I had never been more terrified in my life. It was about four in the morning in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and my two roommates and I had just realised that our apartment building was on fire. Even worse, the fire was several floors below us, cutting off our escape route to the street below. Thick, dark smoke engulfed the building and as I struggled to breathe I wondered if this was how it was all going to end.
“I’m going to try climbing the cables,” announced DJ, the most adventurous (read: crazy) of our trio, as we leaned out of our 13th-floor window, gasping for fresh air. He clambered out, grabbed some TV cables attached to the side of the building, and slowly climbed up and out of sight.
“You can breathe up here!” yelled DJ from the rooftop, urging my other roommate, Mike, and I to follow his risky move. Faced with the alternatives of dying from smoke inhalation or the fire itself reaching us, Mike and I decided to climb.
Mike went first and I followed, petrified that I had just added falling thirteen floors to the ways I could die that morning. Desperate to survive, I climbed the cables like a child climbing a playground rope and finally made it onto an air conditioning unit that was jutting out from the wall. From there, my roommates were able to pull me to safety.
Once all three of us were on the roof, we were directed by a rescuer to an adjoining building where we could escape down to the street and into a waiting ambulance.
That near-death experience changed my relationship with my two roommates completely. We had survived the fire together and differences and disagreements that loomed large before we almost died, now seemed insignificant. The trauma of the fire put everything else into perspective. Sharing that mission of survival created a bond that my roommates and I will have for life.
A focus on shared mission brings unity in more situations than fire survival. In Matthew 28:19, 20, Jesus calls on those who believe in Him to share the good news of a relationship with Him by making “disciples of all nations”. When we truly make this task a priority, differences recede from the forefront and we are able to focus on what needs to be done instead of on the ways we may disagree or clash.
In John 17, on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed for unity among believers. He prayed first for unity among His disciples and then for unity among future believers—“those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me” (verses 20, 21).
This kind of cohesion among believers was so important to Jesus that He took the time to pray for unity mere hours before He died; it’s a clear indicator that we also should make it a priority. If we don’t prioritise this bond among believers and instead try to go it alone, we are missing the point.
The truck was stuck in deep mud and no matter how much the driver accelerated, he was literally spinning his wheels. Some fellow students and I were on a dirt road in a rural part of the Philippines and the chances of finding towing services for the truck anytime soon were slim.
As a crowd gathered around the stranded vehicle, two teams of volunteers assembled, one on each side of the truck. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. The teams started rocking the truck from side to side, gradually growing in momentum until the stuck side of the vehicle lifted out of the mud long enough for the tyres on the other side to get enough traction to pull the truck free.
The volunteers, working as a team, had together accomplished what would have been impossible for even the most strong-willed and disciplined individual on his or her own. No amount of stomping on the accelerator on the part of the driver would have fixed this problem. The strongest person in the crowd could not have saved the day by pushing the truck from behind. What was needed was a group of people, in sync, to generate enough momentum to clear the vehicle.
Unity in diversity
Often, we as humans claim that our differences are what prevent us from working together and getting the job done. And yet the Bible talks about believers, as vastly different as they are, being members of one body: the body of Christ. Despite the diversity in form and function that differentiates body parts from each other, 1 Corinthians 12:21, 22 makes the point, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
What a timely quote! In today’s wildly polarised world where differences of culture, nationality, income and ideology cause deeper and deeper divisions in society at large, even faith communities suffer when differences are allowed to fester and cause division. If we look at those around us who are different and try to drive them out, we are acting as absurdly as an eye saying to a hand, “I don’t need you!”
Earlier in verses 18–20, we learn that “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”
In this body of Christ we are all important, we are all needed. We may be different and often those differences can be fairly drastic, but as part of the body of Christ we are called to work together.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” says Galatians 3:28 in a beautiful description of how, despite our differences, we can have unity as believers.
More than a decade after our escape from the Buenos Aires fire, my friends Mike, DJ and I are still three very different people. Mike, for example, is the only one of us who can dress with any sense of style. DJ is still crazy enough to climb television cables even without a fire, and I have become an amateur expert on fire prevention hacks. But there’s a story of shared mission and narrow escape that unites us.
Bjorn Karlman is an Adventist freelance writer who travels the world as a “digital nomad”, living in 2–3 countries per year with his wife and toddler.