Summary: Building God’s Church through Harmony(Bob Russell - When God Build’s a Church)
Jim and John were both elders at Prince of Peace Christian Church, but they never got along. In fact, whenever an issue came up where Jim voted “Yes”, you could be sure that “John” would vote “No.”
As was bound to happen, Jim passed away. There he was at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter was there deciding who could come in. Jim was surprised to find out that the admittance requirements were a bit different than he had heard. First Peter checked to make sure that the person’s name was in the book, than he gave them a spelling word. Jim’s spelling word was “Jesus” so he got in without a problem.
People have jobs in heaven. Jim’s was to assist Peter checking the names and giving the spelling words. As is the way of things, Jim’s old rival John passed away and there he was in line waiting to see Peter. Jim checked the list and John’s name was there. Jim had to choose a word for the spelling test. He picked “Albuquerque”
This is the seventh sermon in our series “Building God’s Church.” This series is loosely based on the book by Bob Russell, “When God Builds a Church” Today’s topic is Harmony.
First, let’s think about that word. What is “harmony” anyway? It is a musical term, but it doesn’t mean everybody singing the same notes at the same time. The term for that is “unison.” Harmony implies diversity. Different people are singing different notes, but all for a common purpose. The diversity blends together to create a fuller and richer sound than could ever be achieved by people singing unison.
Ministers have favorite sermons – not favorite sermons to listen too, but favorites to deliver. One of my favorites is a sermon I call “Thumbs Up” I’ve been preaching some version of that sermon since I was in college. It is based on this Ephesians text which was the lectionary reading last October, so that gave me an excuse to deliver that sermon here.
You might remember the illustration. I asked everyone to fold their hands like they were going to pray. Go ahead. Do that now. Fold your hands like this. Interlace your fingers. Now look at your thumbs. Which thumb is on top? Then I talked about how we had a division in the church, with some people praying with their right thumbs on top while the rest of us pray properly with our left thumbs on top. Do you remember?
As Bob Russell points out, harmony is one of the keys to building an effective church. Because we are not perfect people, we always will have differences of opinion within the congregation. That is a fact. The question is not “How can we all be the same?” but “How can we get along in spite of our differences?” How do we maintain the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace?
The place to start is to think about the things that divide congregations and create the disunity that divides us and saps our strength. Bob Russell mentions three kinds of differences, but I want to add a forth.
One of the threats to unity that Russell mentions is false teaching. From his perspective it is critical that the church present clear teachings that reflect the best understanding of the elders of what scripture teaches. All of the church’s communication and practice need to be consistent with that teaching.
As we talked about at the start of this series, the approach to truth is different in our tradition than it Russell’s. Our elders are not about to have a meeting and tell us what the church’s official interpretation of some passage is going to be. We do have key elements that we expect every Christian to accept. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. We accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. Beyond that, we value differences of perspective and we seek to embrace a variety of views. How do we achieve harmony and diversity at the same time?
I think that there are two keys to maintaining unity in the midst of different understanding. The first is to focus on our common purpose and the second is to agree on an overarching standard.
Our core beliefs are certainly important, but the success of the church is much more dependent on what we do with those beliefs. If we are actively engaged with our community, really seeking to make a difference in the lives of people around us, differences on a variety of theological issues become insignificant. It is when we become inwardly focused that we risk becoming obsessed with secondary items of philosophy and theology.
The other thing that we need is a common standard. In our tradition, it is not the case that any wild idea has to be considered valid. We are committed to the New Testament as our ultimate authority on issues of faith and practice. Acceptance of this standard is key to our heritage and to who we are as a people. Abandoning our only accepted standard would throw us into chaos because, in our tradition, there is no other authority to take the place of Scripture. But if we share that common ground, the issue is not my opinion vs. your opinion. Instead, it is both of us seeking to understand what Scripture teaches. That moves the focus away from personality and toward a shared desire to live out in our modern society the changeless mission of God.