sermon notes – maintaining the unity of the Spirit: Q & A

 

The past several Sundays at MoSt Church I’ve been preaching regarding the unity we share as Christians as a result of the work of God’s Spirit. The last two sermons, centered on Ephesians 4.4-6, were closely linked to the sermon preceding them (based on Ephesians 4.1-3). These two sermons seem to have generated a number of questions. And so, my sermon today will address several questions that some have had regarding these sermons.

And, uncharacteristically, I have manuscripted this sermon, the entirety of which follows. One note: my delivery of the sermon doesn’t necessarily follow the manuscript, but the manuscript does record the essence of what I’m trying to get across in this sermon.

So, let’s start by reading Ephesians 4.1-6 once more … very closely, carefully, thoughtfully, humbly, and with prayer.

I … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.1-6 NRSV)

Q. Why preach these sermons on unity? And now?

A. Our elders called on me to do so and I serve them in Christ’s name. They detect the need among us and so I am ready to help them feed the flock of which we all are a part (cf. 2 Timothy 4.2). The body of Christ always needs to hear about unity; it is a subject difficult to visit too often.

Q. Are we talking about: (a) unity within our church family, (b) Churches of Christ, or (c) all Christians everywhere?

A. That would be “d,” all of the above, for we are “all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28). What holds true for one field holds true for them all.

Q. The Bible is a big book. Why believe the “Seven Ones” of Ephesians 4.4-6 define our unity?

A. Such is the natural reading of the flow of thought in Ephesians 4.3-6. Vs. 3 mentions the unity we share and vs. 4-6 immediately follows as a precise description of the pillars that hold up the roof of unity.

This understanding is anything but original or “new”; it has been the view of many Christian thinkers, scholars, preachers, teachers, and writers across the ages.

Q. The Lord’s Supper isn’t mentioned as one of the “Seven Ones” of Ephesians 4.4-6. Aren’t all Christians to share in such?

A. Given the apostle Paul’s choice of words concerning the body and its importance to faith in his discussion of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 10.16-11.1,17-34, it seems natural to conclude that the Supper is a part of the one faith’s declaration and celebration of the one body. That is, the Supper, though not explicitly named, is implied in the life of the one body lived out together in faith.

Q. What?! You think there are Christians outside of “Churches of Christ?!”

A. Of course! Allow me to call several witnesses to the stand.The combined testimony of Scripture, reason, church history, and personal experience is clear and powerful.

First, our Lord Jesus himself speaks of principles related to thinking so (cf. John 3.8; 10.16; etc.).

Second, reason tells us that when our Lord said the way is “narrow” (Matthew 7.13-14) that he did not mean infinitesimally so (as is the case if one considers the world’s population and limits the size of Christianity to buildings with a sign out front that says “Church of Christ” on them).

Third, Christ’s church – the one body – has existed for nearly two millennium now, but “Churches of Christ” as we know them today did not even exist until the 1800’s. Are we to believe there were no Christians on the earth for 1,500+ years? Did the Lord’s promise that his kingdom wouldn’t end, falter or fail? Phht!

And fourth, who doesn’t know people they consider full well to be one with Christ –  exemplary even of what a Christian is to be in the development of the fruit of the Spirit in them – and yet, who are not a part of “Churches of Christ?”

Further, when we preach for all Christians to come together on Christ and his word alone, to whom do we think we’re speaking? Are we just talking to ourselves?

And so: are there Christians outside of “Churches of Christ?” Yes, and the question is now seen for what it is: at best it is unobservant and thoughtless, and at worst it is more nearly absurd, insulting, and revolting! If you think not, try asking some of your earnest, Christ-seeking friends how they hear this question.

Christ’s church is made up of all of the saved, but Christ’s church and the people known as “Churches of Christ” are not synonymous terms. The former includes the latter, but is by no means limited to it. We must be Christ-like – not libertarian or sectarian – in our thinking, as well as in our behavior.

Q. Who exactly are the saved?

A. We believe salvation is through Jesus Christ (John 10.9) and no one else (Acts 4.12). We have many clear examples given to us by the Spirit in Scripture as to how people came/come to be Christians (e.g. – Acts 16.30-33). And we know all who make such a start with Christ are to spend all of the rest of their days growing in Christ’s grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3.18).

But, ultimately, God alone knows who are, and who will be, the saved for God alone is Judge and Mercy-Giver (cf. Romans 9.15). We should rejoice to leave this role to him! As you have heard me say many times through the years: “I’m happy to let God do the sorting.” We dare not come to think we’re big enough to play God (the first sin, as old as Adam and Eve in the Garden).

