Into the Unknown (Season 2), Part 1: Unity in the Descent

Nepali mountain climber Kami Rita is a Sherpa who holds the record for the most summits of Mt. Everest. On May 21st of last year, he scaled the mountain for the 24th time. This year, he turned fifty and hopes to ascend the peak one last time for his silver summit.

In an interview with Business Insider columnist Hilary Brueck after last year’s record-breaking climb, the Sherpa revealed that the greatest danger in climbing Everest is not the ascent to the top but the descent back to base camp. Going up is really hard, but making your way back down is far more deadly. For a case in point, of the eleven climbers who died on the mountain during the month Kami Rita made his 24th summit, ten of the eleven died on the way back down.

Over the next several months, we are facing a descent. Not from the Everest summit but from the COVID lockdown. We hit the peak. Now it is time to make plans for a careful and deliberate return.

As we consider this process, we realize that there is a wide landscape of opinion out there. Some folks remain concerned and cautious. Others are ready to re-open and re-engage.

  • How are we to make decisions moving forward with such a disparity of viewpoints?
  • What landmines are before us that we need to avoid as we move forward?
  • Is it possible to emerge from the shutdown stronger than we were before?
  • If so, what needs to happen to make that possible?

These are just some of the “big picture” questions that are before us.

We need to be honest.

There is danger ahead. Nearing the end of WWII, Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis.” Be assured that the enemy will not be wasting this moment, hoping to fracture leadership and congregations with a spirit of rivalry. As a recent article by Brett McCracken states, “As if the logistical details weren’t challenging enough — how to maintain social distance and limit crowd size, whether or not to require masks, to sing or not to sing, what to do with children, and so on — the whole conversation is fraught with potential for division.”

There is danger ahead. But also are unparalleled opportunities for us as a church. It is imperative that we not waste this moment. Remember, the church wasn’t launched from Jerusalem to reach the world until a crisis of persecution broke out. The same has been true generation after generation, as unwanted crises provide the context for intentional, positive change, growth, and gospel impact.

How we handle our descent — the backside of the crisis — very well will be the defining moment for the next ten years for Creekstone Church.

Over the past two months, our sermon series was called Into the Unknown as we explored the story of Ruth and how it related to the uncertainties we have been facing as a church and culture. As a follow-up, today I am starting a series of messages under the title, Into the Unknown (Season 2 — or the sequel): Navigating the Backside of COVID in View of the CrossFor it is in view of the cross that we must descend as we consider gospel implications for how we return to base camp.

Our primary text for Part 1 of Season 2 is Ephesians 4:1–3. After reading the passage, we’ll examine five questions that I believe will provide fundamental guidelines we need in order to safely make our descent.

Ephesians 4:1–3

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

The first question comes from verse 1.

What does Paul mean by “live a life worthy of the calling you have received?”

We know what Paul doesn’t mean. By “worthy,” he doesn’t mean deserving of one’s calling. Rather, to live “worthy” is to live consistently with, in light of, or congruently with one’s calling. Theologically, the doctrine of calling, specifically effectual calling, represents the act whereby the Spirit of God regenerates a dead soul, causing it to be in the words of Jesus, “born again.”

Two chapters earlier in Ephesians 2, Paul has stated in verses 1 and 4“1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins… 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.”

To be saved by grace is to be reconciled and restored to God not by your moral obedience and sacrifice but by someone else’s moral obedience and sacrifice. That someone is Jesus, who lived the perfect life we failed to live and died the substitutionary death we deserved to die as justice for our treasonous acts of sin against the King. Since the word grace is synonymous with gift, one’s calling — or invitation — to receive the gift of salvation through the work of Jesus is not something we can deserve nor be worthy.

We can only receive the gift. Which is why “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” is just that — to live with a recipient mindset.

Having established that the Christian life is to be lived in view of the cross with a recipient mindset, we may move on to our second question from the text, which is based on the first part of verse 2“Be completely humble and gentle.”

Why is humility and gentleness consistent with living in view of the cross?

First, let’s define our terms.

Humility.

The Greek word for humility is a compound word, that we could translate as “lowliness of mind that resides in the center of our being.” The idea is that humility is not an action as much as it is a disposition of the heart. Humility knows that it has nothing to offer God but sin and that everything it receives is grace. Humility is a recipient mindset.

The humble person is well aware that the flesh remains a deceptive force in his or her life. If he is confident about anything, it is that he easily could be wrong, has blind spots, is limited in his gifting, and doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows. The humble person is teachable, not to mention is quick to encourage and slow to complain and criticize.

