Sunday Services: 9:00am & 10:45am

The Pursuit of Unity

Preached by Jason Abbott

The church at Rome was quarrelling. And, in his letter to that congregation, Paul addresses the squabble. They were dividing over what was and wasn’t eaten. They were dividing over what days were considered holy and what days were not. The church was finding all kinds of things to fight about. 

(We might be tempted to dismiss their squabbles as juvenile and below us—as the kinds of things we’d never divide over. But, we should be careful about that. Just a little reflection on recent church history will teach us that we have divided over similar things—whether we should or should not drink alcoholic beverages, whether we should or should not work on Sundays. There’s a warning here for us about divisiveness, not just for the Romans.) 

At this point, you might wonder why I have chosen to parachute into the end of the letter Paul wrote to the Romans and especially into a text addressing fighting or disunity in the church. What’s my rational? Why did Jason choose this passage for his last sermon with us? 

Well, I could have chosen a passage like this one to address divisions I see forming in the church. That would be one reason to select this passage of Scripture. However, I think we as a church have been uncommonly blessed with great unity. We have a united elder team. We have a united staff. And, we’re pursuing mission as an entire congregation in unity. So, just to be clear, I didn’t select this passage because I see some developing schism among us. 

(On the contrary, I selected it because I don’t!) 

Friends, in the midst of this transition, there will be plenty of opportunities for disunity and division. And, precisely because unity is one of the great strengths of this church, be aware that the devil will make the most out of every opportunity to sow discord and distrust among you. That’s what he loves to do! 

So, I want to take this last opportunity (of studying God’s word with you all) to encourage you to protect the gift of unity which the Lord has worked among us. And, because we could always do better, because there are always greater divisions to be bridged, I want to take this opportunity to urge all of us to commit ourselves to the pursuit of unity in Christ as a lifelong endeavor. 

So, let’s take the next few minutes together to hear God’s voice in Scripture. Here’s what Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, records for us. 

Romans 15:1-7

1  We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

I want us to ask two questions of this passage—(1st) how do we know love? How do we know what it means to love others? And, (2nd) how do we glorify God? What does and what doesn’t glorify him? Let’s consider what today’s passage says about each of these.

1. How do we know love (vv. 1-4)?

Today, in the secular West, there’s an assumption that love is self-evident—like you just know it when you see it, like it’s just in our DNA. Except that it’s not. You see, love is learned. And, not everybody learns it or defines it the same way. In fact, what we regularly assume to be self-evident is usually culturally inherited, and, in the West, it’s inherited largely from a Christian worldview. 

  • Love for one’s neighbor…Christian. 
  • Love for one’s enemy…Christian. 
  • Love for the vulnerable and disenfranchised…Christian. 
  • Love as self-sacrifice…Christian. 

But, why is this kind of love any better than other culturally learned kinds? That’s a hard question for our non-Christian friends. Why should we love others when it’s hard? Why is self-sacrificial love better than self-serving love? 

Again, that’s a difficult question for our non-Christian friends to answer. 

But, as believers, we have an answer. And, it is an ultimate, universal one. Paul tells us why this kind of love is better. Look at the beginning of our passage. Look at what Paul says about love and about why we love. 

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (vv. 1-3). 

Notice Paul begins by describing what most everyone we know would agree to be beautiful, loving behavior—standing by someone without any selfish motives when they screw things up, meeting a neighbor’s need in order that she may grow and be built up. Most of us—both Christian and non-Christian alike—would agree that these are expressions of love. 

But why?! Well, Paul tells us why those of us who call ourselves Christians must do this. Notice the “For” that begins verse three. That indicates the beginning of a purpose clause. In short, that word indicates that what follows is why believers must do it—For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (v. 3). 

Friends, we as believers must live this way in our relationships with others because this is the way God has lived, in the person of Jesus, in relationship to us. He suffered and died in our place for our benefit. He bore all our sin and our shame on the cross. God loved us this way, so we must consequently love others this way in return. 

You see Christ’s sacrifice is how we know what love is, what love looks like. 

