“Unity”

Ephesians 4:1-4

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.

“Down by the Riverside”

I. Introduction

  • One of my favorite songs that the Deaf choir at my former church ever performed was “Down by the Riverside.”   They did it in sign language of course. “Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside.  Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside, gonna study war no more.”
  • When the Deaf choir members signed, “lay down my burden” they would throw their hands with a great sweeping motion, like they had a huge burden that they were choosing to throw off, not just lay down politely.
  • The biggest burden in the church and our country right now is our disunity!!  I would like to throw that down.  It is borne of racism, greed, partisan politics and pride.  The events the past few months with the death of George Floyd has set in motion an incredible call for change.  This change can only happen if all people are unified in purpose. Only as we work together can we make real progress.
  • I as your bishop pledge to keep this before us, to do what I can to break down the barriers of division, so that we can be a model for what it means to walk together with one purpose.  We can only do this with the power of the Holy Spirit.  When people walk with the Lord, the barriers come down, the human pride of position and power becomes “we are all one in Christ, all uniquely gifted and equal in the eyes of God.”
  • Our United Methodist Church is in a unity battle around homosexuality and the words in our Book of Discipline around same gender marriage and ordination.  We are very divided over this that we are talking about splitting next year at General Conference.  How very sad our lack of unity in this country and our church.
  • We are living important times.  A call for unity has never been more important.  

II. First a word about the text from Ephesians

  • This letter was written to a church that Paul had established around the year 55 AD. Ephesus was a prosperous city in the ancient world. It had much commerce and the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis. There is evidence that Jews were there as well and likely his church planting began with the Jews, though Gentiles also received the gospel with joy as seemed to be the case wherever Paul preached.
  • The letter to the Ephesians was written while Paul was in prison. People in prison write powerful letters!
  • Paul was in prison four times and wrote passionate letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and an individual named Philemon and to this letter to new Christians in Ephesus.  He was in prison for preaching the gospel. Thank God he kept this “preaching” going with pen and paper while he was in prison so that we can see these words today.
  • The letter was written to encourage this “mixed bag church” of Gentiles and Jews.  He was encouraging them to have unity because obviously there were big issues that divided them. Unity in Christ was the only hope, given their vast cultural diversity. The letter to the Ephesians still gives us a roadmap for all of that, as we strive for unity in the church and our country today:

III. How to have Unity – simple principles

B. Humility

  1. The “burden” (harkening back to the song) of racism is huge. This is the stuff that makes for injustice, discrimination and all manner of evil in this country that created Jim Crow, mass incarceration, voter suppression. It is the same burden in the Methodist Church that created the segregated “Central Juriscition” years ago, which separated white from black people.
  2. Paul is saying, “study war no more.”  You do this with humility and non-violent, persistent advocacy and peaceful protest. Humility wants the “other” and all people to win. Not just some.  Humility loves the one you disagree with.
  3. I read a book about the life of Abraham Lincoln last year and he lived during what was one of the most difficult times of division in this country.  How he accomplished what he did during the Civil War was through his humility.  He would joke about himself. (for example: when someone said he was “two-faced” he joked “If I had two faces would I want to keep this one? People always said he was so homely.) Lincoln would listen to his detractors and not act like the debates we see nowadays with candidates always slinging mud. He worked between the north and the south carefully and humbly hearing them all and then crafting peace.  The Emancipation Proclamation would never have happened apart from this.  Lincoln once said “the best way to destroy your enemy is to make them your friend.”
  4. How about you?  Are you at war with someone here, or in your family, or at work, or at church? Where can humble persuasion be used to conquer the divide?
  5. One of my biggest victories in my early days of ministry is when I was led by God to apologize to a couple with whom I was in conflict over who gets to have keys to the church office.  I thought I was right but they were right too. When we sat at the table of humility and forgiveness, we made peace and unity and the ministry of the church soared, even though we both had to sacrifice some things. 
  6. Who can you apologize to?  Who can you have a calm and respectful conversations with right now during this time?  How can humble persistence win the day?  This is slow work but it is God’s work.

Which leads me to the second admonition of Paul:

B. Bearing with one another in love

  1. The Greek word for “bearing” is also used as an architectural term when one is building a roof that will protect the house from the elements.
  2. I was involved in a renovation project in 1982 of a church that had laid dormant for years and was mostly destroyed. It was built in 1847 and closed in 1922.  The roof had been burned off for some reason and the stonework was falling down because there was no roof to hold things together. We repaired the stonework and then it was time to put on a new roof. 
  3. A huge argument ensued.  Some wanted trusses and some wanted rafters.  I did not know what they were talking about but the war was on.  Finally, trusses won the day. Why?  Because it was studied and deemed that this kind of roof would withstand the most weather.  The building is still doing great today because of this protection.
  4. We need the strong protective, interpersonal “trusses” of bearing with one another in love.  It is the key to unity.  Bearing means, not only humility but also loving the other out of love for Christ who bore all our sins on the cross. 
  5. Bearing has a suffering side to it.  The suffering is so that unity, the highest goal, can be achieved. Why else did Jesus pray for the unity of the church on his last night before he died?  He knew this was the golden key for the future of a thriving church.  
  6. The Greek word for love used here is “agape.”  The meaning of this word for love is the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice. It is not just the brotherly love “philos,” which means a family-based affection or the passion love of “eros”.    
  7. When you truly use agape love, you love your enemy with the same love that Jesus loved, who said, “forgive them, for they know not what they do” as he was being tortured on Calvary. It is love like the Amish people, who after their children were murdered in a school shooting back in 2007, gathered money for the education of the children of the man who killed their children. What wondrous love is this!!
  8. How is love working for you and your enemies?  Remember the “love chapter” of I Corinthians 13: “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”

Finally…

C. Remember who you are

  1. When I went off to college years ago my parents said to me “remember who you are.”  They were meaning that I needed to bring the values of my family and my faith into the many experiences that I would encounter away from home.  The remembrance of those words kept ringing in my ear when there were choices that I had to make.
  2. Paul is telling the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  In other words: “remember who you are!”
  3. The word “walk” conjures up to me a journey, not just a one-time destination.  There is no quick fix for unity in our country or in our churches, only continual, patient, slow work. It is never done, it just gets better as we keep walking.
  4. The word “calling” reminds me of the immense privilege of being a child of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus and promised life everlasting.  All Christians agree about this. Why is that not enough to keep us together? …as a denomination and as people in the family of humanity.
  5. Living in unity is a journey of following your call as a Christian.  Unity is our best witness and it is the only way to do continue the mission of the church most effectively.
  6. The most powerful part of the “Harriet” movie that I saw a few months ago (about the life of Harriet Tubman), was when she was leading people out of slavery and someone started changing their mind. Without missing a beat, she threatened them with a gun.  This was not because she was mean or power-crazy, but because she knew that the very survival of the whole group depended on them all staying together in unity, the unity of purpose of getting free.  Without unity they would all have been killed.
  7. The UMC is in a dire division.  How sad that our calling as the people called Methodists can be divided, that our love is not sacrificial, that our humility is lacking, that our conversations have failed us. God help us.  I still believe we are better together.
  8. I also hope this is the case in our country.  That out of this amazing time of COVID and calls for “Black Lives Matter” that we see the urgent need for unity of purpose as a nation.  Without it, we have no hope.

IV. Conclusion

Finally, may we give up our disunity wars (study war no more) and find the grace and power to live in unity and peace, through humility and love, which is the hope of our calling.