Phew! I just turned in my grades for the spring semester, my busiest one yet, and now have almost a week off before my three online classes start up. Last week I had the privilege of sharing with my friends in Traverse City on their National Day of Prayer. TC has a terrific group of godly pastors who cheer for each other and link arms whenever possible. I enjoyed being with them, and soaking in their beautiful city–though there was still ice in the bay and a few patches of snow on the ground, in May!
The theme for this year’s Day of Prayer was unity, so I spoke for twenty minutes on our need for both grace and truth. Here is the substance of my talk, omitting one or two spots of elaboration (if a section goes by too quickly, that’s why).
Our passage for this year’s Day of Prayer calls us to unity in the body of Christ. Romans 15:5-6—“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I need this message more than you do. I’ve been cursed with the spiritual gifts of discernment and exhortation. Discernment enables me to see the flaws in my friends, and the gift of exhortation means I don’t mind telling them. I may soon run out of friends, but, doggone it, at least I know I’m right!
When I was a child my family joined a tiny Baptist church in Northeast Ohio. We were small because the pastor had the spiritual gifts of discernment and exhortation. We became tiny when most everyone else got them too. If you weren’t a tough cuss when you came to our church, you were one or the other by the time you left. My pastor told us we were small because we hadn’t compromised. We were the faithful remnant. The truth is we were small because we bit people.
Our church never would have gathered with other Christians for a National Day of Prayer. We were afraid to pray with Pentecostals, Presbyterians, or the wrong kind of Baptist (which was every other kind). We were wrong. Dead wrong. We were passionate about protecting the right teaching of Scripture, but we didn’t realize that Scripture teaches us to protect the unity of the church. Heresy is a scandal, but so is schism. Schism is a heretical, torn picture of the body of Christ. It’s spiritual graffiti.
The night Jesus died he prayed for us, that we would be one, even as he and the Father are one. Has God answered this prayer? Look at the text. John 17:20—“My prayer is not for them alone.” Who is Jesus referring to? Who is “them”? His Jewish disciples. John 17:20—“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” Who is Jesus referring to now? You and I, but most immediately his disciples’ first converts: their fellow Jews who would be present at Pentecost, and soon the Gentile God fearers like Cornelius. John 17:21—“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
More difficult than getting a Methodist and a Baptist to pray together is to get a Gentile and a Jew to get along. This is the problem behind our text this morning. Paul wrote Romans 14 and 15 to command Jewish Christians not to judge Gentiles for breaking the law and to command Gentile Christians not to look down on Jews for being so sensitive.
Did God answer Jesus’ prayer? He did. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” My tiny church never would have believed it, but we were one with the Lutherans in town. The Spirit has united us in the body of Christ, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can steal sheep from each other, but we’re still one in Christ. We can fight on the softball field–and we will–but we’re still one in Christ. We can take swipes at each other, piously framed as prayer requests—“Dear Lord, we ask that First Church of the Petoskey Stone will present a clear gospel at its Easter Egg Hunt”—but we are still one in Christ. What God has joined together, no man can put asunder.
This is true. Every word of it. But it’s also true, as our verse reminds us, we’ve got a ways to go until our practice catches up with reality. Romans 15:5-6—“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We may never achieve such complete unity in this life, but this annual gathering is a very good start.
1. What Unites Us?
Unity requires both the One and the Many. You can’t have unity with yourself, because you’re just one person. There’s no many, no difference that can be brought together. We can have unity in a room like this, because there are many of us. We’ve got the difference covered, now all we need is the one. Oneness requires two things:
a. Grace: love and goodwill for each other. People of grace are committed to each other, to believing the best about each other. When we sat down for breakfast this morning, we didn’t gossip, “Did you hear what’s happening at Mission Point Presbyterian?” unless it was to share some piece of good news. Wouldn’t it be something if we gossiped so well about each other that each new meeting was preceded by good reviews? Wouldn’t it please Jesus for me to know something good about you, and you me, before we even met?
b. Truth: We need grace, but grace isn’t enough. We also need truth, or our unity is a sham. If I showed you a picture of President Obama and Vladimir Putin warmly shaking hands, and told you the picture was taken yesterday, you wouldn’t believe it. You’d say the picture was photo shopped, or if it really happened, then both men are pretending. They don’t like each other. They’re this close to war. Putin wants Ukraine and Obama doesn’t want him to have it. They have nothing in common. One of them looks good shirtless and the other usually is.
Every true community has something to rally around. It’s easy to tell what it is, because they put it in their name. In Traverse City you’ve got a hiking club, track club, swim club, and paddling club (looking back on my childhood, I believe my father belonged to the Ohio chapter). You’ve got a figure skating club, rock and mineral club, even an optimist club (which may not have survived the winter).
What does the Christian Church rally around? It’s in our name, too. Our rallying point is a person, Jesus Christ, whom John 1:14 says is full of both grace and truth. Jesus draws us together as he draws us to himself.
E.g., Tuning an orchestra. The trumpets don’t tune with the violins who tune with the French horns who tune with the trombones in some continuous string. Instead, each instrument listens for the oboe. As each adjusts its pitch to this focal point, it automatically tunes with every other instrument. Just so, as we tune our hearts to Jesus, we join hearts with each other.
As we tune our hearts to Jesus, we begin to exude both grace and truth. Francis Schaeffer said that grace and truth are like two wings on an airplane. Which one would you like to do without? Would you prefer to corkscrew to the left or plummet to the right? Wouldn’t it be best to keep both wings and fly?
I like the plane analogy, because it illustrates that grace and truth are not opposite poles that cancel each other out. Like the two natures of Christ, they are two sides of the same coin. Some Christians are high on grace and low on truth. But grace without truth isn’t even grace, but sappy platitudes slobbered by an indulgent deity. Other Christians are high on truth but low on grace. But truth without grace isn’t even truth. Jesus is the truth, and he is full of grace. We can hold all the right doctrines, but if we hold them without love, we lie.
