Chinese Theological Review 13

Spiritual Experience and the Unity of the Church

Sun Meici

Since the 1950s people have been looking at the question of unity within the Chinese Church and trying to achieve it. Solid progress has been made on the road toward unity with believers from various denominations towards participating in a united worship, partaking in Holy Communion together, respecting each other's understanding of faith, and in the commonality which has been achieved in matters of faith and fellowship.

Several decades have now gone by and the Chinese Church of the 90s is in a post-denominational phase. Although denominations are now a thing of the past, it is a reflection of the richness of life in Christ that the particular faith and fellowship characteristics of some denominations are again reappearing in some places, although in a spirit of mutual respect. At the same time, however, since each person's experience of God is not the same as the next person's, differences and disparities still exist. Moreover, because many believers are still very young in the faith, their knowledge of God remains at the stage of pursuing what they see as spiritual experiences. Such believers cannot fully accept all the different ways in which God reveals Himself. Instead, they form separate groups and factions within the church, thus influencing church unity.

"Unity" was Jesus' prayer to God the Father for His disciples before going to the cross (John 17: 11, 20-23). It was also His command to His disciples, and is that which every believer constantly prays for. As we look at the current situation within the Chinese Church, we ask ourselves: Where is the unity? How can we bring the Chinese Church to greater unity? These are questions that every believer needs to reflect on and explore today. For now, I will concentrate on spiritual experience and church unity.

The principles underlying these reflections include searching out our broad similarities while preserving our small differences, maintaining an attitude of mutual respect, bearing with each other in love, dealing peaceably among ourselves and living together the life of the triune God, and in this way, ultimately reaching unity. The scope of my reflection here falls essentially into two parts: 1) spiritual experience and church unity from the perspective of the early church in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost; and 2) church unity in light of the inner differences and connections experienced among the three Persons of the Trinity.

First of all, I believe, the term "spiritual experience" points to an experience wherein the whole of a person's life encounters God. This can also be expressed as a person's inner life encountering the different Persons of the God of the Trinity. This experience brings humankind the confidence of saving grace and causes the whole nature of a person's life to change, bringing that person's life into union with the life of the triune God. By extension, the experience also brings the Church as a whole, through its individual members, into unity with this God. The Church is made up of people called by God who have received God's saving grace, whose lives have been rightfully joined with the life of God, and who also gather together, worship together, and dedicate themselves to God. All those who have encountered the triune God will come together with others in one church, and this Church is Christ's body.

Acts, Chapter 2 records that the Holy Spirit came down upon Jerusalem at Pentecost. People from many different places were gathered together there, including the disciples, who were originally from Galilee. "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance." That is to say, all the people who came from different places said they heard the disciples speaking "in their own tongues" (see Acts 2:1-11).

These people who came from different places included Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judaeans, Cappadocians, people from Pontus, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians and the areas neighboring Libya around Cyrene, also some visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs (see Acts 2:9-10). These people were truly representative of the whole Mediterranean world of the time, cutting across the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. They all had their own "native tongues," languages that were very different from one another and mutually unintelligible. However, encountering God's Spirit, a vast change occurred in their situation, with the disciples from Galilee suddenly "talking in their own tongues," telling of the great things which God had done (see Acts 2:1-11).

We can see the result of this incident: These people were originally strangers to each other, speaking different languages, cut off from each other in every way. Through the coming down of the Holy Spirit, they encountered God. Their languages were still very different (see Acts 2:8, 10 "native tongues"), but in the Holy Spirit, they were able to communicate and share the news they had received concerning the "great things that God had done." From this we can see that the Church, too, is itself a channel of the Holy Spirit through its work and fellowship.

The words of Peter, recorded in Acts chapter 2, verses 14-36, led these people to come face-to-face with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, on the cross. After this encounter with Jesus Christ they were all "deeply troubled." They felt remorse for their sins, repented and were baptized, their sins were forgiven, they entered the church and became its members (see Acts 2:37-41). From all of this we can see that, although these people came from different places and spoke different languages, they nevertheless came together before the face of one who revealed God's love to them, the crucified Son, Jesus Christ. This same effect took place in their inner lives as well.

