April 13, 2003
With this sermon, we are almost to the end of the “Praying with Paul” series. There is one more sermon after this and then we are done. The prayer we are looking at in this sermon is different from any of the others in this series. All the other prayers could be answered individually. “I pray that God would strengthen you in the inner man.” That’s answered individually. “May God cause your love to increase.” Answered individually. “I pray that you will bear much fruit for God’s glory.” Answered individually. “I pray that you will know how to choose those things that are best.” Answered individually. But today we come to a prayer that cannot be answered individually. This is a prayer for unity. Romans 15:5 says, “May God give you a spirit of unity.” Since unity by definition involves more than one person, it can’t be answered in your life alone. This is a prayer that can only be answered corporately, as the whole church comes together to worship God.
In just a few months I will pass the 25-year mark as a local church pastor. In that quarter-century I have been on both sides of the fence regarding the “spirit of unity.” I know what it is to be in a congregation where the people love each other and where there is a sense of love, joy, peace and harmony. That’s been my experience nearly all the time I have been the pastor of Calvary Memorial Church. But I have known other days in other places. I know what it is like to go to church when the people don’t like each other anymore. I know what it is to pastor a church filled with rumors, gossip and unkind accusation. I’ve been to church on Sunday morning and felt the tension and seen the angry faces. I know how painful that can be. My experience in the last 25 years has led me to these five conclusions:
1) Unity is a precious gift from God.
2) Where unity is present, all things are possible.
3) When a church is divided, nothing works right.
4) Unity is easily lost and hard to regain.
5) True unity does not happen by accident. We must pray for it and we must work at it.
Unity is hard work. It demands an ongoing commitment from every believer. Ephesians 4:3 says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I love the way Eugene Peterson (The Message) translates Philippians 2:1-2, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.” That last phrase is very crucial—”deep-spirited friends.”
Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The first Christians took this so much to heart that the pagans said of them, “Behold, how they love one another.”
In the last 40 years no one has spoken more prophetically to this issue than the late Francis Schaeffer. Although he is remembered for his apologetic evangelism, perhaps his greatest contribution was the work of L’Abri in Switzerland. It was there, in chalets far up in the mountains, where seekers and skeptics from around the world gathered, that Francis Schaeffer hammered out his philosophy of Reformation theology joined with observable Christian love. These are his words: “If we do not show beauty in the way we treat each other, then in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of our own children, we are destroying the truth we proclaim.”
Even as we confess the truth of his words, we also confess that Christian love is easier to talk about than to put into practice. A little poem says it well:
To live up above with the saints that we love,
That will be grace and glory,
To live down below with the saints that we know,
Ah, that’s another story!
Perhaps you’ve heard of the little girl who prayed, “Lord, make all the bad people good and all the good people nice.” When we pray for unity, we’re asking God to “make all the good people nice.”
I. The Source of Unity
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5). Note that this is a prayer. Paul asks God to give a “spirit of unity” because unity is not a program or a plan or a sermon or a project. Unity is a gift that comes down from our Father in heaven. So we must pray for God to grant it to us. The phrase “spirit of unity” translates a Greek word that means to “be of the same mind” or to be “likeminded.” The New Living Translation calls it “complete harmony.” I like that because harmony is what results from many different people singing different parts, yet in proper relationship with each other so that a pleasing sound is produced. Every choir contains different parts. At any given moment, six different people might be singing six different notes. Yet every note has a precise relationship to every other note so that the total sound produced is exactly what the composer intended. The result is beautiful harmony. True unity comes when everyone in the church is singing the same tune at the same time.
I ran across a Swahili word (the only Swahili word I know) that epitomizes this concept. It’s the word Harambee, which means, “Let’s all pull together.” Picture a group of people all pulling on a rope at the same time in the same direction. You could translate this, “May God give you a spirit of Harambee so that you will all pull together in the same direction for the Lord.” We have lots of “pullers” in the local church, but too often the “pullers” are pulling in seven different directions at once.
That’s why the end of verse 5 is so crucial. If the source of unity is God, the focus of unity is Jesus Christ. As we follow him, the church moves forward in perfect harmony. Think of it this way:
He is the Head of the church.
He is the Foundation of the church.
He is the Lord of the church.
He is the Leader of the church.
Follow him! When Jesus is at the center of the church (and not our pet projects and our personal agendas), we’ll all be pulling together in the same direction as we follow him. And what is a Christian anyway? In its simplest terms, a Christian is one who follows Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). He is the way from God to us, and he is the way from us to God. Jesus is the only way to heaven. A missionary traveled to a remote village. He was given a guide to take him there because they had to walk through the jungle. As they started their journey together, the path was clear and easy to follow. But then it vanished and the guide had to cut through the vines and the thick undergrowth with his machete. The missionary got nervous and asked, “Where’s the path?” To which the guide replied, “I am the path. Just follow me.” Jesus is the path that leads to heaven. Follow him and that’s where you will end up.
