Making Unity Stick in the Church Body

I am not a fan of preaching that calls for people to chant or clap or do certain things to prove that they are listening. However, I understand that such interactive responses can be helpful to make a message stick and to keep the audience engaged. Maybe it’s a personal preference issue, or maybe there is biblical, theological warrant for my concern. Either way, I am not personally comfortable with interactive gimmicks during the Sunday sermon.

sticky sermon activity unity illustrationI do understand, however, that there are occasions for preaching and teaching which allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience. Classroom settings, Wednesday night Bible studies, or conference sessions could be places that allow for more interactivity between the preacher and the audience.

For those worried about the charge of being unbiblical for using interactivity as a vehicle for communication, I would encourage a quick review of the prophets—especially Ezekiel. The writer of Hebrews may have had Ezekiel in mind when he opened his great letter by saying in former days God spoke through the prophets in many portions and in many ways. Surely, God spoke through Ezekiel in some bizarre ways.

Ezekiel had to act out the siege of Jerusalem. He had to pack a bag and go on a trip to demonstrate the reality of Judah’s upcoming Exile. He was required to bind himself with ropes to teach the people of their impending bondage. He was required to bake his bread over a flame fueled by dung in order to demonstrate the poverty awaiting God’s people. There is no lack of dramatic flair in the book of Ezekiel. The message for God’s people was severe. Drastic measures had to be taken to make the point plain. For Ezekiel, this meant drama and interacting with the people in unconventional ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Ezekiel gives us warrant to do whatever we want in a worship service. There are limits and parameters to pulpit activities. Again, I am not advocating lying forty days on your side with your arm bared before your people the way Ezekiel had to do it, but I am saying in some contexts it may be appropriate to “act out” a part of your message or to introduce an easy activity to make your point plain to your people. Allow me to offer an example.

In a particular message on a Wednesday night, I was hoping to get across the point that we too often fall prey to comparing ourselves with others and, thus, judging one another with human motives rather than seeing one another as God sees us. That point can be made from several different places in the New Testament (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:1-4; Romans 15:1ff.).

On this particular occasion, I was teaching from Ephesians 2, that great passage in which Paul exalts the unifying power of Christ, who is able to break down all the barriers and dividing walls that we artificially overstate. To feed our fleshly pride and pretend that we are superior to others, we proudly build walls of division around educational levels, annual income, managerial rank, neighborhood of residence, color of skin, or type of music. We separate based on whether we like motorcycles, bull-riding, or beer drinking. The sinful human heart can build a wall out of just about anything.

In Ephesus, there was still a problem of wall-building in this predominately Gentile church. Paul reminds them (2:11-12) that there was a time they were excluded—until Christ obliterated the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. On the basis of Christ’s work, the church at Ephesus could reasonably expect to dwell in unity with all believers—regardless of ethnic heritage (4:1-6).  My dilemma in light of this great instruction was how to make this truth stick with us after the message ended. Here is what I decided to do.

I had everyone stand up and look around them—particularly noticing all the differences in the congregation gathered. Some folks were tall; others were short. Some had on very nice clothes, others rags. Some folks had white skin, others black or brown. Some folks were old, while others were young. There were gray-haired folks with brown eyes; brown-haired folks with blue eyes; and blond-haired people with green eyes. A few of the people had red hair with either blue or hazel eyes.

All the distinctions were noticeable and very real. We could have divided into groups if we had so desired. But, of course, that was not our desire. The desire we were pursuing was the desire to be united in such diversity. How could this diverse group of people see themselves as one body? How could we help but notice all the differences?

After folks had enough time to notice all these differences, I asked them first whether they noticed any differences within the congregation. Of course, everyone noticed a great many differences. Second, I asked them to imagine this same group of people assembled outside in the parking lot.  Then, I asked the group to imagine what differences would be visible from a jet flying overhead.

Our congregation was situated such that, on occasion, jets flying to the airport made their landing approach just overhead. From one sticky sermon illustration unity one faithof those jets, all the people in the parking lot looked the same—more like ants than humans. The truth is, from high above everyone looks the same. The variances which we think make us so different from one another are barely visible from the window of a jet.

If we can see such a radically different perspective from the window of a jet at 30,000 feet, how much more can God see a different perspective from heaven above!  What this interactive illustration demonstrates is that we overplay distinctions between us when we maintain a merely human perspective on life. If we somehow could see ourselves the way God is able to see us from an eternal, divine perspective, we would likely see the barriers and dividing walls broken down.

