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"Moving Forward...Together!": Romans 12:4-8, 14:1-10

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“Moving Forward Together”: Romans 12:4-8 & 14:1-8 Sunday, May 3, 2020 I have for these past few weeks spent most of my sermon time focusing on Scripture texts that address navigating the uncertainty, change, and even fear that this pandemic has brought to our everyday lives. Today, as our stay at home orders are set to expire in our state and this week many businesses will begin to reopen, I want to turn our eyes forward and begin to prepare us as a church for what lies ahead for our ministry together as a church family. While I’m excited and in many ways chomping at the bit to begin meeting and ministering with you all in person again, I’m also aware that, just as this pandemic has presented challenges to church ministry that few of us have ever encountered, the path forward will present unique challenges of its own as well. And one of those challenges will be navigating the different viewpoints and convictions many of us will have about resuming life and ministry together, both as a church and a society. As one seminary leader posted on social media this week: “Prediction: one of the most challenging aspects of the #COVID19 recovery will be disagreements over acceptable post-COVID social norms between friends and family. Hurt feelings will abound if we’re not careful. Extend lots of grace. Everyone is different.” In fact, just to gauge how you all are feeling about resuming our in-person worship gatherings I sent a quick survey to our church this week. When I asked how many of you are comfortable returning to the church building for corporate worship right now, just over 50% of you said yes, you’re ready. But a few of you said, No, you’re not comfortable yet, and many of you said you aren’t quite sure how you feel about it. And you know something: I can sympathize with all those responses, because all of us are coming at this pandemic from different places & perspectives. In a conversation with a church member this week, we both agreed that there will probably never be 100% agreement about when is the right time to start holding in-person services. Even if we agree on that question, others may be even more thorny. For instance, when is the right time to begin resuming our pre-COVID in-person ministries like small groups, youth & children’s meetings, and Sunday breakfast. For some, the right time will be as soon as the government says it is wise to do so. Others will have a more cautious approach. Who is right? That’s hard to say. One thing is for sure. One of the ways that the enemy will seek to divide our church in the days ahead is by tempting us to use our opinions against each other. If the Devil has his way, we’ll be throwing stones of accusation from all sides, calling the cautious people “soft,” accusing the optimists of being “reckless.” More than that, the enemy especially loves when we cement ourselves in political corners; adding opinionated fuel to the already tumultuous fire of conflict. And so if we aren’t careful, things can get ugly very quickly. Therefore, it would be wise for us to recognize the potential challenges and begin to determine how we will face COVID recovery before it erodes valuable relationships. Here are some principles for navigating these challenges: 1. Remember We Are Called To Unity (Romans 12:4-5) Anytime we face an issue that threatens to be an occasion for difference or disagreement, it’s important to remind ourselves that God desires that His people be unified in our fellowship and in our witness. That doesn’t mean we have to give up our individual voices and viewpoints. Unity is not uniformity. Rather, it means remembering all that we have in common and recognizing the value in working to preserve a unified Spirit within the body. Remembering share a common sin problem and we’ve placed our faith in one Savior who died to save us and that we serve the same Lord and one day we’ll all be gathered around his throne in heaven singing the same song of praise to Him: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9). Because God has made us one body in Christ, Ephesians 4:3 commands us to “be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, remembering that “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” As I already mentioned, unity can be a fragile thing. And Satan is eager to divide God’s people. That’s one reason why so many people get so much more easily offended when they don’t get their way at church then we do in other parts of society. When the sports league our kid plays in implements a rule we don’t agree with, most of us just shrug our shoulders and go with it. But when the church implements a policy we don’t like, sometimes our response is to say, “Well, I just won’t participate then.” When the minister doesn’t visit us in the hospital, even though no one ever told him something was wrong, we say, “Well, I’m just not going back to that church.” But many times, our neighbors, coworkers, and extended family may forget to reach out, but we don’t respond so drastically. And one reason for that is Satan loves to get his foot in the door and take a small offense that we would ordinarily overlook and turn it into an issue that divides, because he knows what can happen when God’s people are unified in serving the Lord together, and he wants to cripple our effectiveness. And so we fight for unity. 2. We Ought to Celebrate Our Diversity (Rom. 12:4,6-8) Unity would be easy if we were all the same, but we aren’t. The reality is, we are all a unique blend of experiences, vulnerabilities, preferences, tendencies, and talents. God, in is his wise and gracious wisdom, has placed in his body, individual members who each “differ according to the grace given us”. We’ve been given these different gifts, skills, and perspectives so that we might make the body stronger as we bring our unique contributions to bear as we serve the Lord together. What this means in ordinary ministry is that some excel in serving, others in teaching, others in generosity, others in leadership and organization, etc. with the result that as we each to do our part God uses our individuals contributions to accomplish something greater than the sum of our parts. And so the result is that it’s not my preaching, or Sunday school teachers teaching, or a Martha’s ministry team cooking a meal, but it’s the church becoming the body of Christ, the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus sharing his gospel with the world. In the case of COVID-19 recovery, this diversity within the body means that we’ll have various perspectives and viewpoints that each make their own contribution as we try to wisely move forward: •Some of you are Confident: You don’t wear a mask in public, you’ve been pretty relaxed about social distancing, obeying the law but not necessarily going the extramile with precautions. You saw the announcement that our county is now free of active COVID-19 cases and you can’t wait to reopen things now because you worry about the mental health and economic impacts of a long-term shutdown. Maybe you’re planning to be the first customer in line when restaurants and retailers reopen. •Others of you are primarily Cautious: You’ve been staying home, working from home, ordering everything you can online, following all the CDC guidelines, and social distancing strictly. You see the growing number of cases in counties near us and you prefer to stay conservative about reopening things because you worry about a second wave of illness. •Many of you are “Cauti-dent”: You find yourselves doing and feeling a