August 14, 2011
One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, the Great Bambino, Babe Ruth, said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” In the world of sports we have seen this play out time and time again. In 2004, a vastly more talented L.A. Lakers team lost the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons due to team in fighting by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. In the last decade, the New York Yankees have had the highest payroll in Major League Baseball every single year, and yet they only have one World Series title to show for it. In fact, their previous manager, Joe Torre, moved on because he was ineffective in rallying the highest paid team in baseball to win the ultimate prize in the sport.
It’s not just in sports, though, that unity is important. Articles about the importance of unity are appearing in journals across almost every discipline, including medical practice, manufacturing, and more. And this makes sense. If you were having a major operation, the last thing you would want is an operating team that was divided amongst themselves. You wouldn’t want a doctor who was doing his own thing, while nurses were trying to do something else, and operating room practitioners who decided they wouldn’t put forward their best effort until their contributions were properly recognized. Your response, if you knew it was happening, would be something like, “Come on, guys! Work as a team! My life is at stake here! Put your own selfish pursuits aside and get the job done right!”
As Christians, unity is also essential for us in the church. Unity was something Jesus earnestly desired for His church. In John 17:11, Jesus prayed that His followers would be one even as He and His Father were one. Then, a few verses later, in John 17:21-23, Jesus prayed “that they all may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” That prayer is breathtaking. One of the last things Jesus ever prays for us is that we would be united with one another so that the world would know that the Father loves us even as He loved Jesus! Jesus’ desire is for His followers, for His church, to be united in Him.
One of the big pushes we see in various denominations today is the push for unity. Some of this is good and, I think, helpful, like the Together for the Gospel movement, that has brought together Baptists, Presbyterians, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and other Evangelicals under the banner of the Gospel. Some of it is not so good, like the continuing dialogue between Roman Catholicism and some branches of Lutheranism, which seeks to mitigate important differences in the way each group understands the Gospel for the sake of unity. But while various denominations and large groups press on to seek to unite one way or another, so many churches have trouble living out true, biblical unity with the people they see every week. And, in reality, what good does it do to say on paper we are united under the Gospel if we don’t live out that unity within the local church, in the midst of the people God has brought us into covenant with as members of the local church? While Jesus prayed for unity among all of His followers, as the church was born and grew, Paul realized that this unity would play itself out (or not) in the local congregations. It is that type of unity, the unity of the local church within itself, that Paul is concerned with in Ephesians 4:1-3. And it is that kind of unity that we have in mind in our third core value.
We are continuing our core values series, and this morning we come to Compassionate Unity. This is the longest of the core values, and it reads, “We value our Christian unity which results from our oneness with Christ, not human uniformity or worldly conformity, and that this oneness in Christ transcends theological and other differences on non-essentials of the faith, and is demonstrated by bearing with one another in love.” The “one another” in our core value indicates that this unity is something that we value at Desert Hills, among people that we rub shoulders with week in and week out. It is right that we should value compassionate unity. Jesus prayed for it, and Paul exhorts the church to it no less than eight times in the New Testament. One of those times is our text, Ephesians 4:1-3. If we could sum up these three verses in a brief sentence, it would be this: You’re united in Christ, now live like it! Paul begins Ephesians 4 with the word therefore, indicating what he is saying is grounded in what he has said previously. In Ephesians 1-3, Paul explains the unity the church has because God the Father called us, Jesus Christ died to accomplish that salvation God had purposed, and the Holy Spirit was given to apply that salvation to our lives. In Ephesians 2:11-22 especially, Paul takes great pains to explain our unity in Christ resulting from Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we come to Ephesians 4, Paul’s message is, You’re united in Christ, now live like it!
The question, then, is how? How do we live so that we see compassionate unity as a core value not just on paper but in our lives, at Desert Hills, shaping all that we do together as a church? Three keys from Ephesians 4:1-3 this morning. Three keys to compassionate unity found in this text.
Number one. Understand your calling. For compassionate unity to be something we live out, we must understand our calling. Notice Ephesians 4:1. Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called. The exhortation is to walk worthy of our calling, and notice in verse 3 where Paul goes with this: Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Most scholars are agreed that this is the point of the first three verses, unity in the church, and what Paul has in mind when he exhorts us to walk worthy of our calling is to preserve unity. Or, to put it like we have in point one, to preserve unity in the church, we must understand our calling. So, what is our calling? We need to look back to understand it.
