“Live in Harmony”
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
December 4, 2016
In our New Testament, we find the letters of the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the church in Rome, in Romans Chapter 15, verses 4-13, we hear his appeal, his urging for unity. Hear now his words.
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; 10 and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; 11 and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; 12 and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
May God open our hears to Paul’s words of petition and call to come together as one.
The season is fast upon us! Here we have already lit the second Advent Candle. The first candle is symbolic of hope. The second is to represent the getting ready, the preparation which ultimately brings peace; peace which only comes with unity. The third is about joy and the fourth symbolizes love. The fifth candle, symbolically in the center, which shall be lit on Christmas Eve, is the Christ candle. And today, being the first Sunday in December, we shall also share in the last meal of the man Jesus; thereby being reminded of that tremendous gift his life represents to all of humankind. Yes, “Tis the season to be jolly.” Just as it says in the song “Deck the Halls.” But it is more than that. It is a lot more. Tis the season to think about and talk about all these things. It is a time to reflect on the foundation of Christianity, how it came to be and what it means to us in the present time in which we live.
There is a lot to digest as we put our eyes on the road to Bethlehem. We all know the story. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” /Luke 2:1-5/ What a difficult trip it must have been. With Mary and Joseph on the dusty roadway to register for their taxes as was degreed. Mary coming closer and closer to her time to give birth to this baby she was to call Jesus. The only peace they were experiencing was being together. The hard trip, the forced tax registration was surely not causing them to feel the love and compassion of their oppressors the Romans. No, the advent, the road to the birth, the coming of Christ did not come easy. Nor has it been easy throughout the ages as we the followers of the man Jesus, the crucified and risen one, as we await his return. Maybe we don’t call it the road to Bethlehem, yet we all have burdens we carry as we journey ever forward, often doing things that we find difficult; things we must do as we are not given a choice. And in the midst the journey things also happen that are mystical and special. In those times, those are the things, those are the moments that make our lives all worthwhile.
Putting the words of Paul’s letter into the Twenty-First Century gives us a lot to think about and contemplate as we symbolically take this Advent journey. When we come together today, through the sharing of the bread of life and the cup of salvation, let us be reminded that at the table we are sharing in our ‘oneness’ in the body and blood of Christ. We do this as modern day Christians. The word unity ought not be new to us. As Christians our identities come together as we become ‘part’ of the one body of Christ. Our identity is in Christ. This is what it means to be Christian. Paul’s lesson today begins with this simple point. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.” /Romans 15:5/ Already he has expanded our understanding of unity to be that of harmony. Not only are we to travel together we are to do so harmoniously! This suggests that we ought to be cordial, congenial and even pleasant with one another!
Thank God we are sitting together in this sanctuary and not out in a shopping mall striving to be all of these things with others. Just imagine if you had to be pleasant to all those folks in front of you in line! Or being polite as you are cut off in traffic – while trying to get into the line of cars heading into the mall! Then there is that guy in front of you, at the cash register, and he forgot to get the ‘thing’ that goes with the other ‘thing’ he is holding; and now everyone has to wait while he goes and get it because the cashier doesn’t know how to ‘ring out’ his sale – until he has everything, including the other thing! Trust me, this lesson is easier here in our beautiful sanctuary because we are all here ‘united together’ like one big happy family! Thank God! Because, if we were getting upset or irritable about the little things here… how could we ever cope with life out there?! And if we find ourselves struggling with this here, we need to step back and reconsider what we are doing!
Paul reaches out across the ages to urge us, as he urged the early members of the church in Rome, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” /Romans 15:7/ For years the United Church of Christ, through its national campaigns, it has been urging us, as members of a local church: “to welcome others, to extravagantly welcome all to come and join with is in worship!” The Riviera United Church of Christ, has been making great strides to be a welcoming church. Lots of visitors have told me they feel welcome here. This is the direction that the Apostle Paul is pushing us today; but he wanted the local church to take it up a notch and invite people who are different then us. Yes, we do that. But, do we do this without asking them to erase what is different about themselves, as they are assimilated into our fellowship? There rests the true challenge. Most churches say they welcome everyone… but when you get there they push folks to leave their heritage, their ethnicity, and their orientations at the door. Unity does not mean differences are erased! It is vital that we always keep this front and center as we continue our Advent journey together.
Can you possibly imagine a church with only one description of people? Everyone is simply average, therefore, there is no controversy – right? OK, depends on the definition. I might say average is five foot eight inches, blue eyes, with a bit of graying hair, 170 pounds. Short, conservative haircut, suit and tie, with a white shirt. Starting to get the picture? What about the rest of you? That image only works for a few members or friends of this church. Differences are good. Clearly, God likes diversity – as we do not all look the same… Thank God! Various skin tones, different languages, and a wide, ever changing assortment of hair colors and styles. Not only is it immoral to reject our differences it would be just down right boring! Can you imagine if every member of the choir had the exact same voice, all sopranos with no tenor or bass. Or they all insisted on doing the solo today and no one was willing to play the drums, the tambourine or play the flute. Following the teachings of Paul has a lot of practical ramifications!
At the time this letter was written the struggling and very new Christian churches, were expanding way beyond the borders of Jerusalem into Gentile territory. Hear these words of the Apostle in the first chapter of Romans. “Jesus Christ, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name. To all God’s beloved in Rome, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” /Romans 1:1-8/ These early Christians were grappling with how the Jew and the Gentile were to come together. Was a Gentile to do all that the Jews had done, in order to be followers of Christ? The early disciples, the apostles, they were all Jews by heritage. They believed Jesus to be the Messiah.
Fast forwarding to our time period, specifically in the 1960’s a vast majority of the members of the United Church of Christ were of similar decent. As the church became more and more involved in its social justice outreach the need to be more inclusive, in its welcome to visitors and potential new members, grew. Inclusivity has always been a challenge for Christian churches and the struggle continues in our time. There are still a vast number of Christ centered churches that want everyone to join their version of Christianity, but reject those who refuse to leave their differences at the door! The Apostle Paul strongly advocates for true acceptance of others – as we come together in unity!
Peace will only come when we adapt ourselves to this and other lessons that point us to our discourse which Paul has brought to us today. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” /Romans 15:13/ In one sentence Paul lifts up hope, joy and peace; “the God of hope, fills all with joy and peace!” This is a message of compassion! Compassion and passion are closely associated. If we are passionate about our faith, and when we are sincere about our desire to follow the lead of Christ, then shall our passion, spill over into genuine enthusiasm to reach out to others with true Christian love!
If we want to be prepared for the coming of Christ in the world we must be willing to ‘go the extra mile’ and allow compassion to flow from us to those in need of it – all around us! The true Spirit of Christmas shows kindness, fully embracing kind-heartedness and understanding, as we embrace ‘with empathy’ the needs of others! Peace, is a byproduct of warmly welcoming the visitor, fully accepting their differences; it is a coming together in unity, harmoniously embracing our identity in Christ Jesus. Peace, peace comes when your heart has embraced this message which the Apostle Paul has offered up for us today!