Summary: Heed Paul’s Advent Admonition 1) Be united in faith 2) Be faithful in unity
“You better watch out! You better not cry! You better not pout! I’m telling you why...” For a number of good reasons that song isn’t in our hymnal but it does remind us that this is a season of watching and preparing. Last Sunday we were encouraged to watch for Christ’s coming. This Sunday we are urged to prepare for his return. Just how do we prepare for Jesus’ coming? The Apostle Paul’s Advent admonition is this: “Be united in faith. Be faithful in unity.”
Our text is taken from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. He wrote this letter to introduce himself and to deal with some of the problems the Christians there were facing. One such problem was the tension between the Jewish and Gentile members over whether or not a Christian could eat things like a ham sandwich. During Old Testament times this was a no-no for God’s people. Gentile believers, however, thought it was now OK to eat anything while the Jewish Christians weren’t so sure. The congregation was in danger of a split. To keep this from happening Paul wrote, “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” (Romans 15:5, 6).
How was the congregation in Rome to know who was right regarding what a Christian could eat? The members weren’t to follow their gut feelings on the matter, but Christ. Through the Apostle Paul, Jesus gave the Roman Christians the answer they sought. While Christians are free to eat whatever they like, that freedom does not give believers the licence to trample the tender consciences of weaker Christians. In other words the Jewish Christians shouldn’t keep the Gentiles from enjoying their shrimp BBQ’s and ham sandwiches, nor should the Gentile Christians insist that the Jewish believers join them in eating these foods.
Paul’s admonition that we follow Christ and not our gut feeling on spiritual matters still applies today. For example it may feel right to hook up with that guy or girl but what does God have to say about intimacy before marriage? He says that it’s not OK and it only leads to challenges. It may feel wrong to exclude visitors from sharing in the Lord’s Supper, especially when they are believers, but what does Jesus say about his meal? It’s a special meal in which his body and blood are truly present and to receive the body and blood of Jesus in ignorance is to invite God’s judgment, not his blessing. No doubt there are other teachings of the Bible that might not sit well with us. But before we let our feelings determine doctrine, consider how it was Eve’s feelings that led her to disregard God’s clear command regarding the forbidden fruit. Think of how it was David’s feelings that led him to commit adultery and then murder. And recognize that it was Jonah’s feelings that prompted him to run the opposite way when God told him to go to Nineveh. In each case the feelings of these people led them away from God and into difficulty.
God’s Word, on the other hand, no matter how challenging the teaching, leads to a stronger hold on eternal life. Therefore we will want to follow that Word and encourage one another to do so. We will not “agree to disagree” regarding difficult teachings of the Bible for such an accord doesn’t lead to unity but disharmony. It would be like a choir director agreeing that the members of the choir can sing whatever song they want as long as everyone sings at the same time. That’s not a concert I’d want to hear! Nor does God enjoy the cacophony coming from churches that can’t, that won’t agree to be united in the faith.
While God does want us all to sing from the same sheet of music he hasn’t said that we need to sing the same notes, and thank God that he hasn’t! Just think of how you appreciate a choir that blends the rich voices of the baritones with the sweet voices of the sopranos and altos. Such a choir is more interesting to listen to than a choir made up of one voice that sings the melody all the time. And so the diverse gifts, abilities, likes and dislikes we each have are meant to produce rich harmony as we glorify God together.
Unfortunately diversity is often the cause of dissonance in a Christian congregation. That’s why Paul went on to urge the Christians in Rome: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:8). When Paul tells us to accept one another he’s not telling us to overlook false doctrine or sinful life-styles; that would go against what Paul said earlier about being united in the faith and glorifying Jesus. But those who are united in the faith will strive to be faithful in unity. That means that we won’t expect fellow believers to always see things our way. For instance as we continue with our building plans, we might not all agree on what a new church building should look like, where it should be placed on the property, or how big it should be. It sure would be a lot easier if God would just plop the blueprints down from heaven and tell us what to build! But he hasn’t done that because he wants us to have this opportunity to practice patient love for one another.