Of One Mind (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

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On the five Sundays since Christmas, our congregation has been gathering for one worship service each Sunday. This is different from our usual practice of having two weekly services: an earlier service with more traditional liturgies and an organ, and a later service with less formal orders and a band.

One of the reasons for having one service on the Sundays after Christmas was the desire some people in our congregation express to have one common service more often. Some have told me that they are concerned that having two services divides the congregation and it would be good for us to worship together at one time and in one place to make us more united.

I understand their point of view and see some merit in it. Over the last month people have told me how much they have enjoyed the services and appreciated the chance to worship with people from our other service. However, if our goal is a deep sense of unity in the congregation, maybe there are other ways to achieve that. Worshiping together in one service can be a visible form of unity, but it needs to reflect a deeper unity we have as the people of God.

The Apostle Paul addresses this deeper unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He appeals to the Corinthian Christians in the name of and ‘by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other’ (v10a NLT). These words tell us that the unity of the church is not a trivial thing. Unity is something we need to take very seriously. Paul goes on to instruct his readers to ‘be of one mind, united in thought and purpose’ (v10b NLT).
The unity Paul is talking about runs much deeper that simply having a combined worship service. Looking at the Greek words he uses, Paul is talking about being in the same mind and in the same intention. He mentions this ‘mind’ a little later in his letter when he tells his readers that ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16). When the Holy Spirit gifts us with the life of Christ we are also gifted with a new mind, the mind of Jesus.

This ‘mind’ gives us a whole new way to think about God, ourselves, our relationships with other people, the world around us, in fact our whole existence. Paul uses this same word for ‘mind’ in Romans 12:2 when he writes, ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). A key element of the unity God is looking for in our congregation is that we are in the mind of Jesus and we are learning to think in the way of Jesus together.

Another aspect of this unity is that when we are in the mind of Christ together, we will also be in the same purpose or intention. This has to do with why we are here as a congregation, what our reason is for existing, what God is calling us to do and where he is leading us into the future. Paul is urging us to be united in our understanding of who we are, why we are here and where we are going as God’s people in this time and place. This is closely connected to and grows out of being in the mind of Christ and learning to think in the way of Jesus. When we are united in our purpose or intention, we will be looking at our circumstances from Christ’s perspective and not just thinking about what is good for ourselves as individuals, what we like or how we can get our way. Instead, being united in purpose is about finding our purpose in Jesus and then living together in his purpose as his people in the world.

It is vital to recognise that unity is not the same thing as conformity. Conformity happens when one person decides that everyone should be like they are and do the same things they do. The church in Corinth wasn’t like that. As we saw last week, for example, there were a wide variety of gifts among the Corinthian Christians. Living with this diversity caused tensions in their community of faith but it was necessary for them to function faithfully as the body of Christ. In the same way, when we look for our unity in our minds and purpose we will be able to embrace diversity in our congregation as we see people who are different from us as people who are also part of and who contribute to the body of Christ as a whole. To try to enforce an external form of unity only leads to conformity as we attempt to get everyone doing the same thing. We’re not the same. Part of the mind and purpose of Christ is accepting that and accepting the people around us with our differences (Romans 15:7). Our differences are vital for the church to be the body of Christ in the world.

With all of our differences, then, it is possible for us to aim for the harmony Paul points us to, being united in the mind of Christ and our purpose as his church. At this point I could go on to describe what I believe that looks like, but I’m not going to. Part of our growth to maturity as Jesus’ followers is to work that out together. As we get to know Jesus more, we learn more about his mind and the Holy Spirit transforms our minds to be like his. As we listen to God’s word in worship, in small groups, in our families and on our own, the Holy Spirit shows us more and more who Jesus is and how he thinks. The Bible is the way in which we meet God through Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses its words, stories, poems and letters to continue to share the mind of Christ with us, transforming our thinking to be like his. As we remain in God’s word together and as we pray together, the Holy Spirit will continue to gift us with the mind of Jesus so we can participate in Christ’s purpose and move closer to the harmony God wants for us.

This unity can be evident when we worship together in one service. It can also be evident if we have multiple services in a number of different places. Worshiping together needs to be the fruit of being united in thought and purpose because trying to achieve these by enforcing things like one worship will only result in external conformity and not the kind of deep unity God is looking for. The unity God wants, the unity Paul is pointing us to and the unity that is possible in our congregation is being united in the mind of Christ, when thinking the way that Jesus thinks is the most natural thing for us, and participating in Jesus’ purpose for his church.

