This week's Bible Study - September 7, 2014
Connected in Unity
Quote of the Week:
"And really, it wasn't much good having anything exciting like floods, if you couldn't share them with somebody."
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Most people who read this lesson live in the United States of America. We often say those words "United States" and they just roll out of our mouths without thinking about it. In America, there are 50 states, but unless the Olympics or the World Cup is going on, it would seem that many of the states often seem more disconnected than united. In most parts, there is a common language spoken, although there are certainly pockets of our country where other languages are more prevalent than English. We have states that would prefer to secede and others that seem to not want to have anything to do with other states. Although most states are united by a contiguous land mass, except for Hawaii and Alaska, there seems to be many disconnects here in the 'United' States.
It would seem to me that this is the case for many churches as well. If we were to say that people are united simply because they attend the same church, would that be a true statement? Unity does not imply that you gather in the same place. Unity also does not imply that everyone views everything in the same way. In just about any church, you will find differences of opinions on a variety of issues. There are certainly some things that are essential for unity in a church and this lesson will touch on those key things.
There are many reasons why people are involved in a church. Church can help draw us closer to the Lord and to align to the will of God. Church can help believers find purpose and give us avenues to carry out God's purpose for our lives. For many, the church is where people find the closest and most honest relationships, as they share their lives and faith with one another. We can truly learn more about God by hearing how He is at work in the lives of others. As believers, we realize that we need fellowship with other believers, so that we can encourage, support and help reinforce each other as we live out our faith. For many believers, they will find that if they do not attend church for an extended period of time, they will become like a piece of coal that is separated from the fire, losing the heat and glow. The church can provide a lot of things to a lot of different people, but there are some important aspects that help to keep believers connected in unity in and out of church.
People seem to want to belong to clubs or organizations. We were made to desire relationships, and outside of those who have chosen to live in the wilderness, away from others, most of us enjoy being around people. While variety in relationships is good, I would guess that most of our close friends tend to be those whom have the same aspirations, goals or interests. Some people get in book clubs. Some seek out sports leagues or other groups. Certainly, common causes help to bring people together, but there is a greater yearning for most people for something more. You may remember the TV show called "Cheers", where the theme song "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" says "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same." I believe these words appeal to people and sadly, some find that acceptance more attainable at a bar than at a church.
While it is important that we are connected as a church and that people feel accepted, there are some key aspects that are required in a church. These are the things that set the church apart from other organizations. It can be difficult for a church to not focus solely on 'making people feel comfortable' or on "radically set apart". A focus on one or the other will either water down theology or will make the church irrelevant in reaching the lost of our world. I remember running across this person's wish for their church a few years ago- "My wish for my church: to be less of a business & more of a family, less like the world & more like heaven, less like a club & more of a ministry, less like a police force & more like a hospital. Churches drift downward--away from family to business, from heaven to world, from ministry to club, from hospitals to police forces"
This letter was written by Paul and from a remarkable situation. Paul was literally a prisoner in a Roman prison and he was writing to encourage others. If you were a prisoner, what do you think your letters might look like? I think I might be writing "Please find some way to get me out of here!" Paul's encouragement was that the believers would live a life worthy of the calling they received. Admittedly, to live a life worthy of the calling we have received in Christ can be hard (and none of us can claim perfection in this area). For a believer, everything changes and we are called to be totally committed to the Lord. Paul's total commitment had landed him in prison. Many of us tend to live in such a way as to avoid confrontation and strife, if at all possible. Can we really say that we are living worthy of our calling if we will not take a stand for Christ in our lives? What might have to change in your life to step up to living in a manner worthy of your calling?
Just like families, churches have multiple needs. Some of the needs relate to serving within the body and other times its members of the body who need help. And just like in families, we can fail to see the needs of others around us or assume someone else is taking care of things. And, even in some instances, we see people who aren't willing to share that they have any needs. In all of these instances the church is not functioning at its best. If we show up with it's an all about me attitude, we aren't allowing ourselves to serve. If we show up and assume someone else is taking care of everything, we can become complacent and if we aren't willing to share when we do have needs, we are letting our pride get in the way of watching God care for us with the arms, feet, mouths and legs of the believers He's placed us in community with.
