While we were down in Pennsylvania my family and I visited the town of Gettysburg. We hired a private guide to drive us around and show us the battlefield and to tell us about the battle. I found it a profoundly moving experience and not a little distressing. As you know Gettysburg was a major battle in what is called the American Civil War. I won’t get into too many details but in the 1850’s the southern and northern states divided over the twin issues of state’s rights and slavery. The southern states broke away from the Union and formed a Confederacy. The issue quite literally pitted brother against brother and friend against friend. Many officers in the Union and the Confederacy had trained together and even fought in battles together. Many of them still considered some of the other officers on the other side to be friends even as the war was raging. Two such officers that our guide told us about were Lewis Armistead and Wilfred Scott Hancock. They had been serving together in San Diego just before the war started. When Armistead left San Diego to join the Confederate army, he told Hancock that he hoped God would strike him dead if he ever took up arms against him. Unfortunately, during the last day of the battle, Armistead found himself leading men in a charge against Hancock, a charge known in the history books as Pickett’s charge. In fact, Armistead was the only Confederate commander to manage to breach the Union Lines and his men advanced the furthest of all the Confederate soldiers before they were stopped. Both Armistead and Hancock were wounded in the battle with Armistead being captured after he was wounded. It was with great distress that Armistead heard of Hancock’s wounds and in the opinion of some; it was that distress that contributed to his death two days later.
I found that story profoundly sad. I find disruptions of relationships on all levels profoundly sad. I remember the childish playground tiffs that separated best friends – at least for an afternoon anyway. More seriously in my young adult years I sat with friends as they grieved breaking up with the young women they loved. Over the years I have seen people I care about get divorces or experience riffs with family members. Unfortunately, I have even seen disagreements between members of churches that have resulted in people leaving churches and sometimes in full blown church splits. In fact, the church I pastored in Kenora experienced a split about four years before I became its pastor. The earlier part of my ministry involved rebuilding the congregation. It was also during this time that I listened to some of the heartbreaking stories that came out of that split and I became more determined to become someone who would help others prevent and heal the rifts that can happen in churches.
Can I ask you something? Are you as distressed as I am when people in churches don’t get along? Does it bother you when brothers and sisters in Christ find themselves at loggerheads and in conflict? My next question I’m not going to ask for any kind of audible response just one between you and God. Have you ever had a conflict with a brother or sister in Christ? In the honesty of your heart, would you say that maybe some of the fault was yours?
These are important questions even though they are tough to think about. It takes humility to answer them honestly if you have been involved in conflict and you can trace some of the blame to yourself. We like to think of ourselves as peaceable, reasonable people. It’s everyone else who loves to fight and is selfish and unreasonable. One day a boy and his mother were out driving somewhere and the boy innocently asked, “Mom, how come when Dad drives, the roads are full of idiots but when you drive, you never seem to see any?” This showed that the problem was not with the other drivers, but really with the father.
The problems involved in keeping a church unified often dwell right in us. If it is any comfort, this is something that Paul had to deal with almost 2000 years ago. Problems keeping church unity are not new by any stretch of the imagination. The early church also struggled with church unity. The early church which is so often glamorized by us had its problems too. It’s one reason why Paul wrote his letters – to address problems in churches. This could be the case with this part of the book of Romans where we find ourselves today. We are now in the section where Paul talks about our response to the mercy of God as seen in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. For the first twelve chapters he dealt with what Christ did for us in coming to earth and dying on the cross for us. For the first twelve chapters he talked about the forgiveness of sins and new life available to us because Christ not only died but rose again. In this section, he talks about our response to this. Our response, as we can see from this part of chapter 15, is that we be united in love so that by that love we glorify God.
How do we do that? It is difficult, after all.
I. By having a genuine concern for each other’s welfare.
1 ¶ We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
We are inclined to please ourselves, aren’t we? The “me first” attitude that starts showing itself around the age of two never really leaves us. The Disney Movie “The Emperor’s New Groove” was all about this. The movie poster made this very clear.
It is this self-centred attitude that causes the most trouble for church unity. In fact, it causes the most trouble for any unity at all – family, team, business – whatever. That’s why sports coaches often point out that there is no “I” in “team.”
