Unifying Element #4: We’re All Stuck (Together) (Rom. 9-16).
Recently, my family wanted to go to one of those drive-through Christmas light shindigs. I was not very fond of the idea but was dragged along for the ride (pun intended). What I didn’t know was that to save money, we were going to take only one car. That’s fine when it’s just adults. But with two nieces needing car seats the size of Santa’s belly, it makes it a little complicated. I found myself squeezing into the back of our Volvo vehicle—a car that is just trying so hard to grow up and be a nice big suburban, but not having much success. The back two seats are better termed as Elf seats. But we were going to put three full-grown adults into them (that was not a fat joke). My mother, sister, and I broke the laws of physics and managed to squeeze back there.
I have never felt so claustrophobic in all my life. I have pretty long legs—one of them was half-imbedded in the seat in front of me, while the other was experimenting on the hardness of plastic. We laughed and laughed at how ridiculous we must look, but I thought we would never get out of there alive. I couldn’t even tell where one of us stopped and the other began!
When we got back home, we slowly and surely crept our way out of the abyss. The seats in front of us would only lean forward slightly with the baby’s car seat there, but my Mom and sister managed to get out by looking as ridiculous as the Grinch in the chimney. So I thought I perhaps had a chance. Gathering my nerve, I launched toward the small opening. My head came through—then body—then legs—then—my feet got stuck! Apparently my shoes were too wide. So there I stood, flailing out the side of the car like a dying fish until my shoe popped free. I felt for sure I had met my end there for a second.
Stuck. It’s not a nice place to be. It brings out panic and frustration. Whether you’re physically stuck somewhere or emotionally stuck and don’t know what to do…it’s an awful experience. It’s made even worse when you’re stuck together with someone you would rather not be with—like that drunk guy using you as a pillow on the prison—I mean, plane. Or that sibling in the back seat on a loooooong road trip. Or in a nursing home with Grandma who won’t stop telling stories. Or all those sinners you’re stuck with in church. Ridiculous!
In Romans 9-11, Paul details a long series of theological points about the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. He praises God for the wonderful plan of bringing in the Gentiles. But the Jews are probably sitting there, thinking, “Oh great! Now God’s brought in these heathens, and we’re stuck with them and their weirdo ways!” While the Gentiles are thinking, “I’m really glad to be saved, but I kinda wish it didn’t come with such stuck-up people like these Jews.”
Sound familiar? So Paul tells them, in Romans 12:1, that the Christian life involves “sacrifice.” He goes on in verse 3 to urge them not to think “more highly than [you] ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” That would be a big burn for those self-righteous Jews. But Paul’s not done. Read his section on church unity, in verses 4-5:
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
He’ll go on to list some gifts they might have been given, as well as continue to urge them to live at peace with one another through the end of the chapter. But notice that we says, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ…” We’re one!
When you think of a body, you don’t think of it as separate parts. You don’t see a short person and think, “Wow. Look at those short legs and torso and arms.” No, you think, “He’s a short person.” You don’t see a dead body and think, “What an odd assortment of eyes, ears, arms, and legs…” No, you think, “Ack! Someone’s been murdered!”
A body is very unified. If it’s not, it’s a very, very bad thing. In fact, that’s kinda what cancer is—when one weird cell starts going all haywire and acting independent of other cells by growing and duplicating out of control. And frankly, we got a lot of cancer in our church. People who think only of themselves and their preferences and go all out of control in stating their opinions causing division. And it starts to spread…until various factions are formed. All fighting against each other. You ain’t gonna be winning any World Cup with that kind of team, friends.
I’m fond of saying that if the church is a body, then we’re a very oddly-shaped creature.
Paul goes on to talk about their relationship with the government, which could have easily been perceived differently. The Roman Christians were saved likely as Roman citizens, but the Jews were seen as a strange race and culture. Thus, the Gentiles probably had an easier time respecting the government than the Jews, who were used to calls for rebellion against Rome in Judea. But Paul urges them to obey the government. And he sums it all up by saying to “owe no man anything except to love each other” (vs. 8). Owe nothing but love. Doesn’t sound like the American church.
Then we come to it. Romans 14—the mother lode of all divisiveness. We’re so disunited as a church that we divide over what the Bible is saying here. Paul’s point is for Christians to show patience with other preferences. With other cultures. With other backgrounds. We don’t all have the same “function”—some people are different than others. You don’t have to have Ph.D. to understand that.
I like how Paul wraps up the section in chapter 15:1-3:
“We who are strong have obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”
Paul knew who to look to for the ultimate example—Christ. He wasn’t selfish. He didn’t seek to become the MVP, the star player. He bore the reproaches of others. He suffered for their pain. Yet, we’re so often the ones who cause pain in others, for our own self benefit.
Then, to demonstrate his point, Paul sends his greetings to a bunch of people. Often, this is the section of the Bible that is no one’s life verse. But it is here for a reason. If you scan over the names you’ll see people from all different stripes. Jews (Aquila and Priscilla) and Gentiles (like Rufus, who was likely African). He didn’t play favorites. He sends his greetings to all. What a wonderful picture of the church. It’s the kind of place you can go and shake everyone’s hand. Say “hi” to everyone. There’s Bill who’s a plumber. There’s Juan who’s a Mexican immigrant. There’s Mark, who’s African-American. There’s Sue, who’s 94. There’s Patty who is a single mom. And look—here’s Tim, who is handicapped.
The church is a body. If the ear gets frustrated with the eye, it can’t just pack its bags and move out. It’s strapped in and if it falls off, then that’s a huge deal (you may want to see a doctor). The body is stuck together—by things like muscles and joints and bones and skin. Try as my tongue might to get away from my teeth, it ain’t happening. And I hate to tell you this, but when it comes to your church…you’re stuck!
You’re stuck together, like me squished in that back seat. Sure, it might not be comfortable at times, particularly when there’s a “weak conscience.” You might butt heads with a pastor or two. You might not agree with that song choice or with the outdated website. We’re a strange little gangly creature, made up of different members with different functions. It’s gonna be uncomfortable—get used to it.
Paul concludes his book with a somber warning for all of us: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” How odd. Separate from those who separate. Divide with those who divide. The lack of unity is a serious problem—not only that, according to Paul, it’s heresy. We’ve been called to be one body. Christ is our head—look to Him and His power when you don’t feel like hanging out with these rude people anymore. Christ had to hang out with some pretty tough people too, and I’m sure glad He didn’t pack up and head back to Heaven.
We’re sinners. We’re saved. We’re struggling. And we’re stuck (together). You can’t get out of the church. You can try church-hopping for a while, but you will never find the people who best suit your interests. If you found the perfect church, let me know, ‘cause I’d like to attend there. Otherwise, perhaps it’s best to stick with the sinners you’ve got right now, barring God calling you elsewhere. But you can’t escape these sinful church members. They’re everywhere. And you can choose to just skip church entirely and miss out on many blessings (oh, and be sinning). Or you can choose a flawed assembly and do your best to cause them to grow in the Lord. And maybe even let them make you grow too.
We’re a team. Our “head” coach is Christ, Who died for us. We’re in the World Cup, but we’re squabbling over the color of our jerseys and the name of our team. It’s time to stop. It’s time to lock arms and stand together. It’s time to start passing to each other. It’s time to start coming back to help the defense, even though that may not be your role. It’s time to rejoice every time the team scores, even if you weren’t the one kicking it. To weep every time someone scores on us, not blame the goalie. It’s high-time for unity.
The big game is starting. Unite or die.