Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-7
There is an institution that is found all across this country. It does not seem to matter what part of the county you are in, or what time of the year it is, you are sure to encounter this group wherever you are. I am, of course, talking about the old men’s table at McDonalds. If you do not know what I am talking about, then pick any McDonalds. Seriously any of them, and I guaranteed if you arrive between 6:00AM and 8:00AM then you will find a table of gentlemen, usually older, who are drinking coffee and solving all of the world’s problems. Throughout my life I have been in a lot of McDonald’s in a lot of different places, and it is uncanny how universal this is. Presumably, these little groups arose organically. Retired men were looking for cheap, hot coffee and that brought them to McDonalds. Eventually they kept seeing each other, conversations began, and it did not take long before they had “their table” and others started joining them. I imagine by and large that is how these little groups began, but it really is fascinating how common this occurrence is and how it naturally replicated itself in so many places. I think one of the things that this really points to as that people are intentionally designed for relationship and community. On the surface level, the biggest thing these guys who started gathering every morning was the fact they wanted to get inexpensive coffee daily. That simple commonality is enough of a basis to build a community that gathers daily in thousands of locations.
A single commonality is all that is needed for community to form. As many of you know, I love board games and many media of outlets have noticed I am not alone in this. Several articles have been written about the exponential growth in the tabletop gaming market. In all of the articles that have been written the number one reason stated for the growth of the hobby is that games are inherently social activities. They involve gathering around a table and interacting with one another. Games can serve as the common denominator that community builds around. I have found this to be true, and it is more than anything why I enjoy gaming so much. According to all of the articles that were written, it seems that a lot of other people are wanting to find common ground to build a community on and they are finding it gaming.
Humans, by nature, are inherently social creatures. It is by God’s divine design we are created with relationship with one another. We are made to live in life-giving community with one another. It is for this reason that we gather for church. Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” From the very beginning our faith experience was not meant to be a solo-experience. Faith is not meant to be between you and God, it is meant to be between us and God. Throughout Lent we are going back to basics. We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them. Today, we are getting back to the basics of community. I believe it is important for us to get this right. The greatest gift the church has to offer the world is the invitation to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior BUT the second greatest gift have to offer the world is the invitation to be part of Christian community- the body of Christ, the family of God.
In general today, people are less connected with one another than they used to be. This is where, to back up my point, I could quote statistic after statistic at you to show how this is the case, but I am not sure I need to. I think this is something that many of us feel. People do not hang out in the front porch anymore conversing with their neighbors, instead if we are outside at all it is in a backyard surrounded by a privacy fence. People do not gather in public spaces like they used to, but instead they stay home and watch Netflix. When people are out and about they are less likely to interact with people around them and more likely to hide in the screen of their phones. Of course one of the reasons for this is because we live in a disturbingly polarized culture. It is hard to strike up a conversation with someone about something deeper than the weather, because today seemingly everything has a political connotation and most people have dead-set opinions about who is us and who is them. I am not going to point fingers about why this, or even bemoan how things used to be better back in the day. Any given time frame of human existence has its positives and negatives. All of this to say that we live in a culture that increasingly polarized and isolating, which is why the message of this morning’s scripture is so relevant to us.
Even though we may be created to be social and build community together, this morning’s scripture shows it is something that always requires some effort to make happen. This morning’s scripture from Ephesians was written by Paul to the church in Ephesus. The New Testament as several letters written by Paul to various churches, and many of them have sections like this one; sections where Paul encourages the church to live in community with one another. There are a couple of very important strategies this morning’s scripture gives us to do that.
First, if in order to build a commonality, then this morning’s scripture gives us the ultimate commonality: “One Lord, One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The commonality that Christian community is built on is Christ himself. It is through Christ that we are united to God and therefore, united by God to one another. If you consider yourself a Christian then we are brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. It is that one faith in the One God with one Lord and one baptism that initiates us into one holy church that is the basis for our connection that is the foundation for Christian community. Christian community should be the strongest, most loving, and most nurturing community there is because what unites us is so, so much greater than anything that could possibly divide us.