United (Acts 4:32-35)

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Can you imagine being part of a community of faith like the one described in Acts 4:32-35?

Here we have a picture of a group of people living in the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. They had been following Jesus and witnessed his resurrection They were so convinced of God’s goodness and life-giving love in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that they were totally focused on the needs of the people around them. They were willing to do whatever it took to take care of others, even if it meant that they sold their homes or property to do it. All of this resulted from the unity the believers had in heart and mind. Their faith in the resurrection of Jesus brought their community together to the point where they were able to prioritise the needs of others because they trusted that God would provide for their own needs.

We can be so amazed at the disciples’ willingness to sell their homes and property that we miss the reason why they were willing and able to be so generous. What is crucial to this story is that they were united in heart and mind. During the years I spent growing up in the church as well as my years of ministry as a pastor, I have seen too many communities of faith divided over a range of issues. Particular aspects of the congregational activity were important to some and not to others. Some had very strong opinions about what the congregation was doing or how it should have been done. The result was divisions in the church as factions developed and relationships broke down.

I’m not saying this to be critical of the church. Instead, I believe we need to be honest about the realities in our churches before God if things are going to get better. When we compare the dis-unity and fractures that exist in our church with this community of believers in Acts 4:32ff, it is easy to see that we are not what we could be. As a result, just as the community in Acts was able to testify powerfully to the resurrection of Jesus and ‘God’s grace was … powerfully at work in them all’ through their unity, so our witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the flow of God’s grace is often impeded by our arguing, infighting and disputes.

Acts 4:32-35 gives us a glimpse of God’s vision for his church. Instead of adopting a consumer, individualistic attitude to the faith where our prime concern is what’s good for me, the vision that God gives us in this text is a community of people who are so convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that they are all willing to do whatever is necessary to look after each other, no matter what the cost to themselves.

This is what Paul describes in Philippians 2:2-5 when he writes:

… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (NIV)

Paul was imploring the Christians in Philippi to be ‘like-minded’ with each other and with Jesus, just as the believers were in Acts 4:32-35. As members of the body of Christ, he wants them to give a faithful witness to the love of Jesus by ‘not looking to (their) own interests but each of (them) to the interests of the others.’ This is what was happening in Acts 4. This is the vision God has for our communities of faith. We give the most powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus when we are able to put aside our own priorities, preferences or agendas, and come together as one by the power of the Holy Spirit to provide for the needs of others.

This is what faith is about: trusting in the giving nature of God so that we become giving communities. Faith in God is about trusting that our heavenly Father loved us enough to give us his one and only Son, that Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us on the cross, and that the Holy Spirit loves us enough to breathe the life of the risen Christ into us so we share in his life now and forever. Through this faith, we share in the nature of God so we become giving people. Faith in the giving nature of God will always shape us to become giving people, both as individuals and as a congregation, just like it did in Acts 4:32-35.

As I prepared this message for our congregation on Sunday, I kept asking myself, do we believe this is possible? It’s easy to read this story from Acts 4 and think it’s wonderful that they were so united in heart and mind that they were able to provide for the needs people had in their community, but is this just a nice story from a time long-gone? Or do we believe that the Spirit of the risen Christ can bring us together in heart and mind, to give us the heart and mind of Jesus, so we can live in unity with each other and live for the needs of those around us?

I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to believe that Jesus, who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil, can also overcome our selfishness, our pettiness and our disunity to bring us together as one. Every person in a congregation or faith community has needs of one kind or another. The way God wants to provide for those needs is through the living, breathing body of the risen Christ – through you and me and the grace he gives us. The needs may be different from the needs in Acts 4, but the needs people in our communities have are still real. The way God wants to meet those needs is through us, people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

In Growing Young, one of the essential strategies for a congregation to be effective in its ministry with young people is fuelling a warm community. When I listen to this story about the early church being one in heart and mind and their willingness to share whatever they had with each other, I can see a community of believers that is warm with the love and grace of Jesus. Sure, they ran into problems, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira explains (Acts 5:1-11), but there was still unity among them which lead to God’s grace being powerfully at work among them.

How would you like to be part of a community like this? Do you believe that such a community is possible here and now? If the Spirit of the living God can raise Jesus to life, then I believe that he can also unite the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus in his grace and love. Like Jesus said, for people this might be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Which leaves me with one final question: what are we willing to give for this kind of community to exist in our communities of faith?

