Love in Spite of Differences

Romans 15:7

7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Dear Friends in Christ,

If you happened to be here 2 Sundays ago when I preached my last sermon, you may recall that in my introduction I talked about a custom that Marilyn and I ran into at our first congregation where after enjoying a nice dinner and an evening of pinochle with several couples, around 11:00, the host couple would break out another vast array of food and we would have to eat again before going home for the night.  Well, today I want to begin my sermon by telling you a little bit about the next congregation that I served in my ministry, which was Immanuel Lutheran Church in Tuscola, IL.  I remember the night that I got the phone call from the head elder there, informing me that they had just called me to be their pastor.  After imparting that information to me, he then added these rather ominous sounding words.  He said, “Now we want to be as honest and upfront with you as possible.  We are a troubled congregation.”  And after I felt led by God to accept that call, I discovered that that was putting it mildly.  For there I found a congregation that was deeply divided over issues pertaining to the previous pastor.

As I spent that first year visiting members in their homes, I tried to be as objective as possible, listening to both sides of the story.  And while both had very valid and legitimate concerns, there were many evenings when I’d come home and tell Marilyn, “We’ll give this place one year and then we’re out of here,” because I’d never heard nor seen such bitterness, animosity, and disunity among Christians.  And needless to say, it wasn’t helping the church at all.  That congregation had developed a reputation for being the church in town where the members could not get along with one another.  But amazingly, by the grace of God and the healing power of the Gospel things turned around after that first year and we ended up enjoying 5 wonderful years of ministry there.  In fact, when we left there were guys working together on the board of elders who were the bitterest of enemies when we arrived.  I still look back on those days and marvel at what God was able to do there in such dramatic fashion.  It was truly a God-sized problem that only he could fix.

Well, it’s sad to say, but what went on in that church was nothing new.  Division and disunity have been a part of the body of Christ ever since Jesus walked the face of this earth.  For example, remember the disciples?  Were they always in 100% total agreement with one another?  Hardly!  They were known to argue and bicker about the silliest of things and to have private discussions as to which one of them was the greatest.  Or how about this example from Mark 9:38 where John says to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”  I can just picture Jesus shaking his head in total disbelief and disappointment at the thick-headedness of those disciples as he says in response: “Do not stop him…No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”

You see, Jesus understood something here that we modern day Christians sometimes don’t understand.  And that is the high cost of disunity.  Consider, first of all, that disunity distracts the believer.  The job description that Jesus has given us is really very simple.  “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  We call that the Great Commission, the marching orders that Jesus gave his disciples and his church right before he ascended into heaven.  But when we find ourselves arguing with one another, criticizing each other, pointing fingers at one another, that eternally important responsibility gets put on the back burner, doesn’t it?  It gets neglected.

I hate to say it, but we’ve see that happen in our own church body, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.  As you may or may not know, we’ve had divisions arise in our denomination over the years for various reasons, as has every other Christian church body, but one of the biggest ones occurred following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 back in 2001 when one of our district presidents participated in an inter-faith gathering that was held at Yankee Stadium in response to that tragic event.  Though he was the only person there that day bold enough to pray in the name of Jesus and to mention Jesus as the only way of salvation, there were those in our Synod who felt that he had no business being there sharing the same podium with non-Christians like Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews.  But then there were many others who were proud that he was there pointing people to Jesus.  So there was this disunity that erupted in our church body and that disunity proved to be a major distraction to the job that Christ has really given us to do.  In fact, in an issue of The Reporter, which is kind of like our Synod’s official newspaper, one pastor tried to drive this point home in a letter to the editor.  He said that as we continue on this course of disunity, “we miss the point of our calling to evangelize the world in the Gospel love of Jesus, who calls all people to believe in Him through Word and Sacrament.”

So disunity distracts the believer.  Then secondly, disunity discourages the seeker.  You see, there are a lot of people out there in the world today who are looking for something more in life than what they have found thus far.  They have discovered that the material luxuries and pleasures of this world do not satisfy permanently.  And so they’re searching for something deeper and more meaningful.  Well, we know that that’s the Holy Spirit tugging on their heart.  And we know that what they are looking for can only be found in a good solid Bible-based, Christ-believing, Christ-honoring, Christ-proclaiming church.  But if the members of that church are not getting along with one another, if there is negativity and disunity in that church, do you think that seeker is going to be drawn there?  Doubtful, right?  I mean, most people have enough stress and conflict in their lives already.  They’re not looking to add more.  So disunity discourages the seeker.  It drives away those who otherwise might be interested.

