I Am United
I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me that they’re trying to find their place in this world. They don’t know which job to take, what training to get, what relationship to pursue, where to live, or what to do.
Behind their questions, however, I sense an issue of identity: If I just figured what to do, then I’d know who I am. Perhaps this describes you, or someone you know.
Like I’ve said before, who you are defines what you do—not the other way around.
In our passage today we’re going to see that the Lord gave you as a gift to the family of faith for a glorious purpose—unity.
If you have brought your Bibles or Bible Apps today, please turn to Ephesians 4. We’re going to be talking Christian unity and our part in it.
Ephesians 4:1–16, ESV
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The Requirement of Christian Unity
Did you know that you can see Egypt’s pyramids from space? … Yeah, you probably knew that.
But did you also know that those pyramids are much more than tombs for the Pharaohs. Their construction involved every household in Egypt. Each family contributed in some way, sending workers, or grain, or food. And when the final piece was moved into place—a capstone encased in gold—the entire nation erupted in celebration, holding hands and dancing and laughing.
Some have said that it was really the pyramids the built Egypt. After all, they were the central point around which the nation was mobilized and united: one project, one purpose.
The passage I just read is a call to unity. It calls us to hold hands and dance and laugh in rhythm with the Spirit of Jesus. And that is a dance filled with humility and gentleness and patience, and love, and peace.
But—and I think most miss this—this isn’t call to moralism. It’s not, “Hey you, be humble and gentle, or I’ll smack you.” The requirement doesn’t dance that way. Rather, the dance goes, “You’ve the same Father, the same hope, the same faith, the same promises. That makes you one people, partaking of one Spirit; so, be what you are.”
Now, I’ve sat with many couples over the years. They usually come in blaming each other. The room is filled with tension. This one wants that one fixed; that one wants this one fixed. They can’t hear each other, so I start listening to what each of their hearts’ is really saying. And most of the time, what I find is that they both want the same thing: to be accepted; to be respected; to be affirmed; to be delighted it; to be loved. So as I help them to hear each other, to realize they want the same things, empathy grows and the tension that was as thick as fog begins to dissipate. And slowly humility, gentleness, patience, and love can be seen, and peace enters the room.
Jesus, not just Paul, wants us to find that peace: “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me,” he prayed (John 17:20-21).
So the requirement for the family of faith is unity. We have our distinctions, but we’re all imperfect people in need of God’s perfect love. We’re all in the same boat. And realizing this is the beginning of unity.
The Roadmap for Christian Unity
I don’t know if you caught it or not, but Paul gave us a roadmap for unity in the passage. In verse 7 he begins, “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men’” (Eph 4:7–8).
Now, the way folks typically take these words is: “Okay, so what’s my gift? When I find out, then I’ll know what to do, and then I’ll know who I am.”
But Paul’s not saying that! Once we get past his interrupting of himself in verse 9 and 10, he finishes the thought in verse 11 by telling us what the gifts are: “And he GAVE the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” There it is… Jesus gave us GRACE by giving us PEOPLE!
Jesus didn’t give you something you can fit into your pocket and say, “This is mine!” Rather, he put people into your life, and he did it for a reason: “to equip the saints [that’s you] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:11–12).
Are you seeing it yet? The roadmap to unity is right there. We’re getting really hot.
The Lord Jesus has given people who are doing something. … Now, follow this train of thought because it is important! …
Paul names Jesus’ apostles who carried the message of his crucifixion and resurrection to the world. Then, Paul names the Old Testament prophets who foretold of the forthcoming of Jesus. Then Paul names the evangelists, a fancy way of talking about the guys who penned the New Testament Gospel accounts about Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. ANd in naming all of these, he’s called out those God used to give you the Bible, which just so happens to tell one story from Genesis through to Revelation: the story of God’s gift of salvation through his Son.
And then, Paul talks about shepherds and teachers, who are the folks that take that gift of salvation in Jesus and smear it all over your soul.
So do you see it now? Think about it. … It makes perfect sense. The roadmap for unity is the good news, the truth of the cross.
Five tips to a tighter tummy isn’t good news; they won’t touch your heart. Five rules for right living isn’t good news; they won’t reign in your heart. Five pointers to achieve your best life now isn’t good news; they won’t alter your heart.
