Along the Way: The Transforming Union

In my post entitled, “Press On,” I re-emphasized the need (my need) to resist evil by practicing the better—that is, by overcoming evil with good. This post builds upon that idea.. Today, I want to write about the starting point for pressing on. We don’t do this without a sense of direction. I have found it in Paul’s words, “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). These words have given me the motivation and the means for pressing on. They provide me with what I am calling the transforming union.

E. Stanley Jones said of Paul’s words, “Nothing in all literature can compare with this.” [1] I agree, and I believe it even more now than when I first read the verse or Jones’ assessment of it decades ago. The verse is the transforming union that is necessary if we are to press on in a way akin to the Gospel and the message of the kingdom of God which it proclaims.

“Christ is all and in all.” The word to note is “and.” Paul put together two ideas that were unfortunately disconnected—and still are. Let’s look at them in their separateness, and that will help us see why Paul joined them.

First, “Christ is all” without also saying “and in all.”

Even the first Christians kept them separate. They said “Christ is all” (i.e. “Jesus is Lord”) but did not initially declare it to be so for everyone, at least not as Paul wrote about it later in Colossians. The Church began with walls which needed to be removed (illustrated in Galatians 3:28) so that Christian faith would bear witness to God’s Reality: “all are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus was the Word made flesh in and through whom the dividing walls were removed (Ephesians 2:14), thus enabling Paul to add the second phrase, “in all.”

By including “in all” the transforming vision moves us to press on with the universality of Christ as our inspiration. [2] Four illustrations show how this is so. Within the Christian tradition, C. S. Lewis saw Jesus as the Tao incarnate. [3] Thomas Merton saw the same connection. [4] And E. Stanley Jones saw Christ in Gandhi, to the extent he said that even as a Hindu, Gandhi would be in heaven. [5] Outside Christianity, Thich Naht Hanh saw Christ in the Buddha and in Buddhists. [6]

In my part of Christianity called the Wesleyan tradition, John Wesley made the same witness, writing that anyone who “endeavours, according to the best light he has, to do all things well, is accepted of [God] through Christ, though he knows him not. This assertion is express and admits no exception. [Anyone like this] is in the favour of God, whether enjoying His written word and ordinances or not.” [7]

Unfortunately, some Christians today say, “Christ is all,” but do not go on to say “and in all.” This leaves them with a misapplied orthodoxy. In this place a penchant for correctness eclipses the passion for community, legalism (regulations) supersedes love (relationships), hubris triumphs over humility, and exclusion defines faith more than inclusion.

But we also see truncated Christianity when we say “Christ is in all” separate from “Christ is all.”

This happens when we rush to say, “In God we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), but leave the word ‘God’ undefined. “Christ is all” gives us the definition for then saying “and in all.” Unfortunately, some Christians do this too. This leaves them with a misinformed spirit. In this place we are left with the right spirit, but one which lacks sufficient substance.

By adding “Christ is all” (“Jesus is Lord”) to the phrase “Christ in all,” we have conjoined substance and spirit. We say that the Christ who is in all is revealed by the biblical words Yahweh, Wisdom, Way, Truth, Life, etc—and that all the words that help us see the Christ are enriched in relation to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. [8]

Christology is the center that provides the reference point for everything else. In the excarnate (eternal) Christ we see everyone and everything held together in an amazing oneness (Colossians 1:15-20). In the incarnate (temporary) Christ, Jesus puts a face on God and models the life we are meant to live. [9] Christ is the lens through whom we look to interpret life. [10]

But in all this, don’t forget that it took two pentecosts (one in Jerusalem and another in Caesarea) for the first Christians to put the two ideas together. It took the change in a leader (Peter) who was present at both pentecosts and would come to say, “God doesn’t show any partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). And more, it took the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) to say that henceforth the Christan Church would declare to the world that “all means all.”

And so, in the fullness of our faith we combine the two ideas and say with Paul, “Christ is all and in all.” Here is our starting point for our journey of pressing on rather than pushing back. “Christ is all and in all” is our offense, not a defense. It is our declaration, not a debate. It issues forth in the kind of life that E. Stanley Jones described,

“This eternal Christ is ‘the true Light, which enlightens everyone who comes into the world’ (John 1:9). The light that was in conscience, in insight, in illumination, in ideals, was the light of the excarnate Christ. If people live according to that light, they will be saved and saved by Christ, however unconscious they may have been of Him as Christ.” [11]

“Christ is all and in all.” This is the transforming union. It is the Gospel, and it is the message the world is longing to hear.

[1] E. Stanley Jones, ‘In Christ’ (Abingdon Press, 1961), Week 40, Saturday. Still available.

[2] Richard Rohr writes about this in his book, ‘The Universal Christ’ (Convergent, 2019). Jürgen Moltmann explores it with additional theological substance in his book, ‘’The Way of Jesus Christ’ (Fortress Press, 1993).

[3] C.S. Lewis made the connection in his book ‘The Abolition of Man’ (Macmillan, 1947), chapter two, and also in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken (12/14/1951) in a collection of his letters entitled, ‘Yours, Jack’ (Harper One, 2008).

[4] William Shannon & Christine Bochen,, ‘Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters’ (HarperOne), 373.

[5] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Gandhi, Portrayal of a Friend’ (Stone & Pierce, 1948). Still available.

[6] Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘Living Buddha, Living Christ,’ 10th Anniversary Edition (Riverhead Books, 2007).

[7] John Wesley’s ‘Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament’ (1755). Comment on Acts 3:21. To study this idea further, search the word ‘recapitulation.’

[8] From a formative standpoint, Richard Rohr’s book, ‘The Divine Dance’ (Whitaker House, 2016) is excellent. A more classical study is by Alister McGrath, ‘Understanding the Trinity’ (Zondervan, 1990).

[9] The writing of E. Stanley Jones is focused on Christology. ‘The Word Became Flesh’ is a good place to start. More recently, I have found ‘Jesus, A Theography’ by Leonard Sweetand Frank Viola to be a good look at the excarnate and incarnate Christ. Diana Butler Bass’ book, ‘Freeing Jesus’ explores key aspects of Jesus that need fresh attention.

[10] Richard Rohr calls this “The Jesus Hermeneutic,” and in his book, ‘What Do We Do With The Bible?” he provides twenty one ways Jesus related to the Old Testament that help us know how best to interpret the whole of Scripture today.

[11] E. Stanley Jones, ‘The Way’ (Stone & Pierce, 1946), Week 50, Sunday. Still available.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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