We continue our sermon series on the Letter of Ephesians on what it means to have a varsity level type of faith, a maturing and growing type of faith. In his letter, Paul offers seven important areas that we all need to have a strong faith, a varsity level kind of faith.
Last week, I wore my varsity jacket during the sermon. Today, I am honored and privileged to wear Elyse Suhay’s varsity jacket. You might notice that Elyse’s jacket has a very heavy material that is not suitable for wearing during the summer months.
So, Elyse’s name is on the jacket. She was in the Jackson High School band back in the day. Playing in a high school band requires a lot of practice, time, and discipline. So this varsity jacket represents all of the hard work that Elyse put into being in her high school band.
Last Sunday, we saw the importance of lettering in worship and how worship is a vital part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And by worship, we mean both, daily personal worship and worship as the larger community of faith here in church.
Today, we look at what it means to letter in unity.
Before I ever preach a sermon or lead a bible study, I am aware that I will be speaking to a group of people who can be all over the map in terms of political persuasions, social stances, and theological viewpoints.
We have conservatives, liberals, moderates, and any other artificial label that we tend to use to describe a certain groups of people. United Methodists can be all over the place on a whole range of subjects.
Some churches will not let you become a member of their church until you agree with them on a variety of issues. And then there are other churches, like ours which say,
“Before you become a member of this church, the most important thing that we want to know is, ‘Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve Him as your Lord, in union with the church?’”
If you can make that public declaration, then you’re just as much a part of our congregation as anyone else. And it’s not that we don’t think that social and political issues are unimportant.
Far from it. All you have to do is try to try to lift a copy of our denomination’s “The Book of Resolutions” to realize that United Methodists have a lot to say about a number of vital and important issues facing us today.
Even before immigration reform was a reoccurring headline in our national news our United Methodist Book of Resolutions had a lot to say about that particular issue.
And this is just one of approximately 200 issues listed in this book which is revised and edited every four years at General Conference by people representing you and me. Half are laity and half are clergy.
Obviously, we don’t all agree on everything that is printed in our Book of Resolutions on these important topics, but the fact that we at least have something to say about these important topics speaks volumes for our denomination.
As I read through this book, I didn’t realize that some of these issues even existed. And as I read through them, I think to myself,
“This is something that we should think about as it relates to our faith in Jesus Christ. These are important issues to look at in the light of our faith.”
But let me just say this. If we think that Christian unity is based on all of us being of the same mind on every single issue, we are going to be extremely frustrated.
Christian unity is not dependent on a bunch of Christians having the same opinion about certain things. Christian Unity has a different foundation and that’s what the Apostle Paul is showing us here in chapter two of the Letter of Ephesians this morning.
Christian Unity is not found in our agreement on every single issue. Christian Unity is possible when we remember that Jesus is what brings us together.
That word “remember” is important for the Apostle Paul because he uses this word twice in the opening verses of our scripture passage.
Remember what? What did we forget?
Paul says to those of us who did not grow up in the Jewish faith which is probably most, if not all of us,
“Remember that at one time, we were” (and I love how Paul phrases this) “We were strangers to the covenant of promise.”
In other words, unlike the people of the Jewish faith, there was a time when we were not included in God’s covenant. We were the ones who used to be on the outside looking in. It was God’s chosen people who took center stage for God. Not us.
God first formed the people of Israel a long time before any of us when he made a covenant with Abraham way back in the Book of Genesis.
God told Abraham, “It’s through you and your descendents that I will bless you and claim you as my own.”
God has a special place in his heart for the people who have descended from Abraham. They are his chosen people, his covenant people.
And then, there’s us. You and me. Where do we fit? We’re not directly from the family of Abraham. How is it that we find ourselves in this place worshipping the same God as the descendents of Abraham?
Paul tells us why? Jesus.
He’s the only reason why we are now on the inside. It has nothing to do with our family history, our good morals, our wealth, our prestige, our social status, what cars we drive, where we work, how handsome we are or how beautiful we are. But it has everything to do with Jesus.
Paul says that it’s through Jesus that we who were once far off have been brought near.
It’s through Jesus that we have access to the Father.
It’s through Jesus that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but now citizens and members of the household of God.
The church choir met for rehearsal one night. It was a special rehearsal because the youth and college age choir was teaming up with the adult choir to prepare for a big Easter cantata that was fast approaching.
This was the first time that they had teamed up for a big event like a cantata. The youth choir had quite the reputation. In addition to singing in church, they often gave concerts in other churches and even traveled out of state to perform their sacred music in a variety of venues.
A few people in the adult choir, OK, we’re really only talking about one person, had a problem with the youth choir teaming up with the adult choir for the Easter cantata.
It was not uncommon for this adult choir member to exercise passive/aggressive behavior by making rude comments about the youth choir members during the cantata practices.
Evidently, the adult choir member felt threatened by the up and coming youth choir and didn’t want them to have any part in sharing with them for such an important Sunday as Easter.
As the choir director of this church was telling me about this situation, I asked him, “So how did you handle that situation?”
He said, “Well, after about 4 or 5 of those nasty comments during rehearsal, I just couldn’t take it any more. It got to a point where everybody in the two choirs could hear her off the cuff comments, so I decided to confront her negative behavior right there on the spot with everybody listening.”
I called out her name and said, “These youth are your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and I will not allow you to say hurtful things to them during practice anymore.”
