I preached this message on Sunday, January 22, 2023, the week before we would have our first combined service with three other local congregations. The reference to 5th Sunday services refers to the months that have five Sundays. It means you can have up to 4 combined services in a given year.
This message is based on Ephesians 4:1-6 and John 17:20-23, which you can find here.
I reference the Peanuts cartoon below. I thought it worth including.
Ever notice that whenever Paul starts one of his letters, he addresses the church by the city it’s in? For example, at the beginning of Ephesians, he says To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus. At the start of 1 Corinthians he says To the church of God at Corinth. And I remember when it struck me that he could write to the church of God at Corinth, rather than to the churches of God in Corinth. In other words, I’m unable to say, like Paul, To the church of God in my town. Instead, there are several different congregations in my local area.
Now, I understand that it’s a situation we’re just used to, but isn’t it a little odd at least that there are so many other Christians in our area who we’ll never worship with or go to church with? And, if not odd, at least a little disappointing when you think about it. Think of all the other believers whose witness, whose experiences, whose stories would encourage us, would encourage you. And think of all the other followers of Jesus who could be encouraged by your example and your faith. No doubt there are noticeable differences between the different churches in our area. But I suspect that many of us have much, much more in common than not.
And I am grateful that we’re having these 5th Sunday unity services. And it’s my prayer — and I hope it’s yours — that God will do something through these services that is special and that he may use them for what he has in store for the future. Because the unity of the church is a profound part of the witness of the church. Because how we “do” church makes a difference in whether or not people are going to believe in Jesus.
“Live worthy of the calling you have received”
I remember when I first heard the joke that “Baptists multiply by dividing.” And we laugh because we know it’s true at least sometimes. And, sadly, the first two churches I pastored had church splits in their history. These divisions impacted their life going forward and created a definite impression on the surrounding community.
Obviously, the way fellow believers treat one another and go about their relationships, handle conflict, and deal with differences matters. Is it any wonder, then, that in a passage talking about unity the apostle Paul addresses relationships in the church?
Because even when conflict arises because of theological differences in a church, they are often made worse by our inability to relate to one another well. One person might be a Calvinist and the other person might be a free-will Baptist, and they each might feel very strongly about their view. But can they both be humble and loving in the midst of such strong differences?
Paul directly connects our relationship with Christ and our relationships with one another. That’s what he means when he says to live worthy of the calling you have received. In other words, you have been called to follow Jesus, therefore live a life that lives up to this calling. And here specifically, he is talking about relationships in the church. These relationships should be characterized by humility and patience and gentleness and love.
Let’s consider these qualities. Having humility, for example, means we must not be conceited, egotistical, or proud. Humility depends on honesty. It depends on having the courage to look at ourselves without the rose-tinted glasses. Humility also comes from comparing our lives with the life of Christ. As long as we compare ourselves with others, we may come out of the comparison well. It is when we compare ourselves with Christ that we see ourselves as we are. God knowledge plus self-knowledge equals humility.
Then there’s gentleness. Those who are gentle are so God-controlled that they are continually kind and gracious toward others.
There’s also patience. Early church theologian and preacher John Chrysostom defined patience as the spirit that has the power to take revenge but never does so. Patience is the spirit that bears insult without bitterness or complaint. As Christians we must make allowances for one another and our faults.
We should bear with one another not through sheer grit and determination but through Christian love. There are four Greek words for love, but the word used here is the highest. It means that we must love others so much that nothing they do or say will keep us from loving them and seeking their highest good. Even though they mistreat and hurt us, we will feel only kindness toward them.
Now that’s a tall order! But notice that all of these qualities are also fruit of the Spirit. The qualities are the work of the Spirit in us and in the midst of us. Maybe that’s why Paul says Christians need to be making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Yes, having spiritually healthy relationships with other believers is a result of the presence and work of God. But we also have to cooperate with the work of the Spirit. We have to make every effort. Because there will be times when the quality and strength of our relationships will be tested. And because we are brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus, we are also called to repent to one another when we’ve done wrong. And, like Jesus forgave us, we’re also called to forgive one another. The truth about relationships in the church is that we are not exempt from hurting and being hurt. But what should set us apart is the loving, humble way we practice forgiveness.
How have you seen Christians and churches deal with hurt feelings over the years? Have you seen examples when people have not forgiven? What effect does that have on the church? What difference does that make to the church’s witness? Because how we go about our relationships in the church — and even between different churches — is one very important aspect to what it means to have unity. Because if there’s a church where the members are fighting with one another, then even if the members all claim to believe the same things, it’s hard to say that they have unity.
