Romans 15: 5 - 7
The prayer we are looking at in this message is different from any of the others in this series. All the other prayers could be answered individually. “I pray that God would strengthen you in the inner man.” That’s answered individually. “May God cause your love to increase.” Answered individually. “I pray that you will bear much fruit for God’s glory.” Answered individually. “I pray that you will know how to choose those things that are best.” Answered individually. But today we come to a prayer that cannot be answered individually. This is a prayer for unity. Since unity by definition involves more than 1 person, it can’t be answered in your life alone. This is a prayer that can only be answered corporately, as the whole church comes together to worship God.
I have just completed 26 years as a full-time local church pastor. For nearly all that time, I have known what it is to be in a congregation where the people love each other and where there is a sense of love, joy, peace and harmony. But I have known other days in other places. I know what it is like to go to church when the people don’t like each other anymore. I know what it is to pastor a church filled with rumours, gossip and unkind accusation. I’ve been to church on Sunday morning and felt the tension and seen the angry faces. I know how painful that can be. My experience in the last 26 years has led me to these 5 conclusions:
1. Unity is a precious gift from God.
2. Where unity is present, all things are possible.
3. When a church is divided, nothing works right.
4. Unity is easily lost and hard to regain.
5. True unity does not happen by accident.
We must pray for it and we must work at it. Unity is hard work. It demands an ongoing commitment from every believer. Ephesians 4: 3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I love the way Eugene Peterson translates Philippians 2: 1, 2 -The Message - “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favour: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.”
Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The first Christians took this so much to heart that the pagans said of them, “Behold, how they love one another.”
Francis Schaeffer - “If we do not show beauty in the way we treat each other, then in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of our own children, we are destroying the truth we proclaim.” Even as we confess the truth of his words, we also confess that Christian love is easier to talk about than to put into practice.
To live up above with the saints that we love, That will be grace and glory,
To live down below with the saints that we know, Ah, that’s another story!
Perhaps you’ve heard of the little girl who prayed, “Lord, make all the bad people good and all the good people nice.” When we pray for unity, we’re asking God to “make all the good people nice."
1. The Source of Unity v. 5
Paul asks God to give a “spirit of unity” because unity is not a program or a plan or a sermon or a project. Unity is a gift that comes down from our Father in heaven. So we must pray for God to grant it to us. “Spirit of unity” - Greek word means to “be of the same mind” or to be “likeminded.” NLT - “complete harmony.” Harmony is the result of many different people singing different parts, yet in proper relationship with each other so that a pleasing sound is produced. True unity comes when everyone in the church is singing the same tune at the same time.
Swahili word – harambee – masakhane - “let’s all pull together.” Picture a group of people all pulling on a rope at the same time in the same direction.
The end of v. 5 is crucial. If the source of unity is God, the focus of unity is Jesus Christ. As we follow him, the church moves forward in perfect harmony.
Think of it this way: He is the Head of the church. He is the Foundation of the church. He is the Lord of the church. He is the Leader of the church. Follow him!
When Jesus is at the centre of the church (and not our pet projects and our personal agendas), we’ll all be pulling together in the same direction as we follow him. What is a Christian anyway? In its simplest terms, a Christian is one who follows Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). He is the way from God to us, and he is the way from us to God. Jesus is the only way to heaven.
2. The Goal of Unity v. 6
“One heart and mouth” tells us that the context involves the public worship of God. Picture a vast multitude of believers from all over the earth, lifting their voices together in praise. There are men and women, young and old, rich and poor. They come from every ethnic group on earth. There are Christians from every denomination in this throng. It is a vast, uncounted assembly of believers in Jesus. Though they speak different languages, they lift up “one heart and mouth” in praise to our Lord.
I have experienced this in a small but very real way in my travels around the world. I have discovered to my delight that God has his people scattered in some very unusual places. I have learned that there are many different ways to worship God in spirit and in truth. God has his people in many places, and they worship him in many different ways. But where the Spirit of the Lord is at work, there is true unity that transcends language and cultural barriers.
If we are to glorify God, we must do it together. It’s not as if you can glorify God your way and I can glorify God my way, and each of us can glorify God individually and forget about everyone else. The New Testament knows nothing of that sort of hyper-individualistic spirituality. We need each other if we are going to truly glorify God by being “one heart and mouth” for the Lord. Let me illustrate. If each person in the worship team played whatever he wanted, the result would be chaos. But when those different instruments blend together on the same song following the same leader, the result is wonderful. In the church we are called to blend our hearts and our voices to the purpose of our conductor, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we follow his lead, the church produces a symphony of praise that the world cannot ignore.
