Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Maintain the Unity of the Spirit!

The title of today’s sermon is “Maintain the Unity of the Spirit”—words taken directly from our text and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They capture the theme of what God is calling us to believe and do in these verses. 
But a simpler way to express the same thought is this:  God’s guidance on how to “get along” with our fellow Christians.
These words are not quite as holy sounding as the title from God’s Word, they are a little bit blunt, and maybe they take us aback.  We hate to think that Christians would ever be at odds with one another or that there would ever be any conflict between Christians.  “How can I not get along with fellow believers—they believe in Jesus too?!”
But what about that Christian you are married to—are you always on the same page with your spouse? 
What about those Christians who are your children or your parents—do you always see eye-to-eye? 
What about those Christians sitting here in the Lord’s house with you today—do they never rub you the wrong way?
The Spirit-inspired words that we have before us today from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us down-to-earth, practical advice on how to get along with fellow Christians in our marriage, home, and congregation. 
These words tell us that:  1. We are called to unity and peace-filled relationships with fellow believers—2.  They tell us how peace and unity is accomplished through Christ-like lives—3.  and they tell us that unified and peace-filled relationships with fellow Christians are a reflection  of the deepest truths of the Gospel.  St. Paul wrote:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
            The reason for many of the struggles we have in our Christian lives (including getting along with our fellow Christians in our marriages, homes, and congregation) is that we do not give sufficient attention and importance to our identity in Christ—what Paul labels our “calling”.  And so, what is our Christian identity or calling?
By virtue of our baptism into Christ we are called:  God’s children:  we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ—we have been reconciled to our heavenly Father and filled with the Spirit-- and are called to walk in newness of life—in other words:  to live out that identity by taking up our cross and walking in Jesus’ footsteps of love and sacrifice for others as his disciples.
Children of God and disciples of Christ—this is who we are—not who we would like to be—not what we have to strive to be—this is who we are.  And our lives—what St. Paul calls our “walk” should correspond to that identity and calling.  But that’s not always the case, is it?
There have been times over the course of my ministry when I have been asked to mediate a conflict between two Christians and when all else fails I will tell them:  “Let’s just pretend for the sake of argument that we are Christians, what would a follower of Jesus do and say in this situation?” 
And that always gets their attention.  “I don’t have to pretend I am a Christian!  I am a Christian!”  “Wonderful!”  I say, “How then should a child of God and disciple of Christ act in this situation”?  “Oh”!
When we get caught up in conflict with another Christian—whether in our family or marriage or congregation—often times it’s because we have forgotten the high calling of being children of God and disciples of Christ.
The content of that calling is Jesus and it is his life that is to be shown in our lives—in other words, that we are to live, as the Bible says, in all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love just like Jesus did.
            Now, I want you to think about the last conflict you had with a fellow Christian—the last argument or disagreement—the last time there were hard feelings between you and a fellow believer-- whether in your marriage or family of congregation. 
Just for a moment forget about that other person and what a stinker they are and ask yourself:  “Was I humble—did I count that person more important than myself?  Was I gentle- or was I ready to give as good as I got?  Was I willing to bear with that person—in other words, was I willing to put up with that person -or was I quick feel put upon?”
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that often times we don’t get along with other Christians in our marriages, homes, and congregation—not because they are such stinkers—but because we are not the humble, gentle, patient, loving children of God and disciples of Christ that we are called to be.
There is one more piece to this when it comes to our attitude towards other Christians that especially applies to times of conflict.  The Bible says that we are to be EAGER to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  And so let me ask you a question:   Are you EAGER  to live at peace with your fellow Christians?
All of us are tempted to say “yes” to that question.  “Of course, I am willing to live at peace with them!”  But are we really? 
You see, being united to, and living at peace with, fellow Christians is much, much more than avoiding those Christians that we don’t particularly like in our congregation.  It is much, much more than the simmering “cease-fire” we reach with our children or parents.  It is much, much more than the “let’s just try to make the best of this” attitude that couples often fall into in their marriage. 
That we are EAGER to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace means that no matter what that other person does, WE will take the initiative when it comes to making things right.  It means that no matter how that other person acts, WE will be the ones who are humble and gentle and patient and willing to go the extra mile. 
And we will do that because that is who we are as Christians and that kind of life shows the deep truths of our Christian faith.  The Bible says that:
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
            For all of us, there are times in our lives when we do not live in peace and unity with our fellow Christians-times in our lives when we are not the humble, gentle, peaceful, long-suffering people that we ought to be. 
What a blessing to know that Jesus Christ never failed to live this kind of life and through faith in him his holy life is counted as our own! 
The Bible says that Jesus’ cross has removed the diving wall of hostility—not just between our sin and God’s wrath—but has removed the dividing wall of hostility between us and others—that he has done this to unite us to himself along with all those who share the same faith and hope that we have in him.   
Because of Jesus’ forgiving life, death and resurrection:  God is our Father- and heaven is our home -and we are filled with the Spirit right now.  AND SO THEN…
We cannot say to our fellow Christians “I want nothing to do with you”-- because they are members along with us in the one body of Christ.
We cannot think the worst of our fellow Christians-- because they are filled with the same Spirit as we are and he is at work in their lives too.
We cannot withhold our love from our fellow Christians-- because our heavenly Father loves them and sent his Son to die for them too to make them members of his family just as we are.
Whatever the differences might be that we have with our fellow Christians, what are those differences compared to what we share in common?
We confess the same faith on Sunday mornings in the words of the creeds.  We have been washed in the same baptismal water and fed with the same body and blood.  And we confess the same Jesus to be our Savior and Lord.
When we elevate (what are really minor) grievances and aggravations into divisions and bitterness, we deny the profound gifts we share together with our fellow Christians.
Today we hear God’s call to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”—in other words, to “get along” with our fellow Christians. 
We are reminded that we are God’s children and Jesus’ disciples and that because this is our identity we are called to live Christ-like lives. 
And that as we do so, we are showing the deep truths of our Christian faith:  that God loves us and has brought us to himself to live with him and our fellow Christians forever. 
May our peaceful, united lives with other believers always reflect this wonderful, saving Good News!  Amen.

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