Coming Together, Moving Forward (Romans 3:19-28)

reformation-sunday-01A lot was happening in the world in 1966. The war in Vietnam was escalating, as were protests against the war. The Soviet Union successfully landing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. The Beatles released the songs Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby, and the Rolling Stones released Paint it Black. Closer to home, Harold Holt replaced Robert Menzies as the Australian Prime Minister and our currency changed from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents. And 1966 was the year the Lutheran Church of Australia came into existence.

Lutherans had been coming to Australia since 1838. However, from 1846 Lutheran congregations began to separate from each other because of differences in doctrine. In 1921, a number of these groups came together to form the United Evangelical Church in Australia (UELCA), which was still separate from the Evangelical Church of Australia (ELCA). Conversations between representatives of these two churches began in the 1940’s and led to their union which was formally recognized on 30 October, 1966. The united Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) was born.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this event and give thanks to God for five decades of a common witness to the gospel as the LCA, we can wonder why these divisions came about and lasted so long. However, in our own time we are also facing issues that have the potential to divide us as sisters and brothers in Christ. For example, questions on ordination, the work of the Holy Spirit, and human sexuality are currently being debated in our church and, some think, could potentially break apart the unity that came about fifty years ago.

What is at stake is not just the existence of a human organization, but our witness to the gospel. Jesus said that people will know that we are his disciples when we love each other the same way that he loves us (John 13:35). When we are torn apart by controversies and arguments, how are we perceived by those around us? Does the world in which we exist and to which we are called to witness see the love of God in our human institutions and relationships?

One reason why the last Sunday in October was selected to acknowledge the formation of the LCA was that it symbolised the roots we all share as Lutherans. Reformation Sunday is a time to remember where we came from and why Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 499 years ago. Luther was pointing to the good news of Jesus which we heard in this morning’s readings, that God ‘makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26 NLT) and that Jesus sets us free from the power of sin, death and the devil (John 8:32) in our lives. This is the good news that brought about reform in the church 500 years ago, and to which we are continually called back in our own time and place.

The gospel is what brings us together as Lutheran Christians in Australia and is at the heart of our identity. No matter what we might agree or disagree on, no matter what might threaten to divide us, it is this same faith that was at the centre of the Reformation which also needs to be at the centre of our common identity and purpose. We have good news to bring to the people who live in our city, our nation and beyond our borders. This good news gives us a sure sense of who we are, what we are worth, and what we are here for. The gospel gives us everything we need to fulfil God’s purposes as we serve others in our mission and ministry as God’s holy and redeemed people.

One of the greatest challenges we face as Lutheran members of the Christian family is how will we pass this good news on to people around us, to our children and grandchildren? While we debate issues such as ordination, the work of the Holy Spirit and human sexuality, we also need to remember that the way we discuss these issues gives us the opportunity to witness to the gospel. If we are able to find a common identity and purpose in the gospel, and treat others who see things differently in the love that Jesus gives us through the gospel, then people will see his Spirit at work in us. If our goal is to continue the work of those people who fought for the union of the Lutheran Churches in Australia by providing a united witness to the gospel, then the way we go about these discussions have the potential to display the self-giving and sacrificial love of God that we encounter in Jesus’ death and resurrection to our society and our young people.

I am thankful for the Reformers who were faithful to the gospel 500 years ago, and who called the church to be faithful in its witness to the gospel to the world. I am thankful to previous generations of Australian Lutherans who overcame their differences to unite and work together in their witness to the gospel in Australia and overseas. The good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brings freedom, hope and love for all who believe. No matter what we might disagree on, what brings us together with God and with each other is his grace to us through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. In this faith, let’s commit to living in God’s grace with each other, so that our community, our neighbours, and our young people will see the love of God in us as Jesus’ disciples.

More to think about:

  • The name ‘Lutheran’ can mean different things to different people. What do you think of when you hear the name ‘Lutheran’?
  • Some say that we are living in a post-denominational era where most followers of Jesus would prefer to be called ‘Christian’ than given a denominational label. What are some advantages of focusing on what Christians have in common? What are some advantages of recognizing & acknowledging differences that exist between us?
  • How important is it for Christians to discuss our differences in love for our witness to our world & the next generation? How might we be able to do that while still looking for God’s truth together?
  • What do you think is the biggest issue facing the church? How might focusing on the good news of Jesus help us find God’s path for us through that issue?
  • What do you hope your church will be like in 50 years time?