3rd Sunday of Easter: What Truly Unites Us
Scripture: Romans 15:1-13
Our congregation is 189 years old. In 1834, a Methodist Episcopal Society was formed in this city with nineteen members. Six years later, in 1840, that church—our church—was incorporated. And four years later, in 1844, our first church building was built (pictured to the left). We quickly outgrew that building, so in 1856 we moved into our second building, which was good for about twenty years. In 1874, the cornerstone was laid for our third building, which was built right where we are today, on the corner of Lapeer Ave. and Nineth Streets. That was our church building until 1966, when we moved into our current facility
Since 1834, we’ve called four different buildings “home,” but we’ve been the same congregation throughout. As the denomination has gone through its own changes over that same period of time, we’ve had different official names along with different official logos, but we’ve been the same congregation throughout the last 189 years.
With this in mind, I’d like to ask two questions. First, throughout the past 189 years, do you think the people of this congregation have ever been of a single mind and perspective in the arenas of politics and societal social issues? I’d say no. Do you think it’s ever been the case that we’ve always had the same views and beliefs in matters of theology and Biblical interpretation? Again, I’d say no. I’d bet my entire pension that for as long we’ve been around, our constituency has always reflected a diversity of thought, belief, and perspective in all matters of life. Methodism has always been a “big tent” faith tradition.
Second question: if that’s the case, then throughout these 189 years, what has galvanized us so that we’ve avoided the kind of splintering that many congregations have gone through, some right here in our own neighborhood? I’ll tell you what I think. I think it’s been a commitment on the part of the people of this church to a common mission and purpose. Now, that mission and purpose has probably changed and evolved through the years, but at any given time, there was probably a core purpose and mission which guided our congregational life and ministry even though we weren’t of one, singular mind in certain matters which all too often divide a people.
During Lent, I talked about how from the cross, Jesus inaugurated a new kind of family called “the church” when he introduced his mother, Mary, and his disciple, John, to each other as mother and son. A congregation is a kind of family, and like every family, we’re a diverse people. We’re not cookie cutouts. The fact is, we’re as diverse as any group of people out there, with the exceptions of our common faith in Jesus Christ and the purpose for which he commissioned us. And I believe a commitment to a common and agreed-upon mission and purpose is what unites a church family — including our church family.
One of the biggest challenges we face these days is that there’s been a movement towards limiting one’s sphere of friends and acquaintances to those who share our beliefs and views. It’s the old adage “birds of a feather flock together” on steroids! And when we only hang out with people who view the world just like us, our conversations become what some have called “an echo chamber.” I agree with you, and you agree with me, and we only reinforce what we both believe, never challenging one another to maybe think a bit more critically about the matter at-hand. And when we do run across someone who thinks and believes otherwise, it’s easy to simply write them off. Isn’t it? I know that’s the case because I’ve done it! Most of us have done it. Because that seems to be the way it’s done these days. Our “us” and “them” camps seem to be getting more and more entrenched these days.
But here’s the thing: nowhere has God stipulated that the Body of Christ be separated into politically and socially like-minded people. I also think a point can be made that it’s quite possible for a church which reflects a certain theological diversity to be a healthy and vital congregation. There’s a saying that goes “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, that’s an essential. That’s what binds and unites us. That and the common mission of developing new followers of Jesus Christ and strengthening our own discipleship. These are the two essentials that unite us.
Now, maybe I’m missing something, or maybe I’m being too simplistic, but throughout all the discussions we United Methodists have been having about whether or not to disaffiliate and align with a new denomination, I keep coming back to the fact that for nearly 200 years we’ve been one, united congregation who’s always had diverse beliefs and viewpoints politically, socially, and theologically. And yet we’ve somehow always been able to stand alongside each other for the purpose of doing ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. Why should that be any different now?