The greatest enemies to harmony with you are my desires, my wants, my pride and even my fears. The greatest enemy of harmony is my desire to please myself.
The greatest ally of harmony is a concern for another person’s welfare.
Paul calls us to please our neighbours, but this doesn’t necessarily mean giving in to every whim and being used like a doormat. It doesn’t mean agreeing with them in everything just to keep the peace.
Paul says that we are to please our neighbour for his good, to build him up. Our design for pleasing our neighbours is to help them grow in their faith.
When I first joined a youth group before I committed my life to Christ, the people there – the sponsors, the youth pastor and the youth themselves – treated me very well. Better than I was treated anywhere else. Did they do it so I would like them? I don’t think so. Their own self-esteems were not tied up in what I thought of them. Did they seek to please me because they were afraid of making me upset at them? No, that wasn’t it. They treated me well because they wanted to show me the love of Jesus Christ. They treated me well because they wanted me to understand that the Jesus they worshipped is so incredibly wonderful and loves me very much. They did build up my faith and I am grateful to them for it.
It wasn’t just me they cared about. They cared about each other. They were great friends and they had a wonderful harmony and unity.
When the people of a church care about one another and seek to please their neighbours rather than themselves, there will be harmony and unity.
In seeking to please others rather than ourselves, Paul gives us the example of Christ.
3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." 4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
If Christ was out to please himself, he never would have gone to the cross. Paul here quotes a prophecy of Christ in Psalm 69 to show us that if Christ was out to please himself, he would never have put himself into a place where he – the creator of the universe – would be insulted and rejected. However, because of love for us, he did.
The first ingredient of harmony in a church is genuine concern for each other.
II. An overriding desire to glorify God.
5 ¶ May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why do you exist? Why are you here? What on earth are you here for? What is your purpose in life?
This is what Solomon was contemplating when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. He was seeking the meaning of life. He looked for it in many ways. He looked for it in learning and wisdom. He looked for it in pleasure. He looked for it in sex and drugs. He looked for it in building projects and in the arts. He looked for it in laughter. He found that none of it satisfied him and provided him with ultimate meaning. He called all of his efforts meaningless, a chasing after the wind because ultimately everyone dies, their works turn to dust and eventually they are forgotten. At the end of all his contemplation, however, he does come to a certain understanding as to why we exist:
13 ¶ Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecc. 12)
In other words, Solomon is calling people to find meaning to life in glorifying God. That is why we exist. That is the only way that we will find meaning in this short, seemingly futile life we live.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was originally designed to teach people the basics of the Christian faith, puts it this way:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
One of Author Stephen Covey’s most famous quotes about success is this: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
I believe that this is important advice for life. In our case, the main thing is to glorify God.
The main thing in life is not to please ourselves. When we get selfish we run into trouble because we forget that our ultimate duty is to glorify God.
When someone mistreats or opposes us or even just does something that irritates us, our instinctive reaction is often to justify ourselves and do everything we can to get our own way.
But what if we realize that in any situation the main thing is to glorify God? What if we realize that there are solutions that honour God to the problems we have with people? What if we were to determine that the glory of God was more important than getting our own way?
Ken Sande in his book, The Peacemaker, puts it this way:
Focusing on God is the key to resolving conflict constructively. When we remember his mercy and draw on his strength, we invariably see things more clearly and respond to conflict more wisely. In doing so, we can find far better solutions to our problems. At the same time, we can show others that there really is a God and that he delights in helping us do things we could never do on our own.
Friends, if we remember in times of conflict that it is more important to glorify God than to have our own way we will find ourselves in greater harmony and unity as a church. If we would all determine that with with one heart and mouth we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ we would find ourselves experiencing greater harmony in all the relationships of our lives.
III. An Radical attitude of acceptance.
7 ¶ Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs 9 so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: "Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name." 10 Again, it says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." 11 And again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples." 12 And again, Isaiah says, "The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him."
13 ¶ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So many things keep us from accepting one another. In Paul’s day it was the differences between Jews and Gentiles.
That’s why Paul wrote so much right here about the relationship between the work of Jesus as a Jew and the salvation of non-Jews. Paul wanted his readers to know that Jewish and non-Jewish believers were to accept one another. The Jews needed to accept the Gentiles even though they didn’t grow up with the law, even though the men weren’t circumcised and even if they put pork on their fork. The Gentiles needed to accept their Jewish brothers even if they had this thing about not working on Sundays, washing their hands a lot and not eating their meat at church BBQ’s. This kind of acceptance in Paul’s day was a radical thing but a necessary thing to peace in the church.
