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Welcome One Another

Romans 15:1-7

 

At it’s core, music is made up of three elements: melody, rhythm, and harmony. And while a song or piece of music’s melody and rhythm are what make it memorable, make it stand out, it is the harmony that adds complexity and sophistication to that song. It can take a predictable, ordinary song and make it great. Harmony is what happens when individual musical voices come together to form a cohesive whole. Whether it’s the flutes and trombones and violins each playing different notes in an orchestra, or bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices in a vocal ensemble, or the guitars, bass, drums, keys, and voices of a rock band or worship team, when those individual voices and differing notes come together as a cohesive unit and are heard together, we have harmony. Different, unique contributions coming together and making something beautiful together.

 

Harmony, in many ways, is a great way of thinking about God’s desire for his church, followers of Christ in this world as a whole. Think about John’s vision of the throne room of God described in the book of Revelation, where he says, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10). “All tribes and peoples and languages.” I love that. Think about the kaleidoscope of skin color, and body shapes and sizes, and clothing styles and colors, and body movements and singing styles and sounds.

 

And think about the different denominations and worship styles of the different churches that all of those believers come from. The Episcopalian and the Presbyterian and the Baptist and the Lutheran and the Catholic and the Orthodox and the Pentecostal and the non-denominational, all coming together. The glory of God’s creation, gathered as one in before his throne, proclaiming his glory, in his presence, with one diverse, harmonious, voice. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Talk about incredible.

 

The really cool thing is that we don’t have to wait until then to experience that harmony. It’s something that God wants us to pray for and work toward right now, here in this world. Jesus, in what has become known as his “high priestly prayer” recorded in John 17, as he prays for those who followed him then, and for those of us who follow him now, prayed “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word (that’s you and me), that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (17:20-23).

 

God’s heart for his people is that we, as followers of Christ, come together in unity. In harmony. But that doesn’t just happen. It isn’t something that God brings about without our active participation and submission to his will and his transforming work in our lives. And we know this just doesn’t happen, right? All we have to do is look at the body of Christ today. Divisions within churches. Sometimes on purpose. Planned. Programmed. Separating old from young. Separating men from women. Building churches on the assumption that we can only grow with people who are like us, we can only get along with people who are more similar than different.

 

And the problem isn’t all of these diverse expressions, different denominations, unique worship styles, and different theological emphases. That isn’t the problem. The problem is our VIEW of one another. Our ATTITUDE toward one another. Far too often we find factions and segments within churches arguing and fighting with one another. And there are divisions between churches. Churches that just can’t recognize Christ in one another. Pastors and church boards and church members who view the church down the road as the competition instead of as teammates. Denominations that set themselves at odds with one another. Peoples who are different and unique who absolutely cannot find their unity and harmony in Christ alone. This is the situation Paul found in the church in Rome, and it’s been the situation in the church ever since. It’s far easier to divide than it is to work things through and stick together. Turn with me to Romans 15:1-7.

 

Harmony isn’t something that just happens. Musicians have to intentionally listen to one another and play off one another to make music together. It is a gift of God to his people, but it’s not something that God gives to us without any effort on our part. Harmony takes intentional effort. It’s something that happens on purpose. Sometimes we act like we don’t have to put any effort into following Jesus. That God will just empower us to follow him without any attention and effort on our part. We’ve gotten there because we know that God’s grace is an undeserved, unearned gift. We can’t make ourselves acceptable to God. God in his grace reaches out to us in love while we are still caught up in our sin and draws us into relationship with him. God’s grace is an unearned and undeserved gift. But we’ve confused earning with effort. We’ve assumed that because we can’t earn God’s grace, it’s his gift to us, that there’s nothing at all for us to do. And that isn’t the case at all. Yes, God draws us to himself. Yes, God offers to us forgiveness and salvation. But we still have to accept the gift, and we have to realize that the gift is actually an invitation into a relationship, and relationships take effort.

 

When couples assume that a positive, healthy relationship will just happen and they stop putting effort into it, they wind up in my office, paying me a lot of money to remind them that relationships take effort. Relationships are intentional. They happen on purpose. And our relationship with God is no different. We receive God’s grace and forgiveness, and then we begin to follow Jesus. There’s a role for us to play. There’s something for us to do. And that includes being intentional about working toward harmony in the body of Christ. So how do we do that?

 

The word Paul uses is “bear.” “Bear with …” He tells the strong to bear with the failings of the weak. What’s he talking about? He’s actually wrapping up the topic he’s been on since the beginning of chapter 14. So here the strong are strong in their sense of the freedom they have in Christ. Realizing that nothing they eat or drink can make them unacceptable to God. The people who have moved beyond long lists of rules and people-pleasing and in general works-based righteousness.

 

And the weak are those who are more legalistic. Who have their long lists of rules. They understand grace in principle but they struggle to realize it in practice. And Paul makes it absolutely clear that the strong are to bear with the weak. Yes, we are free in Christ, but those who live in and exercise that freedom more fully do so with humble and loving hearts, because liberty always yields to love.

 

It kind of sounds like Paul is telling us to put up with, or tolerate, those who are, in the case of freedom, weaker. But that isn’t really what Paul is saying. He’s using the same word he used in Galatians 6:2, where he says “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” So imagine a group of people hiking across Michigan together. All of their gear has to make it across with them, right? So there’s two ways of doing this. One is to have each person, regardless of their individual strength and size, carrying the same weight. So if all of the hikers packs weigh 50 lbs, it’s heavier for some and lighter for others. The other way is to give the bigger, stronger hikers heavier loads and the smaller, weaker hikers smaller loads. The stronger carry more of the burden than the weak. And this is the kind of mutual service and relationship with one another in the body of Christ. The stronger carry their own loads, plus part of the load of the weaker as well. The loads feel more the same, because 60 or 70 lbs for the stronger is about the same as 30 or 40 lbs for the weaker. The loads aren’t the same, but they feel the same. To bear with is to actively and lovingly assume the burdens that the weak are not able to bear by limiting your freedom, willingly, out of love for them.