I had a good non-Christian friend in Jefferson City who was in an argument with another one of my good friends, who happened to be a believer. At one point, my non-Christian friend asked my advice concerning the argument between them. He wanted to know what he should do. And, in complete honesty, I had to tell him that I didn’t know what he should do—that I didn’t know why he should forgive. But then, I explained I knew that our other friend had to work towards forgiveness because he had been forgiven by Jesus. 

I can tell you this much about that interaction. It was the clearest expression of the difference faith in Jesus Christ makes when it comes to forgiveness and love for others. Without a doubt, my non-Christian friend felt and understood the clear and practical implications of the gospel that night. 

And, friends, as believers, we mustn’t forget these implications of our faith in Jesus Christ. He is how we know what love is. We have been treated with grace and mercy and love though we were his enemies. And, therefore, Paul reminds us that we must treat each other—through faith in Jesus and the power of his Spirit—in the same manner. This is a non-negotiable of our faith. 

Well, before we move to our second question, I’m going to shamelessly plug what we’re doing right now—namely, studying the Bible as the gathered church. Did you notice that there’s a second “For” following the one that we just looked at in verse three? Verse four has one too. Let me read the two verses together. 

For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (vv. 3-4). 

What’s going on here? Well, if Jesus is the way we know how we must love, then the Scriptures are how we know Jesus. You see, Paul quotes Psalm 69 verse 9 and applies it to Jesus. He says that that Psalm ultimately speaks about the Christ, about his sacrificial mission to save sinners like you and me. 

Now, there’s so much that could be said about this. We just don’t have time for all of it now. But let me at least say this to you. As we open the Bible together to prayerfully and faithfully study it, something mysterious and divine takes place. It’s not merely an academic exercise. It should not be seen as common instruction or something mundane. When we open up this text, it is nothing less than the Lord speaking to us. We’re hearing from God. 

Look, Psalm 69 was probably composed about a thousand years before Paul wrote Romans. But, whom does Paul say it was written for? …for our instruction, that through endurance and the encouragement of Scripture we might have hope! Friends, God recorded this for us. God preserved his holy word for us. 

Don’t neglect the corporate study of Scripture! Don’t forsake the endurance and encouragement and hope God promises to bring you through it! 

Well, let’s consider our second and final question. 

2. How do we glorify God (vv. 5-7)? 

This is where we begin to see the importance of unity. Look at the passage with me. Look at what Paul says or prays next. 

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (vv. 5-7). 

Just consider the unity language which infuses these three verses of a prayer. Paul begins by asking that God would allow the believers “to live in…harmony.” In fact, he’s not asking for them to merely exhibit “harmony” but “such harmony” “that together” all the individuals of the congregation would worship the Lord God “with one voice.” And, from where does such unity of worship and praise come? Well, it comes from being “in accord” or in harmony or in unison or in agreement “with Christ Jesus.” Paul’s prayer is all about unity. 

And, this isn’t just a Paul-thing. The Lord Jesus was also really concerned about the unity of his followers. So much so, that he prayed for the church’s unity on the night he was betrayed—on the night before he would be tortured and killed. Look a few lines from his prayer. 

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20-23). 

Obviously, unity is super important. It testifies to the world about the truth of Christianity. Friends, our unity and love is our greatest apologetic. 

Yet, we need to understand what unity really is! Our culture doesn’t know what it really is. Our culture tells us that unity is uniformity. So, we must all say such and such a thing is right or such and such a thing is wrong. We must all agree at every turn. But, friends, that’s not unity in any way! 

Real unity is loving someone when you don’t agree. Real unity is believing that someone is 100% wrong and not abandoning them but, instead, caring deeply about them and continuing to befriend them and relate to them. That’s real unity! Anyone can hang-around with people who don’t say anything they disagree with. Everybody can love people who are like themselves. That’s nothing special at all! And, consequently, that’s not beautiful at all! 

So, what Paul is praying for and what Jesus is praying for and what I want us to pray for (in a moment) is unity. That there would be no racial divides among us. That there’d be no political divides among us. That there would be no class divides among us. But, that we’d be united in an ever-greater diversity. For… 

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6). 

As we close today, I’m going to call all the elders and staff to come forward. And, I’m going to ask you to stand. And, I’d like you to allow me to pray over you. I want to pray that love and unity, that can only come from a shared faith in Jesus, would mark this church until our Lord himself returns. 

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