In the world today we hear many calls for unity – from educators, politicians and leaders of all sorts. Unity and agreement are needed to accomplish goals and mutual efforts. In God’s kingdom we speak of unity of the Spirit.
The Third Article of the Creed clarifies what the Holy Spirit affects. One result of the Holy Spirit’s work is God’s congregation here on earth, which the Holy Spirit has called, gathered and sanctified and which it protects in mutual faith. A palpable effect of the Holy Spirit’s work is the connection we share, the fellowship of saints, i.e. believers. We are not saintly or holy through our own goodness or innocence or a life well lived, but because our sins are forgiven; the Holy Spirit makes us holy, as Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism.
Apostle John in his first letter connects the fellowship of the saints with forgiveness: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). This is what we simply believe. In this Bible portion, John describes fellowship as a sharing of the path in unity. We walk this path together toward our heavenly home, and the path is illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
Fellowship is not just belonging to a church as a member and participating in group activities. Rather, it is unity with God and His congregation. This unity includes a reconciliation with God, the righteousness we own through the redemption work God’s Son did on our behalf. Fellowship is to remain in God and in Christ, owning them by faith of the heart.
Fellowship with the kingdom of God means that in addition to partaking in God’s righteousness, we also partake in God’s peace and the joy of believing. When by faith we own God’s grace and love, it affects in our hearts the desire to remain believing and dwelling in the congregation. The Holy Spirit does not direct us to isolate ourselves from church fellowship or to avoid children of God (Heb. 10:25). The Holy Spirit opens the Word of God, leading and guiding the congregation of Christ. Thus, when we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in the congregation, we hear the voice of God – for the Holy Spirit is God. If we reject the voice of the Holy Spirit, we reject the voice of our heavenly Father and His Son, our Lord Jesus.
The vital importance of remaining in this fellowship is illustrated by Paul’s image of the congregation, the kingdom of God, as the body of Christ here on earth. Christ is the head of the body, and His followers are members of that body (Rom. 12:5). Staying attached to this body is the only way the members of the body can stay alive spiritually (John 15:1–7). There is no eternal life outside of Christ and His congregation. Christ and His congregation are inseparable.
Jesus exhorted His followers to love one another, to carry one another, to avoid disintegration and to live in unison (John 13:34,35; 17:21–23). The members of the body of Christ do not fight against each other and do not remain indifferent toward one another. If one member suffers, all others suffer, and if one member gains glory, all other members rejoice with it (1 Cor. 12:21–26).
Unity is not something we ourselves can create; rather the Holy Spirit creates and preserves unity of faith and understanding. It does so across oceans, languages and cultures. And it can do so even in local settings where unity has been tried. When God’s children speak in accordance with His Word, freely and openly in dialogue, then the Spirit shows the pathway.
A child of God needs connection with other believers. Love connects us (Col. 3:14). The Holy Spirit gives birth to faith of the heart and love toward God and fellow believers. Love is the glue or mortar that connects different members together. Christ teaches that love is a sign of believers (John 13:35).
From the unity and fellowship of the battling congregation of God here on earth, we will once be carried to the kingdom of glory in heaven. There nothing will sever us from God.
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