Sunday, September 02, 2018

Being a Unifier ('I Am a Church Member,' Part 2)

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

We have good friends who are members of a Lutheran congregation which, while being one of the strongest and most faithful churches I’ve seen, has had a succession of seemingly bad pastors. One was paranoid. Another, a thief. Another, lazy. 

For years when we saw our friends, they would, without malice, tell us about what was happening at their church. We would listen and pray. 

Then another pastor came along. He wasn’t paranoid, a thief, or lazy. He was just there. A low energy presence. A diligent if less than inspiring preacher and teacher. A little awkward in social situations. Our friends told us about him and we couldn’t help thinking, “That poor church.” 

But a few months later, we saw our friends and while they reported that their pastor was still less than a fireball, they appreciated him. “Pastor’s faithful,” one of them said. “And he’s our pastor.” They said that they prayed for him and opened themselves up to loving him and serving alongside him. Under that pastor, seemingly un-dynamic and unpromising, the congregation has done well.

This experience is a lesson on how church unity happens. It happens when we look past the faults and idiosyncrasies each of us has, forgive one another for sins, repent for our own, and seek what is best for the faithful witness for Christ by the congregation

We don’t sit around waiting for the pastor or other members to become perfect. 

We seek to forgive our fellow church members as the Savior forgives us. 

We seek to accept one another, imperfections and all, just as Christ accepts us. 

It’s this mutual forgiveness, acceptance, and love that allows us to be used by Christ to fulfill our only mission as His people: to be and to make disciples.

The apostle Paul routinely advertised his flaws and imperfections. This is one of the things I love about him. For example, he wrote to young Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16) 

The unity of the Church is enhanced when we can confess that we are all in bondage to sin, incapable of freeing ourselves and that while we may at times be called to point out an abiding sin to our sister or brother in Christ, we will never do it because we think we’ve got it all together. We will do this only because of the love of Christ and because we don’t want them to lose their grip on grace. 

That’s why the homepage of Living Water shows a group of us praying together during worship with the caption, “Far from perfect: We are a church of imperfect people seeking God’s grace, love, forgiveness, and guidance.” Speaking for me, I totally own that!

In his book, I Am a Church Member, Thom Rainer talks about how, if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s Church, we must seek to live in unity with our fellow church members

He points to the words of Jesus which we cited last week: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35) 

And, Rainer points out, before He was arrested and murdered, Jesus pleaded with God the Father for His Church, “...that all of them [His disciples] may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you...” (John 17:21)

Jesus is not here pleading for organizational unity; He’s asking that His Church would always be united in Him, a people drawn to each other as they gather around His cross and His gospel. It was to be united to Christ that many of us left the organization of our former denominational body to be part of the North American Lutheran Church. 

In chapter 2 of his book, Rainer also says that there are two things we must avoid in the Church in order to live out our unity in Christ: gossip and unforgiveness.

But I want to move away from talking about things that can destroy church unity and move to talking about what builds church unity

Philippians 2:1-11 is a good place to learn how church unity is built. Paul’s letter to the Christians in first-century Philippi was written in about 60 AD. One group of scholars has described it as a “missionary thank you letter.” Unlike the apostle’s letters to the Corinthians, for example, there’s no problem in the Philippian church. Paul just wants to thank them and, as that same group of scholars puts, describe what makes for a life worthy of the gospel. By that, Paul didn't mean to describe what a person needed to do to be worthy of God's salvation and love. Rather, he meant to describe what kind of life people who have already been saved from sin and death by God's grace through faith in Jesus should seek to live. For Paul, a life worthy of the gospel is one built on gratitude for God's undeserved, unmerited grace that comes to us from the crucified and risen Jesus!

That, in fact, is the whole purpose of this I Am a Church Member series: to help each of us live a life worthy of the gospel, a life that can only be lived out in the often wonderful, sometimes infuriating fellowship of the Church.

So, please open your Bibles to Philippians 2:5-11 and pull out a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Paul writes: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:1-2) 

In other words, if Christ and His gospel, if being saved by Christ from sin and everlasting separation from God mean anything to you, then be committed to living in unity with Christ and with each other

When you disagree with the church, do it in love. 

When decisions are made that you don’t like, stick together anyway. 

When your elected leaders work hard, pray hard, and do their best (and we are blessed with elected lay leaders like that here at Living Water), stand with them, pray for them. 

Have “the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” 

When our aim is to look out for others because Christ has already looked out for us, we will be on the road to living as unifying church members.

Please read on: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing  by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7) 

Selfish ambition and vain conceit have no place in Christ’s Church! If a church, church member, pastor, or anyone in the Church ever acts from selfish ambition or conceit, what they do will never glorify God. Never. 

Our translation says that we are to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” But in the original Greek, Paul is much more radical than that. He’s not saying we should try to be like Jesus. None of us will ever be like Jesus if we try to be. We can never be like Jesus in our own power. Jesus is God incarnate. We are fleshy people, sinners by our very nature. 

What Paul is really saying here is, literally, “Let the mind of Christ be in you.” 

In other words, let the mind of Jesus Christ invade and take control of your brain. 

When the holy onslaught of God’s Word comes to you in Word and Sacrament, in sermons or in Bible reading, in conversation with other Christians or in prayer or in the singing of hymns or praise songs, don’t resist

Let the Word of God engulf you, conquer you, overcome you, transform you

Stop resisting God and let Him replace your will, your power, your thoughts, your desires with the will, power, thoughts, and desires of Jesus Christ. 

When God calls you to confess, confess. 

When God calls you to trust that through faith in Jesus, You are His child for all eternity, trust it. 

When God calls you to witness, serve or pray or study His Word, witness, serve, pray, study. Let Jesus in and you will be changed. Christ will live in you! 

This past week, I got a text from a Living Water disciple. A repairperson had been at her house and he noticed her copy of a Christian book. A whole conversation about Jesus ensued. Our member wrote to me: “You have the Kroger deli and I have Renewal by Andersen!” 

As Christ transforms us with His grace, humility will become our MO. Not because we’ve decided to be Christ-like but because, through our submission, Christ makes us over in His image. We will be Christ’s witnesses without planning it out.

We read on: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:8-11) 

Why has God the Father given Jesus the name that is above all names, the name by which we are able to speak to God in prayer, the name that is respected even by those who claim to hate God, the Bible, and Christian faith? 

The answer is simple: Jesus, though God, was also man, a human being, and was the only human being ever able to resist the temptation to strive “to be like God.” 

Jesus sought the glory of the Father, not His own, and, because of it, was able to save all who trust in Him for all eternity. When our common aim is to glorify God and not ourselves, the Church is united, and others come to faith

Whose glory are you seeking? 

Whose way are you rooting for, yours or God’s?

Whose thoughts are you reflecting, God's or your own?

Jesus says that in His kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first. The way of life with God is the way of a servant in Christ’s Church!

So, how is unity built in Christ’s Church? It boils down to this: 
  • When Christ calls us to be His own, we submit to Him and to each other; 
  • we never count ourselves better than others; and 
  • we seek to glorify the God Who has given us life and life made us new in Christ
Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him, ‘Come and die.’” When each of us heed that call, dying to ourselves so that our new selves can rise with Christ, we have unity with Christ and with His body, the Church. Amen