Monday, March 10, 2014

Bringing All Things Together in Christ - One of God’s Greatest Passions

My brother hates sardines. The reason I bring it up is because my brother used to eat sardines all the time. My two older sisters and I would sit in amazement as he would put those small, dead fish on crackers and eat them. Miraculously, they made it past his nose and into his mouth! Years later, after Chris was grown, I asked him, “How can you like Sardines?” Here was his reply: “I hate sardines. I cannot stand how they smell. Every time I ate one of those things I almost gagged!” “Well then, why did you eat so many?” His reply: “Because dad did.” Then I remembered, the only time I ever saw Chris eat sardines was when he was sitting next to my dad on the couch. He didn’t like sardines, he loved our dad, and he wanted to love the things our dad loved. I guess we are all like that to some extent. We want to be like those people we most admire and respect and love. We will often go out of our way to learn what they care most about.

Well, I admire and respect and love God, our Father, and I am constantly trying to learn what He cares most about. This book is our best guide to our Father’s passions. By reading this book, we are able to see what God loves. I want to focus our attention on one of God’s greatest passions. I say that because the Bible is filled with references to this thing. The Old Testament talks about it. The New Testament talks about it. Paul and the other early Christian evangelists write about it. Even Jesus spent a great deal of time discussing it. See if you can figure out what it is…

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and humble mind. 
(I Peter 3:8)

Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our LORD Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and same purpose.    
(1 Corinthians 1:10)

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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.” (John 17:20-21)

I, therefore, a prisoner in the LORD, 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)

Now this may seem like overkill to some of you. Why am I reading so many different passages? The point I’m trying to make is that this theme of “unity” is everywhere in the Bible. These are just one handful of hundreds of texts from the Bible that center on this theme of unity. In other words, brothers and sisters, our Father is passionate about unity. Unity is one of His greatest passions, and if we want to be like our Father, we need to make unity one of our greatest passions too. I believe one of the reasons God included so many passages in our Bible about unity is because God knew we would struggle mightily with division.

Do you see this picture?

I took this picture a couple of weeks ago just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is built over two important sites, the place where Jesus was crucified and the place where Jesus was entombed. Of all the things I could take a picture of at a place like this, why would I take a picture of an ordinary cedar ladder? I took the picture because this ladder has been leaning against this church in the same spot for nearly 200 years! Six different Christian groups look after this church. The Roman Catholic Christians, the Greek Orthodox Christians, the Armenian Christians, the Syriac Orthodox Christians, the Coptic Christians, and the Ethiopian Christians. The reason this ladder has not been moved since the 1840s is, believe it or not, because none of these groups can agree about whose ladder it is. There is an agreement among these six Christian orders that no one may move, alter, or rearrange any property without the consent of all six orders. Because no one can agree about who owns the ladder, no one will take the responsibility to move it! As we were touring this church, we saw priests from each of these six orders. They each have their “territory” in the church. Each territory reflects the specific tastes and culture of that order. At a set time each is allowed to circle the tomb of Jesus, releasing sacred incense. A bell rings and the Catholics bring out their incense. Another bell rings and the Catholics go back to their territory, while the Greek Orthodox Christians come in. This process continues until all six have had their time around Jesus’ tomb. Not long ago, one of the groups took too long. Whichever group was up next became furious that they were not getting all of the time allotted to them, so, a fight broke out. Christian priests from competing orders literally broke out in a brawl in front of Jesus’ tomb! Palestinian police had to be brought in to break up the fight! I think the reason God included so much about unity in the Bible is because He knew we would struggle mightily with division.

There have been moments in the church’s history when we have made concerted efforts to come together. Some of you may not realize that our own movement, Churches of Christ, was born in an effort to bring Christians together. Three guys in particular, Alexander and Thomas Campbell, and Barton Stone, were serious about this effort. All three were Presbyterians. Well, that is not exactly accurate. They were: Old Light, Anti-Burgher, Seceder, Presbyterians and with each label was another division.

These men and others went back to the Bible and were reminded how passionate God was about the unity of His family. They wanted to be like their Father. So, they set out to bring Christians of all denominations together, and here is how they set about to do it. They saw all of these denominational labels, they saw all of these Christian creeds and they realized that these things had a tendency to divide brothers and sisters in Christ. So, they said, “Let’s set aside all of these things and just be Christians.” They said, “Let’s agree to restore ancient Christian practices that we find in the New Testament.” If they did it, we’ll do it. If they didn’t do it, we won’t do it. Surely, they thought, we can all agree on those most basic things. And for a while it worked. An American reformation of sorts started. Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and other Christians came together as simply “Christians.” They jettisoned those things that divided them from each other. They knew how important unity was to their Father, so they came together. Important to note, however: they did not agree on everything. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone disagreed on just about everything! Not the least of which was the nature of God! Campbell was a Trinitarian, believing Father, Son, and Spirit were one. Stone disagreed! And still they called each other “brother!” Still, they worshipped with each other.

Somewhere along the way, however, as it often has, unity became less important for the children of Campbell and Stone. This movement, which set out to unite all Christians, divided. Now there are three main branches, and many smaller branches, of this movement in America. Instead of keeping “unity” as their primary goal, many of their children began to put more emphasis upon "restoration.” Remember, “restoration” was never the goal of Campbell and Stone. “Restoration” was their method to achieve unity. Before long, some people from our movement began to say things like, “I can’t worship with you if you don’t restore like I do…” “I can’t call you brother or sister if you disagree with me about how to worship…” “I can’t maintain unity with you if you don’t interpret every scripture like I do…”

Church, why do ladders still lean against the Church of the Holy Seplechre? Why are there now three main branches in a movement, which set out to unite all Christians? Why are there so many different Christian denominations in our own city? Why are there two Churches of Christ less than a mile from one another on the same road in Tyler, Texas? I think it is because we have forgotten, or maybe we never knew, how important unity was to our Father. Let’s never forget, God didn’t say much about how we are to worship on Sunday morning, but He said a lot about unity! God didn’t say very much at all about how this world would end, but He said a lot about unity! God didn’t say much about restoration, but He said a lot about unity! Let me remind you why this is so important, why I believe God thinks this is so important. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17, one of the many places Jesus spoke about His desire for unity, He says this,

I pray, Father, that they may all be one…

…So that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21)

Sometimes we are so busy protecting our ladders, and differentiating ourselves from other believers, that we forget the world is watching. In the book of Ephesians, one of Paul’s main points is this, “Church, you must be a reflection of God to this world. Your unity will show the world that God is one.”

“When all the world is plagued with division, by race, gender, economics, the church will be different. And then the world will know that you are God’s children.” Pretty radical challenge, isn’t it? Brothers and sisters, simply put, we have to be better. You have a responsibility to reach out to other Christians across this city and maintain the unity of Christ’s body. Glenwood has a responsibility to reach out to other congregations across this city to maintain the unity of Christ’s body. We must be intentional and we must be proactive, because our fallen nature gives us a tendency to divide. If we want to be like our Father, we must learn to love the things He loves.

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