Adapted from The Unifying Power of Christian Character, a sermon preached by Ryan Fullerton on 5/3/20
As churches begin to regather after quarantine while responsibly navigating CDC guidelines, the first Sunday back will not be like coming home for thanksgiving to be surrounded by everything familiar. It will be more like visiting a new restaurant with old friends and trying to figure out the menu. Some things will be familiar, some things will be strange, it will all be a little complicated.
But, it’ll also be a little dangerous.
Why will it be dangerous?
Regathering will be dangerous simply because that’s the common Christian experience as people come together.
When Christians come together we experience appetizers of eternal life (Ps 133:1), the joy of singing to one another (Eph 5:19), encouragement (Heb 10:25), see the Spirit at work in each other (1 Corinthians 12:7) and experience the ministry of the Spirit flooding our hearts with love (Eph 3:18-19).
But we also experience irritability (Eph 4:31), judgemental and hateful spirits over small disputed matters (Rom 14:10), biting and devouring attitudes (Gal 5:15), and feelings of pride and independence (1 Corinthians 12:21). To borrow some words from Charles Dickens, when Christians gather as a church it can be the best of times and the worst of times—and that is when everything is normal.
What if we added in a pandemic, a global one, and a quarantine, a national quarantine, and a pandemic in which very few people agree about what was happening and what should be done? In this situation, things can become very dangerous very quickly.
Preparing to Regather
Collective unity is maintained by decisions each of us make individually. In Ephesians 4:1-3 Paul strongly urges that each Christian must be eager to maintain this unity by individually cultivating a specific character. Some people never get beyond thinking: “if we’re all going to get along we all just need to be right.” But being right without the right character is not enough.
Paul tells us if we want to live in community, we can’t be looking down our noses at others and puffing ourselves up. Pride must be put to death.
When people think about humility, they often think that it is about thinking less of themselves. But this is still pride because you’re still thinking about yourself. John the Baptist is the picture of humility when he says “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking less often about ourselves and thinking more about others.
We are growing in humility when we find ourselves counting others more significant than ourselves and looking to their interests (Philippians 2:3–4).
So, as we approach gathering together, are you more excited about how good it’s going to be for you? That’s a recipe for disaster—a bunch of people coming together thinking about themselves! Or are you thinking about others and how you can meet their needs?
Gentleness is a necessary virtue to be cultivated among those who view themselves as firm and faithful. Firmness and gentleness are not at odds in the Christian. Firm convictions can reside in the most gentle of souls.
One reason we should be gentle is because we ought to regard everyone as a soul made in the image of God. We should believe the best in our brothers and sisters in Christ assuming they are trying to do their best in this world.
Another reason is because gentleness actually gives power to our words. All the clamour in political discourse isn’t because we’re so strong and firm in our convictions, it’s because we’re so weak and we’re trying to add power to our weak convictions with brashness. But firm convictions are those that can be communicated gently. And, in fact, communicating gently is what gives these firm convictions their power. As the Proverbs say, a soft word can break a bone (Prov 25:15). Convictions spoken gently have real power.
What if, when you post that graph on social media, you let it speak for itself without adding your own brash commentary? What if, when you share that harsh article that contains truth needing to be heard, you add gentle comments to take the edge off it?
Truth can—and really ought—to be communicated gently.
Why do we need to be patient? Because nobody’s sanctification goes quickly. Are you as much like Jesus today as you’d like to be? No. And if sanctification is slow for you, don’t you think it’s slow for others also? Thus, there should be a corresponding grace and patience we show to each other. No-one is going to come to all your convictions in 10 minutes or 10 seconds, and maybe not even in 10 years.
In Romans 14, Paul talks about how Christians who differ on tertiary issues can still get along. This is because those who have differences on minor issues actually have something greater in common—they are all trying to serve the Lord (Rom 14:6).
What would happen in your heart if you looked at those who disagree with you, not as those who are compromising, but as those trying to honor the Lord?
Most importantly: people matter more than opinions. Being right with how we love others ought to be more important to Christians than being right on tertiary issues.
This is just a fancy way of saying: “put up with people.” The church is full of people who are hard to deal with, including you! Each of us needs to be put up with. You’re a bit of a pill yourself. To someone else, you’re the hard one to deal with. To someone else, you’re the person who comes to mind when they read this verse (Eph 4:2). You’re not some martyr putting up with everybody else, but many other people have to put up with you! So you also, bear with others.
Be Eager to Maintain Christian Unity
The reason Paul exhorts us to walk in this way is to maintain something God has already given us. The church has already been given unity in the Spirit. This unity can never be finally destroyed, but the enjoyment of it can be seriously marred. And so Paul exhorts us to be eager to maintain it.
We need to be aware how precious this unity is and so be eager to protect it. And protecting our unity ought to consume us.
Are you doing this? To those who are more cautious, who give your time to be careful and healthy, do you give the same attention to cultivate the kind of character to keep your church from getting sick from the terrible disease of disunity? With the same effort you avoid germs, do you avoid pride?
To those who are concerned about political leaders encroaching on our liberties, are you just as concerned that your lack of Christian character could do damage to the kingdom of Christ? Will you work to cultivate humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance?
What if, in the midst of a terribly divided America there was a gloriously united church?
The greatest preparation for regathering is to cultivate humility gentleness, patience, and forbearance as those eager to maintain the unity God has given us.