Canadian pastor and founder of Every Home for Christ, Jack McAlister, quipped, “Humility is pure honesty.” So simple. And yet so spot on, isn’t it?

By the way, you can’t fake humility. It is like the distinctive scent in someone’s home. Even though they can’t smell it, you can. You can’t say, “I’m humble.” Only someone else can say that about you. Or not.

Gentleness.

Like humility, the Greek word for gentleness is also formed out of two words that, when combined, render the meaning of gentleness as “the ability to control the exercise of one’s emotions in such a way that makes others feel safe and secure rather than anxious and protective.”

Lest we think that gentleness is weakness, remember the definition: “the ability to control the exercise of one’s emotions in such a way that makes others feel safe and secure rather than anxious and protective.” That is not an expression of weakness but the exercise of strength.

The gentle person treats others with care, not just physically but emotionally. The gentle person asks more questions than he makes pronouncements and refuses to minimize the wounding of other people with excuses like “I’m just a direct person,” “I’m just being honest.” A gentle person never says, “Just sayin’,” as if that’s a pass for being an inconsiderate, unloving jerk. Recognizing that jerk in all of us is what drives us to Jesus, who turns our repentance into humility and gentleness.

Now, can you see why humility and gentleness are consistent with living congruently with the gospel and why pride and harshness are inconsistent?

  • On one level, humility and gentleness establish the baseline of whether someone understands the most basic aspect of being a disciple of Jesus, which is grace — a recipient mindset.
  • Second, these traits are not possible to express, much less exercise in their perfect or “complete” forms as Paul commands in verse 2 unless empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we are empowered by the Spirit to display humility and gentleness as we abide in Jesus as our perfect righteousness. As Jesus says in John 15:4–5, those who abide in him will produce much fruit, even the fruit of humility and gentleness, which are baseline examples of living congruently — consistently — with grace.

Beyond the baseline of humility and gentleness, we now move into deeper water with our third question as we consider how the gospel calls us to relate to those with whom we disagree. This deeper water begins in the second part of verse 2, which reads, “Be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

So, the third question is…

What does it mean to patiently bear with our differences?

The charge in verse 2 is to be patient. Patience is not merely the ability to wait without complaining. Synonyms include words like tolerant, sympathetic, benevolent, and the phrase “slow to anger.” Yet we don’t have to rely on synonyms to get Paul’s meaning because in the last part of the verse he elaborates on patience as “bearing with one another in love.”

Colossians 3:13 is a similar statement by the Apostle, where he writes, Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” In the Colossians passage, Paul connects bearing and forgiving to the cross, indicating that both of these applications of love are congruent with the gospel because God has expressed forbearance and forgiveness toward us. However, there is one small difference in the Colossian and Ephesian texts. In Ephesians 4:2, Paul mentions bearing with but not forgiving.

Here is what I think is going on. In Ephesians 4, Paul is not talking about forgiving sins but is addressing how to handle differences — differences in opinion, differences in gifting, and differences in interests, differences in passions. Today, he would include differences in how to deal with the process for re-opening churches in the wake of COVID-19.

If you think about it, this kind of patience requires the baseline characteristics of humility and gentleness, doesn’t it? When two opposing views collide, the only way for there not to be sparks is if both sides are willing to make an allowance in the community for a difference of opinion to be held on the matter. Like a jar of liquid nitroglycerine, these differences need to be handled with great care.

As manifestations of grace — humility, gentleness, and patience — lay the foundation for Paul’s deep desire in verse 3 for unity to reign in the church. Experiencing functional unity is easier said than done though, isn’t it? In a family, in a political party, among school administration, and in churches.

Why is unity so hard?

Because unity implies that diverse objects are able to unite, coalescing into one harmonious, symbiotic unit. Like building a wall out of different size stones that do not naturally fit together.

In Ephesians 2:21, Paul writes, In [Jesus], the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” He is talking about the church as it is composed of people from different backgrounds, with varying temperaments, experiences, values, gifts, passions, and expectations. Unity among these stones is going to take intentionality. Like a bricklayer must apply mortar around and between each brick in a stone wall, we must consciously apply the mortar of the gospel to our lives in order for unity to be achieved. As Paul writes in verse 3“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

This leads to the fourth question.

What challenges will we face as we strive for unity?

The first challenge is not external but internal, centering on the sinful nature that resides within each of us even after we become reborn children of God. The way the flesh undermines unity is by making me think more highly of myself than I ought, deceiving me into believing that I am always right. If you enter a conversation, dialogue, or debate assuming your rightness, the first rounds of TNT are already in place for a church implosion.

