Second Sunday in Advent
It has been said that church is the only place that we willingly and joyfully and regularly go, where we will interact, fellowship, worship and do ministry with people that we would ordinarily have no other reason to associate with*. I’m totally convinced that this is one of the most apt descriptions of the gathered followers of Jesus Christ that I have ever encountered. It is just so cool, and so totally amazing that I’m going to say it again, just so everyone can see how marvelous and wonderful it is. Church is the only place where we willingly and joyfully and regularly go to interact, fellowship, worship and do ministry with people that we would ordinarily have no other reason to associate with. And that is true, because the gospel attracts people from all walks of life, and those different walks of life are as diverse as we can possibly imagine. And yet, Sunday after Sunday, these incredibly diverse people, from a vast array of backgrounds, gather together to sing, pray, hear the Scriptures, and to interact with God and with one another, not to mention to have their lives transformed into doers of the word of God.
Understandably, when these diverse people gather together, from out of all of their different life experiences, there always exists the potential for tension and conflict. It is to be expected. This was certainly true in the first century, but the first century is not unique. Believers in every generation have always found plenty of opportunity to disagree with one another.
In our passage this morning, the Apostle Paul is alluding to the tension that naturally existed between Jewish believers and Gentile believers. That kind of tension may seem strange and irrelevant to us today, unless we think of it as racism, which is what it surely was. In the early church, racism was a huge issue. The church of Jesus Christ began as a movement within Judaism, but because the good news of the gospel appeals to all persons, Gentile people soon found the same hope and salvation in Jesus Christ that the early Jewish believers had found. And that created some excitement! Two more socially disparate groups of people can hardly be imagined. Jesus had a long history of never associating with Gentiles. Jews preferred to avoid Gentiles altogether. The Gentiles were the great unwashed, socially and theologically. The Gentiles had no history with God. They were pagans; they were newcomers and interlopers. But because of their new-found and common faith in Jesus Christ, Gentiles were thrown together with Jews in the same congregations. And what a mess! Talk about people who had nothing in common! But then, there was Jesus. They did have him in common, and because they had him in common, they were called to accept and welcome and love one another. They had no choice. There was no other option. Jesus himself had thrown them together.
When Paul writes to the churches in and around Rome, he is intentionally ambiguous about identifying who is the strong and who is the weak. He says, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” He is very careful not to say who the strong ones are and who the weak ones are. And he is very wise in doing this. And that’s because in times of tension and conflict, both sides believe that they are the strong side or the right side. Otherwise, there would be no tension or conflict. In the early church, both Jews and Gentiles had some very good reasons to believe that they were the strong ones. Jews could point to their long and glorious history with God, and Gentiles could point to their freedom from the rules and traditions that most believing Jews still observed. And so Paul is really saying, whatever side you’re on, put up with the failings of the other side. And the sure and certain implication here is that both sides have failings. No matter how right we may think we are on a particular issue, we still have failings aplenty. And that’s a tough lesson to learn. It requires that we look more closely at ourselves than we look at others. And who wants to do that? Who really wants to try to understand someone else’s opinion? Putting up with one another requires that we first of all recognize our own failings. Jesus said something about a toothpick and a telephone pole that we probably ought not to forget.
As it turns out, the differences of opinion that separate us are completely irrelevant to our task of living out our lives as brothers and sisters in Christ. If God can bring Jew and Gentile together in one faith in Jesus Christ, God can certainly unite people who are already drawn together in a common faith in Jesus Christ. I think God laughs, and then cries over our petty differences.
But Paul goes on. He wants us to build one another up. Now…this is not normal human behavior. Normal human behavior is to tear one another down and to hurl insults at one another. But as believers, we are called to a much higher standard than that. Instead of resorting to tearing one another down, we ought to be striving to build one another up.
Building up is a constructive alternative to demolition.
It is here that the Apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 69. Psalm 69 is the long complaint of a righteous person who has been unjustly judged. It is excellent reading for any of us who have suffered the ravages of normal human behavior. In quoting from this psalm, Paul immediately applies it to Jesus, who certainly was a righteous person who was unjustly judged. But he does this for two very important reasons. First of all, he does it to remind his readers and us, that we ought not to be judging one another. But secondly, and equally important, he does it to drive us to the Scriptures. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Paul tosses in a short dissertation on the absolute importance of the Scriptures. There is, sadly, today, a reluctance among the followers of Jesus, to engage with the Scriptures. Paul says, “For whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction…” “Instruction” is a powerful word. Instruction is education, it is interaction, it implies an insatiable desire to learn as much as we can from God’s word. Instruction leads knowledge, and knowledge leads to understanding, and understanding leads to wisdom. Therefore familiarity with the Scriptures is a necessary and vital component to our faith. We cannot neglect the Scriptures. In verse three, Paul quotes only one half of one verse from a psalm that contains 36 verses. Can we imagine that Paul did not intend for his readers to go to that psalm and to absorb all of its wisdom? Of course not. He fully intended for them to go to the whole psalm and to glean instruction from it. We must be doers of the word.
But Paul has another reason for driving us to the Scriptures. It is so that we will have hope. One of the greatest truths of the Scriptures is that God most often gets things done by engaging the weaknesses and the failings of human beings who are trying hard to be faithful. God does not often choose heroes to bring about his kingdom; just ordinary people who have a willingness to be chosen. God doesn’t mind at all working with weak and broken people who have failings aplenty. What God looks for in us is a willingness to be instructed in his ways and a desire to act in faithfulness to his commandments. God wouldn’t get much done if he could only use perfect people. And in that, there is deep and profound hope for all of us.
Finally, Paul offers up a prayer for his readers and for us. He says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There are two things in Paul’s prayer that are very important for us to consider. First, can people who disagree with one another live in harmony with one another? Absolutely. If God can unite Jew and Gentile, then God can unite all of us. Piece of cake. But consider this: in the early church, Jew and Gentile never did quite achieve unity of thought. And we may never achieve unity of thought. I’m pretty sure that’s not even God’s intention. Unity of heart is far more important than unity of thought. I’m not sure why we confuse the two. We may never always agree with one another. In fact, we may be sitting next to someone this morning with whom we profoundly disagree. But we are, just the same, united in heart through our common faith and belief in Jesus Christ. And, if we are willing to receive it, God will grant us to live in harmony. Harmony is God’s gift to us. It is God who does the granting. Harmony is never of our own doing: we’re not that good.
The second thing that’s important in Paul’s prayer is worship. Because we are united in heart with one another, worship together becomes absolutely essential. Paul prays that we will “…with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is where we sometimes become confused. It is where we fail to receive the instruction of the Apostle Paul. I am convinced that in churches everywhere, trouble comes when believers confuse unity of thought with unity of heart. Trouble comes when we place more emphasis on unity of thought than we do on unity of heart. Homogenized milk is a really good thing. An homogenized church, not so much. If we focus on becoming an homogenized church we neglect the very clear teaching of the Apostle Paul. But worse, because we have neglected his instruction, we also neglect worshiping with one another, and in doing so we neglect our relationship with Jesus Christ. This is why Paul says, “Welcome, one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
If Jesus Christ has welcomed and received and accepted us, we can do no less in our relationships with one another. In this God will be glorified, which is our sole purpose on this earth.
*If this description of the church seems unsatisfying, here is what I wrote in my ordination dissertation nearly 40 years ago: “The local church consists of a gathered group of believers who have united themselves around a common bond of preaching and teaching God’s Word, fellowship with one another, prayer and and a desire to fulfill the demands of the Great Commission.”