individuals of different ages and gifts with a wide variety of racial, social, educational, cultural, and gender experiences to come together as a cohesive and integrated group? What is the common denominator capable of melding such a collection of entities into one, organic whole that functions together for the well being of the group?
This week’s lesson refers us back to certain specific theological premises (beliefs) that we hold in common as Adventists. On Sunday, November 18, the lesson stressed that “although as Seventh-day Adventists we have much in common with other Christian bodies, our set of beliefs form a unique system of biblical truth that no one else in the Christian world is proclaiming. These truths help define us as God’s end-time remnant.” The author very helpfully goes on to point out that “Paul told the Corinthians that the good news” is that through Christ, God reconciled the world to himself. Jesus himself bridged the gap between the sinful world of humanity and the heavenly kingdom of God. Where there was alienation between God and humanity that had been introduced by human choice, all was made at-one again, in harmony, through the Jesus event. The author then states that, “Church unity is thus a gift of this reconciliation.” This is the beginning of his overview of certain of the particular items of belief that we generally share as Adventists, beginning with “the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.” The subsequent lessons each examine the distinct Adventist stance on the Second Advent, Jesus’ ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary, the Sabbath, the State of the Dead, and Resurrection.
Each of these are indeed precious doctrines, although it must be acknowledged that, in truth, all Adventists do not understand or observe even these select beliefs in the same way. And for the sake of honesty, it would probably be necessary to note that what is offered subsequently is a short string of proof texts that back up Adventist conclusions on each of these beliefs. Each of these verses points the reader to the conclusion that Adventists have reached on these contended topics. Therefore, the lesson stands as an argument that agreement on key theological items offers the church a basis for unity as well as proof that we are “God’s remnant,” reconciled through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Unfortunately, neither Scripture nor our one-hundred-and-fifty-plus years as a church support these claims. The Adventist Church has experienced large tears in the fabric of its community while clinging to these doctrinal propositions, arguing bitterly on how to understand and observe them.
The better news is that a closer look at Scripture and the cultural understandings of its first receivers do identify the basis for unity in faith. The unifying faith, however, does not start with the death and resurrection of Jesus, but his very life. Jesus’ entire life was dedicated to clearing up millennia of false understandings about God and what was required to be “right” with Him. The faith that unifies us is the faith that God is love, and that Jesus is the most trustworthy representation of and testimony to his inclusive love for this undeserving world. As the author of Hebrews asserts,
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word…” (Heb. 1:1–3).
Jesus’ lived testimony outranks the witness of all the prophets and their writings, the revelation nature discloses, and even the human ability to reason out God’s presence and character, as Jesus is the only one who was with God from the beginning. As the book of John notes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We can add Jesus’ own pronouncement to these observations made by others: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you: and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:25–26).
It is easy to focus so intensely on the legal aspects of Christ’s death as a payment for the wrongs committed by humanity that we miss the point of both his life and his death. Jesus’ life was the revelation of God: God’s character, God’s intentions, and God’s will for humanity. His death and resurrection are the continuation of the claims that he manifested in his life: that God’s very being is love, and His will is that all humanity live in peace with each other, honoring the creation in which we have been placed, seeing the imprimatur of God on every human being, and treating others as we would have them treat us. Revealing that God is love, and that God’s law is love, Jesus modeled what that law looked like in actual human situations and interactions. It is this faith, that Jesus is the true witness of God’s character, and that God’s will is that we choose to live eternally a life of love in His presence, that draws us together, because love can only be practiced in community.
Of course, it is within community that love is translated from ideology to experience. If we fail to notice that the commandment to love is horizontal as well as vertical, it is easy to fall into the old trap of concentrating on the vertical aspect of Christianity: believing that since God loves me, and I have acknowledged Him as my Lord and Redeemer, gone to church, paid my tithe, and confessed my personal sins and shortcomings, that I am part of his kingdom, just waiting for his arrival. Let there be no mistake: the vertical aspect of Christianity is foundational, and its importance must never be underestimated. Without the experience of God’s love, all our piety cannot hope to “exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.” We are bound together by the simple fact that God is the source of all of our lives, as well as our sustainer and redeemer. He is both the author and finisher of our faith, and the daily sustainer of our strength, courage, hope, and joy. It is His voice that beckons us to keep moving towards him. It is his Spirit that moves us past tempting side-roads that lead to destruction and on along the path that brings life. It is God who teaches us how to love, thus preparing us for eternal life in his kingdom.
Yet, it is this very vision of the God who dwells with us in love (the vertical dimension of faith) that binds us to our co-believers (the horizontal dimension of faith). It is the recognition of our utter dependence upon God’s graciousness for our lives, and that he has pledged to be with us as our counselor, guide, and strength, that unites us with all others who have begun the journey with Him. If others lack wisdom in some areas, fail to meet the mark of spiritual maturity, stumble and fall, and do not reach all the same theological conclusions, then they, as growing Christians, are in the same boat that we are, dependent on God to finish the good work which he began in us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16–17). The acknowledgment that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23), helps us see others as our brothers and sisters in need of the good news of God’s love and victory over the powers of destruction. Ultimately, we are bound together through our faith in a loving and beneficent God who spared nothing to redeem us from our sins and the fate that awaited all of us as we stumbled blindly into a valley of death. We gather together in acknowledgment of His beneficence and our equality before his throne of sacrifice and grace. We kneel before Him, overcome by amazement and gratitude that although we are but sinners, He “died for us” (Romans 5:8).
