. . . 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. —Ephesians 4:2-6
In our lives, it is amazing how much energy we can pour into a single event. Consider how much time, how many resources, the level of emotional commitment we allocate to one thing. Look at the pains taken to plan a wedding, to organize a festival, to build a house. It seems like everything done hinges on a single moment, an “I do,” an “it’s been great; thanks for coming out,” a “here are your keys.” Despite all that goes before and after that has equal bearing on the success or failure of any enterprise, we put a disproportional weight on one day’s, one moment’s happenings.
At a college, our community’s life appears to carry a similar degree of heightened expectation loaded onto a single event: the start of a new academic year. Students are recruited; money is raised; faculty and staff are hired; rooms are assigned; materials purchased; lectures written; grounds and buildings prepared; and events planned. All this is done to make the first day a great day, serving to catapult the semester toward success. In our minds, we all know that the first day is just another day among many days that collectively work together to create an experience we might call “great.” Yet, regardless of the logic that one day is no more important to the whole than the totality of all the days of our academic lives, there is something significant that lingers in the idea of the first day . . . that one, singular day from which all other days follow.
I guess this emphasis upon those singularly important events is unavoidable. And, in many respects, the author of the letter to the Ephesians recognizes the importance and weight of the “one,” choosing to use our appreciation for “one” to make a theological point. The writer makes this point by making a shift.
Early Christian thinking within those first decades of the church often focused theological claims around a temporal cosmology. Now, a “temporal cosmology” is just a complicated way of saying that when thinking about theological things early Christian writers formulated their thoughts on an understanding of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in terms of time and the way that God’s actions in Jesus altered everything by merging the past, present, and future into the single, transformative event of cross. In this way, early Christian theologians see a paradoxical tension between the “now” of the new kingdom Jesus has initiated and the “not yet” of that kingdom still to come. With regard to our notion of “oneness” in this temporal cosmology, we stand both in the present reality of our lives yet, also, within the future reality of a radical new way of living where slaves and masters are one people, where Gentiles and Jews are not distinguishable, and where men and women hold the same status. The “now” and the “soon to be” are somehow “one in the same.”
Yet, here, in Ephesians, the author is trying a different strategy. In part, the author is trying a different strategy because many years have passed since the first Christians imagined their theological ponderings in the language of time and a presumed imminent return of Jesus. Obviously, that return had not happened—at least not in ways that they might have initially assumed. So, they are having to adjust their thoughts. Accordingly, they are adjusting their language and their imagery used to understand their faith.
There is value in this adjustment in imagery. In addition to allowing them to distance themselves from their potentially errant prediction that Jesus should have already returned, this new way of conceptualizing their faith avoids the temporal paradox of “now” and “not yet” by imagining the faith not in terms that are temporal but, rather, spatial. (It seems somewhat easier to imagine two places existing concurrently instead of two times.) Relying on this shift in thought, the author uses its practical effectiveness to consider how something can be both multiple and singular simultaneously, e.g., a body with many parts.
Building on this idea that “one” might also be “many,” the author takes the opportunity to imply the Trinity into the argument—“one Spirit . . . one Lord . . . one God and Father of all”—as a way of confirming that multiplicity and singularity are natural companions and that such a reality that exists in heaven must also be possible on earth. Note the spatial rather than temporal texture of this thought. Heaven and earth are spatial notions that overlap with practical consequences for how we are to live in our present reality, i.e., many in the faith community are one body while many faith communities are one church. This is the author’s point in Ephesians that despite our distance from each other because of time and space and despite some variations in practice and belief that our common God makes for one people comprised of many peoples.
This concept of unity is interesting for our church and campus ministries as we start a new year. We are people from many places, backgrounds, disciplines, understandings, persuasions, and beliefs. Yet, we are somehow, despite all our differences, one. This unity, as the author of Ephesians seems to be aware, is not to be confused with uniformity. After all, the Trinity—the very model upon which the author chooses to base this argument—is a diverse multiplicity not to be compressed into a singularity. We can celebrate the uniqueness we possess while rallying as a single people commonly working to create a place of outstanding education through faith-filled personal and social transformation.
Without a doubt, the pressure of a single moment, of one day remains important to us. However, in light of this passage from Ephesians, the “one” of this day is not so much about its timing but about its allusion to common people of a common purpose. Over the coming academic year, I invite you to explore with us, with your students, and with those around you what it means to claim to be “one.”
Have a great start to the year.
Dr. Timothy S. Moore, Director of Collegiate Ministry Resources and Training at the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.