II Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19, Ephesians 1:3-14
July 16, 2006
The unity of all things. As I said last week, the unity of believers is one of the things Paul wrote about constantly. Throughout the New Testament, when he wasn’t writing specifically about unity, he was writing about things that promote unity, things like love, forbearance, and grace.
I remember some friends I had back in college. We were in a Christian fellowship together and several of them liked to talk a lot about “New Testament times.” Especially when problems would come up, they would say, “The church today has gotten away from the way it was in the early days. And if only we could get back to those days, we wouldn’t have all the confusion we have today.”
Well, I know why they said that. I’m sure there was a different feeling in those early days when they were close to the time of Jesus. But, as I learned in the years after that, we’re mistaken if we think that the early Church just had the “pure Gospel” and didn’t have any confusion over beliefs, doctrine, or practices; or if we think they were all of one heart, mind, and spirit, and they never had any problems or disagreements. We only have to read Paul’s writings to the New Testament Churches to find that wasn’t the case.
There were many problems in the early Church. There were many differences in belief. There was a lot of confusion over just who Jesus was. And there were arguments over many of the things he said. And a lot of the things Paul wrote in his letters were answers to their problems and questions. And he was very helpful to them. So much so that his words became “gospel” – literally. He gave them answers, and he often gave them wise, practical advice as well. And he gave them tons of encouragement.
Behind it all, though, Paul wrote about what I see as two major themes. And they were ones that helped him keep all things in perspective. Those themes were, the glory of Christ and his kingdom, and the unity of believers. And I want you to see today that those two things go hand in hand. They are part of the whole picture. Paul wrote these wonderful descriptions of the glory of Christ and his perspective in the whole universe, and then he used that as the context for the unity of believers. That’s because, when we see we’re part of God’s great kingdom, when we see ourselves in the context of so great a cloud of witnesses, our squabbling and bitterness and pettiness, pale in comparison! When we see the bigger picture, it helps us not to focus on our own little part of the picture.
Paul was very big on that! He knew we were part of something much bigger. And he wanted the people to see that, and to rise above their struggles and their divisions. He knew that those things hurt the witness of the Church more than anything else. And that’s true! Strife in a Church can hurt its image more than anything else! Nothing will turn people away quicker. And conversely, nothing will be more appealing to people than a gracious, caring, accepting community.
So, when we read Paul’s writings, we find there these wonderful descriptions of the nature of Jesus Christ and the glory of his kingdom. In this letter he tell us about our “redemption and forgiveness in the riches of his grace.” And how, through Christ, we see the wisdom and insight of God himself, and his plan for all time to unite all things in him.
In Colossians he wrote this of Jesus, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together.”
This flies in the face of some of the popular notions going around these days. Dan Brown and others would have us believe that the Church didn’t “decide on” the deity of Jesus Christ until the time of Constantine and the first great Church Council of Nicea. (AD 325) They would tell us that the people at that council made Jesus “God” in order to unite an empire and consolidate the Church’s power. But that’s not what the New Testament tells us. There we find that the deity of Christ was not something added later, but was clearly set down in the writings of Paul – over two centuries before that great council.
I’m sorry that people these days are so quickly buying that terribly cynical view of one of the greatest councils in Church history, or the mistaken understanding about the deity of Jesus Christ, that it was “added later.” There’s hardly a question of this. Anyone who knows the Bible is left with no lesser image of Christ – unless they do so intentionally. The sad fact is that people who don’t know what the Bible says about Christ are left with just the popular notions, and powerful media impressions. The words of Dwight Moody are more and more ominous these days. He said years ago, “The problem with people who have no basis for their faith is not that they will believe in nothing, but that they will believe in anything.”
Later in this first chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes about his prayers for these people. He prays that they would have the “eyes of your hearts opened” that they may see “the hope to which he has called you, the riches of the glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe.” Those are words for all of us. And they tell us about that big picture of which we are all a part.