Unfortunately, we still struggle with accepting one another, don’t we? There are so many things that keep us from accepting one another.
1. Our race can.
Some of us have been carefully taught racism. I started hearing jokes about people of East Indian origin. These jokes used a derogatory word to describe them that I will not use here because too many people in is offensive. Someone in my life – it wasn’t my parents if you are wondering - tried to get me to be racist against them and so taught me these jokes. It is funny though how one of my favourite Christian authors and speakers, Ravi Zacharias, is East Indian. It was funny how one of my friends in Bible College was a East Indian. It was funny how one of my classmates at a class I just took at McMaster Seminary is east Indian. Folks, as Martin Luther King told us, we must learn to judge people not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. As Paul says, we must accept one another.
2. Physical looks can cause us to not accept someone.
In May of last year the Washington Post ran an article about discrimination against unattractive people that pointed out, among other things, that even lawyers who don’t fit the mould of what is considered beautiful make up to 12% less money than their more attractive colleagues. The article goes on to say shorter, bigger proportioned people with less than perfect skin tend to face discrimination in the workplace on many levels. Why was it such a surprise to everyone when it was discovered that Susan Boyle had such a fantastic voice? There must be many other such wonderful singers who simply don’t have the looks. Such people find a lack of acceptance.
I think even Paul may have experienced this. Tradition is that Paul himself was an unattractive man.
3. Economic levels
Wealthy people do tend to get better treated. James even warns us about this tendency in the church.
1 ¶ My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here’s a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2)
3. Social ineptness – people who are not or who don’t look “cool” do not find easy acceptance.
How does Christ accept us? He accepts us without regard to any of these things. But there is more. He accepts us as imperfect people and as sinners.
There is a wonderful story about this in Matthew 15:
21 ¶ Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." 25 The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. 26 He replied, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs." 27 "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." 28 Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
This story makes Jesus look a little mean here. After all, the woman was pleading for her daughter to be released from terrible spiritual oppression and Jesus basically ignored her. We know that Jesus wasn’t really being mean. He was simply teaching a lesson. This woman would have been rejected by the average Jew. She was a Canaanite – descended from the very people the Jews had been commanded to exterminate from their land when they invaded it under Joshua. She was not of the chosen people. She was not of the inner ring. She was a defiled outcast – a gentile sinner. Yet, we know that Jesus intended to deliver her daughter all along. He wanted to simply teach his disciples that God accepts everyone who comes to him and does not discriminate – even against sinners from the wrong race.
Jesus accepts us as we are. And that is why today I am wearing this “AS IS” tag. Christ accepts me as I am. He calls me to accept you as you are. He doesn’t intend to leave me this way. He will work in my life to make me more like Him but he accepts me as I am and he calls me to accept you as you are. He calls the church to accept others as they are too.
And so, ¶ Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. That person in the church or community that you find the hardest to accept is the very one God is calling you to accept. In a world where people are rejected because they are of a different race, or less than perfect looks or a lower socio-economic background or they lack social skills, you are called to act differently. You are called to be a living demonstration of how God accept all who come to Him – even sinners. In a world where there is an unwritten rule that says, “No oddballs allowed” you are called to exhibit the grace of Christ which says, “We’re all oddballs, but God loves us anyway.”
That’s the neat part about it. You see, we are all oddballs in one way or another. The coolest most accepted people anywhere are flawed individuals. They are simply better at hiding it. We all long for acceptance and we are so glad when we find it, aren’t we? We find it all in Jesus Christ. We are simply called to extend that acceptance to others.
When we accept others, we bring praise to God. We bring praise to God because people who find acceptance are grateful for it. When they learn that we accept them because of our understanding of our accepting God, they are grateful to Him. By accepting one another we will be living demonstrations of the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will be a church that demonstrates that in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3)
Well pastor if we accept everyone, we’ll be a church of poor, ugly, socially inept, sinning outcasts! Maybe so. But we will also be a church where God is glorified. To me, that is an attractive proposition!
C. 2011 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.