And God, friends, is after the heart: “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the HEART” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Jesus did all that needed doing for you to be forgiven and approved by God. Only that message is good news.
And notice what else Paul said: Christ has given us these folks in our lives “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” A knowledge that isn’t merely cognitive, here [head]; but relational, here [heart]. It is the knowledge of Jesus for you, the message of his grace, which alone changes the heart.
Just this past week a question came to me from some one who wanted to know what to tell a friend who as bedraggled, beat-up, burnt-out, discouraged, disappointed, and dry as dirt. And since I was working on this message I was quick to say that tips, rules, and pointers weren’t going to help—they never do. They just add to the burden.
The answer is the roadmap that we find right here.
Perhaps I can make this even simpler: The answer is the ROAD, the narrow way. And that’s not a METHOD. The WAY is a person, the very one all of these other people are speaking to us about: JESUS. Perhaps you recall his words: “I am the way, the truth, and the light” (John 14:6).
A few years ago I went down to Baton Rouge, LA to visit a friend. We drove from the airport in New Orleans an hour up to Baton Rouge and most of the drive had nothing good to look at. We drove through the biggest swamp I’ve ever been in. And yet there was this highway, I-10, that was built on stilts and cut right through the swamp.
On either side of the road there is the swamp of sin, so to speak. But up on the road you’re safe. And the road isn’t a method; it’s a man.
Many are wondering what does it mean to have a relationship with God, to remain close to God, to have peace with God. Or maybe they look at their lives and they say, “Oh my, I’m not very humble, or gentle, or patient, or loving; actually, I’m pretty much frustrated, angry and unhappy 6 out of 7 days of the week.” Maybe their saying, “I’m really stuck.”
Why do we find ourselves in places like those? We do because we’re dragging our feet through the swamp. We aren’t on the road.
Maybe you hear me and say, “But I’m praying, I’m going to Bible study, I’m in fellowship with other Christians, I’m attending worship services, I’m taking the Lord’s Supper, I’m telling people about Jesus, I’m a good neighbor (most of the time), I’m doing acts of service. How come I’m so burnt-out and so unhappy? What more does God want?”
If you’re doing all of that, it’s really good. But I want you to know this: none of that stuff is the road. Those things can’t forgive your guilty conscious, they can’t give you internal peace; they can’t set you free.
Now, I’m not saying don’t do those things. I’m saying they aren’t the road. They aren’t even the road to the road.
Jesus is the way to spiritual disciplines and acts of service; not the other way around. Sometimes people get this backwards and then they go off and torment themselves for not studying more and being more faithful in order to know Jesus better. And the responsibility to keep up those works only adds to the troubled conscience.
But know this: The sheep do not come to the still waters to find the shepherd. The shepherd is leads the sheep besides still waters. In other words, Jesus is available to you where you are, as you are.
So, what are we to do? We’re to do nothing.
In other words, just go directly to Jesus, confessing our coldness and hardness, and whatever caused it, and receive his forgiveness. And you’ll then find that the spiritual disciples and acts of service turn into acts of worship. But Jesus will never allow them to be the road. For he himself is the road.
The Reason for Christian Unity
When what I’ve told you takes root in your soul, you’ll become equipped for ministry.
Let’s return to our passage again: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).
It’s not knowing how to perform a task that prepares you for ministry. It’s knowing the Lord Jesus. Why? Because it’s impossible to give away something you don’t have. And ministry is about giving something away, not building widgets.
I came across a story about a little boy, Billy. He was in the classroom working on his studies, and then to his horror, he looked down and saw a spreading puddle at his feet. When he realize what had happened, Billy was horrified and humiliated. The worst part was that the teacher was headed down the aisle his way. Billy didn’t know what to do. There was no way to hide it or cover it. It was no way he could change it. He died inside as the teacher got closer and closer to his desk. Billy knew that the other children would make fun of him and he would never live it down.
Just as the teacher reached Billy’s desk, his classmate Sally walked by caring a fishbowl. She was going to change the water. When she got to Billy’s desk, she slipped, spilling water all over him and all over the floor. Everybody, including the teacher, was quick to help clean up the mess. They thought it was one mess, but Billy knew it was two. He had been saved.
