I want to begin this morning by asking you a question. What is the one greatest area of need we have as a church that we could benefit the most from really working on this year? Or to put it another way, can you think of a particular scripture that would address what you think should be our number priority this year as a congregation?
Of course we all recognize that every verse of Scripture is inspired by God, that we must be faithful to the entire message of the Bible, and that my obligation is to preach the whole counsel of God. But at the same time, it is undeniable that at specific moments in the life of a church (and for that matter, the life of an individual Christian), situations and circumstances arise such that certain teachings in the Bible have more pressing relevance.
So, if you were to pick one crucial area where we stand to gain the most by concentrated effort, what would it be? That is the very question the elders contemplated a few weeks ago, and what they concluded is that for the year 2011, for a variety of reasons, a key passage for this fellowship is Ephesians 4:3.
“Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
So for the year 2011, in my sermons, in articles in the bulletin, and in Bible classes where appropriate, my focus is going to be on the various dimensions of this Scripture. There will obviously be other subjects that we will deal with this year, and other passages to explore. But as much as is possible and practical, the theme of my work is going to be Ephesians 4:3. “Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Why This Theme?
So why did the elders choose this theme passage? Go ask them! Actually, the primary factor was various comments and concerns that you as the members have raised over the last few months. So this really grew out of their effort to listen to you, which they have been doing in some face to face sessions with our membership. And I really want to commend our elders for being genuinely interested in wanting to know what you think, of working hard to be true shepherds who know the flock.
Two issues in particular have driven the decision to pick maintaining the unity of the Spirit as our congregational theme. First, the issue of togetherness. We are very blessed as a group of people in that we are at peace. This is not the case in a lot of places. I have worked in churches that had a history of ugly divisiveness, and been through the some situations that began to resemble the bitter factionalism of the church in Corinth, where members were pitted against each other. That is not a problem here, and thanks be the Lord that’s the case!
So when I say the elders are concerned about the issue of togetherness, that is in no way a reflection of worry over some kind of schism. But just because we are not at war with each other doesn’t mean we are as close as we can be. True fellowship in the Lord is not simply a matter of never fussing with each other, but is instead a partnership of like-minded followers of Christ held together by brotherly affection. It is the kind of relationship Paul spoke of the Philippians having in Phil. 1:27, “you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
To put it another way, some of you may come from families marred by all sorts of jealous rivalries and feuds. That is a tragic and painful situation to be in. But just as sad is a family that – while not full of hate and conflict – lacks any sense of warmth, that rarely communicates or does anything together as a family. Where members feel isolated and unwanted.
That might be true of our flesh and blood families, but it should never be true of our blood-bought family. And so to help all of us in the Woodland Hills family be even more sensitive to our need for each other and our responsibility to be one heart, one mind, one spirit, the elders want us to dwell on the implication of maintaining the unity of the Spirit.
There is a second issue that made Ephesians 4:3 stand out as a vitally important passage for us. That is our need for unity in the home just as in the church. Marriage is a living demonstration of God’s power to unify. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). Because marriage is such an intense expression of unity, it is also the place where unity is most intensely tested.
And so if maintaining the unity of the Spirit is important for a church, it is even more so for a family. In fact in Ephesians 5 Paul makes a direct link between the oneness of a husband and wife and the oneness of Christ and the church.
32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Your marriage is to be a vibrant example of the unifying work of God, on par with the relationship of Christ to the church itself.
In fact, the elders are working on plans to do some special teaching on marriage later this year. But in the meantime every family here stands to gain by making Ephesians 4:3 the theme verse of your family just as it will be of our congregation.
So that’s why the elders have selected this as our theme. Let’s spend the rest of our time together looking at what the verse actually says and start laying a foundation for what we can work on together this year.
Unity of the Spirit
The first point I want to emphasize about this passage is that Paul says we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit. He doesn’t say we are to obtain it but to maintain it, implying that we do not create unity. It is created for us. And in the text Paul says it is unity of the Spirit. In other words, we are united by the Spirit. Oneness is the work of God, indeed it is the gift of God.
