PRAYER: Break us free of our silos that isolate us and separate us one from another, O God. Remind us that when we are united in Christ, we are more easily following the path you lay before us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Anna and I were part of a church many years ago that had a period of difficulty navigating over a specific contentious issue. There was a disagreement over something and the church council was split over this issue. They knew that no matter what they decided, people were going to be angry about it. So they formed a committee of church members to discuss the issue and come to a resolution that would make everyone happy.
Unfortunately, just as the church council was split, so too was the congregation. There ended up being two factions on either side of the church over this one issue. It nearly split the church apart. People were very upset about this and it got a little ugly.
There was a communion table that some people wanted to replace and others didn’t. That was it. The communion table. Some people wanted to get a more traditional looking table, while others wanted the more modern looking table that had been used for many years. I’m not sure if anyone ever picked up on the irony that the communion table – the place that we all come together and are welcomed in the name of Christ – nearly split the church apart.
We are a society that likes to take sides. Doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, people like to dig their heels in and take a side. Sometimes it’s as inconsequential as favorite sports teams, or something more important such as how to interpret the Bible. We like what we like and we believe what we believe… and sometimes, we go a little overboard when the defense of our views becomes an attack on others.
On some subjects, I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of this. I would bet that many of you are as well. We like to take sides, but the more we do that, the harder it is to see the viewpoint of others. And the next logical step from that is that it becomes harder to see the humanity in others who are of a different mindset than us.
Since we are in the midst of the football playoffs, let’s acknowledge that among various fanbases, it isn’t enough to be a fan of your one team, you have to therefore hate the other. Giant fans are supposed to hate the Eagles and vice versa. It’s not just about loving the game or loving your team, there’s a mindset that you have to hate the other team too… When my then-future son-in-law, who is a Cowboys fan (don’t judge), went with my daughter to Philadelphia for the first time, he wore a Cowboys tee shirt. (We told him not to wear that shirt, but he did it anyway…) Someone walked up to him on the street in Philly and made a motion with his fingers like a gun and said that the Cowboys logo is used for target practice.
There were many divisions in the church of Corinth. Many. The suggestion that Paul makes when he refers to people belonging to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas is that the church has broken up into factions. The church has become divided over who is the better teacher, who is the most in-tune with God.
When we get into that divisive mindset, there is no one giving grace. Everyone is being pressured to choose sides and then double down on what they believe. The lines of separation become wider and taller, and common ground becomes nearly impossible to find. And we begin to believe that our positions are inflexible and completely unchangeable.
Paul’s statement to the church in Corinth is that they cannot and should not have personal beliefs or ideologies that are more important than Jesus. They cannot rest on the laurels of religious legalism and be Christ-centered at the same time. As believers… as the church and the holy body of Christ, we should first be united in Christ. Personal preferences or denominational doctrine all have their place, but the thing that we must adhere to most closely is Jesus. Only the love of Christ because the love of Christ mandates – yes mandates – that we love one another.
That is the main thing that we must never forget: that we love one another. And if we keep the main thing ever present in the forefront of our hearts and minds, we cannot go wrong. God’s truth, expressed by the life, love, and sacrifice of Jesus should be the unifying and uniting factor for all of us.
For those of us who have kept up with the ongoing dispute and split in our denomination, this should be a potent reminder to keep the main thing the main thing. The love of Jesus must outweigh denominational politics. The love of Jesus must strengthen our desire to love one another even while others are looking to break away over disputed language in our Book of Discipline. Regardless of all of that noise, unity in the name of Christ must be first and foremost.
As a congregation – and I mean particularly as a small congregation – there is a tendency to look at churches that have parking lots full of cars with a sense of longing. We want what they have; we want to have a room full of people. We want to have bigger and stronger and more… of whatever that happens to be. And all that worrying does is it creates divisions. It separates people into us vs them. Instead of viewing our ministry through a lens of Christ’s love, we view it through a lens of envy and desire.
Instead of worrying about what we don’t have, we must commit to unity in the name of Christ. The tendency among small congregations has always been to operate from a focal point of its limitations. We can’t do this or we can’t do that because we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the people. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom and gloom. Unity in the name of Christ would teach us that as a small congregation, we are more powerful and more vital than we realize. Unity in the name of Christ will teach us what we CAN do because we have the love of Christ coursing through our veins. It will keep us ever mindful of the fact that through Christ, we can do all things.
Remember that the Bible teaches us over and over again that when we are united in Christ, God honors the smallest – the least and the last. In the Hebrew scriptures, God lifted up the tiny nation of Israel to be a witness. Jesus taught his disciples that the meek and lowly were especially blessed. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be reading the beatitudes and we will be reminded that the meek and lowly, the poor in spirit are the ones that God keeps closest to God. In the 21st chapter of Luke, we read that the widow’s small tithe is the one that is honored. We are reminded the one lost sheep is the one that truly mattered. Jesus teaches us that the tiny mustard seed is capable of truly great things.
It is time for us to view our church not from a vision of what we are lacking, but from a standpoint of what God has blessed us with. We are a church blessed with abundance because we have the love of God at our core. This is a church of abundance, and this is a church in which the love of God is front and center. This is a church that can do great ministry.
Brandon O’Brien, a Christian author, writes that “Small but vital churches embody Christ’s activity in the world. The trap,” he continues, “is thinking, ‘we have to get bigger to get better,’ though bigger is not a worthy goal in itself. The goal is to focus on what God would have you do. Being faithful to and focused on the mission is what draws others in.”
In a few chapters after our 1 Corinthian reading today, Paul will write that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul affirmed that in the divine economy of God, the people of faith are gifted with the resources they need to be in ministry and mission.
The main thing, my friends is the love of God centering our lives, transforming us into the new creations that God calls us to be. We don’t need to be fearful or doubtful because of what we lack, rather we must be positive that the love of God is the main thing always and always and always.
There are four things that small churches such as our can offer that bigger churches would struggle with:
First: Authenticity. We need to be comfortable in who we are as a people of God and ensure that our behavior, our ability to welcome, our contagious love is ever-present.
Second: we must be lean and focused. Big churches can do a lot of things, but they can’t necessarily do everything well. A small church, by virtue of being limited, can zero in on one ot two things it can do well that focus on the unique needs of our local context.
Third: the people of a small church, taking on the lion’s share of the church’s ministry will be more empowered and committed to ministering in the community in which it resides.
And fourth: the largest churches attract a fairly consistent demographic. But smaller, more nimble churches can reach people who fall outside of this demographic and be a bridge to those who are made to feel as outsiders.
I want to invite us all into a season of unity in the name of Christ. And that begins with keeping the main thing the main thing: we must first be united in Christ. Keep Christ at the center of all that you do and all that you are. Keep Christ’s love at the forefront of your conversations. Keep Christ’s compassion first in how you view others who are different from you, no matter who that may be. Now I gotta tell you: this doesn’t mean that you’ll agree on everything. Whether you like ketchup on your eggs, or regardless of when you prefer to open Christmas presents, there will always be people who disagree… but that’s OK. That’s not the end of civilization. Keep Christ’s teachings informing the decisions you make about how you live outside of these four walls. Keep Christ at the center of all things. Offer grace and peace in all things.
Because we are united in Christ, we have the potential and ability to do great ministry in Christ’s name. Don’t let anything divide us from that.
To God be the glory.