This is the gift of hope that we bring to this divided, polarized, and bickering world. If the love and grace we experience as Christians was enough to overcome hell and death, then is certainly great enough to overcome our differences. It does not matter what those differences are: different culture heritages, Christ is greater. Purdue or IU Fan, Christ is greater. Orthodox or progressive, Christ is greater. Democrat or Republican, Christ is greater. It does not matter our differences are, the ground at the foot of the cross is level. We all stand together in the need of grace, and we should be united in that grace. In a world that is so divided, it is only in the community of the church that two people who might disagree about every single political issue can stand next to one another and sing with one voice, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. The tear-inducing beauty of the church is that despite our differences we can love one another because he first loved us. May we never forget that truth, and may we strive to live into that reality.
The second strategy this scripture gives us, is the nuts and bolts in how we live into that reality. This morning’s scripture beings by telling us how we can live in community as the people of God. Paul wrote, “be completely humble and gentle; be patient bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” To do this requires a conscious choices because being humble and patient, do not come easily or naturally to most of us. To be humble means we choose to focus on ourselves less. It means that we check our egos at the door, and realize that this community of faith, this church does not belong just to you. Because again, we all stand on level ground here. Just because I am up here, does not mean this is more my church than it is your church. If you have been a member here for thirty years, then this church does not belong more to you than it does to someone who has been attending for only three years. It does not matter if you are eighty-five or five, we are all equally valuable members of this community and we all possess sacred worth because of who created us and who saved us. As this morning’s scripture concludes in verse 7, we all bring unique graces to the community of faith in a way that no one else can provide. We all belong. When we make the choice to recognize this, then it becomes easier to be patient and bear with one another in love. We choose to value the person valued by God more than we value whatever it is that is making us impatient. When we make the choices as followers of Christ to value the people of God, then we are well on our way to being a Christian community. I sincerely believe that belonging to this kind of loving community is something the world desperately craves.
While it is not explicitly stated in this morning’s scripture, there is a final piece to how we do community as Christians. It must be an open community. The common bond we share is Christ, and Christ died for the sins of the whole world. This means we much be willing to let the whole world in. Every church in the world believes they are friendly, but that is because they are friendly with one another. They are friendly with the people who look like them, and act like them. That is a good first step, but we need to do better. Christian community should be an open table, a table where we are always willing to set a place for one more. Christian community needs to be a bigger table. Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz writes about this by relaying a story from his childhood:
“When gatherings were especially large, actual construction would be required. My father would retrieve two massive rectangular pieces of wood for the garage. . . we would all pull the table from either end and it would magically slide open and we’d drop those slabs in and add more chairs. We quite literally expanded the table so that we could fit everyone. . . This was a regular incarnation of the love of God right in the center of our home, though we never knew to name it such. This is the heart of the gospel: the ever expanding hospitality of god. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter. Building bigger tables was right in his wheelhouse.”
As it has already been stated, we have to choose to live in community with one another, but the biblical message is clear. As Christians we are supposed to be in community with one another and it is in the Christian community that we best experience, both the giving and receiving, of grace. With that in mind, I do want to offer up two practical tips about how we can better live in community with one another. First, we have to be willing to commit the time. Being in community with one another is a shared relationship, and like all relationships that requires and investment of time. Often, that requires more than just the shared experience of an hour together every Sunday morning. That is why we offer additional times to gather together. That is why we have Sunday school, weekly bible study, youth group, United Methodist women, United Methodist men, game nights, and euchre nights. One of the functions that all of these things serve is to provide opportunity to be the people of God together, to spend time with one another, and to invest with one another. I know we all lead busy lives, so if we currently do not offer anything during a time you can participate then let me know, and let’s work together to find a new way for us all to live in community together.
Second, we do need to always be mindful about making the table bigger. This means that we never settle for how it is, but we are always willing to invite just one more to join us. I celebrate this about Edinburgh UMC, in general you all are good about this. I have seen the numbers, and the amount of people you invite is well above average for a church our size. However, let us be mindful of this and let us always be willing to make the table a little bigger.
Look around, look behind you. These people, the people here in this room with you, we are your squad, your tribe, your family, your community. We are united by the one Lord and one faith. We are part of the one body. May we live like it. May we be humble and gentle, treating one another with patience and love. May we show the world, what true and authentic community looks like as we love each other the way that God loves us. More importantly though, may we invite the world to come and join us at the bigger table of God’s unending grace.