Unity and Community

A sermon I gave at Chenies Baptist Church…

In ‘Christianity’ magazine, there is a bi-monthly feature entitled ‘Why I am not a Christian’ and May’s edition contained the following words: “I have a big problem with the fact that there are so many different factions in the Church and that they all seem to disagree with each other – sometimes in a very public way.”

I don’t know about you but it’s a quote that really worries me. Jimmy Carter put it like this; Among the unsaved people on earth, what is the prevailing image of Christians today? It’s not the dedicated and inspired work of our missionaries. It’s not the great preaching of Billy Graham or others who inspire people. It’s the image of divisions among brothers and sisters in Christ as we struggle for authority or argue about the interpretation of individual verses in the Holy scriptures.’

People reject the Gospel because of those who are meant to proclaim it. Because we can’t agree on the importance of  certain doctrines, because we disagree and disapprove of each others’ methods of worship and the way we remember the Lord’s Supper people have a problem with the Church and the God of the Church.

And it’s not a new problem. For whilst the diversity of the Church should be one of its’ greatest strengths – throughout Church History it has been seen as one of the greatest challenges to the advancement of the gospel. From the Great Schism between the Catholic Church in Rome and the Orthodox Church in the East, to the differences seen in the Reformation and war in Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics which has outlived the reasons it began.

The Ephesians were called to draw together as One Body and One Church a creed like statement which proclaimed that regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised it no longer mattered because they were now united together with Jesus.

It’s not a call for everyone to act in identical ways with identical reactions – it’s to live alongside one another’s differences – celebrating the creativity of God who made us all with different personalities and different passions. Because firstly, God calls for unity, not uniformity. 

I don’t know about you, but I think if God had wanted to make us all identical – he could have done so. The fact that He didn’t speaks to me that He created and celebrates in the diversity of His creation and I can’t help but think that if we spent a little less time ‘debating’ doctrines and a little more time uniting in the love we have for God and for one another – the Church may be a little more effective. Paul spends countless time emphasising to Ephesians and Galatians and Collossians to draw together under the love of Christ Jesus. I stumbled across this story recently, and I thought I would share it with you – not just because it’s amusing – but because it has a good point!

“In a Peanuts cartoon Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels, threatening him with her fist if he didn’t. “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus.

“These five fingers,” says Lucy. “Individually they’re nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”

“Which channel do you want?” asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”

Isn’t the same true for us? Would we not be far more effective if we just learnt to live and work together in unity? If instead of trying to prove one another wrong – we celebrated in the diversity of God’s creation?

Of course, it isn’t an easy call. We’re humans – we rub each other up the wrong way, get on each others nerves, insult and injure one another, sometimes without even realising! But just because something is hard, is by no means a reason to avoid it.

The first verse in this chapter of Ephesians seems to demonstrate the difficulty only too clearly. ‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received’.

Paul does not shy away from the difficulty of the calling – after all, he is writing from a prison cell! But neither does he shy away from the worth of the cause. The importance of the calling we have to try and become more like Jesus. And Jesus was not an aloof teacher, He drew people to him, and in doing so – He drew them together. The disciples were a motley bunch , and in no way uniform – but Jesus drew them together as unified. God calls for unity, not uniformity. 

As I was thinking about this passage, and what it means to be community and in unity with one another – it struck me that in order to live in community we must see ourselves, and those around us as God sees us. I don’t know about you, but ‘being completely humble and gentle, patient and bearing with each other in love even when they are really annoying us is not easy – at times it feels impossible.

And yet.

These things are made that much easier if we begin to see ourselves and others as God does. Jesus called the second greatest commandment ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – it’s implicit that you have to love yourself in order to love your neighbour. God calls us to  live in community, loving others as we love ourselves.

It’s something I have struggled with. Loving others – even the annoying ones-  I could just about get to grips with. But loving myself? I have had many battles both inside my head with myself and with others. I always thought that loving yourself was an optional extra.

