Cowan at the Core: Pursuing Unity

Regardless of the attempts to divide us based on race, culture, political persuasion, or possessions, we must continue to pursue unity within the Body of Christ. As the country celebrates the inauguration of a new President, we need to remember that we cannot allow ourselves to become divided on all of these different issues.

The sermon audio is fresh off the presses. Click here to listen.

If you’ll remember from two weeks ago, I shared my story about falling through an aquarium, slicing open my knee. If you weren’t here that weekend, stick around. I’m sure I’ll share that story again someday. But that was an illustration of how our lives can come crashing down if we don’t build our lives upon the Rock that is Jesus Christ. For the next few weeks, we are going to be discussing how you can build your life on that Rock. We will be discovering some of the core things that a follower of Christ should be pursuing. In the process, we’ll also discover the core of Cowan Christian Church.

In June of 2008, the eyes of the political world turned to a tiny town of 1,700 inhabitants that has “no high-speed Internet, no restaurants or gas stations, not even a traffic light”[1] named Unity, New Hampshire. Unity was seen as the perfect spot for the events of the day to take place. During the primaries in January, 107 people in Unity, New Hampshire, cast their vote for Barack Obama. And 107 people in Unity cast their vote for Hillary Clinton. So, it was decided that this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere was the opportune spot to end the division between the two candidates and enter the Presidential elections as a unified party, proclaiming that Unity ain’t just a town in New Hampshire.

Of course, cynics and some political pundits scoffed at the notion that this was just a PR move and there really was no unity in the party. But something must have worked, because the Junior Senator from Illinois will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States this Tuesday morning.

It doesn’t really matter who if you voted for him or not in the recent Presidential elections. The illustration is still the same. And it has an important meaning for us in the church: Unity ain’t just a town in New Hampshire

Unity is at the heartbeat of the message of the good news of Jesus Christ. Before Christ came, there was division between us and God, caused by sin. And that division could not be overcome by any amount of human effort. So Christ came, walked amongst us, showed us the kingdom of God, and spread out his arms and died so we could be united with the Father. Unity is at the heart of the gospel. It aint’ just a town in New Hampshire.

And because all who have called Christ Lord and choose to intentionally follow Him are welcomed into His family. And Jesus doesn’t want division amongst His family. He wants us to be united, just like He and the Father are united.

For Jesus, Unity ain’t just a town in New Hampshire, either.

This desire of a united body of Christ is exemplified in the prayer recorded in John 17. If you have your Bibles with you, turn with me to the Gospel of John, ch. 17. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. John 17 is found on page 941 in that Bible.

Jesus has had his final meal with his Disciples before he’s about to be betrayed by one of their own. He knows time is running short and in less than 24 hours, he will be tried on trumped-up charges, beaten, mocked, and executed – all in an effort to rescue His fallen creation. His burden is heavy. And so he invites some of his closest friends to pray with him. And that’s what we find in John 17.

He begins by praying for Himself. He prays that His efforts will bring the Father glory. Everything he does should be pointing to the Father. And then he prays for his friends, his Disciples, that they will be an example for others of the life-changing power of the good news of Jesus Christ – even when the world hates them.

And then Jesus prays for those who will believe in Him because of the acts of the Apostles. That’s us. In Jesus’ most intense hour of suffering, he prayed for us. What did he pray?

Read John 17:20-26

Over the past two millennia, unfortunately, unity has been about as far from the central message of the church as it could get. A quick survey through church history shows division within the church time and time again. Bitter arguments would erupt at different times as the history of the church unfolded. Different theological ideas and teachings would cause heated disagreements. In attempts to end such fighting, church leaders would gather together and attempt to reconcile the opposing sides. Many of these meetings resulted in the issuing of a creed, a statement of belief. And while these creeds were intended to put to rest the hot-button theological issues of the times, there were many times where they just stoked the fire and caused even more division.

A major division occurred in 1074, when the Pope excommunicated the Patriarch, or leader, of the Eastern, Greek speaking churches. At the same time, the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the Pope. Although they have repealed their excommunications of each other, division between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches continues today

On October 31, 1517, a German monk had no intention of creating a split from the church. But he did have very strong issues with the abuse of power that was evident within the church. He hoped to see a reformation of the church from within. Instead of dealing with his criticisms with love and respect, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the church in 1520. Although he had no intention of starting a Protestant movement, that was the end result of his efforts at reforming from within.

The Protestant movement has resulted in the splintering off of many denominational groups. Historically, these groups did not get along with each other. And now, 500 years later, we have a plethora of different denominational streams: there’s the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists (not to be confused with the Anabaptists), Lutherans, Pentecostals, and, of course, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox – just to name a few. Looking at a timeline of church history can be painful at times. The church has become so splintered; so divided. It’s obvious that the spirit of division is not the same spirit that Jesus prayed for. And what kind of testimony have we been about the love of Christ? What kind of example is it to those who don’t believe when we can’t even get along with others who claim to follow Christ as Lord?