II. The Goal of Unity
“So that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6). The phrase “one heart and mouth” tells us that the context involves the public worship of God. Picture a vast multitude of believers from all over the earth, lifting their voices together in praise. There are Americans and Iraqis and Bolivians and Japanese and Filipinos and believers from Cameroon, Finland, Russia, Wales, Paraguay, Grenada, Sri Lanka, Chile, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and every other nation on earth. There are men and women, young and old, rich and poor. They come from every ethnic group on earth. There are Christians from every denomination in this throng. It is a vast, uncounted assembly of believers in Jesus. Though they speak different languages, they lift up “one heart and mouth” in praise to our Lord.
I have experienced this in a small but very real way in my travels around the world. I have discovered to my delight that God has his people scattered in some very unusual places. And I have learned that there are many different ways to worship God in spirit and in truth. I learned to do a little worship dance at the YWAM base in Belize. I stood with John Sergey and observed a Greek Orthodox liturgy in St. Petersburg, Russia. I clapped and cheered with enthusiastic Haitian believers during an evangelistic campaign. I have preached in an evangelical church on the banks of the Volga River and joined in worship with the King of Kings church, a Messianic, charismatic congregation that meets at the YMCA in Jerusalem. With tears of joy, I joined with 62,000 men at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in 1994 as we sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Rise Up, O Men of God” during a Promise Keepers rally. God has his people in many places, and they worship him in many different ways. But where the Spirit of the Lord is at work, there is true unity that transcends language and cultural barriers.
This verse has a very personal meaning for me. Shortly before we were married, Marlene and I decided to look for a Bible verse that would serve as the theme of our life together. After some discussion, Marlene said, “Honey, why don’t you find one that you like?” A few days later I came across Romans 15:6. Marlene had the reference inscribed inside my wedding band. I don’t think I had looked at it for ten years until this morning. I took off my wedding band (with some difficulty), put on my reading glasses (it’s been almost 29 years!), and checked to see if it was still there. The inscription has faded a bit, but you can still read it clearly: “M.W. to R.P. 8-22-74 Romans15:6.”
If we are to glorify God, we must do it together. It’s not as if you can glorify God your way and I can glorify God my way, and each of us can glorify God individually and forget about everyone else. The New Testament knows nothing of that sort of hyper-individualistic spirituality. We need each other if we are going to truly glorify God by being “one heart and mouth” for the Lord. Let me illustrate. A few days ago I happened to walk past our orchestra as it was rehearsing for the Good Friday services. I stopped to listen for a moment as they ran through one of their pieces. It was beautiful because they were on the same page following the same conductor at the same time. But consider how unlikely that is in many respects. You have oboes and clarinets and violins and a drummer plus several trumpets and other instruments as well. If each person played whatever he wanted, the result would be chaos. But when those very different instruments blend together on the same song following the same conductor, the result is wonderful. In the church we are called to blend our hearts and our voices to the purpose of our conductor, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we follow his lead, the church produces a symphony of praise that the world cannot ignore.
But Christ must be at the center. This can only happen as we follow him. When Christ is at the center of life, there is beauty and harmony. There is peace and hope. Put Christ at the center of life and all will be well. There is peace even on the battlefield. Last Sunday morning NBC reporter David Bloom died of a pulmonary embolism outside the city of Baghdad. He was an embedded journalist reporting on the war in Iraq as he traveled with the Third Infantry Division of the US Army. I had greatly enjoyed watching his reports because they seemed to make the war very close and very personal. David Bloom was only 39 years old. He is survived by his wife and three young daughters. What you probably don’t know is that David Bloom was a born-again Christian who was involved in a men’s Bible study and prayer group. He sent what turned out to be his final e-mail to his wife on the eve of his death. His words sound like an epitaph: “When the moment comes in my life when you are talking about my last days, I am determined that you and others will say ‘he was devoted to his wife and children, he was admired, he gave every ounce of his being for those whom he cared most about … not himself, but God and his family.’” (Source: National Review Online, April 12, 2003). When Christ is at the center of life, you can face the possibility of your own death without fear and with peace in your heart.
III. The Proof of Unity
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). It’s one thing to talk about unity; it’s something else to put it into practice. Unity means nothing unless we are willing to accept other believers. The Greek word translated “accept” is a long word that is very picturesque. It means to see another person and to open your arms to take that person to yourself. It has the idea of taking someone by the hand and walking together as companions. It means to open your heart and your home to another person. Notice the standard applied here. We are to accept each other as Christ accepted us. How did he accept us? He accepted us “while we were yet sinners.” He accepted us when we were ungodly rebels. He took us when we were hopeless and gave us hope. He loved us in spite of our sin and welcomed us when we did not deserve to be welcomed. He opened heaven to us when we deserved only hell. This is a high standard, so high that we will never meet it in our own power. Only Christ himself can give us strength to accept others this way.
