Maintaining the Unity
17th Sunday After Trinity
September 27th/28th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Family is a unique gift from God. It is a tremendously important and fundamental part of this creation because it is a place where you are shaped in a way unlike any other. You can choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family. You get the parents you get, you get the kids you get, you get the siblings you get. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Each person in the family comes with a personality all their own, and one of the great gifts of God is that he has placed us from birth into a situation where we have to learn how to get along with other people. He creates us to live lives of love and service, and has built into creation a place where we do this from before we learn to walk. From our earliest days we are learning what it means to live together with others, to get along with and appreciate people who might have different interests or passions. We learn that, in spite of our differences, it is what we have in common that is most important. The bond that holds family together is powerful. Two people who may have next to nothing in common and who might have never even been friends under different circumstances might end up with the closest of relationships because they are brothers. That’s just part of being in a family. Something you have no control over inextricably binds your life and existence to the life and existence of another person: your parent, your child, your sibling. No matter what our differences might be, we’re family. And that counts for something.
Paul is writing of something similar in the section of his Epistle to the Ephesians read just a few moments ago. In those verses Paul exhorts the Ephesians, and us, to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. He is talking about what it means to be a member of the household of God, to be a child of God, part of his family. It is a family we were brought into through adoption in the water of baptism. There is tremendous joy found in this family, but like our earthly families, we don’t get to choose our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet also like our earthly families, the unity we have with them is a special gift from God that should not be lightly cast aside. This is a unity that is found in Christ. In Baptism, each of us is individually united to Christ. I no longer live, Christ lives in me. But there is only one Jesus, which means that all who are united to him are also united to each other. It is a unity we possess as the family of God. Communion works the same way. When I feast on the body and blood of Jesus, I am united to that body and blood; I am united to him. But there is only one Jesus, which means that I am also united to every other Christian who has been united to our Lord in this blessed sacrament. “For 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.”
This is a unity that God himself creates and that God himself maintains. It is not some sort of contrived unity like the kind practiced by those who pretend that denominations don’t have different confessions. There is a different word for unity of doctrine. The Latin word is concordia, like the Book of Concord that contains all our official teachings or like Concordia University where those teachings are passed on to future church workers. No, Paul is not writing about concordia, but unitas. It is not unity of doctrine. It’s not unity we create at all. Some unity is man-made. Take, for instance, the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sometimes, when circumstances demand it, people voluntarily put aside their differences and temporarily unite themselves toward a cause. But such alliances are temporary by nature. Such alliances are forced. Paul is writing not about unity we create, but unity we maintain. The unity is already ours in Christ. It is true unity, unity that overrides our personal differences, unity that comes from God himself. Spartans or Wolverines, jocks or drama kids, republicans or democrats, Ford or Chevy, we are one in the body of Christ. Paul encourages the Ephesians, and us, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we all have together as the body of Christ, and which we each have individually as members of that body. According to the Apostle Paul, this worthiness includes several things.
First, he calls us to walk in humility and gentleness. Humility doesn’t come naturally to us, but it is a necessary part of any lasting relationship. There are many in our world who consider humility a weakness. But without humility, relationships are doomed to fail. One person I read commented that humility is the “deep sense of one’s own smallness and insignificance,” an attitude that Paul says Christians are called to cultivate. Walking in humility means that we do not consider ourselves better than others. When we consider ourselves to be better than the people around us, we are prone to short tempers and sharp criticisms. We will be quick to condemn and slow to help. Such attitudes are lethal to the unity we possess as the family of God. C.S. Lewis said that the result of being in God’s presence is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. That’s the humility Paul is encouraging. Rather than indulging rivalry and bitterness, we walk in humility and gentleness. We see our own need before God, our own sin, our own shortcomings, and our own inability to save ourselves. We see the great gift of reconciliation we have been given through the death of Christ. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. He died for me. And he died for you too. We are each forgiven, each renewed in Christ, not because of what we have done, but because of what has been done for us. Living in that reality breeds the humility that Paul is talking about, humility that leads to gentleness in conduct, gentleness in conversation. When I know what my Lord has done for me, how could I not live in gentleness toward others? After all, he has died for them too. If that person sitting next to me is someone that Jesus was willing to be tortured for, executed for, someone for whom Jesus left heaven in order that they might spend eternity with him in paradise, who am I to treat them poorly? No, in humility, we live in gentleness toward each other.
Paul also points out that we are called to live in patience toward each other. Like humility, patience is challenging. I don’t know if you saw it last week or not, by one of my friends on Facebook shared a part of an interview with a New York City school teacher. He commented on how differently he approached his own kids compared to the way he approached his students. With his students, there was a healthy disconnect. He could look at a student who had some personality quirk that got on his nerves and deal with it for 45 minutes a day. He could look at a student who wasn’t living up to her potential, and while he worked hard to pull that potential out of her, eventually the decision was hers. If she steadfastly refused to apply herself, he could move on as a teacher and find the next student who needed help. It’s different with your own kids; with your own kids, there’s a different level of emotional investment. It is frustrating to see someone not living up to their potential, but it is twice as hard to be patient with that person if they are your own child. It is hard to deal with the quirks of a coworker, but it is doubly hard to deal with the quirks of someone who lives in your house, who you see all the time. It takes patience to live in a family.
The same is true for the family of God. It is one thing to patiently bear with the sinful actions of the unbelieving world – for we have low expectations where that is concerned. But the call is to live patiently within the family of God, maintaining the unity we have been given here, and that can be more difficult. When someone we don’t care about says something hurtful toward us, it can be easily dismissed. When someone in the family says something hurtful, that’s harder to deal with. When another member of the family pokes fun at us, or belittles us, that can be harder to stomach. And in those situations, the person who said something hurtful should absolutely repent. But the offended person is called to forgive, to live in unity, to patiently bear their brothers and sisters in Christ with all their faults and all their flaws. That’s not to say there is never a time to exercise “tough love,” because there certainly is. But those cases are the exception, not the rule. The rule is patience. The general approach to our life in the family of God is putting up with one another in order to preserve the unity we have in Christ.
There is much to be excited about at Saint John these days. Yes we are still operating with a deficit budget, but the deficit is less than anticipated because overall giving is up. We have a plan in place to pay off the new gym floor before next spring. And finances are only part of the story. There is more excitement to be found in the relationships and atmosphere around our Church and School. We are certainly not perfect; no place this side of heaven filled with sinners ever could be. But our principal received a phone call this past week from a parent who was visiting our gym from another school for a volleyball game. She wanted to let our school know that she was impressed when she saw one of our students helping a little girl from the other school find the restroom. One of the teachers from Fraser public schools who taught here briefly this year took a job in a different school district. She made sure to tell each of our teachers before she left that this is a special place, that the students and parents and teachers create a welcoming environment. There are certainly more examples I could draw from, but the point is that we are blessed as a congregation.
But those blessings can disappear as quietly as they came. If we do not walk in ways that maintain the unity we have, division will soon follow. If we are a people who do no walk in humility and gentleness, if we are a people who hold grudges and wallow in bitterness, the atmosphere will change. If we are a people who are impatient with those around us, the atmosphere will change. The unity is not ours to create, but we are called to maintain it by living in humble repentance and bearing with one another in love. We are all in this together, united together as the body of Christ. So let us continue to confess our sin together. Let us continue to receive the gift of God’s forgiveness together. Let us continue to join together at the table of our Lord. Let us continue to sing together, to pray with each other, to pray for each other, to have coffee and dounts together, and to study God’s Word together. Let us walk in a manner worthy of the unity we possess in Christ. After all, we’re family here – the family of God.
 Ephesians 4:5-6