Before we get into our Bible reading this morning, just a few words about the early summer teaching series we’re embarking pm today.
If I asked you this question: ‘where do you see God glorified’ – you might answer that in different ways.
God is glorified in Christ – you might say. In Jesus going to the cross and accomplishing his plan of salvation. Read John’s gospel. That’s where you see the glory of God!
Or else I guess you might say God is glorified in changed lives. A dramatic healing perhaps. Or just someone experiencing new birth and having their whole being changed – their priorities, their ambitions, their lifestyle – everything. Only God can do that!
But when Paul talks about God glorified, he repeatedly goes back to a third place. Remember that doxology in Ephesians 3: ‘To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.’
If you want to see a display of the glory of God, in other words, you can just look at one of these little communities we call the local church. And you will see evidence of God at work. Bringing people together who really have no earthly reason to be together. And yet are. What a mighty work of God that is. Glory to his name!
Over these next few weeks, as we get used to living in community together after all the strangeness of lockdown, we’ve got a short series going, called ‘Being Church’. The idea is to go back to some of those ‘one anothers’ of the Bible. As in ‘love one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘pray for one another’ and so on. Just taking one of those a week for - I think - 5 Sundays. To hear how God wants us to live as a community in such a way as to bring glory to his name.
Time for our Bible reading.
‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.’
Let me share a memory with you.
I was 19 years old at the time. I was in a country I’d only set foot in for the first time 2 days earlier. I was on a gap year project. The people spoke a language I had only the most basic grasp of, and with an accent that made even that basic grasp pretty much worthless. I was dizzy with tiredness, thanks to the long overnight bus ride I’d just endured. I’d come with friends, but we knew nobody, we had little money, and we had 14 hours to wait until our onward bus. And it was raining. Constantly. Without a break.
We were feeling pretty low.
But somehow we ran into a couple of locals in the main street and one of my friends was able to hold a conversation with them. And when these men found out we were Christians, our day changed completely.
They brought us back to their little church building. They fed us. They did a whip round from congregation members to get some mattresses together so we could have a lie down and catch up on some sleep. They talked with us, cared for us, fed us again, involved us in their evening service. And then escorted, helped us with our bags, us to our onward bus that night.
That memory’s never left me.
They didn’t know us from Adam. They had almost nothing in common with us. But the simple fact that we too were Christian believers meant we were part of the family – and to be treated as such.
‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.’
God is glorified – you remember – at the cross, where Jesus accomplished the work of salvation – but not just there
He is glorified in individuals like you and me responding to Jesus, having our lives turned around. But not just there.
He’s also glorified in the church, when those individuals who had nothing in common with each other except that they are children of God… now realise that that makes them brothers and sisters to each other, and so they start living as a community, a family, that reflects that reality.
So that’s the reason we give time and energy to including each other, welcoming each other, making space for each other. To further the glory of God to the watching world.
But what does it mean to accept one another?
For one thing, who is this ‘one another’?
There are lots of groups and settings where different people have warm, positive relationships with each other. You might be part of a running club with others or you live in a student flat with others, or you had babies at the same time and became friends through the NCT classes. Or any number number of other contexts.
Whatever it is, you’re like those people in some way: you have shared interests, shared experiences, shared stage of life. These things have brought you together. So it’s not hard to identify with them.
And that may be the case within a local church, like ours. In an environment like this, many of us will be able to find other people who look a bit like us or sound a bit like us, people we’ve got things in common with. People we’ll naturally want to be friends with, because – hey – it’s nice to have friends. Everyone wants friends.
When Paul talks about accepting one another, he’s not talking about forming friendships with people like that, who we’re drawn to. He’s talking about the opposite: people who are other to us. People we perhaps wouldn’t naturally pursue a relationship with, were it not for the fact that there are part of our spiritual family.
Accepting one another means accepting those who really are ‘other’… to us.
It means accepting them, whatever they’ve done.
Do you see how Paul puts it in verse 7?
‘Accept one another, then, as Christ accepted you.’
In the first five chapters of this letter, Paul sets out exactly what he means by Christ accepting us.
• He talks about what we’re all like in and of ourselves. Chapter 1v29: we’re those who are ‘filled with every kind of wickedness, greed, evil and depravity.’ We’re ‘full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice… gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; invent[ing] ways of doing evil; disobey[ing] parents; 31 no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
• It’s tough talk. But he’s just saying it how it is.
• In chapter 2, he’s clear even religious types are not really any better
• ‘There’s no difference’ – he says.
• But then he explains, 3:24, that people are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
• And so 5:1 – we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ
• And just in case we missed the dynamic here, then comes the summary in 5:8 ‘God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Whatever we’d done and said and thought, God stepped towards us in Christ. He didn’t wait for us to reform or become softer towards him or nicer people or anything like that. No: regardless of everything we’d done or indeed were doing, he stepped towards us.
And now he says: Accept one another as Christ accepted you.