As we who seek Christ all seek to walk toward God together, let’s avoid the ditches on both sides of the road: the ditch that counts obedience as something of an optional matter (Matthew 7.21) as well as the ditch that equates merely human doctrines and doings with the very teachings of God, thereby laying heavy, human expectations on people’s backs (Matthew 15.9).

It is enough that the saved are in God’s good hands and all who seek God should seek to walk hand-in-hand as they can.

Q. Is there a difference between what is necessary for salvation and what is necessary for fellowship?

A. Yes. God alone can save and does so with perfect knowledge, while we humans recognize fellowship on the basis of very limited knowledge. Think of some of the many differences just within the Churches of Christ – we don’t write everyone else off to hell (do we?) just because there are differences between us great enough to make full, outward fellowship extremely difficult or even unworkable at times. And so then, there are matters of salvation and matters of fellowship. They are two different things.

If this troubles you, think of what our Lord said to his disciples when they complained that another was doing much good but, did not keep company with them (Mark. 9.38-40). Or think about Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways over John Mark and yet, both being used by God to further his kingdom’s work (cf. Acts 15.38-40).

Q. “We’re not the only Christians; we just want to be Christians only.” Where’d that come from?

A. This comes to us from both grief and good.

The grief? The utter disgust over the divided state of greater Christendom planted the seeds of the thought and has cultivated the yearnings of a multitude across time: “Surely there must be a better way than this sorry state of affairs of a multitude of divisions among believers!”

And what is the good? The revealed mind of God through his word to us in Scripture gave such to us: to do all in the name of the Lord; nothing more, nothing less (cf. Colossians 3.17). This is the far better way.

Q. You mentioned Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell last week. Who cares what they thought?

A. I do and you should, too. Why? Because they were used by God as developers of our heritage’s roots, these two men helped shape our thinking today. Being godly, scholarly men who investigated the meaning, application, and maintenance of Christian unity their whole lives with intense research, deep thought, constant prayer, and with a wealth of personal experience, they remain worthy teachers of us all still today. Do take the time to carefully consider Hebrews 13.7 on this.

I would add a word of caution: make no mistake about it, there is a strong stream of anti-intellectualism that runs not just through the minds of many within our heritage, but through our entire country as well, and this must be resisted. Where people do not want to know about their past or where they do not care to hear from those who influenced them to be as they are today, intellect will only deteriorate and Christian faith will suffer much for it.

Q. Why can’t all believers see everything the same way? Within Churches of Christ, at the very least?

A. This is a false and damaging expectation to carry around with us in this life for it presumes the exact opposite of what Scripture tells us, namely that here and now we Christians “know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13.9a). We are destined to see things here only “dimly.” First, because we’re individual human beings. Second, because each individual conscience is developed to a different degree in light what it has been exposed to, and enlightened to, of the will of God. And so, perfect agreement between us all is an absolute impossibility.

And that’s okay, because we are not called to uniformity, but unity in the Spirit. Note our role: we are called to maintain the unity that God’s Spirit has given, not manufacture uniformity by the work of our own hands. The unity of the Spirit makes room for diversity where the human spirit bent on uniformity does not.

And recall what we’ve already noted: we are extremely finite and flawed beings, meaning we often find ourselves not content with God’s “Seven Ones” (Ephesians 4.4-6) and often go off in a meaningless quest for the 70, 700, or 7,000 that God’s Holy Spirit did not give us. May God have mercy.

Q. How can we get along with and work with each other if we don’t agree on everything?

A. The same way a healthy marriage between a husband and wife functions: on the basis of continual, loving attitudes and actions of submission toward each other (Ephesians 5.21). No husband and wife agree on everything, nor do healthy ones expect to do so. They know their unity and faithfulness is not dependent on such. Every healthy marriage is not merely a strong statement so, but serves as a witness for, and encouragement to, earnestly seek unity.

It is the same way with the church, the church with Christ. This is the wisdom that we seek: to live our lives together practically in Christ in unity. This is not a dream; it is doable. Where Christian unity does not exist it is not because it has been tried and found wanting, but because it has simply not been honestly tried and pursued.

Just as in a godly, spiritually-healthy marriage “… what matters is faith working through love …” (Galatians 5.6), it is so with the unity of the Spirit in Christ’s church. May the church, the bride of Christ, discover this again and again, and rejoice in it greatly, making it her ceaseless quest, day by day!

