Should you focus on Union?

September 27, 2022
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The Heidelberg Catechism says that in the Lord’s Supper, we are united by the Spirit to Christ. Being united to Christ through the supper, by the power of the Spirit, strengthens our faith and leads to a better life. (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 76,81).

Paul tells us on more than one occasion that we are united to Christ (see, for example, Romans 6.4-5). Why does this matter? What’s the importance of being united to Christ? 

Being united with Christ connects us to Christ, his calling to be his witnesses, and to one another. It is a move away from the me-centered ideology that many embrace in North America and embracing a more biblically-rooted understanding of faith. This faith focuses on life as a community and being witnesses to God’s shalom in the world.

Union With Christ

J. Todd Billings in his book Union with Christ says,

“Union with Christ is a central New Testament description of Christian identity, the life of salvation in Christ. It entails giving a new identity such that in Christ, forgiveness and new life are received through the Spirit. Union with Christ involves abiding in the Vine. It means that through the Spirit, sinners are adopted into the household of God as co-heirs with Christ. It means that God’s Spirit is poured out to make the life and teachings of Jesus real to us. It implicates our worship, our vocation in the world, and our witness as the church. Union with Christ is theological shorthand for the gospel itself–a key image that pulls together numerous motifs in the biblical witness.”

Later in speak of Calvin and Union with Christ Billings notes,

“The images of union with Christ, ingrafting into Christ, partaking of Christ, and adoption were drawn from Paul and Johannine writings in the New Testament and were deeply woven into the fabric of [Calvin’s] soteriology. In the broad portrait of his soteriology, Calvin claims that created human nature is good and that Adam was ‘united to God’ and ‘enjoyed participation in God.’ Human beings have been alienated from God and from their true, created nature by the fall. But the final end and goal for humanity is a re-union (emphasis original) of humanity with God in the second Adam, a union even higher than the first. This trinitarian process unites believers to Christ by the Spirit in order to serve the Father in gratitude. In union with Christ, believers are ‘participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.'”

Union with Christ is a wide ranging concept that speaks of being incorporated into God’s big story of creation, fall, redemption, recreation; being adopted into God’s family, enjoying the benefits of and being called to the responsibilities of that family life.

Empowered  For Kingdom Work

The kingdom of Jesus operates as an upside-down economy. The first are last, the weak are strong, and the troubled are blessed. This way of life is hard to imagine. It is very different from our way of life. However, as members of Christ’s body, unified to Him and each other, we participate in that upside-down economy. We no longer live for what we can take from others; we give abundantly. We no longer look for the ugly in our neighbor; we stubbornly seek their good. We no longer treat faith like a destination to tour; we trek together on the kingdom’s path. As the late Eugene Peterson said,

The life of faith isn’t meant for tourists. It’s meant for pilgrims.

We live this way because we have been “raised with Christ.” Our hope empowers us to pursue Christ’s kingdom way of life here on earth, as it is in heaven. Our faith is about more than a personal relationship with Christ. We are unified with Christ: crucified, buried, and raised. Our life is not our own, but it is hidden in Him. As we abide in Christ, we are given the grace as a community and individuals in that community to suffer meaningfully, embrace costly humility, and boldly live the Kingdom way of life.

This union with Christ comes to his people in Word and Sacrament in the context of worship. Each week we rush to worship to where the Spirit strengthens us together in our union with Christ.

A Congregational Focus on the Lord’s Supper

As congregations seek their God-given, hope-filled, shalom-focused future, they need to grow in their union with Christ—first as a faith community and then as members of that community. As we grow in union with Christ we grow in being Christ’s people who witness to his love to the world. Todd Billing’s writes,

In the Supper, God gives an instrument to his people to participate in his steady, eternal love. Through the Supper, the Spirit joins God’s people into the life and mission of the Son sent by the Father to show the triune God’s love to the world. The triune God’s love is not a spigot or even a fountain, but a raging waterfall that carries along his people as they are moved and sent into a world that is parched for life. Indeed, as believers come to the table, they always bring their parched lives, in need of renewal and refreshment. For the eternal love of God, made known in Jesus, gives water that will “become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4.14 NRSV)

The Lord’s Supper incorporates believers into a great drama. Union with Christ at the Supper…leads to loving encounters that seek communion with the wounded neighbors among us; the poor, the naked, the prisoners (Matthew 25). For Calvin, the supper is inextricably connected to “sacrifice of praise” that leads to loving concern for neighbor, far and near. Specifically, this self-offering is expressed in a concern for justice and equity for those outside the church in the community at large. Feeding upon Christ at the Supper empowers believers to act int eh world by the Spirit–acting with love for the other and advocating justice and equity, even for those who have harmed us. Remembrance, Communion, and Hope pp. 138-140

Growing in this union with Christ means doing the things that unite us to Christ and all his benefits. Participating in the Lord’s Supper is critical to being united to Christ through the Spirit (John Calvin said the Lord’s Supper strengthens the believer’s ongoing union with Christ). In this sacrament, we are united to Christ and to his benefits via the Spirit.

As your congregation discusses where God is calling you to witness his love and grace to the world, what place does union with Christ have in conversations? What place does doing the things that grow your congregation’s union with Christ have in pursuing being Christ’s witnesses in the world?

Communion Liturgy

Attached is a Lord’s Supper liturgy based on the Reformed Church in America’s  liturgy. It focuses on Remembrance, Communion, and Hope. It draws people into both thanksgiving and deep prayer in response to Communion. I’ve inserted songs into the liturgy that you can use. The songs have links to YouTube and Apple Music. I also use this liturgy for personal devotions as I prepare for worship each week.

*This blog written with thanks to Todd Billings and his ideas in Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table