On Sunday, April 18th, our church met for Sunday School and worship followed by "Lunch on the Grounds." It was a spectacular day of worship, fellowship and food, accentuated by God's gift of sunshine and 70 degree weather. When the worship service ended, we all shared a meal together outside in an area next to the Fellowship Hall I'm calling the "parking nook." Families grabbed plates of potluck dishes and were seated at round tables in the warmth of the sun. The sound of laughter emerged from various church members and the children laughed and played in the grass. Conversations ranged from the joy of listening to the "socially distanced" choir to hearing personal introductions shared with a newcomer to the UBC family. The food was fabulous and our worship earlier that morning was, just as we heard in sermon on the Emmaus travelers of Luke 24, full of Easter surprise and joy, too.
The special blessings weren't limited to our worship experiences, the excellent food or the meaningful fellowship alone. Additionally, the church celebrated my Doctor of Ministry degree I received from Duke Divinity School and beautifully decorated the outdoor patio while displaying a most impressive, delectable chocolate cake for us all to share and consume. Granted, if these were the only recollected memories I remember, one could confidently say that Sunday, April the 18th was indeed an early highlight of 2021; yet, I keenly remember other not-so-obvious moments that stood out to me as lovely, holy and altogether "Jesus", making the day extra-special! I'll be sharing some of those "Jesus" moments later on in this article--they remind me of how Paul so desperately desired for the Corinthian church to be one with Christ Jesus. And what are the chief characteristics of a loving church?
Oneness. Unity. Wholeness. Harmony.
These blessings are only possible when the members of Christ's body choose to honor others above themselves. These blessings are only possible when people choose to defer to another's will above their own. These blessings are only possible when love is effected through suffering and sacrifice on another's behalf. In other words, the Spirit of Christ through Paul mandates that the Corinthian Christians never, ever, ever stop pursuing unity! Paul stresses the importance of seeking unity through love in his opening letter to the Corinthians:
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1:10, NIV).
Paul wasn't suggesting that their agreements meant total, utter uniformity in all situations and circumstances--on the contrary! Paul advocated for unity in their diversity! To be perfectly honest, Paul did want them to be uniform about one thing, however: that they agree to be united in their love for one another and in their love for the community they were called to serve. While the Corinthian church struggled with divisions, quarrels and factions, Paul emphasized love's unifying qualities so that their witness would be clear to themselves and their community: "We follow Christ!" There can be no greater witness to the culture than a church that loves itself and its community so deeply and reverently that it pursues unity at all costs.
So what does pursuing unity look like in the church? First of all, there's nothing Pollyanna-ish about church unity. In fact, unified churches are those Christ-followers who've often been hurt, broken and wounded while chasing their goal of serving God and others. The difference is that healthy churches know that honest forgiveness, expressed through necessary repentance and reconciliation create stronger, more valuable bonds in their friendships. And who doesn't have a friend with whom they've quarreled, argued or offended at one time or another? The beauty of friendship is that it always seeks to love the other and do whatever it takes to make right what was wrong. This is the example of unity in action. This is the example of Christ on the cross. Unity begins, and flourishes, with forgiveness.
Secondly, unity is expressed in the celebration of the spiritual gifts of its members. When churches honor the gifts of the Spirit (music, prophecy [preaching], wisdom, knowledge, teaching, mentoring, evangelism, missionary, exhortation, discernment, hospitality, community builder, healing, mercy, helps, service, giving, prayer, leadership, administration and others) it honors God who graciously bestowed gifts on the church to build the unity in love. Paul instructs the Ephesians to remember that unity is best achieved through the utilization of humble, selfless spiritual gifts: "So Christ...equip[s] his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Eph. 4:12-13, NIV). When church members express their spiritual gifts, it unifies them to Christ, and those gifts unify them with one another. Wow, those are truly gifts that keep on giving!
Finally, unity is expressed in joy. There is nothing better than the joy of the unified Church! Listen to the Psalmist: "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!" (Ps. 133:1, NIV). Growing up in the church, many of us learned a song that reminds us where our joy comes from: "I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart...down in my heart to stay." Do you remember this popular children's song? This refrain follows with: "And I'm so happy, so very happy, I've got the love of Jesus in my heart." When the church is constantly forgiving one another and sharing its spiritual gifts in order to build up the body of Christ, its joy radiates into the community it serves! And it is obvious by the looks on the faces of church members in loving fellowship that their joy is authentic. This particular reality leads me to share with you those holy, "Jesus moments" I mentioned earlier in this article.
On the Sunday of April 18th, in addition to all that's been previously mentioned, I observed Christ dwelling among us in beloved unity. I first noticed Jesus shortly after I walked onto the platform at the start of the organ prelude. I looked out into the congregation and saw one of our precious children spread his arms around the necks of both of his parents. In that moment, I saw love--I saw blessed unity! Later in the service I peered again at those in the pews and noticed a caring mother, adjusting the jacket of her adult daughter who sat in front her, attempting to make her more comfortable and at ease. In that moment, too, I saw love--I saw blessed unity! And I witnessed Jesus in the jubilant expression of a God-servant, informing the congregation how seventeen families received over 600 articles of clothes in four hours on the previous Saturday. In that moment, I saw love again--I saw blessed unity!
Let us never stop pursuing unity in the body of Christ, dear friends! It is the best expression of the love in our hearts and draws the community closer to the reality of God's mercy and grace. Sometimes a day of faith, food and fellowship is all we need to remember how God's yearns for the Church to pursue unity through the friendships we share in Jesus' love. April 18th reminded us of this. May we always pursue loving unity with one another. When we do, we are faithfully living out the very hope Jesus expresses through Paul here in the opening verses of Eph. 4:
"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:2-6, NIV).
Let us, therefore, "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." And, if we're careful, we might observe its fruits in the love we find expressed in the pews, in the classrooms, at the tables, in the choir loft, and then into the workplaces, homes, restaurants and highways and byways as well. Jesus is waiting for us to see him, and trust me, he won't be hiding. He'll be looking for you too, whenever you experience that holy moment when love is demonstrated in unity.
Look for it, celebrate it, and tell others about it! Amen.
Seeking to pursue Christ's love through forgiveness, giving and joy,
><> Pastor Will <><