Later that day at the bus stop, Billy saw Sally and quietly said to her, “You did that on purpose, didn’t you? That wasn’t an accident, was it?“
“No,” she said, “it wasn’t an accident.”
“Why did you do that?”
She smiled and said, “It happened to me once.”
If you had been there that day, you would’ve noticed a little girl and a little boy holding hands and laughing.
When your sins have been covered and washed away like Billy’s. When you come to know Jesus’ forgiveness, you’re able to forgive those in you’re life who need forgiveness too. “You can’t forgive until you’ve been forgiven, and then you can only forgive to the degree to which you have been forgiven” (Steve Brown, Three Free Sins, 83).
When this happens amongst the people of faith, like it did with Billy and Sally, holding hands and laughing occurs—unity.
The Result of Christian Unity
What I just told you points us to the last thing I want to tell you this morning: the result of Christian unity. When we’re active ministering to each other, pointing each other back to the road that is Jesus, forgiving each other with the forgiveness we’ve received from Jesus, the result is love—simply love.
When Jesus took his last meal with his disciples in the Upper Room before his arrest and crucifixion, after he had washed their smelly feet, and predicted his own betrayal, he spoke to them at length. What he said was recorded in the Gospel of John and went a bit like this: “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. … This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. … You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit … . This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:9, 12–13, 16–17).
An author I like to read was in Clearwater, Florida, and one evening he deciding to go to an AA meeting. As he drove along the two-lane highway that bordered the Gulf of Mexico, he stopped and picked up a 20-year-old female hitchhiker. After they’d greeted each other, she told him of her resentment for her live-in boyfriend. Both were heavy cocaine users, she said, and he demanded that she prostitute herself with friends to support their habit. The author asked, “Have you turned to God and ask him to help you?” In a breezy, nonchalant voice she replied, “Oh, I know that God loves me.” But she did not know. All she had was a memory from childhood—vague, abstract, and as unreal as little George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. But she could experience God in a real way and come to see her life as a gracious gift if her unchained boyfriend would treasure her the way Jesus treasured the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). (Brennan Manning, A Glimpse of Jesus, 35–36.)
One night, at dinner, in Simon’s home, when Jesus was sitting around with others chitchatting, when an unnamed woman, a prostitute, awed by the compassion that streamed from Jesus’ face, barged into the house. She came and washed his feet with her tears.
It was as though Jesus’ face called out to her, “Come to me. Come now. Don’t wait until you have your act cleaned up and your head on straight. Don’t delay until you think you are properly disposed and free of pride and lust, jealousy and self-hatred. Come to me in your brokenness and sinfulness, and I will comfort you. I will come to you right where you live and love you just away you are, not the way you think you should be” (Manning, 36).
That’s how Jesus loves. That love heals and transforms. It produces humility, gratitude, peace, joy, and love. And as you experience it for yourselves, knowing that love against our own life, it will flow through you to others. That’s carrying on Jesus’ ministry.
A similar thing occurred with the apostle Peter. If you know Peter’s story, then you know that he denied Jesus three times on night Jesus was arrested. Peter was depressed over his sins, he was full of self-hatred. But one morning, after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus appeared on the shore when Peter was out fishing. When Peter and the other disciples made it back to shore Jesus had breakfast waiting for them. And three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. And three times Peter was allowed to repudiate his denials, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” That confession freed Peter from his self-hatred. And each time Peter confessed his love Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
It was as though in that moment Peter felt, “God, I don’t even know how to be a fisher of men, now you want me to be a shepherd. I don’t know how to fish, Lord, without you, how I’m I going to shepherd these people? I don’t know how.” But Jesus didn’t say anything more. What he had said to Peter was enough: “Peter, do you love me? Can you allow my love to touch you in your weakness, and set you free there, and empower you?”
That is all that this great disciple had: the personal knowledge of Jesus’ love in the midst of his own weakness. And that’s all that you and I really have. This is what we’re called to know and then give away.
I told you at the beginning that many people are trying to figure out their place in this world. Well, if the Lord has called you to faith, then he’s given you to the family for faith for a glorious purpose. You’re called to a ministry of forgiveness, the retelling of the story of your own weakness and how the love of Jesus has touched you and freed you in that very place.
Our calling is to his ministry, which unites us around one hope and one Lord.