This is how the book of Ephesians began. In 1:9-10, listen to how Paul summarized God’s eternal plan:
9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
God’s eternal plan, once unrevealed in mystery, but now revealed in Scripture, is to unite all things in Christ. The way Christ did this was to die for the sins of humanity, making it possible for us to be at peace with God and with each other, and especially in light of the first century, for Jews and Gentiles to be at peace with each other.
Christ taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). The Son of God was the ultimate Peacemaker.
11Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace
Christ is our peace; His cross made peace. And it is through that peace that we can be bound together. That is why Paul says in 4:3 we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit “in the bond of peace.” We are to maintain unity created through the peace-making work of Jesus.
Also, in Ephesians 2, Paul explains why this unity is in the Spirit.
18For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
It is in the one Spirit that we have access to God. We are built together by the Spirit. It is the unity of the Spirit.
None of us deserved the peace Christ purchased for us. None of us deserved to dwell with God by the Spirit. This unity and peace is the gift of God. The recognition that oneness is a display of God’s grace and love should motivate us to work in grateful diligence to preserve what God has done for us. This is the very way Paul exhorts the Ephesians in the opening of chapter 4.
1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We have been called by God to share the rich inheritance of His saving work and unifying purpose. In the words of one translation, we are to “live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own” (CEV) and a crucial part of that worthy walk is maintaining the unity of the Spirit.
So unity comes from God. It doesn’t come from us. We don’t invent it or manufacture it. But we are to maintain it. So let’s think about what that means.
Maintain the Unity of the Spirit
I think I told you all the story about getting this Bible. It is my dream Bible, with wonderful calfskin (it smells like a cow – in a good way!), a great layout for reading, and good paper for taking notes. I had been talking with one of the members of the Weatherly Heights church in Huntsville (where I recently preached) about Bibles, and he graciously sent this to me. One of my preacher friends asked me to set up a gospel meeting for him so he could mention his dream truck!
Anyway, this Bible was a very thoughtful gift. But now that is has been given to me, it is my responsibility to take care of it. My old Bible is coming apart because it has been dropped far too many times. There’s a section of the book of Isaiah that has coffee stains from an accident that took place while teaching a home Bible study. And because I forgot to put the cap on a red pen one day, a large section of the gospels and Acts has an enormous red ink stain. So I am a little paranoid about this new Bible. This is the first time I have brought it to the assembly, and I feel as cautious as those of you who have brought newborns to church the first time!
The point is that it’s one thing to get a gift; it’s another thing to take care of a gift. Some of you who are clumsy or absent minded or just plain sloppy may have heard the same thing I heard a lot growing up – “I just can’t get you anything nice because you’ll just ruin it!” Well God has given us unity, a very costly gift, and we are to have the maturity to recognize this gift is precious and therefore take care of it.
The word Paul uses in this verse expresses urgency. “Maintain” is almost too weak. It sounds like instructions in your car manual (for proper maintenance of your engine change your oil every three thousand miles). Of course, if you don’t do proper maintenance, you’ll have serious car trouble. And if we don’t do proper spiritual maintenance, we‘ll have problems, too.
But this word means to “keep watch over, keep, preserve, holding on to something so as not to give it up or lose it.” In fact it often is used for holding a prisoner in custody, as in Acts 24:23.
Unity is something that we must carefully guard and protect. And undoubtedly it requires this vigilance because it is so easily lost. That is because our natural inclination is selfishness, which only leads to strife. Paul said this to Corinthians in 1 Cor. 3-
1 Cor. 3
1But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human?
Sometimes we dismiss faults by saying “well, we’re only human.” But you and I as children of God are not “only human.” We are forgiven; we are converted; we are raised to walk in newness of life; we are a new creation in Christ! And as such we cannot revert back to being “just human.” We must walk worthy of our new calling in Christ, maintaining the unity of the Spirit.
But to do this requires constant surveillance of our own attitude and heart so that the divine gift of unity is preserved rather than squandered.