 

Now, when Paul says “let each of us please his neighbor for his good” he isn’t telling us to people-please and never be offensive. Sometimes, following Christ seems foolish and very countercultural to those who aren’t following Christ. He’s telling us to put the needs of others in the body of Christ ahead of our own wants and needs. Don’t live to please yourself. Live and act for the benefit of the other.

 

Now, look at Vv. 3-4. Every orchestra has a concertmaster. The lead violinist. Before a performance, after the individual members have all taken their places, they play a note and everyone else tunes to that note on the choirmaster’s instrument. They don’t individually tune to one another. They all tune to the choirmaster. Paul makes it absolutely clear that Christ is our choirmaster, and we are all to tune, not to one another, but to him. He quotes Psalm 69:9, a Psalm of lament written by David whose sufferings at the hands of his enemies foreshadowed the suffering of Christ. His point is, Jesus didn’t live for himself. He emptied himself. He left the safety and perfection of heaven and entered the cosmos he had made, not in power and glory but as one of us. As a poor baby, in a poor family, a part of a people who were subjugated by the Romans.

 

Our weakness, our sin, our burden fell on him. And as followers of Christ that is the note to which we are to tune our lives. Just as Christ bore our burden of sin, so we are to bear each other’s burdens, joyfully walking with them, carrying some of the load for them.

 

We don’t reach harmony by tuning to one another, by working just to get along with or at least tolerate one another. We reach harmony by together tuning our lives to the life of Christ. By seeking him together, finding our unity in Christ and in Christ alone. When we do that, nothing else can divide us. Not race. Not status. Not strength or weakness. Not culture or nationality or life experience. When we are united in Christ, and in Christ alone, absolutely nothing can divide us.

 

So how do we tune our lives to Christ? In the same way Paul did. By reading, studying, meditating on, and understanding Scripture. Look at V. 4. Endurance, patience, intentionality, combined with encouragement lead to hope. And endurance and encouragement are gifts of God to his people. I don’t know about you, but when I think about endurance, I think about a long road, and a lot of effort. I think about athletes performing well late in a game, when they’re tired. Endurance kind of pictures hanging in there when it gets tough. Not quitting. And as tough as it is to endure difficulty, it gets a lot easier when we are encouraged, when we have encouragers. Think about exhausted athletes at the very end of a game, the game on the line, and their fans are going crazy. They actually draw strength from that.

 

Harmony is hard. Unity is hard. Why? Because we’re all different. And the body of Christ is to be so diverse and different, and yet together in Christ that the rest of the world absolutely cannot believe it. And that’s hard. So we have to endure, encouraged by Scripture. By the picture God has given us through John of the end to which he is bringing us, together in his presence. But this isn’t unity for the sake of unity. This is unity that leads us to something else. Look at Vv. 5-7.

 

What is the goal of unity? What is the goal of harmony in the body of Christ? Praise. The praise of God. The glory of God. We live in a divided world. We are divided by cultures. By distance. By oceans and mountains. By race and color. By gender. And absolutely nothing has brought or held us together. Russia, one of our allies in World War II turned right around and became our primary enemy during the cold war. We are divided by political ideologies. We are divided in our hopes and dreams for our country. We are, quite simply, divided. And we are a church divided by many of the same things and a thousand more. Sunday morning worship has been called the most segregated hour in America.

 

As followers of Christ, we will not find harmony anywhere but in Christ, by tuning our instruments, broken as they are, to him, to his life, to his grace, to his forgiveness.

 

On December 4, 2017, 400 musicians gathered in the 23rd Street Armory of Philadelphia to perform “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra” by David Lang. The orchestra included amateurs, professionals, and even members of the storied Philadelphia Orchestra. The youngest performer was a nine-year-old cellist; the oldest, an 82-year-old oboist. It might have been the most diverse orchestra in America.

 

The 400 brought with them broken instruments: a trumpet held together with blue painter’s tape, a violin with no A string, a bow that had lost most of its hair, a cello carried in multiple pieces. You see, the government had cut funding for music programs in public schools, and many school instruments fell into disrepair. But Lang made something beautiful of them.

 

As the musical piece opened many of the instruments were silent, but gradually they found their voices—while a trumpet might not be capable of a sound, the keys could tap a rhythm; the scraping of a bow over the silhouette of a violin body could add an unusual element. At one point, a cellist made noise by turning a stringless peg. As the 40-minute symphony progressed, the instruments roared to life. Some musicians struggled, like a clarinetist who could get out only short spurts of sound and a French horn player who kept losing his mouthpiece. But together, the orchestra produced rich harmony. The music was playful and joyous. As the performance wound down each section bowed out one-by-one, until all that remained was the humble squeal of a broken clarinet.

 

In the church each broken instrument adds its own voice to the symphony. The best that some can do is simply tap or squeak, but with each other the orchestra produces a joyful song of praise under the hand of the Director.[i] Let us pray.

[i] Source: Joshua Barone, “A Symphony Breathes Life Into 400 Broken School Instruments,” The New York Times(12-4-17)