It’s so easy to raise an eyebrow at some people, isn’t it?
• I mean look at the life choices he’s made. What was he thinking? Is it any wonder he’s ended up in the mess he’s in now?
• Look at her priorities. Come Sunday morning on a sunny day, she’s as likely to be at the beach as she is at church!
• Look how that person treats other people. Always moaning. Never take an interest in others. Never volunteers to help out.
• Or perhaps the hardest: look how they’ve treated me. They’ve done me wrong.
We raise that eyebrow. We shake our head. And it leads to us pushing them away.
But why? Have we forgotten who we were, when God stepped towards us in Jesus?
‘Yeah, but come on’, we say to ourselves. ‘That person doesn’t deserve to be accepted’.
And what? You do?
Accept one another, whatever they’ve done. As Christ accepted you.
Is there someone you’ve been holding at arm’s length because you’re not exactly impressed with their behaviour?
Then again, this encouragement of Paul means accepting one another whoever they are.
In the very next verse after the instruction, v.8, Paul says this:
8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews[b] on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
In other words, Christ came to benefit the Jews, but also to benefit the Gentiles. And you’ll see he goes with a number of quotes – from the all parts of the Old Testament – Law, Prophets and Writings. He wants to underline the important place the Gentiles have in God’s purposes as well as the Jewish people.
It’s actually a theme running right through this letter: the way Jews and Gentiles fit together in God’s plans. It comes to a head in the central chapters, chapters 9-11. But really it’s everywhere. Here they are, two types of people, with two clear identities – ethnic, religious, cultural identities – and they’re struggling to get on top of how and they where they fit, and - more to the point - how and where the other lot fit.
And again, this is the context in which Paul says: Accept one another.
Whoever they are!
Again it’s a message that needs to be heard by every local church. And especially a church like ours where there all sorts of different identities in play.
I mean, take the generational identity. As Gen-Xers like me rub up against Millennials and Gen Z-ers younger than me, or the Boomers a bit older than me, we’ve got cultural assumptions going on all over the place, and therefore all sorts of potential frustration and misunderstanding.
Communication is always a minefield, isn’t it? I got an earful for one of my children for a text I sent in which I included a full stop at the end. ‘That’s so passive aggressive, Dad!’ Who’d have thought it: I thought I was just trying to keep some standards of good grammar! But actually I’m being aggressive.
But of course, things like that are just the tip of the iceberg. Different generations leave us bashing our heads against the wall. And the danger is: we just can’t be bothered trying to engage.
Or there’s national or ethnic or racial identities. How much do we retreat to the safety of people who look or sound like us? How much do we let appearances affect our thoughts and relationship priorities?
Or there’s social identity. Look I’m just an ordinary person. And there’s all these eggheads, these intellectual boffins. What have I got to say to them – you might think. Or else: ‘What have I – a professional, an accountant, got in common with a person like that who’s made a career of flipping burgers at Burger King?’ Or whatever it is.
And yet here is the glory of God in the church, that we accept each other, whoever we are.
And of course we’re to accept each other however we tick.
This instructions of Paul comes at the end of a long passage which addresses a real difference of opinion and lifestyle choice in the church in Rome. The exact issue isn’t that important right now. It’s to do with eating and the religious calendar, and what in conscience different people thought was right. If you look at verse 1, you’ll see Paul using the language of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ to describe the different positions. That’s not a moral judgement – it’s just about how sensitive different people’s consciences were on these issues.
The point is, people had different instincts on the issue of whether it was right to eat the kind of meat on offer in Rome And Paul’s encouragement is: that’s OK. Let them do what they think is right. Don’t look down on them because you’ve come to a different conclusion.
People’s backgrounds often mean they’ll operate on a different wavelength to you. They’ll tick a bit differently to you. But then that should be no surprise. Because the church is a place of diversity, not uniformity. It’s the wonderful thing about church.
Sometimes it will be differences of conscience. Jim thinks Christians should be vegetarian. Jo thinks Christians should all be environmental activists like her.
Sometimes it will be differences of theology. Maybe about the role of women in the church or of church in society, or one of those other old chestnuts.
Sometimes, it will be differences of taste. Those kind of songs do it for Rachel, but not for Richard.
Or perhaps, differences of temptation. Ann is quite open about experiencing same-sex attraction. In a way that makes her friend Natasha feel quite uncomfortable.
Or perhaps it’ll be different political convictions. For Bob, his Christian faith has led him to becoming a Labour supporter. For Bill, it’s gone the other way and he thinks the Conservatives approach is the better path.
People tick in different ways. People’s consciences lead them in different directions. But those different instincts must not become blockages to receiving each other as brother and sister in Christ.
I wonder if you remember that picture that did the rounds on social media back at the time of the Brexit vote? A young man and a young woman. One wearing a Vote Brexit T shirt, one earing a Pro-remain one. But standing next to each other in a church before the cross.