Over the next few weeks I am going to preach about the key attitudes we need to safeguard unity. They come right out of the same context as our theme verse. Look at Eph. 4:2:
2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.
That’s a good place to start: humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance love. It will require intentional effort to maintain unity, and meditation on these virtues is the foundation of the worthy walk of unity.
But there is one more attitude that we need to accomplish this, perhaps the most important of all. And it is the first word of our theme verse. “Eager.”
Eager to Maintain the Unity of the Spirit
Lots of people make resolutions this time of the year. Some of you may have written down some goals for self-improvement. Lose weight, exercise, get out of debt, pray more, read the Bible through, etc. There is nothing wrong with making resolutions – it’s good to have something to shoot for.
The problem is that most people do not follow up on resolutions. They stick with it the first few days of the year, and then the novelty of the moment wears off. Lots of people buy exercise equipment in January that by February they use to hang clothes on. The problem is that simply turning a page on a calendar doesn’t magically change anything. Real change only comes from within.
And that is what Paul means when he says we must be “eager” to maintain the unity of the Spirit. The definition of this word in Greek is “to be zealous, take pains, make every effort (which is how the NIV translates it in Eph. 4:3), to be especially conscientious in discharging an obligation.”
New Year’s Resolutions often fail because they are not prompted by a New Year’s conviction – they are artificially contrived because the calendar says it is a particular day and month. And by the way, the elders are under no illusion that just because we are announcing a theme for the year that it will magically come to pass. But what we hope is that by drawing attention to the word of God and what it says about unity that the Scripture will elicit that conviction in honest and good hearts, and that all of us will be truly eager – zealous – diligent – and determined to maintain the unity of the Spirit.
I wish there was a simple way to produce eagerness. There isn’t. But I think there is a pretty simple set of reasons why we do become eager to do what we are supposed to. Last August I started working on getting healthier. I didn’t make a big announcement about it – in fact, I told a couple of people. And it wasn’t because mid-August was a magical time to lose weight. It was because by that point in time I was in a lot of pain after injuring my knee and having surgery, and I knew that I needed to do something. And second, it was because I finally convinced myself I could do it. And third, it was because I knew that if I wanted to think about sharing my life with someone else, it was what was best for them. And if any of you have ever lost weight or stopped smoking or made some other huge adjustment in life, I would bet it has been for those same kinds of reasons.
That is what I think Paul means when he speaks of “eagerness.” You and I need to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the first place because we need that unity. I need you. We cannot function as Christians going at it alone. Satan is too fierce and the world is too unfriendly to possibly try to make it as an isolated Christian. To try to be a spiritual loner is to bring pain and disappointment.
In the second place, we must convince ourselves that unity is a real possibility, that we can truly be of one mind and spirit. If the Lord could bring Jews and Gentiles together after centuries of hostility and enmity, what reason do we have for thinking He cannot still create the unity of the Spirit? Why would we doubt that Christ can restore a marriage? Why would we question that Christ can heal division? Eagerness means we are convicted that we need others and convinced that Christ can bring us together.
And finally, eagerness means that we are aware that others need us. I bet we all know guys who were pretty immature and irresponsible who straightened up once they got serious about a girl. Sometimes bums never change, but sometimes the awareness that others depend on them and need them is the very thing that a man needs to awaken the conscientious of responsibility. I know that I need you, but I also know that I am needed, and that makes me want to do what I can to be there for you.
This past year we have gone through a lot as a congregation. Some of our older members have reached the point where they can no longer be with us. Several families have moved away. Many of us have lost people special to us. If you are looking for reasons to be discouraged and demoralized, you can find them.
But the Lord has been gracious to us as well. He has allowed many of our older members to continue their assembly with us and the blessing of their influence. We have lots of great young families. The Lord has given us several babies, with more on the way. We’ve had lots of visitors recently. And we have a very dedicated core of hard-working, loving people at peace.
There is a lot to be excited about, and lots to do. We just need to make sure we do it together, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”