Q. What can/must MoSt Church do in order to do an even better job of maintaining the Spirit’s unity?

A. Ephesians 4.1-3 gives us much of the answer. We can seek with all of our being to allow the Spirit’s growth in each of us these four vital elements: humility, gentleness, patience, and love. There is enough in those four words alone to keep us all occupied quite well all day long, every day. So let us pursue them! Memorize them. Reflect on them. Pray regarding them. And let us practice them every we can.

As well, we can work at growing in respect and care for individual conscience on ever matter.

We can strive for a common vision of the Spirit’s “Seven Ones,” deliberately laying aside our baseless and unnecessary expectations of 70, 700, or 7,000 things.

We can get busy, and continue to be busy, working together, for few people who work hard together with a common vision divide.

We can pray: “Let all that is denominationalism and division within us, and outside of us, die!”

We can, with a will, leave the things that God alone can do, to God for him to do.

We can stress what we’re called by the Spirit to agree on, and not stress out over what we’re not called to agree on.

We can deliberately and frequently speak well of each other, pointing out the good we seen in each from God, and refrain from assumption, judgmentalism, and gossip.

We can focus on the action laid out for us by the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4.4-6 (the “Seven Ones”) and determine to see developed in us in increasing measure the attitudes that accompany the “Seven Ones” (Ephesians 4.1-3), that is: humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

And the greatest of these is love.

And so, let us hear what the Spirit says to the churches, and to us:

I … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.1-6 NRSV)

And so, having heard the Spirit’s call as to what can agree on and how, let us pray:

Father God, you are One! And so, in Christ’s name give each of us grace to respond to you here and now, and in every day to come, to maintain the unity that your Spirit has provided for us all. Loosen our grip on anything that is not of you, steering us clear of the ditches on both the right and the left. We would have you sharpen our focus on the one body; your one Spirit; our one hope to which you have called us; our one Lord; the one faith; the one baptism; and you, our only Father, God. All of this we ask for the honor of your name. For the betterment of our lives together as your people, united by your Spirit. And for the sake of a united witness to all who are yet to believe. Amen.

bits & pieces: part of my sermon this morning

 

7 reasons why we need to engage in steady prayer with God

1. so our awareness of our need of God does not diminish -
Luke 18.1 (“necessity … to pray always”)

2so we can face whatever we face in life well -
Romans 12.12 (“be patient in suffering”)

3so our perspective of God can grow -
Ephesians 3.20-21 (“more than all we can ask or imagine”)

4. so our world will enlarge, not shrink -
Ephesians 6.18 (“praying for all the Lord’s people”)

5so as to nurture a thankful spirit within ourselves -
Colossians 4.2; 1 Thessalonians 5.17-18 (“thanksgiving … give thanks”)

6so we’ll ever recall this life is not all about us -
James 4.2-3 (“wrong motives … to squander what you get on your pleasures”)

7to become more trusting of our Father, God -
1 John 5.14-15 (“bold confidence … before him”)

on giving thanks; a very brief sermon

 

Give thanks.

This is good. Very good. May we only grow in the practice of it.

But, let us always remember that giving thanks is not an end in itself.

Our giving thanks to God is meant to move us toward giving grace to others.

For while God does not need our thanks (he is not “in need” of anything), he does desire his creation to be good to the rest of creation.

To live in harmony, peace, and blessing.

To love as he loves.

And so today, if you are thankful you have …

* food … then pray for the hungry and seek to feed others;

* clothing … then petition God for those who are without and clothe others;

* a place out of the elements … intercede for those who are homeless and support low-cost housing;

* a legal and ethical means of making a living … pray for the unemployed and the wrongly employed, work hard at your job, and assist others as you can;

* family and friends … talk with God for the lonely and abandoned, caring for them with your time and attention.

* freedom to worship without persecution … plead with God for the persecuted and love your enemies.

Give thanks. This is good. May such grow daily all the more in us.

In terms of expression, and not only emotion. In ways of action, and not merely intention. In means of care, not just concern.

For our God is good.

And so, let us be good to all.

All the time.

sermon summation: the ‘don’t judge me’ verse

 

Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. (Matthew 7.1)

Eight words. They seem clear enough. How could they possibly be misunderstood or misused?

Two ways. Quoting them the way the world does (i.e. – “never try to change me”). Or by getting tripped up by their apparent tension with other words from Christ (“judge with right judgment” – John 7.24). Which is it, Jesus? Judge or don’t?

