That They May Be One
by Rob Weingartner
In his book “Paul and Missional Hermeneutics” N.T. (Tom) Wright describes how, after Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, God’s mission mandate shaped the rest of his life, including his writings. I thought a lot about Paul when I visited Damascus earlier this year.
Wright reminds us that the whole of Scripture has to do with the mission of God. From Genesis to Revelation. God’s authority is exercised through Scripture in a way that is not ultimately about correct ideas but about transformative action. What Wright points to is a dynamic interaction with God’s Word in which the reading, praying, studying, and teaching of the New Testament transforms communities into missional bodies. That is Paul’s concern.
The New Testament was written to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’ resurrection and the final renewal. And in his letters Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the final goal.
Wright points out that in his letters Paul assumes the people are telling their neighbors about Jesus; he gives little direct warrant for that. What Paul says over and over again is that the church, this symbolic community, must be united on the one hand and holy on the other. Paul describes a unity that crosses all the customary cultural boundary lines – Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female, rich/poor. In terms of what he most writes about, church unity looms much larger for Paul even than justification.
Without losing the importance of every person having a living faith, we can grasp Paul’s constant emphasis on unity. The life of the Christian communities is to embody before a watching world the signs of new creation, including kindness, generosity, abstention from anger and malice, and sexual purity, whether in marriage or in celibacy. This kind of community was more or less unknown in the ancient world. This is why the church is, for Paul, the sign and symbol of the new covenant and the new creation. Wright contends, “For Paul the fact of this community – of the united and holy community of the Messiah – was itself the mission, or at any rate the heart of it. A new way of being human was launched upon the world.”
In our broken and fragmented world (and church), I think that we are being called by God to recognize that this unity is both a gift and a responsibility. The world is watching. And it needs new options. As we think about proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, our first act of witness is God’s transformation of our communities of faith. Jesus himself affirms the importance of this when he prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those 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 have sent me.” (John 17:2-21)
So that the world might believe.