Loving Those Who Are Different

Ephesians 4:2

2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Dear Friends in Christ,

I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by asking you to envision something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced plenty of times.  I want you to imagine that you’re riding on a crowded elevator.  It wasn’t crowded when you got on, but as you’ve gone higher and higher toward your destination, more and more people have climbed on board.  In fact so much so that you can really relate to what the Apostle Paul was talking about in 2 Cor. 4:8 when he said, “We are hard-pressed on every side.”  There’s hardly any room to breathe.  You’re crushed and squished back in the corner.  You can’t even raise your hand to scratch your nose.

Now people cope with crowded elevator rides in a variety of ways.  Some stare at their feet.  Some stare straight ahead.  Some stare at the numbers of the floors as they pass by.  Some listen to the music if there is any and maybe even hum along.  Well, I don’t know how you deal with these sometimes awkward situations, but the next time you find yourself in one I’d like to suggest you give a little thought to this question: In what way is a crowded elevator similar to life in the church?

I can think of a few similarities, especially when the elevator is going up.  For one thing, aren’t we in the church all being lifted by a power that is greater than we are?  Are we not all looking forward to the view that will be ours once we reach the top floor?  Are we not hopefully picking up more and more people along the way?

But then there is another similarity that is somewhat negative in nature.  And that is in both places, whether it’s a crowded elevator or the church, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself dealing with some curious folks, some odd people, people who are different than you are.  In the church it might be someone who sings extra loud or off-key or who doesn’t sing at all.  Or maybe it’s someone who is very traditional in their views or someone who is more open-minded and contemporary than you are.  Or maybe it’s someone who is very opinionated and outspoken or someone who is very quiet and reserved.

Now by and large I think most of us would say that life in the church is very pleasant.  But once in a while we run into someone that leads us to think to ourselves, “Well, who let him in here?”  Or, “How did she get on board our elevator?”  There’s a problem though with that kind of an attitude and the problem is that you and I don’t control those things.  We don’t determine who comes into our church.  That’s up to God.  And if he puts somebody in one of our pews, then it must be for a good reason.  So our responsibility is not to dictate who comes in and who stays out, but to simply welcome and love those whom God brings our way.  I understand that’s not always an easy thing to do, but it is necessary, it is essential if the church – if our church – is going to be what God has called and designed it to be.

So how do we do that?  How do we get along with those who are different than we are?  How do we grow to love those who are difficult to love?  Well, in our text for today Paul gives us some very practical instructions on how we can do that.  Listen carefully to his words once again:  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  So how do we do what I’ve stated in my sermon title for today?  How do we love those who are different than we are?

Paul’s 1st suggestion is be humble.  Now this type of humility begins with taking a good honest look at ourselves for if we do that, then we will see that we are far from perfect.  There’s a great scene in a video of the Gospel of Matthew that was produced some years ago that I’ve never forgotten where Jesus does a masterful job of illustrating this.  I’ll put it up on the screen for you.  (Show Matt. 7:1-5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0qGrVcz-eQ)

When I think of humility in dealing with those who are different than ourselves, I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul.  Paul travelled the world of his day on 3 different missionary journeys and in the process encountered a wide variety of people who were very different than he.  Some of them were inside the church; some were outside the church.  Some were Jews; some were Gentiles or non-Jews.  Some were rulers; some were slaves.  Some had come to the faith early in their lives while others had become Christians near the end of their lives.  Regardless of who they were, what kind of background they had, what kind of life they had lived or were currently living, as Paul dealt with them and ministered to them he ultimately reached the following conclusion that he recorded in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”  That’s what you call true humility.

Then a 2nd way in which we are to deal with those who are different than we are, according to our text, is that we are to be gentle.  And the reason for this is because we don’t know what they might have been through in their lives or what they might be going through right now.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, author Steven Covey tells a story of a day when he was riding a subway in a major U.S. city and he was becoming increasingly upset with some children who were acting up and misbehaving while their father sat nearby doing nothing about it.  The kids were being loud, rambunctious, running up and down the aisle of the subway car.  And finally Steven Covey couldn’t take it any longer, so he called the misbehavior of these children to the attention of the dad who had just been kind of staring blankly into space.  As the father snapped back into reality, he apologized and called the kids back to himself.  Then he offered an explanation.  He said, “I’m sorry, but we’re coming from the hospital where my wife and their mother died today and none of us quite knows how to handle it.”