When we think in those terms, it becomes important that we live on a higher level then once we did. It is incumbent upon us as followers of Christ that we put away all those petty things we may once have known, and that we live in the great power of God’s love and grace. And that makes us different people! Do you believe that? It’s like that old cliché, “When we look up to God, it’s hard to look down on people.”
Paul talks that Jesus unites all things in him, in heaven and on earth. Just think of the scope of that. The unity of all creation is a mind boggling thing. Can all the earth ever be unified that much? God says yes, but it seems impossible to us humans, doesn’t it. And sometimes it seems like the unity of believers is even more impossible, doesn’t it?
We read some of the words from Ezekiel today. And frankly, they’re tough words. God was telling the prophet what it was like to speak to the people. He said they will gladly listen to him, but they won’t do what he says. And believe me, I’m not casting myself in the role of that great prophet. But I would put Paul in that role. We cannot take Paul’s great words, just as great words! We should not hear them read and expounded upon “as people listening to one who sings well and plays skillfully on an instrument,” hearing the words, but not doing them. Let that not be said of us!
These are incredible things! Paul tells us that Christ brings unity to all things – in heaven and on earth. Well, if Christ can unite all things, he needs to start right here among us! This is the “let peace begin with me” perspective. We need to see the big picture in all of this! In comparison to the glory of God and his kingdom, our little squabbles and divisions are as nothing! Instead, we need to be working on promoting that unity Christ brings.
I said a little of this last week. As God’s people, we should be striving to do those things that promote unity. We should strive to be slow to anger, quick to forgive; slow to take offense, quick to show grace. We should try our best look for the good in all people, not the bad. We should be learning to give the benefit of the doubt, not assume the worst intentions. We should allow for the mistakes of others, because Lord knows we make them ourselves. We should be striving to “further the peace, unity, and purity of the Church.” Every one of us who is ordained pledged to do just that!
We need to choose to do all these things intentionally, because they do not happen themselves. If you want to see the “default” side of human nature. If you want to see what kind of attitudes do happen all by themselves, look around you at some of the ways people in our world treat each other. It’s bad!
In my old youth group we used to have a “rule.” It started as the “ten for one” rule. The rule was if you put someone down once, you had to then give them ten “put ups.” That is, you had to say ten good things about them. But I don’t like that rule. I used to know a lady who lived by that rule. And after a while, I started getting leery when she would start saying nice things to me. I found myself thinking, “Oh boy, here it comes!”
So one evening in youth group I challenged that rule. I said, “How about we make a rule that you don’t put anyone down at all!” There was a young man named Tim, who then offered what came to be known as “Tim’s corollary.” Tim said, “One putdown equals death!” It was a joke, of course, but think about it. The point was to end put-downs! And that’s a good thing! But frankly, making such changes is not easy. It has to be intentional!
Let me tell you, I’m getting older. And the older people get, the more set in their ways they become. You know that. People are like concrete. The longer it sets, the harder it becomes. Did you ever try to break up really old concrete? It can be just like rock! And for some people to change their ways is difficult. And if a person is one who is quick to complain, becoming quick to show grace is tough. (Some people even figure they’ve been around long enough they’ve “earned the right to complain.”) But God changes our lives. And when he does so, he makes us more and more like himself.
That’s so important. In fact, that’s what “spiritual growth” means. Growing in our faith is not just about “learning more stuff.” It’s not just about developing better spiritual habits and greater discipline. It’s not just about learning to pray more and read the Bible more. It is those things. But most important, it’s about growing more and more “Christ-like.”
You know that there are people who pray all the time, can quote the Bible in an instant, and who serve all the time in the Church, and yet they treat people terribly and think only of themselves. That’s not how God intends us to live. We are to be conformed more and more to the image of Jesus Christ. He is our example. And as we look to his example, we should be looking to the glory of his kingdom, and the unity not just of all believers, but of all things in heaven and on earth.
Friends, let us live gloriously as part of that kingdom, the kingdom which Jesus tells us is in our midst. Here! Now!!
Eternal God, you have called us to yourself and made us part of your kingdom. Help us to look to the glory of your kingdom every day, as we seek to live this life as people of grace, and of love. Conform us more every day to the image of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.