Love in Spite of Differences
Love in Spite of Differences
Every sailor could agree on one fact. Had it not been for the captain, they never would have survived. The storm came suddenly, and in a matter of moments hulls were broken, decks were awash, and sailors were floundering. But as quickly as the storm arose, so came the captain, maneuvering his large vessel between the waves and rescuing one sailor after another. Before they knew it, they were deposited safely on an island, listening to the instructions of the captain, who said, "There are more still at sea. You stay here until I return. Build a tall fire using the trees of the island to keep yourselves warm and to send a beacon for those who need safety." Of course, the sailors were happy and quick to oblige, and they set about the task of building a large fire. Then they waited and waited and waited.
The longer they waited the more their gratitude passed. Their thankfulness turned into restlessness, and appreciation for the captain mutated into aggravation with each other. No one could remember exactly when the argument started, but it had something to do with the captain's instructions. Did he say to use only trees for the fire or mostly trees for the fire? As they began to discuss it, they couldn't agree. Some said, "Surely he meant trees only. He said build a fire made out of trees." Others said, "A little brush and some grass and leaves won't hurt. He'll understand. Mostly trees won't hurt." Conversation led to opinion, and opinion led to discussion. Discussion led to dispute, and dispute led to debate. Soon debate led to division, and there were two fires on the island. There was the trees-only fire and the trees-mostly fire.
Peace returned to the island for a short time, until dispute broke out in the trees-only camp. One day in conversation someone said, "I'm sure he wants us to use cypress trees only in the fire, because, after all, he gestured to some cypress trees as he spoke." Another one said, "But he was standing closer to an elm tree." Still another said, "The predominant tree on the island is oak. Surely these are to be oak trees in our fire." Conversation led to opinion, and opinion led to discussion. Discussion led to dispute, and dispute led to division. Soon the trees-only camp splintered into three other camps: elm-only, cypress-only, and oak-only.
Things didn't go much better on the southern end of the island where the trees mostly camp was. They didn't have trouble with the contents of the fire, but they had conversation and conflict over the height of the fire. The captain had left instructions to build a tall fire. How tall is tall? One person's definition of tall and another's might not be the same, so in short order, new fires were started, each of differing heights. In time, the island was freckled with small fires rather than one large fire. The captain, who had been watching this from the ocean, shook his head and sighed.
Were it not so true, the story would be bizarre. But one needs not spend much time in the Christian faith before he notices a lot of fires on this island. Some of these fires are necessary and good, because to reach the world you have to go into the world. Sending sailors to start new fires in areas where there are none is right and good. But some of the fires we see are not there by purpose or intention, but as a result of division. This is not a new problem. Even before the crucifixion of Christ, disciples were arguing about who was in and who was out.
Our tendency to cluster and our proclivity to divide can be costly. Disunity distracts the believer and discourages the seeker. Our job description is simple: to build a fire so high that anyone lost can see it, so warm that anyone cold can be warmed by it. But when we argue about the nature and the contents and the height of the fire, we get distracted.
Disunity distracts the believer, and it also discourages the seeker. Who wants to come out of the storm at sea to step into the conflict on the island? Most of all, our disunity discredits our Savior, because unity is his idea. On the night before his death, he prayed, "Father, I pray that they can be one. As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me."
When will the world believe that Jesus was sent by God to the earth? When we have better evangelism tools or nicer buildings or prettier music or more eloquent sermons? No. The world will believe he is the one when we learn to work and act as one.
Our disunity does for the credibility of Christ what the appearance of the vitamin salesman did for the credibility of his vitamins. I saw him not too long ago in a shopping mall in Dallas. He was standing next to a cart where he was selling vitamins. He had posters around that cart portraying, apparently, how you would look if you took his vitamins—sleek, chiseled, with more definition than Webster's dictionary. He, on the other hand, couldn't have looked more unlike the picture. I was left with one of two conclusions: either the vitamins didn't work, or he didn't take them. Either way, I was not encouraged to buy the vitamins.
If we dispensers of love cannot find a way to love each other, how many people will be encouraged to seek what we have? I wonder how many of you have walked past the faith because you figured, "If they can't love each other, I'm not going to trust the love they have."
