Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Amazing Power of Unity


Lyn Chaffart offers this – “I would have loved to have been there, to have seen those 3000 people coming to the Lord as a result of one sermon, to have witnessed the miracles that resulted, and how the church of Jesus Christ grew in leaps and bounds. I'm sure there are many important reasons why the early church grew so rapidly, vital things like faith and love and prayer, and it could be argued that our churches today lack all three of these things. But I would like to suggest there might be something more. Let's consider for a moment how the earliest believers spent their time between the Resurrection and Pentecost: "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication . . ." (Acts 1:14 NKJV). The key operative here is "one accord". These believers were in unity with one another! We are also told these early believers sold their belongings and pooled their resources, and it wasn't uncommon for them to spend hours, even days in prayer together (Acts 4:23-31, Acts 12, etc.). But is unity really what made the difference? In John 17 alone, Jesus asks the Father that we would be "One". Not once. Not twice. But FIVE times!” (17:11, 20, 21, 22, 23). I say that this is significant.  What seems to be the most important matter to the Lord…so much so that it would be the very last thing that Jesus would share with His disciples? It is this principle of unity…even though there can, and even necessarily should, be diversity.  I have preached on this subject from Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4…it is important to keep it in front of us. And not only this, but to explore what Jesus’ statement means and how it is that we should interpret it.  So, we move forward…

In this final portion of His High Priestly prayer (John 17:20-26), Jesus focuses His disciples’ attention on the future…and even more particularly, on His disciples in the future – that would be us. He has already prayed for the security and sanctity of His disciples, and now He prays for unity. The disciples often exhibited a spirit of selfishness, competition and disunity. This had to sadden the Lord on many occasions. He is genuinely concerned that His people experience a spiritual unity that is like the Oneness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Christians belong to the Lord and to each other. What is the basis for Christian unity? It is not based upon externals and other man made dogmas or philosophies…these, rather, create discord and division. John reveals that unity is in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ and His glory (17:2ff). Paul teaches that unity is of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:1ff), and the result of believers’ commonness in seven principles -- body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism and God the Father. So, it is indeed not is internal.

As we grow in the Lord, His glory begins to grow and to reveal itself in what we say, as well as the way that we say it and do it…we live to exemplify, glorify Jesus in our lives by loving one another and others to the glory of God. Jesus assures us that some people will believe in Him as the result of our faithful witness (v.20). What Jesus makes very clear is that one of the things that impresses some people is the way that Christians love each other and live together in harmony.  Why is it important? “That the world will believe that His Father sent Him.” The converse is also true.  Some believers operate as critics and judges instead of faithful witnesses, and this complicates matters significantly for the Lord and His body. If we do not love one another and promote “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” then we will turn off those who are seeking the Lord. Nevertheless, we belong to the same Father, and seek to do the same work…witnessing to the lost world that Jesus saves us from our sins.  This is the message. And one day, all who believe are one day going to enjoy the same heaven.