We know from what is recorded in the Bible that for everyone - the many individuals in the Old Testament and the collective church of the New Testament as well as each member of the Church today - though their specific experiences differ, there are huge and numerous similarities in how the inner life is affected following an encounter with God.

Look at some biblical examples of those who have met God: Adam and Eve's sense of shame (they "became aware of sin," see Genesis 3:10); Moses' sense of awe and feelings of insignificance and smallness (see Exodus 3:6,10); David's feelings of remorse over sin along with the feelings of sorrow and grief (Psalm 51); the feelings of sinfulness, weakness and powerlessness shown by Isaiah and other prophets. All these experiences were accompanied by feelings of complete trust and obedience, of being chosen and called to mission. All are of a similar nature to the feelings each and every disciple experienced in encountering the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. More importantly, a shift occurs at the center of the life of each person who has experienced an encounter with God. This shift takes the form of a move from having "self" at the center to having life in God and witnessing to God's saving grace at the center. There is also a sense of having, as one's own mission, the responsibility to praise and speak of "God's great works."

Down the ages in the church, it has been difficult to avoid differences in people's experiences of the Spirit. This is largely because different people live in different places, with different education levels and different cultural backgrounds. And people have different ways of expressing their spiritual experiences. However, after an encounter with the triune God, these feelings and realizations bear many similarities to each other. Specifically, faced with the God of the Trinity, we come to know our own sinfulness and weakness. When faced with a God who is truly without limit, we realize our own limitations and lack of ability. Yet, it is just such a sinner, such a weak person, one destined for destruction, who still receives God's saving grace and, more than that, the right to eternal life in union with God. The atonement on the cross of the Son, Jesus Christ, does not simply bring sinners who were lost to return to stand before the face of God and become a people of God's children. They receive at the same time the very mission that Jesus had, namely, to witness to God, glorify God, spread the news of God, and moreover, to dedicate their lives to this. A common form of expression of this experience is, in front of God and all His people, to admit one's own sin, accept that sin and repent of it, be baptized, and enter the church. This is the same spiritual experience for all people, even though the spiritual encounters that brought them to this point may have been very different.

This common spiritual experience allows believers in the church to affirm, with all honesty, that they all share one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God (see Eph. 4:4-6). This is precisely where the most basic foundation of church unity lies.

Many individuals in the Church have had different spiritual experiences and encounters. The Apostle Paul argues that the gifts which people receive from the Holy Spirit may be different but the spiritual experience we gain from a spiritual encounter with God is very similar in nature, and it is all experienced through one and the same Holy Spirit. Therefore, although inevitable differences will exist within the Church, it is still the Lord's body. Each believer is just like a limb in the body, although different to other limbs and with different uses, but all still "receiving sustenance from the same Holy Spirit," united into one body and all belonging to that same body (see Rom.12:4-5; 1 Cor.12:12-27). This is just as Jesus Christ said, " I am the vine, you are the branches" (Jn. 15:5). Within any one church congregation, individuals will have both differences and similarities. Similarly, within the Church Universal, or among churches in different areas or churches within different denominations, the members may differ but will also have certain things in common. I believe that the internal relations in any individual church within the Church Universal are rather like the relationships between the different persons of the triune God where there is unity in diversity as well as diversity in unity, the three being united into one. For this reason, I would now like to talk about "church unity" in the context of the internal relationships within the Trinity.

The Trinitarian view of God explains and describes in a precise manner the inner unity which exists within God. The God of the Trinity is the one true God. However, each time the divine nature is made manifest in a single Person of the Trinity. This is because each Person of the Trinity does not depend on its relationship with the other two Persons for its existence as a separate Person, however it does depend on the others for its divinity. The divinity of the Son and the Son's relationship with the Father depend on the intermediary work of the Holy Spirit. As far as the Son is concerned, the Father and the one true God are one and the same. But even for the Father it is only through the Son and in the unity of the Holy Spirit, praising the Father and the Son that He finds His divinity.