little bit of everything in both the cautious and the confident profile. You’re ready to reopen things, but you’re also thinking you may wait and see how things go for others first. There are certainly a few more profiles that could be added here. When it comes to church life in particular, some of you may have strong opinions about churches holding services online instead of gathering physically, or whether we should livestream services once we begin meeting in person, or whether we should resume activities that require more personal interaction, like kids ministry, right away. But the point I want you to see here is that all of these perspectives can be a voice for good in the body. • Cautious people are a blessing to the body. You keeps us sensitive to the needs and concerns of others and helps us to make prudent decisions. • Confident people are a blessing to the body. You keeps us hopeful about the future and help us to have courage to see our present challenges as opportunities. • “Cauti-dent” folks are a blessing too. You help us to see the validity of all viewpoints and find a path forward that olds us all together. In short, these different gifts and approaches make us all more effective when we determine to hold them together in unity. Pride demands that everyone do things our way. Humility recognizes our way may not be the only or best ways and celebrates the diversity God has placed around us. 3. We Must Give Grace (READ Rom. 14:1-4) The key to maintaining unity in diversity is to give grace. In Romans 14, Paul addressed a conflict that had erupted in the Roman church: Should Gentile Christians abide by the Jewish dietary laws of the Old Testament. Some said yes; others said no. Paul said the important thing is not who is right, but how we treat those who see the matter differently than us and whether we choose to pursue unity with our fellow brothers & sisters in Christ. As we work to understand and respect our differences of conscience on these issues, we shouldn’t quarrel over our opinions (v.1). We shouldn’t despise or pass judgment on those who see the matter differently from us (v. 3). Instead, we should show grace and walk in love. The Bible lays us a basic framework for what that looks like the preceding chapters. Listen to some of these principles for giving grace found in Romans 12 & 13: •Romans 12:9-10: Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. •Romans 12:15-16: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. •Romans 12:18: If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. •Romans 13:8: Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Then, as we read further into chapter 14, the Bible says that giving grace may even mean adjusting our own practices in order to maintain unity & peace: “13Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” So to the issue of which dietary practices to follow, God says to the Roman church, “If what you are eating is threatening to divide the body, change your diet!” Here’s what that means as we move toward reopening, whenever that happens. If you’re a more confident type, maybe it means wearing a mask or keeping that strict 6 feet or more of social distance when you’re around your more cautious brother in Christ. It means you resist the temptation to suggest that the more cautious among us are living by fear and not faith. If you’re the more cautious type, it means resisting the temptation to act like the more confident types are being uncaring or inconsiderate of others. It means handling ourselves with gentleness and understanding when someone forgetfully violates social distancing protocols and violates our personal space. For all of us, it means giving grace. And we can give grace because we have received great grace from God. We can adjust our practices for the sake of others because Jesus endured great inconvenience for us. Chapter 15:3 says, “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” If anybody ever had a right to insist on his own way, it was Jesus, who is the only one who ever lived without fault or sin. But instead he chose to endure the suffering and torment of the cross, to bear the wrath of God so that we wouldn’t have to. Surely if He has bestowed such great grace on us, we can bear a little inconvenience for the sake of preserving the unity of His body. 4. We Must Walk According to Our Own Convictions (READ Rom. 14:5) As a church, it’s unlikely there’s a path forward that will perfectly fit the needs and desires of each individual member of the body. But as we consider the perspectives of the body and the guidelines offered by our government, we can choose the ONE path forward the best serves the body collectively. However, for some of you, especially those who are inclined to be a little more cautious, you may not feel comfortable moving ahead at the pace of the group. And that’s ok. It’s important that we understand that though there are hills to die on in Christian theology and practice, this isn’t one of them. This is not an issue that should divide us. What I mean by that is there are some issues we must divide over as Christians. When someone begins to teach doctrine that undermines the Gospel, like denying the Trinity, or the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, we must confront that teaching and call it the heresy that it is. Other issues don’t undermine our faith, but make it difficult to cooperate together in ministry. When we have different convictions about baptism, or the biblical pattern or church government, and similar biblical matters, it can be hard to do ministry together in the local church. And often denominational lines are drawn over these secondary issues. But the issues of how to restart ministry in the wake of a pandemic is a third tier issue. It’s one we can disagree agreeably over, and still maintain fellowship together in the local church. Some of you will return the first Sunday we reopen, and you’ll be ready to proceed as things were before. Others will come in a mask and gloves. Others won’t feel comfortable returning for quite some time. And that’s ok as long as we are seeking God’s will in the matter and follow the conviction the Holy Spirit has laid upon us, and giving grace to others who are doing the same. And our plan as we move forward is to do all that we reasonably can to provide options that will allow you to follow your convictions. Once we begin meeting, we will live stream or record our services and make them available online, so those who don’t feel comfortable gathering can stay connected. 5. We Must Strive To Please The Lord in All Things (READ Rom. 14:6-8, 10) Paul sought to unify those with differing convictions because he understood that those on both sides were trying to honor the Lord. And that’s what matters most. Not our preferences or opinions, not whether we are try to win the approval of others, but whether we are pleasing God. Because at the end of the day, we won’t have to answer to each other, or to the court of public opinion, but to God himself. And what will matter on that day is not whether we got our way, or won an argument, but that Christ was honored and glorified through us. As Costi Hinn wrote this week, “What will it matter if our churches reopen only to end up “socially distant” again not because of a virus, but because of our inability to love others who approach COVID-19 differently than we do?” So church, let’s determine to pursue unity, to celebrate and benefit from our diversity, to give grace and follow our convictions, and most of all to lift up and honor the name of Jesus, even in the midst of the challenge that lies before us.
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