But Christ must be at the centre. This can only happen as we follow him. When Christ is at the centre of life, there is beauty and harmony. There is peace and hope. Put Christ at the centre of life and all will be well. There is peace even on the battlefield. When Christ is at the centre of life, you can face the possibility of your own death without fear and with peace in your heart.
3. The Proof of Unity v. 7
It’s one thing to talk about unity; it’s something else to put it into practice. Unity means nothing unless we are willing to accept other believers. Greek word - “accept” - means to see another person and to open your arms to take that person to yourself. It has the idea of taking someone by the hand and walking together as companions. It means to open your heart and your home to another person. Notice the standard applied here. We are to accept each other as Christ accepted us. How did he accept us? He accepted us “while we were yet sinners.” He accepted us when we were ungodly rebels. He took us when we were hopeless and gave us hope. He loved us in spite of our sin and welcomed us when we did not deserve to be welcomed. He opened heaven to us when we deserved only hell. This is a high standard, so high that we will never meet it in our own power. Only Christ himself can give us strength to accept others this way.
Here is the end of it all. When the church is united, God is glorified and the world is amazed. God is glorified as Christians from very different backgrounds learn to love each other in spite of their faults and differences. In a world filled with so much killing, so much pain, so many broken hearts and so many fractured lives, a truly united church is irresistibly attractive to many hurting people. But it’s easier to talk about this than to put it into practice. We’re all pretty good at liking people like us. But lots of people aren’t like us and they aren’t very easy to like either. What should we do in a practical way to apply this sermon? I have 2 suggestions:
A. Pray for unity. Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring unity in the larger body of Christ. Pray for a deeper unity in your own local congregation. Ask God to reveal and remove any wrong attitudes that hinder the work of his Spirit in your midst.
B. Ask yourself: “Am I willing for God to change me?” It’s a lot easier to think that others need to change. “My kids are driving me nuts. Change them, Lord!” “My husband ignores me. Change him, Lord!” “My wife is getting on my nerves and my boss is a jerk. Change them both, Lord!” Perhaps we should all pray this simple Chinese prayer: “O Lord, change the world. Begin, I pray, with me.” As the old spiritual says, “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” Before we ask God to change anyone else, we’d better look in the mirror.
Take a moment and do a quick inventory. Here are some attitudes and actions that hinder unity in the church: gossip, slander, anger, bitterness, selfishness, argumentative spirit, having to win every time, spreading rumours, holding grudges, majoring on the minors, lack of courtesy, being easily irritated, avoiding people, looking away, ducking into a room so you won’t have to talk to someone, focusing on the faults of others, finding reasons to criticize, refusing to work together, judging people primarily by age, sex, size, physical appearance, skin colour, culture, language, dress, occupation or income, comparing everyone to yourself. “Am I guilty of any of these things?” It would take courage to do that, but it might also lead you to make some needed changes.
Knowing God Personally
The key to all this is knowing Christ, making him the centre of your life, following him as Lord and Saviour. You needed to know 3 things in order to have a personal relationship with God. 1. Knowing God is a matter of faith, not good works. No one can ever be good enough or work hard enough to earn their entrance into God’s family. Faith and faith alone opens the door. But it isn’t faith in a vague or generalized sense that introduces us to God.
2. Our faith must be focused on Jesus Christ. He came to make a way for us to know God personally. He died on the cross for our sins—taking our place, bearing the punishment meant for us, dying so that we might live, paying the price for our disobedience, so that through his bloody death, our sins might be forgiven. He rose from the dead on the third day in order to guarantee our acceptance with God.
3. In order to receive the benefits of what Jesus did for us, we must make a personal commitment to him. It’s not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus” in a general way. Lots of people have “general faith” in Jesus. The faith that saves is the faith that reaches out to trust him as Saviour and Lord. Saving faith means trusting Christ so much that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t to go there. It means trusting him so completely that there isn’t any Plan B in case Jesus can’t save you. At some point you have to cross the line, say “I do,” open your heart, take a step of faith, and ask Christ to come into your heart. Until you do that, you are not saved and you don’t have a personal relationship with God. No one slides into heaven simply by going to church. At some point you have to commit yourself to Christ.