I offer a poignant illustration from our past to help us understand our present (and future). Back in early 1800's there was a preacher in Western Pennsylvania named Thomas Campbell. He was a preacher for the Old-light, Anti-burger, Seceder Presbyterian Church. Each of those phrases described a political division within the Presbyterian Church of that day. Thus, the Presbyterians were divided over many things, and each group sought to maintain the purity of their positions. So they opted for "closed communion" to make sure that only those who clung to their standards could take communion at their churches. In the Presbyterian churches of that time, it worked like this: the Lord's Supper was taken once every month or so... but on the Saturday night before Communion Sunday members were required to come in and answer a series of questions. If they answered the questions correctly they received a "Communion coin" and the next day they would drop their coin in the box and partake. This didn't sit very well with Campbell -- who believed that the Lord's Supper belonged to Christ rather than to him - and on at least one occasion he opened the Communion table to all who belonged to Christ. Word got back to denominational headquarters and they sacked him. He was branded a heretic and eventually left that group. About that same time, Thomas's son, Alexander, was shipwrecked on his way over from Scotland. He stayed in Scotland another year, and while he was there attended worship services at a Presbyterian congregation in the neighborhood. On Communion Saturday night he dutifully went in to answer the questions required of him for the coin...and was shocked to find that the questions were different than he was accustomed to. However, being well versed in Scripture and the obligatory thinking, he was able to answer the questions correctly and received his coin. The next day he walked in, put his coin in the box and walked away without taking of the Lord's Supper. When Father and Son got back together they both had come to the conclusion that the church had way too many HUMAN rules and regulations. Christians were being segregated from God (at the communion table) and from other Christians because each denomination insisted on clinging to their own distinctive denominational names, creeds and practices.  They were soon joined by Methodist and Baptist groups who were struggling with their own denominations' teachings. They were tired of all the divisiveness and they just wanted to be "Christians Only." What these people were upset about was the tendency of churches to change the rules…to change the oil in the machine of the faith once delivered to the saints. They began to believe they needed to do was go back and "restore" -- as best they could -- the concept of a New Testament Church and to only practice and believe what that first group of believers held to. Because they were attempting to "restore" what the early church did, they began to refer to themselves as a "restoration movement" (from which the churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Christian Church were “born”). From a sermon by Jeff Strite, Restoration! (5/9/2011)

In a story found in Mark’s gospel, when the apostle John has a concern that some “other believers” are casting out demons in Jesus name, Jesus says this -- "Do not stop him…for the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward." (Excerpted from Mark 9:39-41) It is critical that there be truth and love in the church, but this must be found, discerned and practiced in the right matters, and the right ways in order for genuine unity to work. What many in our fellowship (as well as in other fellowships) have been taught, including myself, has been a “truth” not founded on Scripture, but according to human reasoning. Thomas and Alexander Campbell recognized this for what it was and wanted a “fresh start.” I once believed that we could have unity as long as we all believed the same precise teachings. I believed, “As long as people have the doctrine of the churches of Christ, then they can be Christians and I can accept them and fellowship with them.” But, this is not a New Testament or biblical concept…it is a humanistic concept called – uniformity.  It is what the Campbells wanted to break away from, and what our fellowship became and represented, in many respects, after another 40 years or so had passed by the turn of the 20th century.

We believe much the same truth that genuinely matters as believers in other tribes. First and foremost, we should live as Jesus commanded: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) I can already hear the “Yeahbuts” coming, but when we break through our “shibboleths,” many believers (most that I have known) have experienced a conversion similar, if not exact, to what is practiced in our fellowship…contrary to the negative propaganda and fear-mongering of certain folks. They love Jesus…they are sorry for their sins…they are immersed...and they receive the Holy Spirit. We do have certain doctrines in common with all people, which are seen in the Ephesians 4 passage. As we have seen, believers do have some differences of traditions and opinions, but we have much more in common in the big picture – as Paul says, we have the same Holy Spirit who unites us. Paul teaches there, as well as in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, 14 that believers may have varying gifts, processes and beliefs, but that believers are united in Christ through His Spirit. If we can get past our own prejudices and incomplete, in not inaccurate, understandings concerning uniformity and unity, then we can truly build up the Kingdom of God to the glory of God, and people will not be turned off, but turned on to what Jesus is doing in our lives.

