The Pauline author has just finished three chapters (which we’ve been reading the last few days), that celebrate the unification of Jew and Gentile in a single organism – the body of Christ, or what we call “the Church”. This is not just an interesting historical event, like the Apollo moon landing or the Battle of Hastings – however important they may have been. It’s not even a past event. It is an ongoing, present reality. It is both a gift and a challenge.
It is a gift because, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has inaugurated a new creation – a new heaven and earth. “Behold, I make all things new!” This is happening here, in our world; now, in our time. Re-creating our world is our mission as Church.** I fear we don’t take it seriously – that is literally. Therein lies the challenge.
A central feature of that new creation is unity – breaking down barriers. Not just between Jew and Gentile, but all barriers – Protestant/Catholic, liberal/conservative, pro-abortion/pro-life. On and on . . . As today’s first reading concludes, there is only “. . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .” Remember Jesus’ prayer to His Father at the Last Supper: “. . . that they all may be one, as you, Father, in me, and I in you, that they may be one in us so that the world may believe . . .” Unity doesn’t mean that we will come together at some far future date when, at last, everybody agrees with us. We’re called to be one now. It’s not up to everybody else; it’s up to me, to us as Church.
This, then, is the background leading up to the Apostle’s setting forth his list of virtues – behaviors that both promote and manifest the unity of God’s new creation – behaviors such as humility and gentleness. Humility doesn’t mean putting yourself last. It means not putting yourself at all. It doesn’t mean abandoning your principles or pretending they’re not important or right. It means putting all your effort not in defending principles or self-promotion, but in self-giving.
Too often we approach virtue in terms of my piety, my spiritual growth. But the virtues the Apostle writes about here are not about my perfection. They’re directed toward building up a unified people. Of course we will still have differences. They’re healthy. As has been said so many times before, what we need is unity, not uniformity. We’ve been given that unity; it’s up to us to act it – to be what we are. The list of virtues in today’s first reading is the blueprint, the plan. There’s no other way.
**See Bishop N.T. Wright’s recent book, “Surprised by Hope”.
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