Inside the Wedding Ring
April 20, 2007
I was twenty-five years old and fresh out of seminary when I became the pastor of a small church in Downey, California. I stayed there almost five years and then moved to Garland, Texas to pastor another church for five-and-a-half years. Then we moved to Oak Park, IL where I served as pastor for just over sixteen years. If you add it all up, I was a pastor for almost twenty-seven years. And for the last eighteen months, I have been speaking in various churches around the country. These days my ministry takes me from small churches to large churches and to lots of churches somewhere in between. I have the privilege almost every Sunday of seeing God’s work with fresh eyes and from a new perspective. And I have the chance to talk with pastors about how things are going. That’s always instructive because as Yogi Berra said, you can learn a lot just by listening.
A few days ago I wrote a blog entry called How to Spot a Healthy Church—Quickly. I mentioned that that there are two very obvious indicators of church health that the first-time visitor can gauge very quickly.
1) Hearty congregational singing.
2) Obvious affection between the pastor and the congregation.
I won’t say anything about the first characteristic (that’s a subject for a different sermon), but the second one deserves some comment. When there is visible affection between the pastor and his people, when he loves them and they love him, and when you can see that expression of affection before and after the service as he greets people, and when you sense his love for his people as he speaks to them from the pulpit, there you have a healthy church. This is not a function of personality because some pastors are naturally more reserved and others are more outgoing. Pastors and congregations come in all sizes, shapes and various permutations. But you can’t fake genuine love. I have come to understand that a true bond between a pastor and his people is a precious gift from God. It doesn’t happen overnight but is built up over time as the pastor preaches strong messages from the Word and the people listen with eager hearts. And it is buttressed by times spent together laughing, crying, praying, talking, singing, eating, arguing, confronting, thinking, dreaming, meditating, evaluating, rejoicing, worshiping, sharing, proclaiming, rebuking, exulting, and all the other things that go into the life of the local church.
They Can Smell the Joy
I do not tire of quoting Jess Moody who said that people choose a church with their noses. They can smell the joy.
That’s as good a summary as I’ve ever heard. People can smell the joy on Sunday morning. And they can smell the other stuff too. Sometimes it’s easy to smell the manure of church conflict. Most of us have had the experience of visiting a new church and without knowing anything about it, we sense that something is wrong inside the church. People look distraught, upset, flat, disinterested, and sometimes you can feel the tension in the air.
During the course of my ministry, I have been on both sides of the fence regarding the “spirit of unity,” mostly on the happy side. 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. And 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 as a pastor and now as one who speaks in many churches 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 people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). 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 tim.
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 China, 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 a Messianic congregation 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 just took off my wedding band, put on my reading glasses (it’s been almost 33 years!), and checked to see if it is still there. The inscription has faded a bit, but you can still read it clearly: “M.W. to R.P. 8-22-74 Rom.15:6.”
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 with “one heart and mouth” for the Lord. Picture an orchestra warming up before a concert. The violins play one thing, the trumpets work on their scales, the trombones practice something else, the clarinets are doing their own thing, and the flutes, well, the flutes are in their own little world. That’s the way it is when you warm up. There is no melody, just a cacophony of unrelated sounds. But everything changes when the conductor lifts his baton. Suddenly the noise stops. Every eye is on him. When he brings the baton down, the music starts, and what had been unconnected noise now becomes beautiful music. 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.
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.
Let me go back to the inscription inside my wedding band. The only hope of glorifying God with heart and one voice (that’s in verse 6) in the marriage relationship is by accepting one another (that’s in verse 7). Mutual acceptance is the key to developing oneness in marriage. And how does Christ accept us? He accepts us just the way we are. How many times have we sung these words?
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”
If the truth were told, most of us secretly think that we somehow deserve to be saved. No error is so deeply rooted in the soil of the human heart as this one. We spend our lives trying to justify ourselves, when in actuality even our good deeds are as filthy rags before the Almighty. Jesus Christ says, “Don’t try to clean yourself up, just come to me.” When we come, we find that he washes the dirt away. That’s how Christ accepts us.
Every church at its best is a group of saints with plenty of rough edges. How important it is for the church to be a place where we can be accepted as we are and also challenged to become more like Christ.
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.
With that thought we have now come full circle. People change slowly, if at all. We all know how true that statement is when applied to others. Stop for a moment and apply that thought to your own life. How long does it take for you to change a habit or an attitude? For all of us the answer is always the same. It takes a long time.
That’s why it’s much easier to pray, “Lord, change my wife” or “Please change my husband” or “If only my children weren’t such a problem” or “Dear God, please work on my boss. He really needs your help.” As long as we can shift the blame to other people, we don’t have to look at our own failures.
Do you remember that famous Pogo cartoon that goes, “We have met the enemy and he is us”? You may be your own worst enemy.
One reason we don’t change in our attitudes toward others is that we won’t let the truth get too close. A while back I saw a piece of paper with these words printed in large letters: THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE … BUT IT WILL HURT YOU FIRST! That struck me then, and strikes me now, as a profound insight into the process of change. Truth hurts! That’s why we prefer to live a fantasyland of falsehood. We deceive ourselves about the way we treat others, we excuse our unkindness, we gloss over our moral failures, we laugh about our broken promises, we say awful things about our best friends and then say, “I was only kidding.” But we weren’t kidding at all.
The First Step
Would you like to see your life change for the better? The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem. Even the best doctor can’t do anything until you admit that you need help.
I close by repeating the words of Francis Schaeffer: “If we do not show beauty in the way we treat each other, we destroy the truth we proclaim.” For some of us, showing beauty in our relationships cannot happen until we deal with the ugliness within.
So I ask the question in a very personal and pointed way: Are you willing for God to change you? Are you willing for the Lord to do some divine heart surgery if that’s what it takes? You want to be set free, don’t you? If you are willing, you can be free.