Understand: the world misunderstands. When Jesus said “don’t judge” he was calling for people to change. Specifically, to stop living a life of condemnation. Sometimes we need to be challenged and to reform our ways.

Understand as well: sometimes the church doesn’t get it either. By thinking our Lord was somehow backtracking, contradicting, or qualifying himself. Christians need to exercise discernment and self-evaluation, and certainly so before they try to help others change.

And that’s the thing. Disciples of Christ must be discerning (“judge with right judgment”), but not damning (“don’t judge”). Or in Christ’s words, we’re to “be wise as snakes and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16)

There’s a world of difference. Discernment is a scalpel wielded by a surgeon for the good of the patient. Judgment is a lever in the hand of the executioner. The former is about saving life; the latter is about taking it. We must see the difference between being all we can be as humans walking with God and usurping God’s unique place over the lives of us all.

But blindness is common. And that’s the context in which Jesus’ words “don’t judge” originally appear.

You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. (Matthew 7.2-5)

Such blindness within us typically comes about in one of two ways, and they are not mutually exclusive, rather, they often go hand-in-hand. As in the passage just noted, our hypocrisy – that is, our play-acting – can come from, and bring about, blindness. When we condemn others for doing things that we are habitually about ourselves – perhaps even in far greater measure, but secretly! – we have become blind hypocrites and are in no position to lead the blind. In those cases, the log needs to be removed.

But such blindness can also come about by self-righteousness, simply forgetting that God is at the center of all things and has the final say, not us. We then need to recall the words of our Lord’s half-brother, James:

There is only one lawgiver and judge, and he is able to save and to destroy. But you who judge your neighbor, who are you? (James 4.12)

Who are you? Who are we? Indeed!

No one wakes up and says: “Today, I want to become a self-righteous hypocrite doling out condemnation.” No. Hear this! The slow descent to the hell that is hypocrisy is made by small, steady steps of being critical. Hypocrisy is simply the next step in the evolutionary ladder for someone consumed with casting criticism. To be hypercritical is to be hypocritical.

Now what I say next grieves me to no end, but I believe I would fail you if I didn’t remind myself, and all of us, of it. I do so with one end in mind: that we might be humbled, and ever remain so. Here it is: the heritage of faith of which I am a part has a long and strong reputation in the religious world for being just this: hypercritical. This is our history. And it is this sad truth that plays no small part in the reason why many will never seek out our counsel as to how to no longer be blind or will even remotely be open to our call for them to come see God.

We know from hard experience that being hypercritical comes at a very, very high price.

But, to this someone might say, “But truth is truth, God is truth, and doing it all right is what we must be about!” To which our Lord Jesus himself would respond: “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9.13)

Yes. Mercy. Let us learn what this means. Again and again. Afresh and daily. Not to judge.

sermon – a people of God; a people of the Book

He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does their part. (Ephesians 4.11-16 CEB)

And so we say without apology, with firm conviction, but with deep humility: we seek to be a “people of the Book.”

By that we mean two things.

First, the Bible is revelation from, and about, God.

Without this Book, we’d be in the dark about God. Oh, we would know something of God from creation. But, without this Book, that would be all we know of Him. This Book lights up our walk through this dark world. This Book gives us truth, and takes us into understandings of truth, that we would not have without it.

And so, we’re determined to continually open our eyes to the light this Book shines on us. We do this even though the bright light it shines on us can sometimes be glaring or painful. We are not “holy.” But we believe this Book leads us to Him who alone is Holy.

Second, this Book teaches us how to live our life with God.

This book tells us of Him who is Life. Our Life. This Book is not “our life” or our “God.” We do not worship it. But, we do worship the One who gives us life and who speaks to us through this Book. And so, we seek to belong to Him, and to Him alone. Both as individuals and as a community. This is our task in every possible way for all of our days.

In sum: He who reveals Himself to us through this Book is our Life and Light.

In a world full of uncertainties, this Book gives us certainties. Certain truth that comes from Him who alone is True.

He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And we are His people. This is our past, present, and future. Walking because of, with, and toward God.

In this walk, He encourages us by telling us He is with us and equips us to do His will. Our Life is beside us and inside us. Our Light, gives us ways and means to use His light.

What a tremendous blessing it is to see His Life and Light in each other! A people of God; a people of the Book!

Thanks and glory be to God!

And so we will serve Him forever!

Let the whole church say … “Amen!