The world, and especially social media, drives people apart when they think differently. When they tick differently. But God in the church brings them together. And as God’s people, we’re to swim with the tide of that reconciling work of God.
We accept each one another however they tick.
What does that mean to accept?
For one thing, it means not tolerating but embracing. The world tolerates others. By which I mean we’re taught to step back and just let other people do their thing. Do life the way they want to do life.
But that’s not good enough in the church. Christians don’t step back. They step forward.
• They cross the room, physically and start a conversation.
• They cross the pain threshold, emotionally. They stay committed to growing the relationship even though it’s painfully obvious they’ve got little in common.
• They cross the energy barrier, sacrificially. They’ll bear the cost of hard work investing in others. It’ll take time. It’ll mean giving up privacy. It’ll cost energy.
But accepting the other is more than just being polite and smiling sweetly. It’s about taking active steps to be family to each other. To embrace.
And then, accepting others means not demanding but submitting.
A while back, I was visiting a new family in the church in their home. They’d come along a few times, and I thought I ought to pop round and see how they were finding things. They’ve moved on since. But it wasn’t easy.
• I thought I’d been clear that I was going to pop around after dinner. Just for a coffee or whatever. But it turned out that culturally they wouldn’t dream of having someone in their home in the evening without putting a full meal in front of them
• They had expectations of what church was and what it believed, which didn’t sit that comfortably with who we are as a church – and they were fairly clear about that
• They didn’t speak much English, so the conversation had to be translated by the one English speaker in the family.
• And they had a beautiful exotic bird in their flat, which they let fly around freely. It spent most of the evening sitting on my head – the one positive being that they’d put a baby’s nappy on the bird, just in case.
So there I was: sitting down, eating food I didn’t have room for, being accused of heresy in a language I couldn’t understand and being sat on by an nappy-clad, exotic bird.
An odd experience, but a great lesson for me. How much do I effectively demand other adapt to my way of doing things. And how much do I submit to theirs.
What cultural assumptions are you making are you set about building relationships?
And then again, accepting others is a matter of not daydreaming but planning.
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to procrastinate.
‘I wonder how Lizzy is getting on at church. I saw her at church the other and nobody seemed to be talking to them. I must get in contact.’ – we say to ourselves
And then we don’t, because life is busy. And we forget.
‘That comment that Al made at home group the other day. He sounded like he could benefit from a bit of time and love and encouragement’ – we say.
And then the thought goes.
Accepting others means more than warm thoughts. It means planning and rolling up our sleeves. Picking up the phone, turning up on the doorstep, opening up our home, making a date in the diary. Whatever. Not daydreaming but planning.
Because when Christ accepted us, it took more than kindly thoughts. It took costly action.
Well I hope that’s being helpful for us as a church as we ponder how we can reflect the grace of God in Christ in our relationships, and so bring glory to God.
I wonder if I could close, though, with just a couple of encouragements for those who’ve looked for acceptance but not found it.
There are a number of visitors with us this morning. Maybe you’re involved in a church elsewhere, and you’ve frankly been fairly disappointed at the way you’ve been treated by your fellow-believers. Or maybe it’s here at this church that you’ve felt sidelined in some way.
Three pastoral encouragements if I may…
First, don’t let up on grace.
In a community of grace, we have no option but to learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
• Maybe you’ve felt like you were being given the cold shoulder, but it could be she’s just got a lot going on in life right now. She’s struggling to keep it together herself. She just hasn’t got the capacity to focus on you.
• Or maybe he’s just not that good socially. He’s just not gifted or practised at knowing how to communicate warmth and put other people at their ease.
Yes they could have tried a bit harder, maybe. But I’d encourage you to pray for grace to forgive them.
Second, don’t pull up the drawbridge.
When it’s felt like you’ve been brushed off a couple of times, it’s easy to go into self-preservation mode. You become more guarded. You expect people to take no real interest in you. And guess what: it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
So it’s always worth asking: are there signals I’m giving off that are making it harder for people to embrace me? Make it easy for them. Cross the ball for them, so they can score the goal. Take an interest in them, for example, and you might just find they take an interest in you.
Third, don’t give up on church.
When the church community isn’t all that it should be, think of it like a great orchestral symphony. With a symphony, there’s always going to be a gap between the composition and the performance. The composition may be perfect, but the performance might lack something.
So it is with the church. The composer has done his job – and he’s done it perfectly. The players though: well we’re still practising. The double basses are still a bit out of time with the clarinets. And the trumpets are still fluffing every 3rd note. Not everyone’s keeping an eye on the conductor or the score as closely as they might.
And the result is, sometimes it sounds ok. Other times it’s a bit of a mess.
We’ll get it right one day. Come the new creation, the performance will match the composition perfectly. But for the time being, we’re still practising.
So don’t give up. Don’t give up on God or his church. Because there is at least some sweet music to be found in the relationships of the church community today. So why not sit take down, take up your fiddle, and let’s practise together until we get it right?