Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Help Us Help Each Other

Romans 15:1-13

 I’ve often read Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane with sadness.  He prayed for his followers, saying, “May they be one as you and I are one.”  I often wonder what Jesus thinks of his Church, in light of that prayer.  

We see a Church divided into hundreds of different denominations, some say thousands.  We have a lot of churches that identify as “independent.”  That’s always bothered me.  From whom can a church be independent?  Independent of God?  Independent of other believers?  Neither sounds very good to me.  And we see churches split apart over a variety of issues, many of them quite minor.  

I think that for the most part, all Christians at least give lip service to the idea of unity.  We agree Christians should have unity.  And we’d mostly say that there are some things that are essential, some areas where we should not compromise.  And there are others things that are indifferent; we can disagree about them without sacrificing our unity.  The divinity of Christ is essential; we won’t compromise there.  But the kind of music we use in worship is not essential.  We can disagree about whether we sing “psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs,” without excommunicating each other.  

The hard part has always been, “Where do we draw the line?”  We agree baptism is essential, but is the method of baptism essential?  Does it matter if it’s adult baptism or infant baptism?  Sprinkling, pouring, or dunking?  

But I will say this:  Unity itself is essential.  We can’t call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ if we don’t believe in unity.  We can’t ignore it when the Bible tells us over and over again that we are to have unity.  

But how?  How do we have unity?  

The Epistle to the Romans is helpful for understanding unity because it was written to a church that was so divided between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, and that was the biggest division in the first century Church.  

Romans 15 picks up in the middle of Paul’s discussion of this struggle for unity. Chapter 14 was about the various disagreements in the Roman church; most of which dealt with matters of food and the proper time for worship.  Those things grew out of the Jew/Gentile divide, Jews being accustomed to observing a Sabbath on the seventh day and to living by kosher food laws.  

But there is no resolution to the disagreement.  There is no “This is the right answer.”  Instead, there is a call for unity in spite of the different opinions.  Unity in the Church does not come from complete agreement.  Instead, unity comes from our common love of Christ and our common love for each other.  

It’s not that we should ignore our different opinions, but rather we should focus on the One who is at the center of our beliefs.  The more we focus on Christ and his glory and his Kingdom, the less we’ll focus on our differences.  

This means that it is important that we worship together and that we work together with other believers.  That’s how we focus on the glory of Christ and the Kingdom of God.  We should worship and labor together with other believers, especially with those who do not belong to our little group.  

And in relationship to each other, unity means we must express our love for each other by seeking to build each other up rather than seeking to please ourselves.  We are not to live to please ourselves.  Our own happiness and satisfaction and pleasure should not to be the driving forces in our lives.  They can’t be if we want to follow the example of Jesus Christ who did not live to please himself, but instead, “always did the things that are pleasing to the one who sent him,” as John 8:29 says.  

Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.  I think the formula for the Christian life is found there.  Love God first.  Then think of your neighbor.  You come third.  I learned one time that the formula to find joy in life is found in the word joy itself.  To have joy, J-O-Y, think of Jesus first, others second, and yourself third.  

But of course, we live in a society that is self-centered.  The guiding principle of many people seems to be, “Do what makes you happy first.  Look out for number one.”  But are we happy?  Is our society as a whole a happy one?  No!  Depression and suicide and anxiety run rampant in our society.  Joy comes from being a part of something bigger than ourselves, not from being self-absorbed. 

If we want to follow the example of Jesus, we must first live to please God and second to please other people.  Now, I’ll be honest.  There is an element of that which doesn’t sound good.  Being a “people-pleaser” is not a popular thing to be.  When we think of people-pleasers, we think of people who will say whatever people want to hear. 

Maybe we think of politicians who tailor their message to their audience, who say whatever this particular crowd wants to hear rather than what they really think.  

And that certainly is not the example of Jesus.  Jesus didn’t say what people wanted to hear.  He often said the exact opposite of what people wanted to hear!  He often drew great anger with what he said, especially to the Pharisees, the chief priests, the Scribes, the Sadducees, and the Teachers of the Law.  But Jesus always spoke truly.  He always said what people needed to hear, which was often what drew the anger.  He always spoke the truth with a goal of building others up in the truth.  We call that edification, building up.  

So let’s discard the language of “people-pleaser,” since the meaning of that term has changed in our society.  Instead, let’s say that we should be God-pleasers and people-builders.  Rather than seeking to please ourselves like the world does, let’s seek to please God and build others up in the truth.  That means that we speak the truth with a goal of establishing others in the truth.  And to do that, we must speak the truth in love, as the Scriptures say.  We must season the truth with love and grace, so that it can be edifying, and not just intimidating.  Don’t compromise the truth, but also don’t beat people over the head with the truth, at least not more than necessary!

The other necessary outworking of this passage is that we must accept each other.  If Christ accepted everyone who came to him with an honest desire for the truth and love of God, then his people must do likewise.  And it must be a genuine welcome.  It must be more than just a “nice to see you, glad you’re here, now I’m going to get on with my life.”  It must be a true welcome into our fellowship and into our lives.  

An inclusive Savior deserves an inclusive Church.  Unfortunately, I think that too often, he doesn’t have an inclusive Church.  We often put up walls to new people, especially if they are not like us or if they do not agree with us on every matter.  And we must be willing to work together with other believers and worship together with them, even if they are not part of our group.  

I know I’m not innocent on this matter.  I know I can and should do more to build unity in the Church.  But I’d like to think I’m doing some good.  

Unfortunately, I’m often frustrated by the lack of unity that I see in the Church.  I don’t see the desire for unity that Christ would like to see.  And I don’t see the genuine welcome among God’s people that should be there.  I think I’ve shared with you before

about some of my experiences of being a stranger in worship.  Unfortunately, most of my experiences in that situation have been very negative.  I like to go to visit other churches when I’m on vacation and such, so that I can see what they are doing well, but almost all of those experiences have been negative.  Very seldom have I felt welcomed in those places.  And that’s a problem of unity.  If we are not willing to welcome genuinely anyone and everyone who comes seeking God and seeking truth, then we are just not following the example of Jesus Christ!  

And if we lack unity as the Church, then we silence our own voice.  How can we speak with the authority we should as the people of God if we are just as fragmented and divisive and inward-focused as the rest of the world is?  If we can’t live together and worship together and work together, how can we stand up and speak the truth in a meaningful way?  How can we speak with the authority of Jesus who said, “The world will know you are my disciples by this; that your love one another,” if we don’t do that very thing?   

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