So I asked him, “How did she respond?”
He said, “We now have one less person in the adult choir.”
Even though this story doesn’t have a happy ending, the phrase that he used during that choir practice, “These youth are your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ,” has always stayed with me.
I think this is what the Apostle Paul is getting at in his letter to the Ephesian Christian community. Our unity is to be found in Christ, and we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is such an important thing for us to remember as well. The person sitting several pews away during Sunday worship, the person at the other end of the table during a church meeting, the guy entering the church building who you’ve seen before but you just can’t remember his name, the young adults gathered for a bible study; we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
Who would have thought of the idea to gather all kinds of people together who have so many different opinions, backgrounds, and experiences and call that group of people, the church? We know who. It was God.
That’s how we letter in Christian unity. This is what makes us one family in Christ, despite our many differences. We are one in Christ.
The meeting was about to end. There were about twenty of us sitting around those meeting tables and together we were probably representing fifteen different churches in that community.
“Before we end our meeting, does anyone have any joys or concerns you’d like to share before we close with prayer.”
“Well, yes, I do,” a normally soft spoken-person said almost immediately. Her voice trembling, but determined, she nervously continued to speak.
“I would like for all of our churches to pray for the immigrants who are living in our city and surrounding area. As an immigrant myself, I’ve been hearing a lot of people in our community put down immigrants and say some pretty hateful things. Right here in our community. Right here in this city which I love so much. Please pray for our community that we would truly be a city that welcomes all.”
The room suddenly became silent. No one felt the need to offer any other prayer concern. Without sharing a single word, we all knew that it was time to pray. And wouldn’t you know it, that the chairperson of our ecumenical meeting said, “Robert, would you close us in prayer?”
We stood up and all joined hands around those tables. I couldn’t help but to notice how a white hand was holding a black hand, a black hand was holding a Hispanic hand, a Presbyterian hand was holding a Pentecostal hand, and Lord knows, there was probably a Buckeye hand holding a Wolverine hand.
I know, right?
I know, right?
I collected my thoughts and spoke these words, “Gracious God, for these many different hands around these tables, we give you thanks. Forgive us for anytime that we have treated others as outsiders and for our sin of exclusion. Enable our city to be a place of hospitality and where people can call this home. This we pray, in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
Sometimes we forget just how important it is to end our prayers that way. “In the name of Jesus, we pray.” “In the name of Jesus, we pray.”
We usually end our prayers with that little phrase, “in the name of Jesus.”
The Apostle Paul would be pleased whenever we do this, because Jesus is who makes us one. Jesus is why we are no longer called immigrants or aliens, but citizens of the household of God.
All because of that one word, “Jesus.”
In 1997, the popular Christian author and speaker, Max Lucado gave a message at a large gathering of Christians representing a wide variety of church denominations. Baptist. Methodist. Lutheran. Presbyterian, Catholic. Non-denominational. And a whole host of churches with different backgrounds.
In his speech, Max Lucado said, “I want you to think about where you attend or have attended for quite often. And on the count of three, I want all of us to say the name of our religious heritage, denomination, or name of church. Will you do that for me?” Max Lucado asked. “I’d like to hear you shout out your church name at the same time. One. Two. Three.”
And of course, you couldn’t understand what anybody was saying since they were all shouting the name of their church all at the same time.
Max then asked, “Did anybody understand anything that was said? Now this time on the count of three, I would like you to shout out with me the name of the Savior that has redeemed your soul, Jesus. One. Two. Three.”
And everyone shouted in perfect unison, “Jesus!”
His message was a powerful one. One that reminds us of what it means to letter in Unity and have a varsity faith.
My hunch is, that too often in the church, we allow so many little things to divide us and keep us from being one. It’s like that old church joke that says, “Wherever two or three are gathered together, there will be disagreements.”
Actually, Jesus put it this way. “Where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them.”
Jesus. The one who through his life, death, and resurrection, has broken down the dividing wall that separates us.
Jesus. The one who through his death on the cross, put to death the hostility that was between us.
Jesus. The cornerstone who holds the entire church together.
Maybe this sermon isn’t a sermon after-all. Maybe we should think of this sermon as a prayer. Would you take a moment and stand? Take the hand of the person standing next to you. Just take that person’s hand. If you’re not near somebody, scoot over or turn behind you. Whatever you need to do. This will be short and painless, I promise. And it's not the cold and flu season so I think we can do this.
We’re going to turn this sermon into a prayer for Christian Unity.
Bow your head and pray with me. “Take this church, dear God. Even though we may not think alike or agree on certain issues. Take this church. Take this diverse group of people and this crazy pastor, and may we be unified in worship, mission, and service to your heavenly kingdom so that the whole world might know that you are alive and real.
Remind us that what unites us is so much more important than the things that divide us like political persuasions, social issues, personal preferences, and even our favorite sports teams. What a joy it is to be part of a Christian fellowship where we are not all the same.
There is strength in our diversity and varied life experiences, and at the same time you are the one who makes us one. Thank you for this melting pot setting called, Athens, Ohio that is known for its acceptance and inclusion of all people. Help us to have a varsity faith where we always seek unity and where we see each other as brothers and sisters of Christ.
In the name of Jesus…In the name of Jesus, we pray.”
And with one voice, all of God’s people said together, “Amen.”