Preserving the Unity of the Spirit

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Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope when you were called. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is father of all, over all, through all and within all.

Ephesians 4: 3-6

 

According to the Book of Genesis, there  was a time when all people “spoke the same language with the same vocabulary” (Gen. 11: 1). Yet, as “civilization” developed, the people said to one another, “Come, . . . let us build ourselves a town and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth”(Gen. 11: 4). When the Lord and his entourage came down to see “the town and the tower that the sons of man had built,” the Lord determined that nothing could stop the hubris of these people except to “confuse their language on the spot so that they can no longer understand one  another” (Gen. 11: 5,7). It is when our focus becomes building for ourselves and making a name for ourselves that we lose the truth that peace and grace are common to us all.

The experience of a horribly crass and profoundly discouraging political campaign cannot help but lead to an examination of what is missing in our current political and social discourse. The list, to be sure, is a long one. But one element that for some years now seems to be absent is an understanding that those who would lead must possess a sense of both their and the entire populace’s responsibility for the common good. Is it perhaps the ultimate result of an unmitigated personal and societal desire for money and power that we no longer even share a common language of respect for and responsibility to each other? When, for example, a candidate boasts of how not paying taxes on millions of dollars of income makes him “smart,” the response to him from his opponent does not include challenging him concerning his sense of responsibility for his fellow citizens and the common good. The issues are framed in legal terms, but almost never in terms of the truth of our common life and interdependence.

For those of us formed in highly secularized cultures, the spiritual life tends to be something of an add-on to our “real lives,” or a means to self-help and self-realization. It is good for our blood pressure and heart rate to meditate. We have a better sense of well being when we take time in our lives for silence and prayer. This is, however, not the perspective of the scriptures. Today’s reading from Ephesians calls on us to “preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds us together.” We don’t pray to get the strength and energy to work for peace; we pray to know its truth and presence. The source of our respect, reverence, and love of each other is the truth that we are “one Body” in “one Spirit.” The implicit claim that our greatest human potential is “to build ourselves a town and tower” or to “make a name for ourselves” is an illusion. Our life and our destiny is a common one, a life in God who is “over all, through all and within all.”  Every word or act that fails to acknowledge and serve this truth will only further distance us from it.

At his inauguration in 1961, John F. Kennedy, in the words of Theodore Sorensen, famously asked the question: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but for what you can do for your country.” If, in fact, these words were those of Sorensen, he later denied the fact, one would think that they were born out of his early life formation in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. At the heart of the great spiritual traditions, there is an undeniable primacy of the call to be responsible for and with our lives. We are to be responsible to the God who gave life to us, and we are to be responsible to all others with whom we constitute “one Body.”

To say that “right action” springs from “the contemplative stance” is merely to say that we must know “the peace that binds us together” before we can responsibly act to “preserve the unity of the Spirit.” We do not create the bonds or the peace. They are the truth of who we are. It is our self-centered and compulsive activity that distances us from this reality. So, before we act can we ask ourselves for what and for whom am I doing this? Am I building myself a town and tower, am I making a name for myself, or am I doing all I can “to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds . . . [us] together”?

 

The one who has let go of hatred,
who treats all beings with kindness
and compassion, who is always serene,
unmoved by pain or pleasure,

free of the “I” and “mine,”
self-controlled, firm and patient,
the whole mind focused on me—
that is the one I love best.

The one who neither disturbs 
the world nor is disturbed by it,
who is free of all joy, fear, envy—
that is the one I love best.

The one who is pure, impartial,
skilled, unworried, calm,
selfless in all undertakings—
that is the one I love best.

The one who, devoted to me,
is beyond joy and hatred, grief
and desire, good and bad fortune—
that is the one I love best.

Bhagavad Gita, 12: 13-17, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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