July 13, 2020 by Rachel L. Coleman
“One for all and all for one!” That ebullient cry evokes an image of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the dashing title characters in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Their famous motto rings with echoes of swashbuckling swordplay, camaraderie, and heroic exploits. Twenty years after Dumas wrote Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844), his signature phrase became the unofficial motto of a young European nation. In 1848, Switzerland became a federal state, uniting a group of cantons whose relationships had often been tense at best, bellicose at worst. As we know all too well, memories of such civil strife are not quickly erased, so when severe Alpine flooding occurred in 1868, Swiss unity was still young and fragile. To promote the sense of duty and solidarity that would mobilize citizens to respond with urgently needed relief efforts, the government launched a campaign using the slogan, “One for all, all for one.” It was so successful that the refrain became a central element in Switzerland’s national self-understanding, and its Latin form, Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno, is inscribed on the Federal Palace.
Centuries before Dumas or Swiss unification, the Apostle Paul himself might have set “one for all and all for one” as the title for the second half of his letter to the Ephesians. In the opening paragraph (Eph. 4:1-6), “one” is repeated seven times, and “all” or “every” five times (plus five more in verses 7–16). Paul clearly wants us to pay attention to something that is urgent upon his heart, something that was central to John Wesley’s heart, something that lies heavy on my heart and keeps me in constant intercession: “social holiness,” the Spirit-formed, Jesus-shaped corporate life of local bodies of believers.
Ephesians 4:1–6 is the pivot point in the letter, where Paul makes his typical turn from indicative to imperative:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 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 (NRSV).
“Therefore” connects the first half of the letter to the overarching command that will govern all the instructions in chapters 4—6: “Lead a life worthy of your calling.” In Ephesians 1—3, Paul has been reminding this very diverse community about their new identity in Christ. Whatever their starting point—as Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, men or women, black Africans, brown Middle Easterners, or white Europeans—he wants them to understand who they are now, together. He provides an extravagant collection of reminders about what God has done for them (and us): he blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing (1:3), adopted us (1:5), lavished grace on us (1:5-8), sealed us with the Holy Spirit (1:13), made us alive in Christ (2:4-5), saved us by grace (2:8-9), brought us near through the blood of Christ (2:12-13), gave us access to himself through the Spirit (2:18), and made us citizens of his own household (2:18). It is such a breathtaking list that Paul interrupts himself repeatedly, bursting into prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
On the basis of that reality, Paul turns to application. He says, in essence, “Therefore, since all of that is true, since that is who you are, now live in a way that reflects your identity.” What is at the heart of a life worthy of our calling? It is the “one for all, all for one” quality of our relationships in the context of local churches. Paul begins not with our mission statement, our vision-casting, our ethics, our worship, or our outreach, but with the character of our shared life. This is so important to Paul that he begs us (“beseeches” us, KJV) to embrace it. Paul’s concern here brings to mind Jesus’ own urgent words on the night before his death: “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:35, CEB). It also echoes Luke’s pattern in Acts: every time Luke describes the community life of the church, he also mentions the growth of the church (e.g., Acts 2:37–47; 6:1–7). The kind of Spirit-empowered “body life” that Luke describes and to which Paul urges us is noticeable and compelling to the watching world. Tertullian writes that as pagan onlookers considered the Christian communities springing up across the empire in the third century, their assessment was, “Behold, how they love one another!” If our neighborhoods and cities are not compelled to admiration and curiosity by the quality of our life together, perhaps we need to put everything else on hold until the hard work of corporate self-examination and repentance has taken place.
Paul sets out five descriptions of the “one for all, all for one” life that is worthy of our calling:
Humility. This is the settled assurance that we are loved, accepted, and valued by the Father, with nothing to prove and no need to compete for affirmation. Like Jesus, we humbly lay aside the rights and privileges of “the one” for the sake of the “all” (Phil. 2:5–8).
Gentleness. Biblical gentleness is not the weakness sometimes evoked by the KJV’s translation, “meekness.” Rather, it is the iron strength of self-control that keeps us from knee-jerk reactions or impetuous speech. Jesus described himself in Matthew 11:28 as both humble and gentle—and there was nothing weak about Jesus.
Patience, or “longsuffering” (KJV). This is the deliberate choice to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (James 1:19)—and it’s a choice for the long haul.
Forbearance (literally, putting up with). Paul describes this as “making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (NLT). We excel in putting up with one another, not out of gritted-teeth resignation, but because we have chosen to love one another. Both patience and forbearance are frankly realistic—they recognize that there really are faults for which to make allowance, foibles to be tolerated, and annoying behaviors to put up with.
Guarding the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We don’t have to create unity—it is already a reality because of the Spirit who dwells in and among us. Our part is to bind ourselves together (literally, to put on shared chains) through the Spirit and to guard that bond, an action that involves both sustained effort and deep enthusiasm.
Every one of these qualities—humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, guarding the unity of the Spirit—is something that can only be practiced in community, and each is for the benefit of the community.
Perhaps the best reality check for local bodies of believers is an honest evaluation of how much the opposites of these qualities are present in our life together (see Clinton Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan, 2010, p. 238). How quickly do we become angry and irritated with one another? How insensitive or abrupt are we in expressing our opinions? How impatient or intolerant of others’ shortcomings? Is being right more important to us than being kind? Are individual “rights” a higher priority than the common good? Firmly clutching our rights may be a cherished aspect of the American ethos, but within the church we order our lives differently than this. As our friend J.D. Walt recently wrote in Seedbed's "Daily Text" (6/23/20): “The church does not do business in the realm of rights. That is not our language or framework. The real issue is not our rights, but righteousness in our relationships; and by righteousness, I mean the inside-out expression of the holy love of God and neighbor.”
The most stringent tests of this “one for all, all for one” life often come in the small details of our life together—those points where little differences, slights, or hurts can flare into big, painful messes. Let me illustrate from the physical body: Three weeks ago, a failed IV stick left a tiny needle mark on my forearm. By day two, there was an invisible yet very painful spot around that miniscule wound. On day three, an angry, arm-swallowing, purple-green bruise appeared. Twenty-one days later, the visible marks are slowly fading but the spot is still painful if touched or bumped. If we are not committed to living a life worthy of our calling, this is what will happen repeatedly in our fellowship. And we are in a season when opportunities for this kind of bruising abound. In every congregation there are very real differences of opinion about appropriate Christian responses to the COVID-19 crisis (mask/no mask, sing/don’t sing); issues of race and justice; the prolonged, divisive U.S. election season; and a denominational crisis that lurks unresolved (UMC). In the midst of these weighty issues, small, unconsidered, impetuous, and careless words and deeds can cause wounds that linger and grow. There has never been a time when it has been more urgent for local churches to commit to humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and the passionate guarding of the unity of the Spirit as we navigate our differences, small and large.
This “one for all, all for one” living is not easy or automatic, but it is abundantly possible because “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all” (vs. 4–6). We are rooted in a common confession and a common identity. So, dear local church, beloved brothers and sisters, raise your arms and touch sword points! Let your collective life be “one for all, all for one,” to the glory of the One God, through the love of the One Lord, by the power of the One Spirit, for the sake of this one lost world.
Dr. Rachel Coleman lives in Elida, Ohio. She is an adjunct instructor and course writer (Biblical Studies) for Indiana Wesleyan University, Bethel University, and Asbury Theological Seminary, and serves as the regional theological education consultant (Latin America) for One Mission Society. Rachel blogs at writepraylove660813036.wordpress.com.
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