Last week we kicked off our new program year with a wonderful Rally Day celebration. At the end of the day over 300 hands had been placed both here on the altar and out on the tables in the narthex symbolizing our commitment to use our hands to accomplish God’s plans.
This morning as we continue our series those hands have been fashioned into these beautiful displays behind me that serve as a powerful reminder of the point of this second message in this series. And that is this: You and cannot fulfill God’s plans on our own. It is impossible. Life is not a solo act. You were created for community. You need a church family. The only way you can fulfill God’s plans is if you join hands with other believers.
There are many things that we need to be doing if we are to be an effective church; worship, discipleship, missions, outreach. We need to be about all these things if we are to be effective as a church. But I'll tell you something today, It's not going to happen unless we join hands and come together in unity and draw support from the fellowship of believers. This is God’s desire for the church, for you, for me, for us. Fellowship is a critical, a very, very, very critical purpose of the church.
You see we need each other. In fact I would argue that it is impossible to live the Christian life without the support of brothers and sisters in Christ. That is precisely why God did not make us into lone ranger Christians, struggling on our own, listening to tapes of sermons and watching religious programs on TV, and reading our Bibles and praying at home by ourselves. We must join hands in order to accomplish God’s plans.
This morning I would like to share with you two very important reasons that I believe that this is absolutely vital to the life and purpose of the church. When we join hands in fellowship and unity it encourages us to grow. When we join hands in fellowship and unity it empowers us to go.
Let’s take them one at a time. First joining hands encourages us to grow.
The Bible says this in Hebrews 10:23-25: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The only way that we're going to be able to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess is if we have the support of other Christians to help us. Brothers need brothers and sisters need sisters. There is no such thing as a lone ranger Christian.
Joining hands helps me cultivate spiritual maturity. God doesn’t want you to remain a spiritual baby. The purpose of the Christian life is to grow. I don’t want you to be a spiritual infant all your life. I want you to become like Christ. I want you to grow.
But here’s the catch. You can’t do it on your own. No baby ever grows up on its own. It needs a family of some kind. And you need a spiritual family just like you needed someone to help you grow up when you were young physically. God says we need each other, we need a family. The Bible says, “Christ’s Body is fitted together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole Body is healthy and growing and full of love.”
My mother and father live on a beautiful lake in Portsmouth. When we are there to visit one of the most beautiful things are the Canadian geese that also call the lake their home. You can look up and see the familiar formation passing overhead, circling and then splashing down into the lake.
Did you know that there are some very interesting facts about these geese? A flock flying in formation can fly 71% further than an individual flying alone. If a goose gets out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone and that quickly causes it to get back into place. When the lead goose tires, it drops back and another goose flies at the point. The geese honk to encourage the ones in the front to keep up speed. If a goose has to drop out of formation, two others follow it down and stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again.
What do geese know that we don’t? So often as you look at the church we are flying in every other way but in formation. You expect division in other places, but not in the church. Not where the love of Jesus Christ lives and dwells in the hearts of people. We in the church could stand to learn a few lessons from the geese. They teach us about the importance of unity and fellowship.
Just as the geese honk to encourage one another, we must constantly encourage one another in our efforts to do the Lord’s work. Gathering together here in the Lord’s house sharing our lives and stories allows us to bring one of the greatest gifts that we can give to another person, the gift of encouragement. And everyone needs encouragement at one time or another.
One of the most outstanding people of the New Testament is a person we don’t usually hear too much about. This man whose given name was Joseph, was such an encourager that he earned the nickname Barnabas, or “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas did wonders with encouragement. In fact his actions were crucial to the spread of the early church. God used his relationship with Paul and with Mark to keep these two men going when either might have failed.
We are rarely in a situation where there isn’t someone we can encourage. Often, however, our tendency is to criticize.
Why do we always seem to dwell on the negatives? It seems that as human beings we always tend to focus more attention on the negative, the bad things, the down side, rather than on the positive, good things of life. We dwell on the negatives.
But if we can remain positive and focus on encouraging each other and the things that unite us, like Jesus Christ and our call to be his church then we will fly a lot further.
Joining hands encourages us to grow. But joining hands also empowers us to go.
The geese teach us another valuable lesson. They teach us about unity, about working together as a team to accomplish a mission.
Why is joining hands in unity so important? It makes the church a positive example to the world and draws others to Christ. The lost world cannot see God, but they can see Christians, and what they see in us they will believe about God.
Unity and fellowship renews and revitalizes our ministry because there is less tension and friction to sap our energy and strength. When we share a common sense of purpose we can accomplish more together than alone. Just like the geese life is more difficult on our own.
But of all the human institutions I know, there is more diversity in the church than anywhere else: young, old, rich, poor, whole, infirm. We have differences of opinion. Differences in personality. Differences in philosophy. With so many differences what could make us one? In our diversity, what is our common ground? What is it that we all share? What brings us together and keeps us together? The answer is found right here at this altar. In Jesus Christ we are one. Through his broken body and shed blood we have fellowship and unity that transcend all of our differences and make them seem so small and insignificant.
Later this afternoon I along with many of you will sit in front of the television and watch our own Washington Redskins compete against the against the Green Bay Packers. When the Redskins and the Packers take the field there will be whites and blacks, Hispanics and Asians. There will be men from the inner city and from the broader urban surroundings, from the suburbs, and some from the rural parts of our country who will all come together around one program and one program alone; to win a NFL football game. All of the differences that divide these men will be meaningless today because they subject those differences to one common agenda, and that is serving notice on the opposing team that they deserve to win the game. They subject all of their differences to one overriding color, and that is team uniform.
