An ever-expanding circle

May 21, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 11
Troy Watson |

Twenty years ago, I read a word that transformed my understanding of the gospel. My mind was blown wide open by the use of two hyphens. “Atonement” suddenly became “at-one-ment.” Instantaneously I realized that being “in Christ” means living in a state of “at-one-ment” with all.

One of the most common examples in the Bible of “at-one-ment” is the union between a husband and wife. The Bible tells us we become “one flesh,” and in this union—perhaps most vividly expressed in its sexual consummation—our boundaries of separateness dissolve. We, though two, are one.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses the analogy of the union between bride and groom to describe the relationship between Christ and the body of Christ, which is us. The Scriptures take this further and teach us that all followers of the way are “one flesh,” or “one body. We, though many, are one.

It goes deeper still, for Scripture tells us this mystery of “at-one-ment” is at the very heart of who God is. God, though three, is one. I’ve come to see that the mystery of “at-one-ment” has been woven into the elemental fabric of everything: of Scripture, of the whole universe.  

Yet to comprehend this truth and live in this reality is impossible for my small self.

In my last article—“Small self vs. whole self,” April 28, page 14—I explained that my small self is me when I’m in a state of ego consciousness. The small self finds identity and value, or lack thereof, in that which separates me from the greater whole. It thinks in terms of comparison and contrast: “I’m smarter than . . . , I’m lesser than . . . , we’re better than . . . ,”
and thus constantly affirms the notion that “I’m separate from . . . .”

My whole self, on the other hand, is me when I’m in a state of Christ consciousness. By this I mean my conscious mind is attuned to the Spirit of Christ, who, in turn, reconciles and attunes me to all that is. My whole self finds identity and value in my interconnectedness with the greater whole, in my oneness with God, humanity and creation.  

This is why Jesus says in Luke 14 that for me to understand and follow his path, I must “hate” all those exclusionary boundaries of family, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc., that separate me from the whole and prevent me from being “at-one” with all.

Now obviously Jesus doesn’t want me to hate my mother or father, or anyone else. He calls me to love everyone, including my enemies. What Jesus is teaching here is that I must let go of all the roles and relational boundaries that the small self clings to that exclude others from my circle of “loved ones.” Jesus wants me to realize that “whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother.”

The small self is afraid of letting go of these exclusive boundaries because it perceives them as essential to what makes me “me” and what makes us “us.” The small self compresses the boundaries of who “we” are, whereas the whole self expands the boundaries of who “we” are, to eventually include all. This is the divine design of “at-one-ment”: an ever-expanding circle of inclusive love. Paul glimpsed the height of this when he proclaimed, “Christ is all and in all.”

Before Pentecost, we see all kinds of small-self behaviour from the disciples. They argued about which of them was the greatest, they asked fire to come down from heaven to burn up people who rejected their message, they judged children and certain women as unworthy of Jesus’ time. The list goes on.

After Pentecost, however, these same disciples radically expand the boundaries of who “they” are to include people they once considered “unclean” and “inferior,” people like Gentiles, Samaritans, slaves, lepers and women. They didn’t always get it right, and neither do we, but the pattern is clear: Spirit attunement always dissolves boundaries and increases “at-one-ment” with God and others. Ultimately, I believe Spirit attunement expands the circle of what defines “us” to the point of there being no “them.”

One of my favourite poems, called “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham, captures this idea quite masterfully. With it I conclude: “He drew a circle to shut me out. / Heretic, rebel – a thing to flout. / But love and I had the wit to win. / We drew a circle that took him in.” 

Troy Watson (troy@avonmennonite.com) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

--Posted May 21, 2014

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