Can you imagine how things could change in a church if people started helping one another and sharing their lives together? We need to be willing to see the needs of others and to share our own needs. I found this quote from Teresa of Avila to more or less sum this up, "Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours,"
We need other people - period - If not today, then tomorrow. Those who think they can navigate this world all alone, are some of the loneliest and even angriest people one can encounter. In isolation, I don't have to think of anyone else, wait for anyone else, serve anyone else or love anyone else and in so doing, I lack humility, patience, compassion and I don't know how to really love or be loved. This is not the calling of a believer. And just because you 'interact' with the world on a daily basis doesn't mean you are living in community. With our smart devices, smart phones and 'connected' selves, we can be around people all day and never have a meaningful interaction. Hopefully, this is not what you find when you attend your church. I hope you have an eye on others and are looking for ways to serve God, and I hope you feel loved and accepted as you share the real you with those who worship alongside you each week. This is not to say that you will always agree with everyone around you, but you can disagree and still maintain an attitude of unity. Sometimes agreeing to disagree can be all that is needed to maintain unity. Certainly beating another person over the head with your thoughts and opinions isn't going to change them - in fact, it generally serves to alienate them instead. For some of us, it isn't natural to just 'let things go' - we feel the need to persuade the other person or sometimes even intimidate or manipulate them into doing or seeing things 'our way'. I don't know how unified your church is but you have to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself what part you are playing to build unity within your body of believers. It is important that we develop the right attitudes that preserve unity in the church. These attitudes and the associated unity are never natural or automatic. It requires diligence to preserve and protect unity. When our attitude is changed, it can impact more than just a church. It can begin to change how we deal with others and situations at home or at work, or in whatever realm of activities we are involved. It is easy to look at others and point at how they may or may not be promoting unity, but the only individual you have any control over is yourself. Ask yourself if you are a promoter or a detractor of unity in your church.
It is crucial that we understand that unity is not commonality. You can find people that have common backgrounds, are fans of the same teams, have endured the same trials and although they may have common experiences, they aren't unified. Some people talk about unity as if it is an external thing that provides unity of belief or direction. You will find many different causes today that bring people together, such as runs or walks for a specific cause. On the outside, everyone looks as if they are unified, as most of them may be wearing the same T-shirt. However, you will certainly find many differences within those groups.
The unity of church is not external, but internal. Occasionally, within a group of believers, there will be opposition and disagreements, but these should not destroy the unity. The human body is an example of living unity. It has the same DNA throughout. The brain gives direction and the body requires oxygen for the blood to provide the lifeline to the body. Internally, a body is connected remarkably. The unity is not so much how the body is seen by others or how the toe bone is connected to the foot bone.
We have discussed other unity based on other factors, such as civic organizations, sports teams or common backgrounds. While there is commonality in these arenas, this pales in comparison to the unity we have in Christ. In fact, the unity we have in Christ is not one that we have to work to create, but more that we have to preserve. This unity already exists.
Paul writes in this passage that there is one body; that is the church. This is not your church that meets in a building, but THE church. We can read that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, nor slave nor free in the body of Christ. There is one Spirit that can be seen as the enabler of unity. It is amazing that believers understand this internal guide that brings us hope, while those on the outside can have no idea of the power of the Spirit. There is one Lord. This is Christ, the head of the church. Heresy and disunity begin when anyone claims that there are multiple Christs or the role of Jesus is downplayed. There is one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. We HAVE unity in terms of our position as a believer. We are TO MAKE unity in terms of our practice.
It is unfortunate that we often blur these lines wrongly. We can easily get more focused on issues that are really non issues, losing sight of who we are in Christ. We can easily start comparing different churches, saying that 'they' do this or 'they' don't do this. We must remember that unity comes in Christ and not on the sign that is in front of the building.
It is important that each of us is connected to a church. A church is the place where can most easily see how God is at work in the lives of others. However, it is important that we are connected to a church that is associated with the one body, one Spirit, one Lord and Savior. If your church claims salvation through any other means than solely through Christ, then you should find another church. I heard the name of a book this past week that sums this up - Jesus, Plus Nothing Equals Everything. It is crucial that the church is based on the Jesus of the Bible and not another manmade Jesus.
There are churches that have become more focused on ordinances and not the relationship with Christ. Certainly, there are things that are important to follow as a believer, but these are not the places where true unity is found. For example, baptism is important to show that you are following Christ, but it is not the requirement to become a Christian. You will find many people that have been baptized, but will say that it was nothing different than being dunked in a swimming pool. Unity is not on baptism or the type of music that is sung (or if you use instruments or not) or whether you do communion once a month, once a quarter or every week. Unity is not based on perfect adherence to all the rules of life. Even when we have failed, we have unity in Christ and nowhere else.
Why worry about unity at all? Unity in Christ is a true blessing to believers. When we realize that we are already unified in Christ, it gives us a different perspective of others we are around. Do you know how many believers are in your workplace or in your neighborhood? I have been to different parts of the world and have found believers who speak different languages and have come from a different culture. The commonality with these believers is as if they are truly part of my family in Christ. On some of those trips, I remember traveling in foreign countries and coming across other Americans who were traveling. When you are in other parts of the world, it is amazing to think of how good it is to see others who provide some commonality. It is as if in a different country, a person from one state and another person from another state are somewhat connected and can strike up a conversation, when they never would have done this back at home. That familiarity and commonality may be appreciated, but it pales in comparison to unity.
So what does this mean to you and I? First, realize that you are connected to other believers, through Jesus Christ. Open your eyes to how God is at work in other areas of your life, realizing that there are other believers where you work or in your neighborhood. What might be different if we realized this unity and allowed it to impact different areas of our lives? What impact might we have on others if they saw the unity that we shared?