Whether we’re white or black, or Hispanic, or Asian, Methodist, or Baptist, or whether you have an outgoing personality or an introverted personality there’s only one color that matters, and that’s the color red, the precious blood of Jesus Christ. That’s the team color. And when we don’t subject our differences to that then we are no better than the pagan world that’s done a better job than the church.
So where do we start? Where does fellowship start? Where does unity begin? It doesn’t just happen. Unfortunately we can’t just snap our fingers and instantly have unity. We have to work at it. It is a constant struggle. The enemy wants nothing more than to cause division and discouragement in our ranks. That way it is easier for us to be defeated.
It must begin individually, within each and every believer in Jesus Christ. I can stand here and read Scripture over and over. I could preach until I’m blue in the face. But until each of us decide in our hearts and commit to it in our lives to it will never happen.
So I want to finish this message with an answer to the question... what can we do to strengthen our bonds as a church family and bring about unity? Because what the world needs is a unified Church. So how can we, at Sterling UMC be a more unified family?
I believe the answer is given by Paul in Ephesians. Specifically Ephesians 2 that we heard read earlier.
And so what Paul says to the Ephesian church, is what he says to all of us. Unity is found when we do two things:
Do your part. Paul in our text likens us to bricks in a building. We cannot become the holy temple in the Lord and we cannot live out our God given potential as a group unless you do your special part. Each of us is an important piece of the puzzle and each of us has a contribution to make and part to play and unless we do that the church family is incomplete and is hampered in its ability to accomplish what God calls us to achieve.
The Bible says, “We are partners working together for God.” (1 Corinthians 3:9)
Real unity happens when we partner with each other to serve God. We have a lot of needs to make this ministry work like it should. You have a part to play, God has given you the ability to do some of these things and as we work together we develop even closer and more authentic fellowship with one another.
For this church to reach people who don’t know about God’s amazing love, for us to reach hurting and lost people we need to work as a team, as one body each doing our own part! When that happens we will explode with growth and we will reach our God given potential. But it won’t happen until.
Second thing we must do is love one another as Christ loved us. The deepest and most profound level of fellowship is the kind of bond you have between family members. This is the kind of bond between a parent and child or the bond you might have with a brother or sister. It is an unconditional kind of bond that is for life! The deepest level of unity happens when you can love the people in this room like that! That is how Jesus Christ loves you.
Friends people outside these walls are going to know that we are followers of Christ not because of what we know, and not because of what we look like, but because they see us truly loving each other. When people see that in action, when they see us loving each other like family, it is the most powerful witness we could ever have. God made us for each other and we need to learn how to love each other and learn how to lay our lives down to serve one another.
That is what it is all about; it’s all about love! When we get there, when we get to that level let me promise you this… you will not be able to keep people away.
Bottom line: We will never achieve perfect unity in our church anymore than any of us has been completely surrendered to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and transformed into His image.
It is a process that can start today, but is also a process that is ongoing; one that will not be realized ultimately and perfectly until Jesus comes back and is completely in charge. But that is the goal. And to accept anything less is sin!
Friends there’s good news and there’s bad news this morning. The church is like a family. But it is no ordinary family. This is the household of God. That means there’s a lot at stake. We have a special responsibility.
But because this is no ordinary family, we also have some extra assets. The Father knows best in this family. His advice always works—when followed. This is also a family of grace and forgiveness. We can’t get to be a part of the family without knowing that. That’s why the Bible says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
In the history books, when the history of Sterling United Methodist is written and the real story of this church is told, it’s going to be the story of hundreds of people, ordinary normal people, the people sitting next to you, who have joined their hands to sacrifice time and energy and effort and reputation and money and all kinds of things for a cause greater than themselves to accomplish God’s plans for the glory of God for the growth of His church.
This morning we are blessed and honored that several new persons have heard that call and have decided to join hands with you and me and to become official members of this church family. And I can think of no better way to conclude this message than to invite them to come up and to join me now so that we may receive them and welcome them.
Reception of members.
Look around you this morning, what do you see? You’re looking at brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. You see some people who are like you and many who are very different from you. You see people with tremendous gifts, talents, and abilities. You may even see someone who you don’t see eye-to-eye with on some things, but that’s okay because you have more in common than you do different. Each person you see plays an important role in the church. Each one is needed. Each one is valuable.
Now I want you to do something else. As a symbol of our fellowship, and of all that unites us, I want each of you to stand up, reach out and take hold of someone’s hand. I don’t want any one of you not to have someone’s hand to hold on to. I want us to form a great chain. A chain of fellowship and unity and love through Jesus Christ. You know a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. There may be some here that need special encouragement. You may not know what the one whose hand you’re holding is going through. So hold on tight. And know that we must constantly work to build each other up. Pulling together, not apart. Strengthening each other so that together we might reach true unity in the faith.
Do you realize what we have here? What we have in this great chain of unity and love? Do you realize what potential is here? Do you realize what we who are joined together here can accomplish if we truly join ourselves together in spirit as we have joined our hands? I truly believe that God has something special in mind for us as a congregation. He wants to use us in a mighty way. He has a mission that he needs for us to accomplish. So let’s get together, joining our hearts and our hands. Let’s shake off the rust, rub the sleep out of our eyes, and get at it. With God’s help, we can truly accomplish great and marvelous things for the one who unites us, our Lord Jesus Christ. In whose name now let us pray.
Let us, with God’s help and power, strengthen our bonds of unity and love because it is joining our hands in unity and fellowship that we accomplish God’s plans in this world and as we do that we bear witness to our community that God is present in us and around us. Amen.