2. What Divides Us?
If unity requires grace and truth, we must be honest about what still divides us. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we no longer fight much over denominations. We realize that our different views on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and eschatology need not divide us. It wasn’t always this way. Earlier in the twentieth century, one seminary president wrote to an alum who had changed his view on the rapture: “You will find yourself very shortly being avoided by all your classmates, by all the faculty and by all the alumni of the institution which has meant so much to you.”
This letter sounds quaint. Can you believe Christians used to separate over the rapture? The bad news is that we are now dividing over much more important issues. Perhaps our grandparents had the luxury of fighting over the rapture because all of the big stuff was settled. That’s not true anymore, as we saw again last month with the World Vision controversy. That dustup is another installment of the liberal/conservative divide, which concerns how Christians should relate to the modern world.
The modern world celebrates human progress through reason and science. We are more advanced now than ever. How should we relate to an ancient book that has miraculous tales that modern people find incredible? As Rudolf Bultmann explained, “It’s impossible to believe in the supernatural in the age of the wireless” (Beware chronological snobbery. Your advanced culture will seem silly in a generation).
The church’s response to modernity divided most every denomination in the 1920’s. There were liberal and conservative splits among the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Catholics. This division skipped right over the CRC and RCA, because in the 1920s they were still speaking Dutch.
The Defining Question: do we stand over or under the Bible? Conservatives stand under and liberals stand over. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism: liberalism is an entirely different religion. Here’s why. Liberal progression: denied hell, then sin, then cross, then the deity of Jesus (no need for Jesus to be God, and impossible anyway, since the supernatural does not act in our world).
One liberal pastor famously asked, “How can they accuse me of denying the deity of Christ? I’ve never denied the deity of any man!” Okay. See, that’s what we’re talking about. Right there. The liberals changed the rallying point of the church. If we don’t worship the same Jesus, it’s impossible to unite together.
The debate over gay marriage is the latest installment of the conservative/liberal divide. Those who say the Bible doesn’t speak to consensual gay relationships are committing the liberal mistake. They are standing over the Bible and grasping for reasons to disagree with its clear teachings on marriage and sexual practice. Their new reading of the Bible must divide the church. How can we unite with someone with such a low view of God’s Word?
Earlier this month I received an email from a former student. Her pastor had written a column in favor of homosexual practice and asked forgiveness for his previous sin of bigotry. She asked what she should do, and I said if the pastor does not recant and the church does not fire him then, as painful as it is to leave the church that raised her, she’ll have to find an assembly that courageously stands under the Word of God.
In the last couple of months, there is a new wrinkle that is fast dividing the church: Should Christian florists, bakers, and photographers participate in a homosexual wedding?
I wouldn’t do it for several reasons, yet I’ve spoken with Christians who say they could offer their services without approving of the sin. I think it will be difficult, if not impossible, to participate in a gay wedding and still think of it as sin—a violation of a creational norm that damages everyone in the family—but I’m willing to grant them this freedom. These Christians must also grant the same freedom to people like me who think they would sin if they took the pictures or festooned the chapel with flowers. It’s a serious thing to ask another person to violate their conscience. If it’s not spelled out in Scripture, we had better not tell them they must do it. It’s a sin to bind the conscience.
Whatever your view on this issue, we must follow Jesus’ example and, as Paul writes in Romans 15:2, seek to “please our neighbor for their good.”
3. How and Why to Pursue Unity?
This is how we can disagree without being disagreeable. The divisions I mentioned this morning are not news. Many of you have had conversations about them, in person and online. I’ve noticed something about these online discussions. Perhaps it’s the medium, but often each side will ignore the other’s questions and pursue its own line of attack. This makes sense if our object is to win, but what if we pursued the higher purpose of pleasing our neighbor for their good? What if we asked before every post, “Will this comment draw this person to Jesus?” If Jesus is the embodiment of grace and truth, we won’t lead people to him with spite and spin. The means is a vital part of the message.
Why is our unity so important? Besides being the right thing to do, what do we get out of it? Our theme verse tells us—“so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is power in unified praise.
I can illustrate with something we all understand: snow. Consider snowflake #1. He has read piles of motivational books and listened to hours of inspirational podcasts that have convinced him that he, an ordinary snowflake, Can. Change. The. World. He is determined to make his mark, so he pumps himself up by watching Rocky I, II, and III. He skips IV and especially V, for the same reason you do. Now, as he psyches himself up for his big moment, he puts on his headphones and dances to “Eye of the Tiger.” His whole flake shakes with adrenaline. He cries “Geronimo!” and hurls himself from the sky. And splats in the middle of your windshield. He instantly dissolves. You don’t even notice. Seconds later your wipers brush aside his tiny puddle. He didn’t change a thing.
Now consider snowflake #2. He has much less enthusiasm. He grumbles that he has to get out of bed and come for an early breakfast. There are many other things he could be doing, perhaps things he should be doing. But he comes. And he locks arms with a couple of other snowflakes. Jesus said two or three is enough. And each of them is joined to a few more. The rate of compounding accelerates with each snowflake, and soon, there are hundreds, thousands, then millions of snowflakes locking arms and blanketing the earth. When they get their act together, they can shut down a city. Especially Atlanta.
It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ to rise and stand together. For the glory of God, for the love of each other, and for the sake of the world. But our verse tells us there is something we must do first. We will not stand together unless we first kneel together. So today, in an annual celebration of our daily posture, we join hands with our brothers and sisters, lifting our hearts to Jesus, and we ask him to empower his church to be his gracious, truthful Bride in our dark and divisive world.
Romans 15:5-6—“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”