Harrowing Of Hell
July 18, 2021

Unity in the Kingdom of God

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

We find ourselves today in the midst of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a beautiful letter that we have recently worked our way through in Bible study (restarting September 17, Friday 10:30 am). One reason we study the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is that it gives us a path forward for the unveiling of the Kingdom of God.

You see, when we study the Bible, we learn about the activities of God in history. And by learning about how God has acted, we are given insight into what God is doing now…and this insight offers clues for how we are to engage with God, to reveal the Kingdom of God.

That’s our job, incidentally, to reveal the Kingdom of God. That’s why we exist, as agents, partners, co-creators within this singular Kingdom of God. Why is this our singular task? Why does revealing the Kingdom of God matter?

Well, let me illustrate by asking you to breathe in and to breathe out. Whose air is it that you breathe? How many different airs (if you will) are there? Who else breathes this air? Do we share it? Of course… there is only one air. How weird would it be to claim differently? And yet, that he is exactly what happens within Christianity. There are claims to different kingdoms. There are claims that some people are outside of God’s kingdom, outside of God’s grace and love. That is not the kind of Christianity we teach and preach here at Epiphany. Yet, as we know, Christianity is often painted with a brush that doesn’t reflect our true colors; our theology is often overshadowed by loud and crazy corners of our tradition.          

And so, we must not let the Jesus message of love and connection get lost or buried. We must unveil it; reveal it; share it. We must fight for it. Let me get the dramatic for a moment: if we do not recognize the battle that we are in for the heart of the message of Christianity, then we will surely be defeated by the devil of division and divisiveness, by tribalism and political sectarianism.

There’s not a person in this room who does not know OF this nation’s vast political divide, and the speed at which it is moving us further and further apart. We, as Epiphany Christians, as one Kingdom of God Christians, have a message for this divided nation, we have a theology of unity, and it is incumbent upon us to share it.

The theology we claim is clearly articulated in the New Testament, and, specifically in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Now there is a lot here, but today we are going to look at only one word, one paver, if you will; and upon this paver is carved the word: UNITY. Unity is the next step forward on the path of revealing the Kingdom of God.

Paul thesis is: Jesus came “to create one new humanity in place of two, thus, making peace, and reconciling both groups to God as one body.” (Eph 2:15a-16b)

We meet Paul in Ephesus, and things are not going well. He’s gone there to tell people about Jesus. And when I say people, I mean, whoever wants to listen; because Paul knows that if there is only one kingdom, then the Jesus message must be for all people. It turns out it is a compelling message to a lot of people, Jews and Gentiles, alike; It also turns out that it is a message that made some people pretty mad.

Let me set the scene. Ephesus was the home of Artemis, the goddess of hunting, forests and fertility. The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Because of this temple, Ephesus was a big pilgrimage destination, which resulted in a great deal of business, not the least of which was selling silver statues of Artemis. The silver guild was incredibly powerful in that city. Needless to say, Paul’s message of an inclusive, loving God was in conflict with a god that did particular things, for particular people, if they did something good for the god, and if the god felt like it.

And the best thing to do to get the god to do the thing that you wanted the god to do was to buy a silver statue of Artemis. And, it turned out, that was good for business as well, and Paul was hurting business. He said things like: “We do not worship gods made by human hands.” And in proclaiming this, he was signaling both Jews and Gentiles a message of unity in Jesus. Riots broke out. Charges were made against Paul. And he was severely beaten.

Do you know why we can’t trust a god made by human hands? Because it is only beholden to those with the skills to make it, or with the resources to buy it. Jesus tells us, and Paul reminds us, that we are all equal in the Kingdom of God whether we possess silver or not… God cares not.

“God cares about us coming together and growing into a holy temple in God; in whom we are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.“ (Eph 2:22). And there can only be one temple, just as there can be only one kingdom, just as there can be only one people of God. That is why we are standing on the paver that reads: UNITY. We are the temple of God. You are one room. You are one room. You are one room. The rooms were made to be connected into one temple.

