Working Together

Russ, my stepfather, struggled with Parkinson’s related tremors in his last five years of life. Near the end he couldn’t eat without help, or handle his phone, or use a keyboard. He knew what he wanted his hands to accomplish, but his body betrayed him.

His struggles were like many churches today. The ultimate head of the church, Jesus, knows what he’s doing but his body parts aren’t always responsive. In some cases it may be immaturity—with weak connections—and in others it may be worse: a dead limb.

Let’s recall Paul here. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

We see here how every member of the body is to speak truth motivated by love. Growth and “building up” is also stirred by love. The product is growth. Paul presumed this coordination operates by the Spirit’s presence in believers. Earlier in Ephesians 4 he wrote of the “worthy” Christian life as one that maintains “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” because there is “one body and one Spirit.”

The Spirit’s work in making a “new creation” is basic to Paul’s thought. In Ephesians 2:1-8, in fact, he speaks of God’s grace as the work of raising up those who were once “dead in the trespasses and sins”—who had once been moved by “the spirit that now at work in the sons of disobedience.” So that saving faith is a Spirit versus spirit struggle. People, once separated from God, now begin to respond to Christ’s love. Paul celebrates this at the end of Ephesians 3.

And this reality of the Spirit working in a newborn or recreated person means that Christ’s life starts to emerge in that person. He or she starts to “walk worthy” of Christ. In Adam the common human impulse is self-ward: an ambition to pursue personal security and success. In Christ the new instinct is increasingly selfless and outward: looking to Christ and to building up others.

But what’s the measure of outward-looking growth? Paul’s inspired goal in 4:13 is for us to be like Jesus by coming “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” And the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians reveals Christ’s own character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

As our family watched Russ fade we visited doctors and tried new medications. Our hope was that something would reverse the course of his Parkinson’s tremor. That his mind could once again direct his arms and hands. But it never happened.

In the church, by contrast, Christ’s Spirit can still stir spiritual transformation, even when the head hasn’t been able to connect with all the body parts. He does this without violating our human personality. Instead he works in us through a Spirit-to-spirit ministry by sharing himself with us—coming “alongside” us—as the Spirit pours out the love of the Father-Son communion in us. In the old days this was called a revival.

This, in turn, sets up natural spiritual bonds among believers. The Spirit, pouring out God’s love in hearts, coordinates the Christian body. Jesus anticipated this in his earthly ministry as he told his apostles—immediately after Judas Iscariot, a dead limb, went out to betray him—“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Judas wasn’t responsive to Christ’s love, but the remaining eleven were. And each went on to different places to share that love with the world.

This bodybuilding love was also the measure of authentic faith in Christ’s great prayer of John 17—“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (verses 21-22).

Do we have a practical application here?

Yes. I grieved for Russ, especially as the medications failed. And it’s obvious that the church has its own Parkinson-like limitations. Paul spoke of this in 2 Timothy 3 by warning that some in the church have the “form of religion but not its power.” Jesus offered a cure for this when he prayed “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me…”

So church health isn’t so much a product of good pastoral management or nicely shaped preaching. Instead it’s a fruit of Christ’s spreading love. Whenever and wherever Christ is “in them”—in any group of followers—the miracle of unity starts to coordinate church values and actions. The body builds itself up in love.

So the Spirit of God takes the Word of God to make the Church of God. It’s a spreading goodness—a life of powerful communion—that invites others to join in.

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About R N Frost

R N (Ron) Frost is a student of history, especially the history of Christian spirituality. Ron served for more than 20 years at a Portland, OR, college and seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was a professor of historical theology and ethics. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. This involves a number of trips to worldwide destinations each year, each by invitation. All his services are gratis, so ministry partners are needed and welcomed. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.