Then thirdly, disunity discredits our Savior.  You see, unity is really his idea.  In fact, on the night before Jesus was put to death, the unity of his followers was very much on his mind.  Listen to part of the prayer he offered that night in the upper room with his disciples.  He said,“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  Then the world will know that you sent me.”  When will the world know that Jesus was sent by his Father to this earth?  When we have better evangelism programs or more eloquent sermons or bigger and better buildings or more dynamic, contemporary worship music?  No.  The world will believe that he is the One when his followers begin to work together and act as one.

So when the church fails to do that, it discredits our Savior.  Let me illustrate what I mean by that.  If you were to go to the mall looking for some brand new exercise equipment to give you those washboard abs and those broad rounded shoulders and those rippling biceps that you’ve always dreamed of having and the salesman was this pot-bellied, overweight, chunky fellow who was singing the praises of a particular type of equipment because of what it had done for him, would you be inclined to buy it?  Of course not!  Why not?  Because the credibility of the product would be called into question by the one who was selling it.

Well, if we are supposed to be the dispensers of the Gospel, which is the good news of salvation that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, and we cannot find a way to get along with each other and to love each other in spite of our differences, how many people do you think are going to be interested in our product, in what we have to offer?  Not very many, right?  So please understand, my friends, this is a high stakes issue that we’re talking about this morning.  For that reason the Apostle Paul hammers away at it in his letter to the Romans.  In chapter 12:16 he says:  “Live in harmony with one another.”  Then a few verses later he writes:  “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  Then in chapter 14:19 he adds:  “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”

Well, now that we’ve established how important this issue of unity is, you know what we need?  We need a prescription for it.  In other words, how do we attain unity in the church?  Well, Paul provides us with that prescription in our text for today when he says, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  The key phrase there is “just as Christ accepted you.”  If we can get that straight, then the rest will fall into place.  So the question is, how has Christ accepted you?  Does he accept you on the basis of all your opinions because your opinions are right 100% of the time?  Does he accept you because he applauds and approves of everything you do?  Does he accept you because you have no idiosyncrasies or quirks or bad habits?  I think you know better than that, don’t you?  How, then – on what grounds, on what basis – does he accept you?  Listen carefully because if you miss what I’m about to say, you miss the whole point of this sermon.  Jesus accepts you not on the basis of anything you’ve done or ever will do.  Rather, he accepts you on the basis of what he has done for you.  He accepts you on the grounds of the cross and what happened there.  When you stand in the shadow of that cross and come there equipped with nothing more and nothing less than your own sin and you repent of that sin and receive by faith his sacrifice as the supreme and all-sufficient payment for that sin, he accepts you.  He forgives you of your sins and covers you with his spotless, stainless, sinless righteousness.

And that, my friends, is how we accept one another – as people who are all in the same boat with the same problem – the problem of sin.  We accept one another as fellow sinners who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and who are now by his grace and his grace alone bound for an eternity with him.  As I stated in one of my sermons some time ago, there is no ground in this world more level than the ground you find at the foot of the cross.  Now having said that, let me also be quick to add that this whole idea of accepting one another does not mean that we kindly turn our head the other way when blatant sin isw being committed or that we are blindly tolerant of others’ mistakes and wrongdoings.  But if there is genuine repentance on their part and a love for Jesus in their heart, if they have in faith called God their Father and Christ their Savior, can we call them anything less than a brother or a sister?

Our attitude then should be like that of Alexander Campbell, an American clergyman in the 1800’s who founded the denomination known as the Disciples of Christ.  Few people had deeper spiritual convictions than he did, but few people offered more grace than he did.  In 1831 he wrote a letter to a minister with whom he had some serious disagreements over important doctrinal issues.  But at the end of the letter he said, “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; if we can never agree”), I would nevertheless still love and esteem you as a Christian, as a citizen of heaven.”  Sounds a lot like what Peter said in his 1st epistle:  “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

Well, as I draw this sermon to a close, I want to say one more thing.  I am proud to be the pastor of a congregation that I believe does a pretty good job of what we’ve talked about here today.  You have definitely lived up to your name, Salem.  I don’t know how many of you know it, but that word is derived from the Hebrew word shalom which means peace.  Probably the most frequent comment I get from those who visit our church is:  “This is such a friendly congregation.  The people made me feel so welcome.  Everyone seems to get along so well with one another.”  You don’t hear comments like that coming from churches where arguing and bickering are the order of the day.  So allow me right now to give you one huge collective pat on the back for really taking this command of our Lord so seriously.  And let me encourage you to keep at it, to keep on loving one another in spite of your differences and to never, never, never give up accepting one another as Christ has accepted you.