The Prescription for Disunity
This is a high stakes issue. For that reason the apostle Paul urges us to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. He uses a Greek tense, difficult to replicate in English, that means, "make every effort, keep on making every effort, never stop making efforts." In other words, the garden of unity must be tended constantly. You don't make unity and then walk away from it. You're constantly making every effort.
Paul's prescription for disunity in Romans 15:7 is to accept one another: "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you." The context of this verse is important. This is the exclamation point on the previous 33 verses in which Paul has appealed for unity. He began this appeal in 14:1 with the same verb with which he begins this verse: accept. He says: Accept into your group someone who is weak in faith and don't argue about opinions.
Some arguing was going on in the Roman church. According to Romans 14:2 and 14:5, they were arguing about diets and days. One person believed it was all right to eat all kinds of food, but another believed it was right to eat only vegetables. Some thought one day was more important than another, while others considered every day the same. Instead of having trees-only people or trees-mostly people, they had days-only and diets-only people.
The Roman church was comprised of two different cultures: the Gentiles and the Jews. The Jewish Christians brought with them 2,000 years of heritage, and part and parcel of Jewish heritage was food and festivals. There were certain foods they could eat, and other kinds they couldn't. Every few weeks there was a special festival that was to be observed on certain days. To the Gentiles, those sorts of things were a bit odd, if not unnecessary and foolish. You can see how this is going to create problems.
Imagine planning a potluck dinner. On the planning committee are both Jews and Gentiles. The Gentile, Antiochus, says, "Lets clear the final day of the month for the special celebration."
Abraham, the Jewish Christian, says, "Are you kidding? That's Passover weekend. We don't do anything like that on Passover weekend."
Antiochus replies, "That's the old law. We're under the new law now."
Abraham says, "My conscience won't let me do it."
Antiochus says, "All right. You pick the date. I'll be in charge of the food. I want to bring a pig."
Abraham says, "No, no, no." And opinion becomes discussion, and discussion becomes dispute, and dispute—unless something happens—will become division. Rome will have two churches, two fires. An essential in this powerful epistle to Rome is Paul's solution for this problem. Note that he never solves the problem. He never says, "you're right and you're wrong." He says: Do not argue about opinions.
Not only do we have a powerful statement—do not argue—but we have the realization that in the Lord's church there are opinions. That's an important recognition for any church to maintain unity. There are matters of doctrine. There are matters of opinion. There are matters of truth. There are matters of preference. Issues at the core of the gospel revolve around the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. On those issues there are no opinions. There is only truth. But outside of that is a plethora of opinions. The Bible is not a flat landscape where everything is of equal importance. Beneath the cross are issues of varying degrees of importance. For example, the color of seats or how long we keep the air conditioner on is not that important. Those are matters of opinion. Other matters in the category of opinion are things like the literal nature of the millennium, the mode and meaning of baptism, the existence or absence of certain spiritual gifts, the role of elders in the church, the position or title of the preacher in the church. These are issues that usually start out as opinions that can become discussions that can become dispute and division. Paul's solution is simple. When these issues surface between people who respect the Scriptures and love the Savior, simply accept one another. That usually comes by ceasing the stubbornness in your heart and being tolerant of the opinion of someone else.
There was a lady who wanted to bring a monkey to live in her house. Her husband objected. He said, "You mean he's going to eat at our table?"
She said, "Yeah."
He said, "You mean that monkey is going to sit in our living room?"
She said, "Yeah."
He said, "You mean that monkey is going to sleep in our bed?"
She said, "Yeah."
He said, "What about the stink?"
She said, "I got used to you. I suppose the monkey will too."
A Christlike Acceptance
We must accept one another as Christ accepts us. Part of Paul's teaching here is that none of us is perfect. Accepting one another is more than meeting under the same roof. The verb accept literally means to receive into someone's heart. You do not agree to disagree and then never talk to each other. You accept one another into your hearts. It's the same verb used in Philemon verse 17, when Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus, the slave, as if he were accepting Paul himself. It's the same verb used in Acts 28 when Luke describes how the citizens of Malta received those who were shipwrecked. Most importantly, it's the same verb used in John 14:2 to describe how Jesus will receive us when we come to heaven. He accepts us on the grounds of Calvary. We come equipped with nothing more than our own confession and admission of sin, and we accept his wonderful and endless grace.
