Sunday, June 15, 2014

God’s Fellowship—And Ours

(A sermon for Trinity Sunday based on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13)

The nature of the Church is directly related to the nature of God. As God is characterized by diversity in the context of unity, so is the Church characterized by diversity in the context of unity. As the one God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so the one Church exists as brown and yellow, black and white, male and female, and rich and poor. Granted, the parallels are not exact, but the overall principle is sound: the one God exists in three persons, the one Church exists in millions of people. That which binds us together—namely, the love that is God and that comes from God—is greater than that which threatens to separate us.

The church at Corinth struggled mightily with the unity thing; indeed, Paul spends much time and expends much effort in his letters to them trying to help them get over their fractiousness and their factionalism. He has to say some tough things to them as he tries to help them deal with the mess that their divisions have gotten them into; he even has to say some tough things in defending his own authority as an apostle, even though he had spent much time with them and they knew him well.

So nobody’s saying that it’s easy to maintain the unity of the Church (with a capital “C” because I mean the Church universal) or the unity of the church (with a lowercase “c” because I mean the church local). It wasn’t easy 2000 years ago and it isn’t easy now. We need to affirm and to maintain our belief in and our allegiance to the one Church; all those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ are our sisters and brothers, be they Baptist or Methodist, Catholic or Pentecostal, Presbyterian or Lutheran, more conservative or more liberal, or more high church or more low church.

And it’s certainly not easy to maintain the unity of the local church, even one as strong as the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. We each have our own likes and dislikes, our own loyalties and disloyalties, our own habits and idiosyncrasies, our own wounds and fears, our own prejudices and blind spots, and our own assumptions and opinions. The problem we have, of course, is that our human tendency is to put our own likes, loyalties, and opinions ahead of everybody else’s. Pride gets in the way and it becomes more important to us to be right than to be loving and more important to us to come out on top than to submit ourselves in grace and love in service to each other.

The things that divide us are strong indeed. The things that divided the Corinthian church were just as strong—and, frankly, probably stronger.

But that didn’t stop Paul from encouraging them and it doesn’t stop him from encouraging us to strive for unity. In so doing he uses present imperative verbs which carry the sense of “Keep on” doing what he tells us to do.

He told them and he tells us to keep on rejoicing (a better translation than “farewell”). The joy that we have in our unity is greater than and can overcome any sorrow coming from our divisions. No matter what, we find our joy in the Lord and by extension in each other.

He told them and he tells us to keep on putting things right. It is our ongoing responsibility to work toward having as healthy a church family as we possibly can and to mend our broken relationships as best we can.

He told them and he tells us to keep on being exhorted. We need to keep on listening to what the Lord says to us through the example of Christ, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, through our mutual relationships, through our life of prayer, and through our prayerful and careful reading of Scripture.

He told them and he tells us to keep on having the same mind. That doesn’t mean that we will always agree with one another or that conformity in all things is necessary. It does mean, though, that we are striving to have the mind of Christ which will lead us toward loving service and sacrifice for God’s sake, for the Church’s sake, and for the world’s sake.

He told them and he tells us to keep on living in peace. Peace is the overall well-being of the individual and the group that comes about when we in an increasingly sound relationship with God. If we will keep working on being at peace with God we will grow in being at peace with each other because being at peace with God gives us a broader perspective that gets us to look and to live beyond ourselves.

He told them and he tells us to offer loving acts toward one another. What he literally says is to “greet each other with a holy kiss.” I can still remember a man in my home church who, on the day I was ordained to the ministry, kissed me on the cheek; I reckon he’s the only man besides my father who ever did that. It was sweet and sincere. We can stick to handshakes and hugs. Really, though, we are better served by acts of loving service to one another—you know, helping each other out by lifting each other up when we’re down, by forgiving each other when we’ve sinned against each other, by being with each other when we’re lonely, or by leaving each other alone when we need just to be with God.

Does it sound too good to be true and too idealistic to be possible? Well, note that Paul did say that we are to keep on doing these things; the only way to move toward perfection is to practice and the only way to move toward maturity is to grow. More important, though, is this: Paul tells us that our increasing maturity in love and growth in unity comes out of who God is as is seen in what God has done.

So Paul says, after encouraging the Corinthians and us toward celebrating, protecting, and growing in our unity in diversity, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” You might recall that I said at the beginning that the nature of the Church is directly related to the nature of God. Here we have a statement that tells that we are who we are because of who God in God’s fullness is and because of what God in God’s fullness does and that, because of who God is and what God does, we can grow in being the Church that God calls us to be.

To say that we don’t believe in the unity of the Church is to say that we don’t believe in the unity of God; to say that God can’t increase our unity in the midst of our diversity is to say that we don’t believe in the Triune God.

From God in God’s fullness comes the grace that caused the Son to come and die and rise, the love that caused God to send the Son and then to send the Holy Spirit, and the communion of the Holy Spirit that creates fellowship and community in God’s self and that brings about fellowship and community in the church. The love, grace, and fellowship that make God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit one God also make us one Church. Yes, we have the responsibility to work at and toward unity, but it only happens because God is with us, in us, and among us.

We praise God as Holy Trinity today because in the Trinity lies the reality of our unity and the hope of our increased fellowship …

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