United in Christ?
On a recent road trip through the delta region of Mississippi and Louisiana, my wife and I along with our two twenty-month-old grandsons passed through the small town of Bastrop. There’s a stretch of highway on the Northern edge of Bastrop that contains a variety of homes and small businesses, although the landscape is dominated by churches.
Most of the church buildings are physically small, several are dilapidated. A few churches appear to have been closed for some time, lining the highway in various states of decay.
There’s one functioning little church along this stretch of highway with a big message. The sign out front reads, “Lord I have a problem…it’s me!” A simple, even comical sign, offering a doctrinally sound and important message for the outside world to see and consider.
This message struck me as especially meaningful with twin toddlers sleeping quietly in their car seats just a foot or so behind me. Why is it that we see the effects of the doctrine of original sin so much more clearly in children than we do in adults?
I think it is because children’s behavior is more straight-forward, more raw and less nuanced than that of adults. When a child is being self-centered, its obvious. A bid by one toddler to another to share a building block is often met with a simple, yet forceful, “No, it’s mine!”
One anonymous author wonderfully captured the honesty, and even purity, of this behavior in a piece entitled Toddler’s Rules:
1. If I want it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it away from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it just looks like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.
9. If I gave it to you and change my mind later, it’s mine.
10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.
This is the default mode of toddlers everywhere, in every culture and in every country around the world. Why? Because self-centeredness is a basic human condition that finds its expression most clearly in toddlers. It is also the type of behavior parents, teachers and coaches everywhere hope to dispel from their toddlers as they grow and mature into adulthood.
Over the course of a week, my wife and I had a front row seat to the Toddler’s Rules as they played out in the lives of our twin grandsons. Every sippy cup, every building block, every snack item had “mine” invisibly stamped across the front of it. Unless, of course, if it was broken. Then, it was “yours.”
Some things never change. I suspect each of us can think of a person or two we’ve encountered over the course of our lives who never seemed to grow beyond the selfish desires of a two year-old. As one professor of Church history noted, “the barbaric middle-ages were full of two year-olds in forty year-old bodies.”
The problem, however, is not always out there; it’s in here. The problem is me. And the problem is you. The bent towards self-centeredness is an aspect of human nature dwelling within each of us. This is the root and essence of the doctrine of original sin: “I want what I want, and I want it now.”
This is the reason God gifted us with families, schools and churches. Each of these organizations is designed to aid us in the process of maturation away from self-centeredness and toward a life of love that is able to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
In reading through St. Paul’s letter to the young Church in Rome, it is easy to see the role fallen human nature played in the apostle’s message. St. Paul wrote to encourage a diverse body of believers in Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile, to bear with one another and to show each other grace as they matured into the full likeness of Jesus Christ. The overarching desire for St. Paul was to see the Church united as one body in Christ Jesus the Lord.
This was not an easy task then, nor is it now. Nor will it ever be. Unity takes effort, it takes time and it takes loads of grace and truth. One significant problem in achieving unity is the absence of the obvious motivations and behaviors we see in toddlers.
Adults are more complicated than toddlers. The raw “it’s mine” statement in the world of toddlers is often nuanced in the adult world, so that the idea of material possession comes across as more neutral than self-centered. In the adult world, “it’s mine” is more frequently presented as “Well, I’m right about this, so...” Both statements get at the same thing. What’s true of material possessions can also be true of personal opinions.
The Church in Rome faced at least a couple of major obstacles on its path toward unity, both of which expressed themselves in the form of criticism of those who held opposing views. Again, this is not behavior that was stamped out in previous generations.
Scottish pastor Oswald Chambers noted, “The average Christian is the most penetratingly critical individual. Criticism is a part of the ordinary faculty of man; but in the spiritual domain nothing is accomplished by criticism. The effect of criticism is a dividing up of the powers of the one criticized; the Holy Ghost is the only One in the true position to criticize, He alone is able to show what is wrong without hurting or wounding.”
We see in the exhortations of St. Paul to the Church in Rome a desire for the diverse body of Christians to avoid criticizing one another and disputing over secondary matters. Whether or not Jesus Christ lived, died and bodily rose from the dead is a matter of primary importance in the Christian Church; whether or not one chooses to wear jeans or khakis on Sunday morning is a matter of secondary importance.
One major obstacle in the early Church was that of diet. The Jews who now belonged to the body of Christ brought with them into the fellowship of believers’ strict dietary regulations, standards that Gentiles believed did not apply to them as followers of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul addressed this issue head on by encouraging both Jew and Gentile to show one another grace by refusing to criticize one another:
“The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3).
Another issue was that of observing special days:
“He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (14:6-8).
In verses 4 through 13 of the 15th chapter of Romans, St. Paul wraps his encouragements and exhortations surrounding his desire to see unity within the body of Christ around four (4) key terms: Endurance, Encouragement, Acceptance and Hope.
Each of these terms is connected to one another and offers a beautiful picture of the process of God’s truth and grace working its way into the hearts of the followers of Jesus Christ in Rome.
According to St. Paul, it is God who gives both endurance and encouragement to believers as they seek unity as one body in Christ. Further, God gives a “spirit of unity” so that the unified body of Christ glorify the God and Father of Jesus Christ with “one heart and mouth” (vs. 6). This is a picture of the body of Christ united in primary matters.
Why would the diverse body of Christ need endurance and encouragement in seeking unity? Because achieving unity is difficult. It requires powers beyond those associated with human nature. God builds the Church, grows the Church and unifies the Church.
The key to unity for the Roman church, says St. Paul, is acceptance. St. Paul exhorts the Church to “accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (vs. 7).
Acceptance is difficult where strongly held, unbending personal beliefs and perspectives clash. To those with fixed beliefs, virtually every issue is a matter of primary importance.
Working toward unity means working through disagreements, through discouragements and, often times, through the strong emotions attached to strongly held personal beliefs. This is the work of unity and it requires God’s gifts of endurance, encouragement and acceptance in large measure.
The fourth term St. Paul utilizes is hope, a powerful motivating factor in working toward unity. If hope is “the expectation of good,” then its power can be clearly seen in disputes between fellow believers over matters of personal importance. You and I may not be in agreement now, but if we hold onto the expectation that something good is possible, and if we continue to trust in God’s ability to make us “overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit,” (vs. 13) we are more likely to continue on together toward unity in Christ.
Endurance. Encouragement. Acceptance. Hope. Taken together, these key realities in the life of the Church establish the foundation required for a truly unified body of Christ.
The Apostle John quoted Jesus as saying, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). A unified body is a body that truly loves one another, not only with words, but in selfless action and deeds of kindness.
Because of our human nature, it takes a lifetime to overcome the inherent self-focus of original sin and, by God’s grace and through His gifts, it is in the Church that God does His work of sanctification, the theological term for growing in grace towards Christlikeness.
On this second Sunday of Advent, a season during which we look expectantly toward the arrival of the incarnation of God, I pray God will weave into our hearts and minds a desire to make St. Paul’s prayer for the Romans our very own:
“Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but as it is written: the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (vs. 4).