Wolfhart Pannenberg has said that God's divinity is in his immanence in the phenomenological world. Not only is the divinity of the Son determined by His oneness with the Father, Father and Son are God only in union with the Spirit who makes all things new for the sake of the Kingdom. God's unity is in no sense found first in any sort of tritheism. It exists only in the shared nature of the three Persons. There are three Persons because each Person is the one God. This applies as well to the interrelatedness of the Persons. And though we are speaking of divine Persons here, the one God is also expressed in other persons. Thus, they join together in mutual praise and so God is truly without limits, that is, immanent in the world and yet transcendent.

Pannenberg thus sets out his view that the inner unity of God lies in God's inner oneness and commonality. Yet, the inner unity of the God of the Trinity is determined by God's inherent nature, namely, that He is also the Eternal Living God.

The author of 1 John uses the phrase "God is love" to understand the idea that "God is alive" in its expression in the death of Jesus on the cross. Rahner sees Jesus' death as an illustration of a strong and powerful selflessness in the midst of (God's) self-communication which grows ever stronger and more powerful. It is a kind of self-relatedness which is free to transcend the self, to lose and commit the self. God witnesses to Godself in the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As love expressed in this way, God becomes one with the crucified Christ in the Person of the Son and further, dies and is resurrected in Christ, revealing Godself as the unity of Life and death for life. As love understood in this way, God in the Holy Spirit's grace creates faith that can be experienced by believers. Thus, God is love, not only in God's self-connectedness, but in God's relationship with human beings.

As it is described above, the Church in itself is a fellowship which possesses God's life. It exists within the love of the life of God and certainly experiences God's inherent nature - the selfless love of Christ. All who experience the immanent nature of life in encountering the triune God, must be people who have experienced the love of Christ and who live in God's love.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down upon the church in Jerusalem and the life of the group of disciples there was renewed and changed following their encounter with God's Spirit. Here we see a model for church unity: they all persevered in respecting the apostles' teachings, maintained contact with one another, all broke bread together, all prayed together. They were in fellowship with the life of the triune God (see Acts 2:42-47).

At Pentecost, the experience of the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jerusalem is a witness to the saving grace of the triune God. We can also see that the key to church unity is this coming of God. God's coming is made possible through the unity and diversity of the inner relatedness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although individuals within the church may have their differences in the way they experience their encounter with this triune God, there should nevertheless be certain points in common if everyone is truly living together in the life of this same God. The Church collectively experiences one Holy Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one God, but it is precisely the "Father of all" who is "over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6). Therefore, in order to achieve church unity, we need people who have had spiritual experiences to mutually respect each other, to he linked together and love each other. Respect helps to forge connections with each other in unity. Therefore, all those who have experienced the triune God, having thus encountered the God of Everlasting Life, should be those who, in Christ, work together in harmony to unite the church into one.

The Chinese Church is now in the "Council" stage, meaning that it is still in the process of uniting. This process requires mutual respect among believers. The fact that each individual's spiritual experience is different from the next, does not mean we can ignore the things which all our spiritual experiences share, that is, a recognition of the life of the triune God. Through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, we recognize that life in Christ is rich and that God's salvation is almighty, yet what we individuals experience of all this has its limits or, to put it another way, is but one experience. Therefore, within this revelation of the triune God, church unity requires of us as individuals to know our place and function within the Church-we are each merely one limb among many within the body. This is not to suggest that "I alone deserve respect." Unity in the Chinese Church requires all believers to mutually respect and bear with one another. It requires the seeking of broad similarities along with the preservation of small differences. It also requires us to "be humble always and gentle, and patient too, putting up with one another's failings in the Spirit of love. Spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which one Spirit gives." (Eph. 4:2-3).

Nanjing Theological Review, No. 2 (1998), p. 51.

Translated by Ian Groves.