First, we have been called to be holy and blameless in God’s sight. Ephesians 1:4 says, Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. According to Ephesians 1:4, one of the reasons God has saved us, one of the reasons God devised this great plan of salvation before all time, was so that we would be holy in His sight. That is, we would be set apart for God, His special people. Then in Ephesians 1:5, Paul wrote, In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself. Notice that our calling is to being sons of God through Jesus Christ! God adopts us so that we are part of His family, so that He might be our Father, and we might be His children. Notice, then, in 1:11, that Paul writes, also we have obtained an inheritance, and that in verse 14 we read that the Holy Spirit was given as a pledge of our inheritance. Now then, God’s calling us was to make us His special people, so that we become His children and He our Father, so that we might have an inheritance from Him. The inheritance, as we read through Ephesians, is God lavishing on us for all time His grace, His love, His kindness, His glory, and His love. It is an eternal inheritance of God being all that He is for us, to do good to us forever. That is your calling. You, Christians, have been called to be God’s special people, His children, His heirs, the ones He shows the riches of His kindness and love and glory and grace to for all eternity. That is who you are in Christ by calling, the calling of God the Father.
If we want to manifest true Christian unity, we need to understand our calling and seek to walk worthy of it. Our calling reminds us that we are partakers of grace. We are partakers of forgiveness. We are partakers of God’s love. We are part of God’s family, and we are all family together. If you don’t understand the amazing calling you have as a Christian, it will be very difficult for you to live out Christian unity because you will be tempted to look out for yourself rather than for others. Your thinking will be oriented toward yourself rather than recognizing that God has called you and provided for you and made you His own so that you can be more concerned about your brothers than you are about yourself. The first key to compassionate unity is to understand our calling.
Second, to live out compassionate unity in the church, you must cultivate your character. You must cultivate your character. That is to say, you must become the person God has called you to be to live in harmony and unity with other believers. Notice verse 2. Paul exhorts the church to walk worthy of their calling with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. Christians that live in harmony with other Christians have cultivated their character according to these qualities.
We could say it like this. Unity begins with you. It begins with you. So often we think the reason there is disunity, the reason there is conflict, the reason there is strife, is because of all those other people and their problems. And, in some cases, there might be some validity to that. But, in all cases, we have to look at ourselves first to see if we are the kind of people that foster unity, or if we are the kind of people that foster division. Unity doesn’t begin with the other person; it begins with you. It begins with your character, the kind of person you are. In Romans 12:18, Paul wrote, If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. In other words, we need to be people of such character that the lack of unity is never a result of something we are doing, something we have said, a character flaw in us. In some cases, there will be disunity because someone is unwilling to be unified. But let it always be because the other person is unwilling and never because we are not who God has called us to be.
Notice what kind of people God has called us to be in our relationships with one another. He says we are to show all humility. The kind of humility that Paul has in mind is patterned after our Lord Himself, who said that He was lowly in heart in Matthew 11:29. In the culture of Paul’s day, humility was not considered a virtue. In fact, one Greek writer said that this trait was one that cannot be commended. It implied servility on the part of the one who was humble. It was to acknowledge weakness or lowliness in the presence of another. Yet for Christians, this pattern of humility was not only commanded but modeled by our Lord, the exalted one Himself. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us of the humility of Jesus, who existed eternally as God and yet did not cling to His position or use it to His own advantage, but instead emptied and humbled Himself by becoming a man and dying on a cross for sinners. In Philippians 2:3, Paul exhorts us, Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. That’s such a profound and practical definition of humility. Humility is to regard other people as more important than yourself. If we are a church that values compassionate unity, we must be a church of humble people, people that regard the needs and desires of others as more important than our own. Cultivate a humble heart, a heart that recognizes the importance of others and their needs.
Then Paul says that we need to be gentle. Gentleness goes hand in hand with humility and has to do with being considerate of others and mild in our tone. Sometimes the easiest way to understand something is by contrast, and gentleness is the opposite of harshness. The person who is gentle does not berate others. He does not demand his rights. He is thoughtful and considerate of others needs and kind in his dealings with them. He is not a yeller or a screamer, and he does not try to intimidate others into giving him his way. Humility and gentleness are traits we need cultivate in our hearts to advance unity in the church.