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism”
Because we should be applying the good news of Jesus to our relationships in the church. How we go about our relationships is a result of being, as Paul says, one body. Because we are filled with one Spirit — God’s Spirit. We share one hope. We have one Lord and one faith. We have one God and Father. Our unity as members of the body of Christ, as the church, is rooted in the oneness of our faith, that we confess one Lord. The unity or oneness of what we believe and confess is the foundation for the oneness or unity of our relationships in the church. To put it another way, what we believe guides how we live as a church.
Now, of course, we’re all aware that Christians and churches have theological differences. But almost all Christians at all times in all places have agreed, for example, on the Apostles’ Creed or even the Nicene Creed. There are foundational, basic Christian beliefs that pretty much define what it means to be a Christian, that define Christianity. And if we agree on these things, that leaves plenty of room for theological differences. Just as we show humility and patience in our relationships, we should also carry our theological ideas with some humility.
My favourite Peanuts cartoon — see above — deals with this well. “I hear you’re writing a book on theology,” says Charlie Brown. “I hope you have a good title.” “I have the perfect title,” Snoopy thinks: “Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?”
Maybe think of it this way. When it comes to theology, “Don’t major on the minors!” Do we believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior? Do we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Do we believe that salvation comes to those who trust in what Christ has done on the cross? Do we believe that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead? If so, then does it matter that much if we differ over method of baptism, whether people speak in tongues, and over end-times theology?
Of course, theological differences are one of the reasons why we have lots of churches of different denominations. That’s why there are Baptists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans, Anglicans, Catholics, and Presbyterians. And many more! Church history is complicated! I’ve always appreciated these words sometimes attributed to St. Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” So when we can at least agree on the basics, on what C.S. Lewis once called Mere Christianity, then we can work and worship together for God’s purposes and glory and kingdom.
If we can do this while also living a life worthy of our calling through spiritually healthy relationships — loving one another and forgiving one another in humility and patience — then we will be keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. No doubt if we were to probe deeply enough, we could find theological differences between ourselves here in this church and with other churches. But are those differences so important, so central, that they should keep us apart, keep us from having unity with one another?
“May they all be one”
Because there is more at stake then whether or not the members of one congregation get along, as important as that is. There is more at stake then whether or not various churches get along, as important as that is.
At our first 5th Sunday service next week we’ll be taking up a special offering for the family of the young fisherman who died on Boxing Day. It’s possible that people who knew him and know his family but maybe aren’t believers or church-goers might come to the service for this reason. Just to support the family. And think about that. They’re coming to a church service where there will be a collection to bless the family of a local fisherman who died tragically. But not only that: this is a church service where four congregations are worshipping together.
We read earlier from John 17, just a few words from Jesus’ much longer prayer. We read the part where Jesus prays like this: May they all be one . . . so that the world may believe you sent me.
Jesus’ words here always get me. Because he very much seems to be saying that whether or not people believe in him, trust in him, turn their lives over to him, depends in part on whether or not his followers are one. This means our willingness to join together whenever possible with other believers and other churches to worship and to serve is a part of our witness to a watching world.
You know, there will most likely be different churches and denominations with theological differences until Christ comes back. But there can always still be ways we can work alongside one another. Then the question becomes: how strong are our Christian convictions, our beliefs, our desire to see other people come to faith in the Lord Jesus? Are they strong enough to seek unity and peace in our relationships with other believers and other churches?
Because Jesus wasn’t talking about — praying about — unity in an abstract or theoretical sense. He was talking about it in a practical and relational way. To put it another way: are we interested in being a part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer?
Well known 19th century pastor and preacher Charles Spurgeon gets at the importance of church unity when he says this: “Satan always hates Christian fellowship; it is his policy to keep Christians apart. Anything which can divide saints from one another he delights in. He attaches far more importance to godly intercourse than we do. Since union is strength, he does his best to promote separation.”
Those are challenging words. But it’s worth considering how the relationships between the churches in our area relates to our witness and its impact on our community. It is my prayer that our hearts and minds and therefore our churches would be open to whatever this might be, that our desire would be for those who are followers of Jesus to come together, to share our worship and our witness, so that those who do not yet confess the one Lord we do would have all the more reason to do so.