Can you imagine how Steven Covey’s attitude toward that man must have changed with that explanation?  The point being that from time to time you are going to come across people that upset you for whatever reason, or that you just don’t understand and can’t figure out.  I caution you though to be slow to judge and draw conclusions about them because you may not know the background as to why they are the way they are.  Could it be that if you’d grown up under similar circumstances you would be the same way?  Could it be that if every time you showed up for church and nobody greeted you, you would be rather aloof or distant too?  Could it be that if people had been less than honest with you most of your life, you would have trouble trusting your fellow man?

So if someone appears to be limping through life, don’t criticize their limping.  Rather try to find out and understand why they’re limping.  Prov. 11:12 puts it this way:  “A man who lacks judgment derides (or belittles) his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.”

By the way, wasn’t Jesus the perfect example of a gentle spirit?  Remember the woman he met a Jacob’s well?  Five times she’d been married; five times she’d been divorced; and she was currently living with a man who was not her husband.  But did Jesus start right there with her?  Did he say, “Lady, I need to talk to you about the mess you’ve made of your life with all these men”?  No!  Instead, Jesus was very gentle with her and led her through a conversation that ultimately brought a much-needed change to her life.

He did the same with the woman caught in the act of adultery whom everyone else was wanting to stone to death.  He did it with Peter when he met privately with him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee a few weeks following his resurrection.  I mean Jesus could have really let Peter have it with both barrels for his 3 previous denials.  He could have reminded Peter of his boasts that night in the upper room that even if all the others forsook him, he never would.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead he was gentle with Peter.  And it would do us well to follow in our Master’s footsteps.

Then one more way that our text tells us to deal with those who are different than we are is tobe patient.  Suppose you were in a vineyard and out of that vineyard was to come grapes and out of those grapes was to come wine.  Would you take one grape and eat it and say, “This wine is horrible!”  Of course not!  You understand that those grapes must go through a process before they will eventually become wine that is suitable for drinking.

Or suppose you are observing an artist who is doing a portrait of you.  And after he puts the first stroke of his brush on the canvass, would you look at it and say, “That doesn’t look like me at all!”  Of course not! Because even if you know nothing at all about art, you know that one stroke does not a painting make.

In a very similar way, when we look at someone who is different than we are, someone who maybe doesn’t appear to have it all together like we think we do, we need to understand that he or she is a work in progress, that God isn’t finished with them yet.  There’s a process going on that we can’t see and that must not be hurried.  So we need to be patient, which by the way is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians 5 and probably the one that most of us struggle with the most, myself included.

You can probably relate to the story of the father in the grocery store who was pushing his little toddler in a stroller.  The little boy wasn’t exactly behaving though.  So the father kept saying, “Be patient, Homer.  Be patient, Homer.”  One woman who had already raised her children was observing and admiring this fellow’s valiant effort so she walked up to him and said, “Don’t be discouraged.  You’re doing great with little Homer there.”  To which the dad replied, “Oh, that’s not Homer.  That’s Bobby.  I’m Homer.”

Well, maybe sometimes we need to talk to ourselves too and remind ourselves to be patient with certain people because God’s not finished with them yet.  Believe it or not, even Jesus had to do that.  In Mark 9:19, after dealing with his disciples’ inability to cast out a demon from a boy, Jesus says, “How long must I stay with you?  How long must I put up with you?”  Doesn’t it help to know that even Jesus’ patience sometimes wore thin?  But you know what?  It helps even more to know the answer Jesus gave to those questions, “How long must I stay with you?  How long must I put up with you?”  And if you want to find out that answer, then climb to the top of the hill called Calvary.  Listen to the ring of the hammer that pounds nails into his hands and feet.  Listen to the voice of Jesus as he prays for his enemies and promises Paradise to a penitent thief.  Listen to his victorious cry, “It is finished,” meaning that he would stay with us and put up with us for as long as it would take him to accomplish his mission and do everything that was necessary for our salvation.

So my friends, I hope you’ve seen this morning that through Jesus God has been so humble, so gentle, and so patient with us who certainly did not deserve it because of our sins.  May he now help us to exhibit that same humility, gentleness, and patience so that we might find it much easier to truly love those who are different than we are and even those who are difficult to love.

Amen