Maybe unity really is just a town in New Hampshire.

In the early 1800s, a minister in the Presbyterian Church had had enough. He was under increasing criticism because while traveling through the southwestern Pennsylvania countryside. The spirit within the Presbyterian Church at the time was one of considerable division and strife. There were several splinter groups within the Presbyterian Church and they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other groups, treating them as outsiders. This left the minister in a particularly troubling situation. It was a rare occasion for a pastor of any persuasion to come through the area. So it was a rare occasion for the Lord’s Supper to be made available to the community of faith. The pastor decided to welcome those who claimed Christ but weren’t part of their fellowship to participate in communion with them. As expected, this caused an uproar in the Presbyterian hierarchy.  He was eventually suspended from his pastoral duties and forced to withdraw from the denomination. Not because he invited unbelievers to share in communion with them. Not because he offered believers of a different denomination to share communion with them. It was because he offered communion to the wrong kind of member of their own branch of believers! He knew things had gotten out of hand.

That pastor was Thomas Campbell. His removal from that pastoral position didn’t silence him. In fact, it galvanized him. He had many opportunities to preach amongst friends and acquaintances. He began to plea for a union of the divided church. He was led to say, “The church of Christ upon the earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and give obedience to him in all things.” Although that pursuit of union was intended to be sought from within the current denomination, Thomas and his friends found themselves unwelcome in their home churches.  And a new movement was born. Some call it the Restoration Movement. Others call it the Stone-Campbell movement. Regardless of what you call it, it’s this pursuit of unity that led to the establishment of Christian churches and churches of Christ…including Cowan Christian Church.

One of the key sayings in our movement is that “We’re not the only Christians. We’re Christians only.” And that’s what we strive to be here. We know there are other Christians in other churches. And they are our friends. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. In spite of what church history may tell us, the church down the street or the church on the other side of town that doesn’t believe everything we do but is still proclaiming Christ as Lord is not the enemy. The enemy is Satan. And he wants nothing more than for us to get caught up in petty arguments and divisions over frivolous things. Because what do you think that does to our testimony about the love and grace of Jesus Christ? What does it communicate to people if we talk about how you’re accepted here and will be loved here, but we really don’t like so-and-so church over there because they’re really not Christians? What kind of testimony is that proclaiming to the world? Not a very good one. We have too much work to do against the real enemy to be sitting back and bickering at one another about minor, relatively insignificant details.

“We live in world of disunity. We find disunity everywhere from our homes, our families, our work places, in local, state and national governments.”[2] In the midst of all this disunity, the one place where unity should flourish is in the Body of Christ.

Of course, our Movement hasn’t figured it all out. The very same Movement of churches that has sought the unity of the Body of Christ for the past 200 years has split at least twice. And those divisions have been painful. But we continue to work through them. And we continue to try to allow our lives to point to Christ. And so we continue to strive for unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

That’s why we work with other churches with the Storehouse Ministries Community Pantry. We may not agree with every doctrinal issue of the other participating churches, but we can work together in serving Christ by serving those around us…together.

That’s why we work with the Amazing Eighty as they are going to Liberia to build a new church facility and a water purification system. We may not agree with every doctrinal issue of the other churches that are supporting the Amazing Eighty, but we can work together in sharing the life-changing message of the good news of Jesus Christ in a country that is desperate to see that light.

After the 2004 elections, there was a leader in a church who said that all the people who voted for a particular candidate were no longer welcome around the communion table. I don’t care who you voted for or why. But that, my friends, is not unity. And it certainly doesn’t communicate the fact that we are the body of Christ. There’s a lesson here as we prepare for the inauguration of our next President. There are many Christians who voted for President-elect Obama. There are many Christians who voted for Senator McCain, or someone else. In the past, there have been times where political affiliations have been used to divide the body of Christ. We cannot let that happen. Friends, regardless of who our President, Governor, Mayor, or even Township Trustee is, we need to remain united as a community of believers – as the body…the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

And that can only happen by choosing to follow Him. That can only happen by allowing Him to come into your life and let His life-changing power work through you.

People seem to think that unity means everyone thinks the same and acts the same. That might be true in some places, but not in the church. The church is made up of all kinds of different people with all kinds of tastes, persuasions, thoughts, passions, abilities, shapes, sizes, and nationalities. It’s a beautiful tapestry made up of an unimaginable amount of colors and shades. When you go outside in a few minutes, notice the diversity of the color outside. There’s not much there, is it? I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of getting tired of just seeing white when I look outside. I’m ready for some color to come back. I’m ready for the blues and greens and reds and yellows. Why is that? Because diversity is a good thing. And a diverse community of believers committed to following the same Christ as Lord is a beautiful thing.

Because Unity ain’t just a town in New Hampshire.



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