It is at this point that it becomes helpful to know a bit about the cultural mazeway experienced by Jesus’ peers. It was a very political and hierarchical world of the rich and the poor, the influential and the powerless, masters and slaves, the free and the bound. While women’s fates were largely the by-product of their fathers’ and husbands’ skills, fortunes, and savvy, for a male, successful navigation through life required constant vigilance and perspicacity. It required an accurate knowledge of the social landscape, of who had the power to disperse favors or inflict punishment, a keen attention to the winds of social and political fortune, and long memory of debts owed and debtors. It was, above all else, a culture of benefactors and beneficiaries. This was a milieu in which kings, emperors, great lords, and Caesars possessed the power to make covenants with their underlings, stipulating what the vassals would do in response for the lord’s continued protection, benefaction, and favor. The covenant, which could be initiated only by the powerful, required that its recipients recognize the favors granted by the lord from his gracious beneficence to a group that he had arbitrarily decided to favor. It was expected that the subjects, in recognition of the unmerited goodness bestowed upon them by their mighty protector, would honor him ritually and extoll his praises, pledge their fealty to him, follow his bidding as dutiful servants, and seek to do his will. Their part of the covenant required that they understand themselves as the benefactor’s servants; their humble response was to see that his intentions be carried out. Favor could disappear as quickly as it had been granted. It behooved the vassals to do all in their power to abide by the stipulations decreed by their sovereign lest the protection they were enjoying be rescinded, leaving them at the whim of enemies, the caprices of the gods, and/or the dark forces of the spirit world. Therefore, the ordinary populace longed to know the will of the most powerful god, so that they could pledge their loyalty to him, honor him appropriately, and perform his will.
Throughout the Bible, one can trace the theme of God as the Great Benefactor of Israel, making a covenant to which the people acquiesce, and then fail to keep. Yet, despite cultural expectations, God does not abandon or avenge Himself on Israel. Instead, He follows their insubordination with warnings and then corrective measures, with more evidence of his unfailing love and promises of reconciliation and a rewriting of the covenant on their hearts. When one understands this cultural tradition of the covenant between a benefactor and his subjects, the theme can be easily recognized all through the Christian gospels and epistles. The Great Lord, Master and Creator of the Universe, Source of life and Provider of Healing, is our Benefactor: “From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
From the declarations of the authors of the New Testament, God has come to earth in the body of Jesus, to make known clearly who He is and what he asks of his subjects: Love. Indeed, Christ’s followers will be identified by their love for each other (John 15:12). This is Christ’s command on his final evening with his disciples. Whatever else they may have grasped or failed to comprehend during their three years under his tutelage, and whatever else they may not be ready to hear (John 16:12), this point they cannot miss or misapprehend. It is not relayed in a parable nor obscured in a mystical saying or proverb. It is straightforward: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…you are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12, 14). In this section of John, Jesus goes on to tear down the great wall that separated the benefactor from the vassal, stating that his followers are no longer simply servants, but friends of God, and even more, heirs along with him: “…And to all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12).
As friends of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ, their commitment to God’s will is not lessened, but strengthened geometrically. Those who walk the Way that leads to eternal life will serve (as Jesus did) as healers and redeemers to the wounded inhabitants of the earth: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). He sent them as one in unity of purpose: to declare the gracious provisions of the Great Source of Life for the restoration of wholeness and love to a dying planet. One purpose, as children of God, to model the truth that love is stronger than death and all the powers of darkness. One purpose: to demonstrate that the law of God is the Law of love; the only law that will satisfy God’s intentions for us and bring about the peace, security, joy, and unity that humanity craves.
As he said when he poured out his heart to the Father on the eve of his arrest:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but of all who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in You, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20–23).
In the last few years, the Adventist church has struggled valiantly with the question of unity and diversity. Some have concluded that the answer is enforced conformity, while others look to deeper commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy. We may be overlooking the powerful message of Scripture: unity only comes by being bonded in the purpose of demonstrating the reality of God and the power of love through our own lives with each other and our larger community. I pray for the day when Paul’s words to the Ephesians can be applied to us:
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (Eph. 1:15) … But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near to the blood of Christ. For he is our peace…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Eph. 2:13,14, 19–22).
I pray with him that “Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). And I pray that we may stop looking elsewhere for anchor points to hold us together, when, as Paul has said, he begged us
to live a life worthy of the calling to which we are called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort 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 of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:1–6).
What more could we possibly need for unity in faith?
Dr. Ginger Hanks Harwood, who has taught religion at Pacific Union College, Walla Walla University, Loma Linda University, and La Sierra University, has retired to Northern California. She continues to study the Scriptures and religious practices in their original cultural context in an effort to understand the what the manuscript authors and the hearer/participants would have understood when passages were read initially that we might miss now as we read them from our own context.
Editor's Note: This Sabbath School commentary is for the week of November 17-23, 2018. You can find the Sabbath School commentary for November 24-30 here. We apologize for the mix-up in publishing dates.
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