Last Thursday I traveled to South Bend, Indiana to do an interview on the LeSea Television Network. The program is broadcast across America and in many countries around the world. I was scheduled to talk about my book, The God You Can Trust. Just before we went on the air, the host said, “After we talk about your book, I’d like to talk about racial reconciliation.” Okay fine, but that’s the kind of topic you’d like to know about in advance. But what was I going to say? It’s their program and their network. So we started the program and talked about the book for a few minutes. Then he said, “Pastor Ray, I’d like to ask you, What is God’s solution to the challenge of racial reconciliation?” Talk about an open-ended question. You could talk for hours about that. This was my answer: “If you’re talking about theology, I believe the key to all reconciliation is to understand the grace of God.” And I talked about how God doesn’t play favorites, how he loves the whole world, about how God doesn’t favor Americans over Iraqis or whites over blacks or rich over poor, and so on. I mentioned that I was preaching on Romans 15:7 this Sunday and quoted this very verse: “Accept one another as Christ accepted you.” Then I pointed out that the Bible says God’s grace is “multicolored.” He saves anyone, anywhere, who comes to him in the name of Jesus. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Once we understand that, we have a firm basis for true reconciliation in society.
Here is the end of it all. When the church is united, God is glorified and the world is amazed. God is glorified as Christians from very different backgrounds learn to love each other in spite of their faults and differences. In a world filled with so much killing, so much pain, so many broken hearts and so many fractured lives, a truly united church is irresistibly attractive to many hurting people. But it’s easier to talk about this than to put it into practice. We’re all pretty good at liking people like us. But lots of people aren’t like us and they aren’t very easy to like either. What should we do in a practical way to apply this sermon? I have two suggestions:
A) Pray for unity. Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring unity in the larger body of Christ. And pray for a deeper unity in your own local congregation. Ask God to reveal and remove any wrong attitudes that hinder the work of his Spirit in your midst.
B) Ask yourself a hard question: “Am I willing for God to change me?” It’s a lot easier to think that others need to change. “My kids are driving me nuts. Change them, Lord!” “My husband ignores me. Change him, Lord!” “My wife is getting on my nerves and my boss is a jerk. Change them both, Lord!” Perhaps we should all pray this simple Chinese prayer: “O Lord, change the world. Begin, I pray Thee, with me.” As the old spiritual says, “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Before we ask God to change anyone else, we’d better look in the mirror.
Take a moment and do a quick inventory. Here are some attitudes and actions that hinder unity in the church: gossip, slander, anger, bitterness, selfishness, argumentative spirit, having to win every time, spreading rumors, holding grudges, majoring on the minors, lack of courtesy, being easily irritated, avoiding people, looking away, ducking into a room so you won’t have to talk to someone, focusing on the faults of others, finding reasons to criticize, refusing to work together, judging people primarily by age, sex, size, physical appearance, skin color, culture, language, dress, occupation, or income, comparing everyone to yourself. Are you guilty of any of these things? Perhaps a good test would be to show this list to another person and ask them, “Am I guilty of any of these things?” It would take courage to do that, but it might also lead you to make some needed changes.
Knowing God Personally
And the key to all this is knowing Christ, making him the center of your life, following him as Lord and Savior. A few days ago I received an e-mail from someone who has been attending Calvary for a little over a month. She likes the church but doesn’t understand everything she hears. In particular, she doesn’t know what people mean when they talk about a “personal relationship” with God. How is that possible? She was not raised with any particular religion in her childhood and now is trying to find peace with God. She put the matter this way: “I don’t think that I’ve gotten to the point where I can say I’ve been saved. To be perfectly honest I don’t even know what that really means.” I wrote her back and thanked her for her honesty. And I told her that she needed to know three things in order to have a personal relationship with God. First, knowing God is a matter of faith, not good works. No one can ever be good enough or work hard enough to earn their entrance into God’s family. Faith and faith alone opens the door. But it isn’t faith in a vague or generalized sense that introduces us to God, which leads to the second point. Our faith must be focused on Jesus Christ. He came to make a way for us to know God personally. Holy Week makes this very clear. He died on the cross for our sins—taking our place, bearing the punishment meant for us, dying so that we might live, paying the price for our disobedience, so that through his bloody death, our sins might be forgiven. He rose from the dead on the third day in order to guarantee our acceptance with God. Third, in order to receive the benefits of what Jesus did for us, we must make a personal commitment to him. It’s not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus” in a general way. Lots of people have “general faith” in Jesus. The faith that saves is the faith that reaches out to trust him as Savior and Lord. Saving faith means trusting Christ so much that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t to go there. It means trusting him so completely that there isn’t any Plan B in case Jesus can’t save you. At some point you have to cross the line, sign on the dotted line, say “I do,” open your heart, take a step of faith, and ask Christ to come into your heart. Until you do that, you are not saved and you don’t have a personal relationship with God. No one slides into heaven simply by going to church. At some point you have to commit yourself to Christ.
I included a very simple prayer in my e-mail to the woman who wrote me. I encouraged her to pray the prayer sincerely to the Lord as an expression of the desire of her heart. The prayer goes like this:
“Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. I believe you are the Son of God. I believe you died on the cross for my sins. I believe you rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen.”
If you desire to know God personally, I encourage you to bow your head and say these words out loud to the Lord. I hope you’ll take time to think about this prayer and then to pray it to the Lord. If you will do that, sincerely and from the heart, the Lord will save you. He will come into your heart and change your life. And to everyone who reads these words, I hope you will write me with the good news that you have truly prayed that prayer from your heart. May God give you faith to believe and a heart to reach out and trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Amen.