This is to say that pride and arrogance is the first challenge to unity. As the church father, Augustine, remarked, “It was pride that changed angels into devils.” And the nature of the devil is to divide and destroy.

A second challenge adds fuel to the fire. We call this gossip, which is not necessarily spreading lies about someone but spreading what we might call “a bad report” about someone. Without going to the person to ask questions and get a better understanding of their perspective on an issue, the gossip assumes they know the whole story and shares information that misrepresents, smears, or slanders someone else.

Gossip is like letting go of a bunch of balloons. When the words have been spoken, you can’t get them back. They float to wherever and to whomever they will, spreading the poison with which they have been filled, corrupting the landscape with suspicion and mistrust.

By the way, the devil loves professing Christians who think they are always right, refuse to listen or be corrected, and spread bad reports about others in the church. Satan doesn’t love much, but he loves this. If I become filled with pride and spread bad reports, I become an unwitting partner of the devil and a contributor to his evil conspiracy.

What is the solution? How can we “make every effort” to avoid these traps as we pursue unity?

First, we avoid these fleshly pitfalls by abiding in Jesus through repentance and faith — repentance of my need to be right and of my spreading bad reports. Confessing my divisive spirit and believing that Jesus is my true righteousness.

Second, as we abide in Jesus we consciously walk (or live) by the Spirit. This is the only way to defeat the flesh and resist the enemy. In Romans 8:5–6, the apostle Paul writes, “5Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh; but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.”

This exhortation to “make every effort to live in peace” centers on living gospel congruent lives, with our minds consciously under the influence of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to manifest the fruit of peace with those whom we share the mortar, or bond of peace — the very blood of Jesus shed to unite us into one body so that we might display a visible unity.

This unity is not intended to be just a nice sentiment but is the very apologetic that the world needs to see in order to believe the gospel. In fact, there may be nothing more missional than functional unity, which leads to our fifth and final question.

Why is unity so important to Jesus?

In John 17, the apostle John records a prayer of Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. In what is called his high priestly prayer, Jesus says in verses 20–23, “20 I am not asking on behalf of them [the disciples] alone, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their message [you and me], 21 that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me22 I have given them the glory You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one — 23 I in them and You in Me — that they may be perfectly united, so that the world may know that You sent Me and have loved them just as You have loved Me.

Jesus recognized the connection between unity and mission as an apologetic validating the credibility of Jesus’ rescue mission. If Christians can only get along when we agree about everything, looking the same and thinking the same, we are no better than a social club united by education, economics, and class status. What power is there in the Country Club to impact the world? None.

However, when people with differing backgrounds, experiences, and passions, and opinions are able to find their unity in something greater than their personal preferences, that makes the world take notice. For the church, our unity is not our politics, our nationality, a specific race, or our educational achievements or neighborhoods in which we live. Our unity is the bond of peace secured for sinners through the blood of Jesus by his substitutionary, penal sacrifice upon a cross of judgment whereby he absorbed all the justice we deserved before the law so that we can receive all the mercy and joy stored up for us by God for the age to come.

This is the force of Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:14–18“14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

We sent a survey to the congregation this week concerning opinions surrounding the re-opening process. Thanks to those who participated, by the way. As you might guess, responses are across the board, with no real majority or consensus with any of our options.

Although sending out that survey was a risk, I’m glad we did it because now we know objectively that we are going to have to consciously put gospel congruency into practice. Living in light of the cross cannot be theoretical for us as a church, nor should it ever have been. The same could be said for how we engage in marriage, in the workplace, etc. In every context of life, and especially in our church relationships, we will be challenged to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

By grace, we will meet the challenge. God will be glorified and we will be stronger because of it.

Unlikely Champions

Folks familiar with the sport of sculling, or rowing, know that the premier college crew teams have traditionally come from Ivy League schools like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. A notable exception is a crew from the University of Washington in 1936. In his book, Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown tells the true story about a team of kids who’d grown up on farms, in logging towns, and near shipyards, far from the aristocratic environs of the big cities back east. Boys in the Boat depicts how an unlikely crew from out west bested the New Englanders in a national competition and ended up winning gold at the Berlin Olympics.

But how did they do it? In his book, Brown explains how eight individuals of varying physical abilities and personalities were able to leverage their diversity into a world champion crew team. In summary, Brown writes,

[Races] are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types… A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up, overtly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl in a boat or exhaust itself in the first leg of a long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way.


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