Next, Paul says that we should be characterized by patience. A worthy walk that promotes unity comes from patient hearts. Patience is the restraint of wrath toward others when they provoke you to it. That is a biblical definition of patience. It is what James says in James 1:19, being slow to anger. We know this because of all the examples we have in the Bible of God being patient with His people, and His patience is what kept Him from destroying them in His fury. For example, in Numbers 13, after Israel had spied out the land of Canaan, the spies come back and give Israel a bad report of the land because they are afraid of the inhabitants. When Isreal hears the report in chapter 14, they start a coup against Moses and Aaron and set out to appoint new leaders who will take them back to Egypt. When God sees this, He has had enough and is ready to wipe them out. He tells Moses that He will destroy Israel and make a new nation from Moses. Then Moses prays for Israel in Numbers 14:18, asking the Lord to be true to His promise to be slow to anger, which is the same word translated patience in Ephesians 4:2. The Lord relents and does not wipe out Israel.
The reality of being a part of a local church is that some people are just going to really upset you. Some people are going to be difficult for you to deal with. Some people are going to push all your buttons and get you all riled up. And the natural temptation is for you to respond in a way that does not promote unity in the body. But, if you cultivate your character, so that you have a heart of patience, you will restrain your anger toward that person. You will remember how God has been patient with you, and you will treat your brother or sister in the Lord in kind. Humility, gentleness, and patience need to characterize us if we are to preserve unity.
Paul ends verse two by exhorting us to show tolerance to one another in love. You know what this phrase says to me? It says that Paul expected certain people in the church to bug each other. I mean, why else would Paul need to exhort us to put up with each other, to tolerate each other, to bear with each other? I think so many people come to church and leave disillusioned because they come thinking they walked into heaven when they came through the church doors, and they are around spiritual people now so there should never be any conflict, any annoyance, any difficulties with people. That’s just not the case. We’re still battling sin and we’re not perfect yet. And all of those imperfections have a way of getting on each other’s nerves over time. But the love of God should overcome those things in the church so that we don’t let them discourage us, we don’t let them divide us, we don’t let them break our unity. That’s why Paul says, showing tolerance to one another in love. Love is so crucial to the kind of bearing with each other we are called to do.
The example of this kind of tolerance that springs from love is so evident to me in parenting. Randi and I will be out eating somewhere or something, and we’ll see a kid just giving his parents fits, and I’ll think to myself, “Wow, what a brat. His parents ought to really straighten him out!” Then about 15 minutes into our meal one of my kids starts acting up, and, normally, I think something like, “Well, she’s probably a little tired and ready for a nap.” It’s amazing, isn’t it? Same behavior. Same place. Totally different response. One kid is a brat who needs disciplined, one kid is a victim of circumstance who needs a nap. These are very different responses, and the reason is love. I love my kids, and when they start acting up, unless there is clear and present danger, I try to stop myself and figure out why. Why are they behaving this way? In the church, we need to love each other and tolerate each other and maybe instead of criticizing immediately ask, “Why is this person responding this way? Why are they acting this way?” Out of love, bear with them, come alongside if appropriate, and help them carry their burdens that we might not even know they are carrying until we love them enough to find out. You see, to manifest unity, we have to be the kind of people that promote unity because we have cultivated our character. We need to be humble, gentle, patient, and tolerant in love.
Understand your calling, cultivate your character, and third, pursue peace. Pursue peace. The third key to a church that lives out compassionate unity is a church that pursues peace within the body. Verse 3. Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We need to look for the things that unite us rather than look for every possible point of division.
In this verse, Paul makes very plain where our unity originates. He calls our unity the unity of the Spirit. What he is saying is that the Spirit is the one who creates our unity in Christ. Through the Gospel, when we come to faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit makes us part of the body of Christ, the Church, and as members of the body we are united with the rest of the body. We are united by the Spirit.
The exhortation to us is the be diligent to preserve that unity created by the Gospel. How? In the bond of peace. Pursue those things that make for peace, that bind us together, rather than those things that would tear us apart. What are those things? The Gospel, right? The good news of Jesus Christ. Our love for Him. Our love for His Word. Our love for one another. The beauty of the church is that it brings together people who otherwise would never be friends, and it makes them more than friends. Through the Gospel, we become family, the family of God. Do we pursue those things that bind us together, or are we focused on all the distractions that Satan would use to tear us apart?
Our third core value is compassionate unity. The unity that results from our oneness with Christ, not human uniformity or worldly conformity, but a oneness that transcends our personal preferences, our private convictions, and a unity that is demonstrated visibly for the world to see. How can we make this a reality? We must understand our calling. We must cultivate our character. And we must pursue the things that make for peace.