Eager to Maintain the Unity
17th Sunday After Trinity
September 18th/19th, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
What excites you? What gives you that Christmas morning feeling? What gets the anticipation coursing through your veins? I remember both as a basketball player back in the day, and as a coach in the more recent past, how agonizingly slow game day was in school. I was excited for the game. I was eager for the competition. So much so that everything else I did that day seemed to drag on and on and on. It’s a little different for me now. Last week I ordered a book from Amazon online. Because I didn’t want to pay extra for shipping, I chose the 7-10-day delivery option. A week to a week-and-a-half of waiting for that book. When I get it in the mail, I’ll eagerly open the packaging and hopefully, time and schedule permitting, start reading it that day or the next. But for now, I wait. Excited for the day my book arrives. Eager to have it in my hands.
What excites you? What are you eager for? Paul encourages us in today’s reading from Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have been given as the children of God, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Does that excite you? I’m sure we’re all eager for something, be it the soon to arrive fall traditions of colorful trees, pumpkins, and cider and donuts, the new movie or book you’ve been waiting for, or (if what I’ve seen on Facebook is any indication) maybe even the arrival of Christmas. We’re all eager for something. But are we eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?
Maybe the better question is: what does that even mean? What is the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? The unity of the Spirit is the unity we receive as a gift from our Lord. It is a unity given to us through Jesus. There is only one Jesus – and all who are united to him are therefore also united to each other. This is not a unity we create for ourselves. This is the unity that is already ours by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of kneeling at this altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.
While this unity is not ours to create, Paul does call upon us to maintain it. Maintenance is a simple concept, one we all understand and apply – probably on a daily basis. We maintain our cars by changing the oil and brakes, by washing the road salt off the paint, and by keeping an eye on the different fluids in the engine. We maintain our bodies through regular doctor’s visits, healthy eating, and maybe even a little exercise. We maintain our homes by fixing a leaky roof, replacing a broken hot water heater, and straightening up the mess from time to time. We are all too familiar with the idea of maintenance. We do it on a daily basis.
But do we make it a priority to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? The unity of the Spirit, remember, is the unity that belongs to any and all who are united to one and the same Jesus. The bond of peace is the glue that holds that unity together – again, glue that comes from our Lord himself. It is a bond that not only unites us to our Lord himself, but also to one another. Are we eager to maintain that bond? Do we treat the relationships we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ with as much care and concern as we show to our cars or our house? Do we make maintenance a priority? And how would we even do that?
Paul points us first to humility. A Christian pastor writing the 4th Century once wrote, “Meekness is the foundation of all virtue. If you are humble and aware of your limits and remember how you were saved, you will take this recollection as the motive for every excellent moral behavior. You will not be excessively impressed with either chains or privileges. You will remember that all is of grace, and so walk humbly.” The point is that a humble and honest estimation of our own abilities fills us with an eagerness to forgive and bear with the sins of others. It frees us from becoming too proud of our successes or too despondent at our failures. It simply allows us to live each moment in love.
Far too often we set aside humility and fall victim to pride. We are quick to speak with an accusation or to spread a juicy bit of gossip, but slow to speak up in defense of a brother or sister in Christ. There’s a reason the reviews and comments sections on the internet are so negative. We love to tell others our bad experiences, often because it makes us feel vindicated or righteous. We are quick to spread stories that make us feel like we’re better than others. We love to broadcast the failures of others, to become mired in criticism. But not only do such actions not maintain the unity of the Spirit, they actively destroy it! It’s like skipping the oil change to instead pour sugar in your gas tank! It’s the opposite of maintenance – it’s sabotage!
We need to repent of such an attitude. We need to repent of speaking hurtful words. We need to repent of spreading rumors and gossip, even if it’s true. Rather than letting the sin of another become the topic of a conversation that leaves us feeling self-righteous, our Lord calls us to see in their sin a reminder of our own. Our Lord desires that we would be led to repentance of our own. In the Large Catechism, Luther says we are to have “graveyard ears,” ears where unflattering stories go to die and be buried, never to surface again. We certainly wouldn’t keep a secret if someone was at risk of being harmed. And when you operate a school, there comes a time where students, teachers, parents, and pastors each have to be held accountable. We don’t need to ignore poor behavior in the name of unity.
But we don’t have to let the reputation of a brother or sister in Christ be dragged through the mud either. Usually, when we find ourselves relaying an unflattering story we aren’t simply reporting a concern through the proper channels. Usually, we are simply gossiping about whose kid did what, or which teacher said what, or why the coach is wrong. In those cases, when you hear that juicy tidbit, repent of the eagerness you feel to pass it on, and instead be filled with the eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Refuse to speak words that would divide or create camps. Refuse to speak words that would end up driving a wedge between supposed “school families” and “church families,” between “member families” and “nonmember families,” between “teachers” and “parents,” or between any other labels that would divide. Rather, be eager to maintain the unity we have in the Spirit. Let the rumors and divisive speech die in your ears. Let words of life and hope and encouragement flow from your tongue.
For such are the words Jesus has spoken about us. Jesus did not drive a wedge between the Almighty Creator and his creation. He did just the opposite. He united them, coming into his creation and one of its own. He took on human flesh in order that we might be reconciled and reunited to our Father in Heaven. He took all of our impurity and imperfection, all our sins in thought, word, and deed, and he buried them, not in his ears, but in the tomb where his own lifeless corpse was laid. He suffered and died to pay the price for our careless words, for our hurtful actions, for the many and various ways that we undermine the unity of the Spirit.
And in his resurrection, he has restored that unity. Unity with the Father in heaven. And on earth, unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we are called not only to maintain that unity, but to be eager to do so. To make it a priority. To take pride not in being better that others, but to take pride in the unity we possess together as forgiven sinners. We may do this by inviting new members into our circle of friends. We may do this by having “graveyard ears.” We may do this by walking in humility and patience. But above all else, this unity is maintained by being and remaining united to Christ himself. It is, after all, the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We maintain this unity through regularly confessing our sins, not merely in private, but in the company of those with whom we are united. With the very people in this room today. Fellow sinners. People whose lives are marked by the same failures and disappointments, the same hurts and anxieties that mark our own. We confess our sin together, eager to hear the good news of forgiveness. When we hear of another’s sin, we don’t eagerly await a chance to spread the news of that sin to others. Rather, we see in their sin a reminder of our own, and in humble repentance, we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another. We are eager to confess. Eager to forgive and be forgiven. Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We maintain that unity through regularly kneeling at this altar to be united to the body and blood of Christ himself through this simple gift of bread and wine. We call it communion for a reason. You can hear the word union in it. And it is through this blessed gift that we are united both to our Lord himself as well as to each other. Here we receive the blood of Jesus that cleanses us of all sin, not only washing away the guilt of sins committed, but even cleansing us of the shame and hurt we feel when we are the victim. All that would divide is removed; the unity of the Spirit remains. It is not our act of eating or drinking that unites us, but the fact that through this eating and drinking the same Jesus is alive in each of us. Through him we are united. The unity is already ours. We are not called to create it, but to maintain it – through confession, through the Lord’s Supper, through graveyard ears.
This gift of unity is ours. Given to us by our Lord through Word and Sacrament, sustained by our Lord through the same. And as his Word works in our hearts, it converts our desires so that they begin to resemble him. Therefore, no matter what we are eager for, be it the arrival of a holiday or the release of a new movie, let us also be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Let us walk in humility and gentleness and patience, remaining united to the one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, to the God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. To him be glory and honor for ever and ever. Amen.
 St. John Chrysostom; Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians. p.158