I have a colleague who’s a good friend. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of each other since he retired and moved back to the west side of the state. But I consider him a dear friend and I highly respect him as a person and as a pastor. But on the matter of human sexuality in the context of what our denomination is struggling with, he and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In this matter, we couldn’t disagree more with one another. And yet, for years we worked side-by-side in a particular ministry until I was moved and could no longer be a part of that ministry. But the point is, for the sake of doing important ministry, neither of us allowed that difference in our theological viewpoint to be a wedge that drove us apart. Yes, there were times when it was challenging. But we always worked hard to keep the big picture in mind. We had a common mission and a common faith in Christ. Those two things have kept us united despite our theological differences.
I think this is one of the points that Paul is trying to get at in Romans 14, where he instructs those early Christians on how to welcome into their fellowship those with differing non-essential beliefs. In the verses I’m about to share with you, he references persons who are “weak in faith.” This is his way of identifying new Christians, those who’re still learning how to live in the freedom believers have in Christ when it comes to dietary laws. That is, many of those new Christians were carrying over into their Christian practices their former beliefs around following certain dietary laws whereas the more seasoned Christians had let go of adhering to those regulations. Here’s what Paul says: “Welcome the person who’s weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them [both]” (Romans 14:3). His point? Don’t turn non-essentials into essentials. Don’t argue about non-essentials. We can still be united in our work and purpose even if we’re not in agreement with each other in matters that don’t have a direct bearing on our salvation.
Then in chapter 15, Paul encourages them to approach one another with the same attitude and perspective that Jesus approached people. 15:1 says, “We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves.” Let me quickly unpack that statement. In its specific context, he was saying that those who were mature in their Christian faith were to be patient with those who weren’t there yet in their own spiritual maturity. But more to the point, that they—the more spiritually mature—were expected to be the ones to make the necessary adjustments in order to maintain those relationships. Today, Paul would say It’s not about you. It’s about taking the high road and doing what you can do to foster and strengthen your relationships.
He goes on: “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up” (v. 2). One of the telltale signs of spiritual maturity is building up others, which is often going to mean taking a back seat, not getting into debates, allowing people to believe what they believe and not be threatened by that. I dare you to try that some time. The next time you’re in a conversation with someone who’s expressing a belief and perspective that altogether different than you own, I challenge you to simply bite your tongue and not take the opportunity to share your own thoughts. Just listen. And let it be. But that’s hard to do, because we’ve led to believe that we have to somehow convince others that they’re wrong.
And here’s where Paul brings in the comparison to Jesus. He says, “Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, ‘the insults of those who insulted you fell on me’” (v. 3). This line about insults comes from Psalm 69:9. The psalm writer is speaking to God and expresses the notion that he identifies with God so much that when other people do or say things which are a kind of assault against God, he takes it personally. He himself feels the insult as though it were directed at him. The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Paul applies this statement ultimately to Jesus, that Jesus refused to live in a way that was pleasing to himself even though he knew he was always in the right. But he chose the way of humility. He chose the path of not demanding his way even though it was the right way. Rather, he chose the path of building us up, which, of course, meant going to the cross.
A verses later in our reading from Romans 15, Paul quoted four different Scripture verses which highlighted the fact that God had specifically made it possible for Gentiles to become as much as part of God’s covenant people as the Jews had been. Don’t miss the significance of that. God was working to bring people with polar opposite world views and religious beliefs together and call it good! And what would unite them? Their faith in Christ and their mission to bring others to faith in Christ.
Have you ever considered the fact that Jesus’ ragtag group of followers were extremely diverse in their views, politically and religiously? Matthew was a hated tax-collector. Based on what we know about human nature, I’m pretty sure his follow Disciples loathed his presence for quite a while, always wondering why in God’s name Jesus picked him. One or two of the disciples were Zealots. Political radicals. If Jesus had picked this group today, these guys would probably be proud card-carrying members of the NRA. Judas was a thief who, at least according to John, would steal money from their common money bag. Do you think he ever pulled the wool over Jesus’ eyes in this matter? And yet, Jesus kept him around. The point is, Jesus called together a diverse group of followers who often argued with one another because they didn’t see eye-to-eye. But they were nevertheless united. United by their faith in Jesus and their mission. And look what they accomplished!!!
Imagine what we can accomplish as well! Let’s pray…