But if we are to appreciate that God loves everyone, unequivocally – we cannot ignore that He loves us and calls us to Love others – as ourselves. A friend once – okay, more than once pointed out that it was a little hypocritical of me to preach a gospel of love when I refused to love myself.

It was a wake up call. Admittedly one I pressed the ‘snooze’ button on a million times – but eventually I began to think about it seriously.

If you don’t recognise your own value, the gifts which God has given you – using those gifts is made infinitely harder. Verse 11 makes it clear that God has a work for each member of the Church. We are meant to be God’s hands and feet on the earth – but if we don’t recognise our gifts – how can we use those gifts?

Often we spend so long wishing for the gifts of others – the children’s workers wish they could preach, the preachers wish they could be singers in the band – we can so easily forget how important all the gifts are for the Church.

What, after all would the Church look like if we did not play our part? If the Sunday School teachers decided they couldn’t do it? If the communion servers, the tea and coffee makers, the preachers, the musicians could not continue in the work they do?

It would be a bit of a disaster – not least because the congregation would be severely caffeine-deprived! But on a serious note I return to the analogy of the Body. It would not, could not work if the different parts of the body did not do their job. Even the annoying bits like wisdom teeth have their purpose and part to play in making the body work as one. The calling to the readers of Ephesians is to be true to their call in the light of their place within the church which by definition is unity. An un-unified body would be a disaster…so is an un-unified Church.

For me, learning that loving myself was part of the call on my life was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I’m by no means completely there yet – but as we begin to recognise our own value, we cannot fail to see that same value in others.

In Hall Prayer recently, we have been taking turns to share our testimony’s. It is an incredible time where people share the most amazing journeys they have been on – the places God has brought them from and through. It changes the way you see people, you begin to see them a little more as God sees them and that makes it far easier to live in community with them. As Scott M Peck writes ‘There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.’ And

God calls us to live in community, loving others as we love ourselves.

Thirdly and finally, (I am a Baptist after all) God calls us to grow up and grow together in love. 

From the youngest of us to the oldest – God calls us to grow up. And as we grow up we are  to grow together with Christ as the head.

It’s can seem like an odd picture. Christ as the head. But it is Christ that enables us to play our parts in the way we were created to. In the same way, we enable one another to do what we can do.

It is up to us. If we allow Jesus in – He will help us to grow up and together in His love. The irony is, that in having unity with Christ – we do not become an army of identical toy soldiers – we become more who we are meant to be. As C.S Lewis so eloquently puts it; “It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of diversity which God intended when he made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell. ‘One fold’ doesn’t mean ‘one pool’. Cultivated roses and daffodils are no more alike than wild roses and daffodils.”

And so I return to where I started. When we begin to grow up and together in the love with have for Christ and one another – our differences become yet more evidence of the creative power of God.

As each part of God’s Church becomes more fully themselves, the relationships become more authentic, the love more truthful.

The image that Paul uses at the end of this section fascinates me. That of an infant tossed about in the waves. Nothing solid to hold onto, nothing to anchor them. Because children take on whatever they are told. They are tossed about believing they are useless if they are told so, or intelligent if someone believes in them – a child who grows up being told they are loved will act out of that love. A Church where discord and dis-satisfaction with life and faith will become broken and dissatisfied. A Church which feeds on the Word of the Father cannot help but begin to act out that teaching.

In John 17 verse 21, Jesus is praying for believers. His prayer is nothing short of inspirational, it says ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for 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 they world may believe you sent me.’

The Church becomes a more vibrant, more loving place – if it begins from a place of unity. A community of believers who are all pressing toward the same goal. In Jesus’ prayer for His followers – it seems to me that He is calling us to grow up and together in love.

The good thing is, we do not have to do it alone. We are not children tossed out into the cold – we are enveloped in the love of the Father, pushing us gently forward with His love and blessing, His challenge and comfort.

It is my prayer, both for us here at Chenies, and for the wider Church that we may be One. That we may live in unity, not uniformity, in community as we love others as ourselves, growing up and together in love.

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