Blessings, Don

Friday, June 6, 2014

Levelling the Working Field


The subject of slavery is nearly as old as the story of the Bible itself.  It is during the time of Joseph that God’s people go to Egypt, ultimately to be enslaved by the pharaoh there.  It is not until the Lord raises up Moses that the people are set free in the Exodus, but not without some hardships. The Lord wanted his people to turn to him and to trust him at that time, but they found themselves following after the flesh and their sinful desires. An interesting quote from Pope Benedict XVI states this –“The primary objective, indeed the only end of the liberation from slavery, is worship. And this can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise as suggested by Pharaoh. Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all the others; it departs in order to serve God as God wants to be served.” This may be something that the Paul has in mind as he shares concerning slaves and masters in this section of the Ephesian letter.  It is also similar to something he would share with Onesimus and Philemon in his letter to them. This is not a matter that our current culture can relate to directly, but certainly was a critical issue 150 years ago. There were six million slaves in the Roman Empire at the time in which the Ephesian letter was written. Slavery was an accepted institution. And what is interesting is that there is nothing specific condemning slavery in the Bible, but the overall thrust of the NT is against it. Paul’s ministry during his time contributed to the encouragement of freedom and the curtailing of slavery.

How do we take Ephesians 5:6-9 and apply it to us today?  Paul could very well mean “servant” as well as “slave" in section, and can be translated either way depending upon context. The principles that he outlines could just as well apply to Christians in the workplace today. In the context of the passage, some of the tasks assigned to the slaves they detest, but they are to perform them, just as long as they are not disobeying the will of God. The right attitude of heart is essential, especially since an educated, cultured Christian slave might receive even harsher treatment from his master because of his faith. He still does his best, because he serves Christ and not men. Believers shall receive their ultimate reward from Christ and not men. (Colossians 3:13) On the other hand, Christian masters seek the workers welfare and do not threaten them. Jesus brings harmony to the slave/master relationship as he does to the employer/employee relationship, which we will discuss. Not only does the servant work for the master, but the master also works for the servant.

Paul indicates that there is a principle at work in this section that should apply to people today – Christians are to be obedient, as he shares with Onesimus (once he becomes a believer). While it may be true that most people do have masters according to this world, in the sense of being employees…for believers, their true Master is in heaven. The fact that an employer or an employee is a Christian is no excuse for either not to be diligent in their tasks -- there is to be a sense of responsibility. A Christian employee should show proper respect for his/her employer and not seek to take advantage in any way. Employees focus attention and energy on the job at hand and do what they are called to do.  It may not all get done in one day, but there is diligence to do the work.  This is also a good way to witness for Christ. Paul indicates that Christian workers will be rewarded for doing God’s will. A Christian can perform any good work as a ministry to Christ to the glory of God. If an employer expects the workers to do their best for him, he must do his best for them.

The master must serve the Lord from his heart if he wants his servants to do the same. A good leader must not exploit or lord it over workers.  Authoritarian leadership is not Biblical leadership, although many church leaders exercise authoritarian methods. They threaten when things are not done when things are handled as they see fit. Nor should a Christian employer play favorites with those under his authority. Paul shares this message with Timothy (1 Timothy 5:21). Partiality is a fast way to divide followers and lose their confidence. It is an unfortunate matter when an employee says, “My boss is supposed to be a Christian, but one would never know it.”  Paul suggests here, and in Philemon, once again, that Christian masters have (or find) a better way to encourage obedience than threats or manipulation. A good leader still leads by serving.  The Christian example is the shepherd, and this is how we all should function to the best of our ability. Whether we are employees or employers, we must not forget that we are servants first…that we are Christians first.

We are slaves, servants of Christ.  We need to do whatever is required in order to live submissively for Him wherever we are and in whatever we are doing. We need to be fair and consistent in our treatment of others and not exploit them in any way.  It is truly important that we invest our time and energy in being builders and not wreckers. It is important that we have the right hearts as we approach our lives and ministry. We need to have an attitude of submissiveness to Christ whether we are employers or employees. And these principles are not regarding what we do at the workplace, but also in how we approach our work, ministries for the Lord. We may not be being paid for our service to the church, for example, but we have a responsibility to be just as committed to what we do for the Lord and the church (and perhaps even more so, as it bears eternal rewards) as what we would do for our employers. As in all of these things, we need to remember that we are working for the Lord and not for men.  We have an accountability to give to Him.  So, we need to take seriously our responsibilities, whether we are working for our employers or for our greatest employer, the Lord.

Blessings, Don