From the early days prior to the American Revolutionary War comes a familiar story that illustrates the importance of unity. During the meeting where it was decided that the thirteen colonies would resist England, Benjamin Franklin is said to have said this: “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.” Those of the Eritrean community here have gone through such fights for freedom and can appreciate the importance of “hanging together” when facing a significant challenge that is important to you. There should be little doubt of the value of people “hanging” together when facing a challenge. That is certainly also true for the church of Christ. Today we observe “All Nations Heritage Sunday,” a day in which we recognize the diversity, and also try to advance unity within Christ’s church. But how can we do this here in our own setting where we have 3 congregations worshiping in the same building? Where does the unity that is necessary for the church to grow and survive come from? The answer comes in Romans 15:5-7 that we look at this morning.
I. God gives endurance and encouragement.
Now you may ask “What does this have to do with unity?” In verse 4, Paul writes the Scriptures were given to teach us “so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Bible was given to us to instruct and teach us. However the Bible also gives encouragement and endurance to all who believe. Endurance means simply that a Christian can withstand and handle whatever difficulties he or she may face as they live in a sinful world. Encouragement is that comforting strength that God gives to help us endure. Both of these things help us to be able to live and survive in an often hostile world.
Through the Scriptures, God gives us all the strength and comfort that we need to live. We know how important this is for us. People who have gone through hardships and pain often will say: “If it wasn’t for the comfort and strength in the Bible, I don’t know if I would have made it.” God uses his Word in a powerful way to help us in our needs. Sometimes God comforts us gently; sometimes God gives us endurance and comfort in a firm, but loving way. Think of how a parent encourages his or her child when they do wrong. The child may be acting up but the parent will calmly, yet firmly, correct and encourage good behavior on the part of the child. But if a parent gives no direction or encouragement, then something is very wrong. God lovingly goes with us and gives us encouragement and endurance through his Word as we deal with circumstances in our lives. But God also gives something else.
Paul asks that God may give his readers a “spirit of unity.” A spirit of unity is that common attitude by which believers will be able to live together in harmony. If not for belief in Jesus, the Roman Christians might have nothing in common. But in spite of all the differences that may have existed between the various groups in Rome, Paul asks that God may unite them together. For you see such unity rarely happens when people are left on their own. People tend to gravitate toward people who are similar to themselves. Paul wants all believers to be united, but how does this happen?
Paul says that this happens when people follow Christ Jesus. What does it mean to “follow Christ”? Does that mean that we look at Christ’s life and try to do the things He did? Following Christ’s example is certainly part of it, but more than that, it is being thoroughly committed to obeying Christ’s will and commands. And when a group of people do this, they will be united together into one working and worshiping group of believers. Our 5 year-old grandson is playing soccer and that is something his coach/dad is trying to teach him and the others on the team: pass the ball to each other! But they tend to go after the ball with great enthusiasm and work alone; at times even stealing the ball from a teammate. They have to learn to work together in unity as a team in order to score a goal.
The same is true in the church. When everyone wants to do only what they want to do, there is little unity and little success in pursuing the mission of God. But when everyone is thinking of how to obey the Lord and doing what he commands, then people will likely be working together. They will have the spirit of unity that Paul talks about.
III. This is so important because this is one way that God’s glory is revealed.
The purpose, in verse 6, is “that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “With one heart” refers to the bond that people share when they all believe in Jesus. It is the attitude that while you may have a very difficult time liking a particular person, you still love him because he is a fellow-believer. It is the attitude that regardless of how different we may be socially, economically or ethnically, there is a bond that unites us. There is a deep inner source of unity that binds us together in love. “With one mouth” refers to one united confession. This does not mean that all join in the same hymn, creed, or prayer. Rather, it means that every member everywhere and always confesses the one same gospel truth: Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord.
When Christians are united in this way then God is glorified. God’s glory is one way of describing just how great and majestic He is. We can see the glory of God in the created world around us. We see God’s glory in the Bible when we read of God’s great love for us when He sent His Son to die for us. Paul is saying that when people see a group of people who are often so different, yet who are so united, they see God’s glory. I think that is true here at Faith Church. We are made up of people who are very different from each other. We are racially, ethnically, economically and culturally diverse. We have people from a variety of denominations. We even have a range of beliefs on some theological points. Yet the love of Christ binds us together in love for each other. People who visit notice that we seem to be like a large family, caring for each other and living for God together. When people see that, then God’s glory is seen because only God can bring about the kind of unity that we have in spite of all the differences.
That is one thing we celebrate this morning in the Lord’s Supper. We remember that God in his great love for his people sent Jesus to earth to die for us. The broken bread represents His body that was broken for us. The juice, representing His blood, points to Christ’s shed blood. Christ made the supreme sacrifice so that our sins might be forgiven. But in celebrating the Lord’s Supper this morning, we also see symbolically that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross brings us together into one body. There is one loaf which symbolizes the fact that we are one body even though we are different from each other. This loaf was gathered from many grains of wheat to form one loaf. The juice comes from many grapes, but it is made into one cup that we share. Our belief and trust in Jesus unites us into one body and we celebrate that today. But there is also a lesson for us to learn today that is found in verse 7.
Since we are one body, united in the love of Christ, then we must be certain that we truly accept each other and that is more than just saying that we accept each other. To accept each other means to welcome one another and to take fellow-Christians into your hearts. To accept means to show love and kindness to all of God’s people. It means not letting things like economic, educational, cultural or racial differences get in the way of caring for each other. It means not letting whatever differences may exist hinder the love and fellowship that we have because of Christ Jesus. To accept each other means to share our lives together, share the important events of our lives together and to spend time with each other. It means to accept each other in spite of the differences and instead to focus on the things that unite us.
How can we do that? We must “accept one another then just as Christ accepted you.” We must have the same attitude toward others as Christ has for us. Obviously, Christ accepted us even though we did not deserve it. If we did deserve to be accepted by Christ, we would not be celebrating the Lord’s Supper today for there would be no need for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But Jesus did have to die in order to make us acceptable to God. And even though we were filthy with sin, and completely unacceptable, Jesus died for us so that we could be acceptable to God. That is how we must view each other in a very practical way. We must be willing to give up ourselves for one another. It is easy to accept one another when no sacrifice is required. We can say, “Sure, I’ll accept you as long as it is convenient for me.” Or, “Of course, I accept you as long as it doesn’t cost me anything.” Jesus demonstrated His acceptance of us by dying for us. That is the model that Paul urges us to follow in these verses.
If we do this, we will bring praise to God and God’s glory will be revealed. If we do this at our own congregational level, people will continue to notice and they may well join with us in praising the Lord who has saved us. If the church continues to do this between nationalities and larger groups of people, even more people will see the Lord at work and will praise Him. But, if the church here or at large fails to accept each other and work together, then it is not only very sad, it is detrimental to the church. Two men were riding a bicycle built for two when they came to a big steep hill. It took a great deal of struggle for the men to complete what proved to be a very stiff climb. When they got to the top the man in front turned to the other and said, “Boy, that sure was a hard climb.” The fellow in back replied, “Yes, and if I hadn’t kept the brakes on all the way we would certainly have rolled down backwards.” With so much at stake in the mission of the church, we must have unity; we must work with and accept each other for Christ’s sake.
What can we do? First, pray that we and people of all tongues and nations may accept each other so that God’s name may be praised and God’s glory revealed. Second, work to further accept each other in very practical and concrete ways by giving of yourself to others. Third, ask yourself: “Who do you need to accept?” Finally, what are you going to do to show your acceptance of that person?