Unity is the watch word. And because that word is the point, Paul doesn’t care if he is beaten and despised. He still loves them because he knows God loves them. Unity is the priority, it is the point.

You know, I am occasionally asked: “How does one connect on a Pauline level with someone who holds on opposite worldview?“ And one answer, that I know you’ve heard, because I’ve heard it a lot, is to be a good listener. And that’s true, we do need to be good listeners.

But as we learn from Paul’s example there are two things that must happen before we can be effective listeners, and that is what I would like to talk about now.   

  • You must decide before you begin to listen that the person you are going to hear is every bit your equal. And one way to do that is to decide, as a core principle, that everybody you hear is in every way your equal. To do this is to live into the theology we ascribe to here at Epiphany: that we are all children of God, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. That is not about deciding they have good information ahead of time, it is about acknowledging that they are beloved children of God.
  • You must signal to the person you’re listening to your similarities; signaling that you are their equal. Signaling connection and similarities is a thing we can do to facilitate a stronger listening encounter.

Let me give you an example, in fact I’ll give you two examples, of how this equality and signaling is lived out. One has to do with Abraham Lincoln, but I’ll get to him later. We’ll start with a dinner I was at with a good friend in Montana.

My parents, and wife, and I were invited over to his house. I’ve known him for years, and have walked some ups and downs, including the death of his wife.  And so, I can witness to his great faith and his great commitment to the Episcopal church. Another thing I know is that his political worldview differs a bit from what we are used to in Seattle. It was at this dinner party that I witnessed the power of signaling.

My friend would interject into a comment something that had little to do with the point, but in doing so, signaled to our friendship, or to our similarities in a particular part of life, or even ideas he knew would connect us to a common point of view. And what that signaling did was call out our deeper unity. It creates safety, so hearts could be revealed; because when you get to a heart level, no matter who you’re talking to, you find you are all standing on a paver that reads UNITY.

But sometimes it takes a while to get there, at least it did for Abraham Lincoln. I’m sort of into Lincoln biographies right now, so, get ready to hear a lot about honest Abe. He was a master of signaling, incidentally, on the political level, talking about growing up in Kentucky, and splitting fence rails, and the vulnerability of having no education to speak of. But that signaling wasn’t toward the Kingdom of God because it wasn’t founded upon the equality of all people.

Lincoln did not start off as an abolitionist. It took him a while before he developed enough maturity in his relationship with God to see the reality of the single kingdom. As a young man Lincoln believed that if there was a God, it was a God who moved through the natural mechanism of the world, including the reasoning of the human mind.

But as he grew older and became wiser, indeed, as he accrued more power, he came to understand the actions of God in history. Lincoln read his Bible to seek insight into how God worked, and what Lincoln witnessed was a God that worked upside down, a God that loved the disenfranchised, not just the powerful. Indeed, it was a God that included the disenfranchised, as well as, the powerful as beloved children of God.

And this really allowed Lincoln then came to see that his own role in history was to be a brother to the disenfranchised, which included enslaved people. That shifted his heart to such an extent that he began to signal them, as well, of their common bond in creation. And this, then, as you all know, became the thing that Lincoln fought for… unity. True unity. One nation. One Temple. One Kingdom of God. That was his core theology.

Which brings me back to where I started: To remind us that we have a theology worth fighting for. It’s not because I want there to be unity in the world. It is because God created a world that is meant to be in unity with itself. And the only thing that gets in the way are people who don’t believe this to be true. They are people who do not believe all people are created equal by God. And so, as Christians, Lincoln Christians, Epiphany Christians, we have something to say. We have an answer to the problems of this nation, and the answer is our God, our Trinitarian, relational God.

There is one Temple where are you are a room, and you are a room, and you are a room, and we are all standing on a single paver, upon which is beautifully carved the word… UNITY.