This idea is captured in a ministry of which I am aware called Vision Beyond Borders. The ministry focuses attention on needy people abroad, stating that Christ’s view from the cross was a vision beyond borders. We artificially accept the boundaries built by prejudice and by practical political concerns, while Christ died with a view of saving people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The New Testament encourages us to be leaders in breaking down the artificial walls which tend to rob us of fellowship with other sinners saved by grace.

When I had the people sit down again, I did so with the reminder that even sitting down causes some of the distinctions to diminish (height for instance is not as noticeable while seated). The main point of the illustration—a point which was cemented by the interactive illustration—was that the distance between us is major only when we fixate on ourselves. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, we get a different view altogether. The distinction between us and Christ far exceeds any distinction we notice between ourselves in our pews. Christ is highly exalted—the name above all names, the one seated at the right hand of God. If our attention and affection remains focused on Him, then our barriers and divisions will begin to disappear, proving to have been no more durable than the morning fog which dissipates under the heat and light of the rising sun.

Who Is Valentine? What Is Love?

As the breezy wind sweeps across the Kentucky hills this morning, I cannot help but think of spring.  For the first time in months, we began our day with the thermometer above 40 degrees—a sure sign that spring is in the air.  And where there is spring, there is love.  When spring is in the air, love is there, too.  Spring and love are natural thoughts this time of year.  In just over a month, spring will officially begin—birds, bees, flowers, trees, fish and even fleas (I suppose) will repopulate the earth with their supply.  And today—Valentine’s Day—is the day we have set aside to celebrate romantic love.  How fitting this day comes just before spring arrives.

Surely, part of the reason romantic love is celebrated on Valentine’s day is connected to the natural arrival of spring.  As Tom Jones once sang, “Love is in the air in the whisper of the trees.”  The natural awakening of love in springtime was connected to St. Valentine in the Medieval literature of the 14th century.  So, in time for Valentine’s day in 1383, Chaucer wrote of the love-filled air in his poem, Parliament of the Fowles,

309  For this was on seynt Valentynes day,

310  Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,

As far back as the 1300’s, then, Valentine’s day has been related to the “Love-is-in-the-Air” theme.  Already, St. Valentine was venerated and celebrated.  Chaucer simply made the connection to human love more prominent.

Before Chaucer, Valentine’s day already honored Valentine.  Although there has been much discussion over who this St. Valentine may have been, the most consistent answer is that he was a Christian leader (Bishop? Presbyter?) during the reign of Claudius II of the Roman Empire (the late 3rd Century A.D.).

As the story of St. Valentine goes, he was committed to helping Christians in their faith at a time when the Emperor ordered just the opposite.  Under Claudius, there was to be no aiding of Christianity or the Christians who practiced it.  Valentine apparently thought his obligation to Galatians 6:10 overrode his obligation to Romans 13.  Emperor Claudius in Valentine’s view had attempted to usurp his God-given authority by commanding people to disobey God.  Such disobedience Valentine could swallow. So, he helped Christians.

In particular, Valentine is said to have helped young Christians preparing for marriage, a fact which explains why Valentine is the patron saint of young couples in the Roman Catholic tradition today.  Even in his own day, it seems, Valentine had a love for love.

Valentine was arrested for his ministry.  He was beaten and tortured, but, strangely, is said to have had a positive impact on Emperor Claudius, at least, a positive impact until he called the Emperor to repent and believe Jesus.  Apparently, the Emperor did not appreciate Valentine’s gospel plea.  When the Emperor could not get Valentine to retract his own confession of faith, he had him beheaded.

Valentine brings out all that is good in human love and, especially, all that is noble about love.  He demonstrated at the cost of his own life what the value of love is.  Love is worth dying for.  So, it is obvious why we would celebrate love and Valentine on the same day.  The celebration is more than an adaptation of nature’s springtime song.  Though it probably includes the natural love emerging in spring, still, the love which drove Valentine to die was a much greater love than that which Tom Jones enshrined in music.  The love which Valentine displayed was the greater love of Jesus Christ, the kind of love that is not afraid of death, knowing that death itself has been defeated, knowing that the grave is overwhelmed, knowing that the victory is won.  Indeed, even marital love is supposed to sing in the key of Jesus, as men are instructed in Ephesians 5 to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.

The sacrificial love of Christ, giving himself for his bride, the church, is perfect love. It is a love which gives itself over to the earthly and eternal well-being of another.  St. Valentine apparently loved the church of the 3rd century this way.  He gave himself for her good, and, as a result, he was killed—just like Jesus was killed for the love he showed his church.  Truly, a greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life to love another.  Thank you, St. Valentine for the Christ-like example.  Happy Valentine’s day indeed.