This acceptance of Christ is not unconditional. We talk about the unconditional love of Christ, and well we should. His love is unconditional, but his acceptance is not. His acceptance has conditions. His acceptance is conditioned upon your repentance and faith. In the same way, our acceptance of people is not without conditions. Just because somebody pays their bills or pays their taxes or keeps their lawn clean doesn't mean he's a Christian brother or she's a Christian sister. We accept whom Christ accepts. If they have in faith called God their Father and Christ their Savior, we call them a brother or sister.
The definition of the church is simple then. Regardless of your heritage or what the sign out front may say or what your opinions may be on certain disputable matters, if you call Christ brother and God Father, you and I are in the same family.
A few years ago we began the practice of swapping pulpits with Buchner Fanning, the pastor of Trinity Baptist. The first Sunday he and I exchanged pulpits, he was seated at the front of the auditorium awaiting his turn to speak. Communion was brought to him, and a wellspring of emotion stirred within him as he realized this was the first time he had taken communion in a Church of Christ. An invisible but significant bridge was built at the cross of Christ in that hour of communion. He said it took him back to another time he shared communion in an unusual environment.
During World War II he was a Marine, and he was sent to Japan days after the bombing there. Walking amidst the rubble, death, and disease that four years of war can cause, he was looking for a place to worship, and he found a Japanese Christian church. He wondered how they would respond to the presence of an American Marine in their worship service. Initially, he said, they were distant. It was a small room with folding chairs and a table up front with the elements of communion. He said that distance was overcome when one of the Japanese Christians brought him the bread and the cup, and fellowship was created between these two unlikely allies at the foot of the cross. The cross can do what we cannot; it can overcome the division we have created. We cannot undo 2,000 years of religious division in a single morning, but we can resolve in our hearts to place a premium on unity.
Were you to read Romans 14, you would notice three exhortations from the apostle Paul. Number one: Don't argue. We can have conversations. We can have discussions. We can admonish each other. We can share ideas. But once you feel your neck getting hot and your voice getting high, you are called to shut up. Today we hereby declare a moratorium on arguments. You are deputized to step between arguing brothers and say, "Do not argue about opinions." It's better to lose an argument than to lose a friend.
Number two: Paul says in verse 13 to stop judging each other. Judging is when you dealing with the issue and start meddling with the person. Here's an example of a judgmental statement: "Of course she wants women to be more active in the church. She's just one of those kinds of women." That's unnecessary and sinful. That's a judgmental statement that should never be made. "Of course he wants more rambunctious worship. He's just one of those rowdy sorts." That's a character slander. It's unnecessary and inappropriate. It displeases God and is not allowed. We can discuss the role of women, the role of men, and the role of worship, and we can do so without questioning someone's character.
Finally: Let's do what makes peace and helps one another. Will my phrase or my thought or this phone call make peace? Will what I'm about to say help somebody, or will it hurt? If you can't say it will help and you can't say it will make peace, then don't say it. This is not to say we shouldn't have honest, heart-to-heart, good discussions, because it is out of those discussions we sharpen each and come to a better understanding of Scripture.
Our attitudes should be like that of Alexander Campbell, a great church leader in the early 1800s. Few people had deeper convictions than this scholar, but few people offered more grace than he did. In 1831, he wrote a letter to a minister with whom he had serious disagreements on important doctrinal issues. At the end of the letter he wrote, "If you and I should never approximate higher to each other in our views [in other words, if you and I never work this out], I would nevertheless still love and esteem you as a Christian, as a citizen of heaven."
Peter says: Above all things have fervent love among yourselves, for love shall cover a multitude of sins. If love covers a multitude of sins, can it not cover a multitude of opinions? Therefore, accept one another. Accept one another as Christ has accepted you. And, thereby, bring glory to God.
Let's remember who we are in this parable. We're the sailors who were floundering, one swallow away from an ocean full of salt water. But at the right time he extended his hand, pulled us into his boat, and deposited us into this community. Not one of us selected the other to come here. It was all his idea. He defines who comes, and he defines the way we stay. Accept one another as Christ has accepted you. Our task is to build a big fire so that those who are still searching can find a safe place, and those who are here can stay warm. May God enable us to do exactly that.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Max Lucado is an author and minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas.