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Archive for September, 2012

One Heart, One Soul

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, September 16, 2012, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.   And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.   Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)      

     In the book of Acts we have many kinds of miracles described.  We find people being healed of terrible diseases and afflictions.   We read of miraculous deliverances from prison.   But I believe that Acts 4:32 describes the greatest of the signs and wonders.  We are told that the members of the Church were of one heart and of one soul.   Is it really possible that a group of diverse people could so unified, so united in love and purpose, that they could be described as having one heart and one soul?

     I have been a member of churches all my life, but I have seen few churches that I would describe as having one heart and one soul.  I ama great skeptic when it comes to the Church as far as this issue of unity is concerned.  I love the church, but I’m a cynic when it comes to the issue of achieving any kind of unity in the church.  If it were not for the prayer of our Lord Jesus that we might be one, I would not believe it to be possible.

     I believe in the possibility of unity in many other institutions.  I think it might be possible to have unity in the business world, maybe in sports, maybe in politics, divided as those endeavors are.  But when I think of unity in the Church, I want to exclaim, “Impossible!”   Periodically, articles are published in various newspapers and magazines that show that the Church is losing so many members.    It is sad, but I think to a large degree we have brought this on ourselves.  What people want to join an organization that is filled with more feuding and fighting?   We say that we are the solution to all the war, all the fighting in the world, but when people come to our churches, they find the same quarreling, the same pettiness.  No wonder people don’t want to be a part of the Church.

     As I look at this description of the early Church, “of one heart and of one soul,” I ask, “Is it really possible?”   It happened here in the book of Acts.   Notice that it was not just two or three people who had this kind of unity.   Our text says that the “multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.   We’re not talking about unity among 20, 30, 200, or 300 people.    In the book of Acts thousands of people who were of one heart, one soul. 

     They were unified in the opposite way that we achieve unity in the Church today.   We achieve unity by dividing down into smaller and smaller groups, until we can finally meet with those two or three people who think exactly as we do, who are as perfect as we are.   But here we find, not unity by division, but unity my multiplication.   The more they grew, the more unified they were.  Can we ever achieve this kind of unity again?   Before we answer that question, we need to see what it means to be on one heart and one soul.

     When Luke used the word “heart,” he was talking about the reason, the emotions, and the will.   These early Christians were unified in their thinking and their emotions.   Then, Luke adds the word “soul”, “psuche” which is translated sometimes as “life,”  or sometimes “mind.”  Someone has defined it as “the life spirit” in a person.   Their very lives were one.   They were so unified in life in purpose that they didn’t even consider their possessions to belong to themselves.   They looked at their brothers and sisters in Christ and said, “What I own if just as much yours as it is mine, and if you are in need, what I have is yours, because we are one, just the way husband and wife share all things in common.”   What a beautiful description of Church unity!

     But sadly, as we read through the pages of the New Testament, we find that something happened to destroy that unity.   The people of God were divided, and it seems that they have been divided ever since and are becoming more and more divided.

     What is it that destroys this unity of heart and soul?  As you look through the pages of the New Testament,  you will find descriptions of the kinds of sins that destroy Church unity.   The first one is the sin of following men, rather than following Christ.   One of the most divided churches that we read of in the New Testament was the church at Corinth.  There were many reasons for their division, but one of them was dividing into factions based on their favorite teachers.  In I Cor. 1:11-13, Paul describes their worship of men in this way:   “For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.   Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.  Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”   There are four factions listed in this church.  One group said, “I am follower of Paul.”  Another group said, “I am a follower of Apollos.”   Another, “I am a disciple of Peter.”  And then, another group, probably the “super-spiritual group” said, “I am a follower of Christ.   We don’t listen to Peter, Paul, or Apollos.   We just go by what Jesus said.”  That kind of religion still exists among us today.   Christ is not the focus.   People have their favorite and preachers and theologians, and their devotion to these men and their favorite systematic theology leads to a party spirit.  Doing so is evidence of being controlled by our corrupt nature.  St. Paul admonishes these Christians, “For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?  Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?  I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.   So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (I Cor. 3:4-7).   St. Paul is saying, “Get your minds off Apollos and Paul.   Who are these men?  They are just servants of the same Lord Jesus Christ.   Don’t serve these preachers.   Serve the Christ that they serve.”

     The second sin that divides the Church is the desire to control the Church, wanting to Lord it over everyone else and have our own way in the church.   We could call this desire, “The Diotrophes Syndrome.”   In the little book of 3 John, we find a man named Diotrophes who was causing a great deal of problems in the church.   St. John described him in this way:  “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.   Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church” (3 John 9-10).   Diotrophes loves to be first, to be in charge, to have the authority, and if he doesn’t like someone, he just kicks them out of the church.  There are those, like Diotrophes, who love to have the preeminence.  I wasn’t in the pastorate very long before I realized that many people feel like a church exists for one reason.   The church was not a place for them to worship God and serve others.  It was a place for them to show off –a place where they could have some authority.   Because of these kinds of people, church can become dangerous places.   Maybe a man is neglected at home or on the job, but he views the church as the one place in the world where he can be the big shot.   If his power is threatened, watch out!   All kinds of divisions begin to take place.   Paul describes the basic attitude of people who cause this kind of trouble when he says, “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil. 2:21).  These people are not in the church to further the cause of Christ.   They come so that they can have a platform to control other people’s lives.   They are powerless everywhere else, and the local church is the one place where they can exercise some power.    This desire for power within the church ultimately divides the church.

      Then, another sin that divides the Church is one of the most simple—some people can’t get along with one another.   They begin to quarrel, and the first thing you know, the whole church is choosing sides.   We have an example of this kind of fighting in Philippians 4:2-3: “I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.   And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.”   Now, I know it’s difficult to believe that there were two women in this church who couldn’t get along, but there it is—probably the only time it ever happened in the history of the New Testament church!    But notice that St. Paul says that these two women were not of the same mind.   In other words, they were not  of one heart and one soul.  Notice that St. Paul highly respected these two women.   He says that they had labored together with him in the gospel, and now they are acting this way, not being of the same mind.  Many a church has been split into pieces and destroyed simply because two people couldn’t get along.

     People have different personalities.   Some of us rub one another the wrong way.   Sometimes we say and do things to hurt one another.   It’s so easy to divide a church today just on this basis.   Just pit two people against one another and before long the whole church will be in an uproar.   The devil doesn’t usually have to get involved.   We have enough jealousy and pettiness in our own hearts to ensure that there will never be any unity in our churches, but if the devil does become active, there will be some real fireworks.

     There aren’t many churches I know of in America that could stand a satanic assault on the unity of the church.   It is so easy to divide us.  Believe me, I know.   The unity in any local church is so fragile, it only takes about five seconds to permanently destroy it.   It is only by the grace of God that there are any churches at all.   One of my favorite Stephen King movies is based on his novel, Needful Things.   There is a character in the film called Mr. Gaunt, who is obviously the devil, and he comes to turn the people of a whole town against one another.  He does it so easily.   He just plants a few thoughts in the heads of a few people.  Before you know it, the whole town explodes with anger and violence, and when the turmoil breaks out, they show Mr. Gaunt, played wonderfully by Max von Sydow, sitting quietly in his room, and he says, “We’re having fun now.”  Satan must say that continually in the average church:  “We’re having fun now!”   As I said, the devil usually doesn’t have to get involved.   There is enough corruption in our own hearts to cause people to be constantly at odds with one another.   The devil doesn’t have to do anything, but if a congregation begins to make strides in the Lord’s work, Satan feels he had better stop it, and he doesn’t have put forth much effort.  

     The next sin that destroy unity in the Church is constant complaining by busybodies.   In Philippians 2:14, St. Paul writes, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings.”   In our Sunday School class we have laughed about the some of the printer’s mistakes made in the King James Version down through the years, like “the Wicked Bible,” which said, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”   I am quite sure that in some people’s Bibles, Phil. 2:14 reads, “Do all things with murmurings and disputings,” because that  is the commandment people obey with a zeal that borders on religious fanaticism.   

            Have you noticed how much we murmur and complain?   America is a complaining society.  That is why all the talk shows and reality TV shows are so popular—they provide a place for people to complain.    Our churches are complaint departments.    Most of the complaining in a church is about matters that amount to nothing.   There are many important issues in a church, but we complain about the insignificant and trivial.   To be of one heart and one soul, we must not give in to this attitude of being filled with complaints.

     Then, unity is destroyed by a refusal to be submissive to those who have God-given authority in the church.   We all say that we will be submissive to those whom God has placed in authority, but what we really mean is, “I will be submissive until I disagree with them.”  An attitude of submissiveness is key to being of one heart, one soul.   St. Paul writes in I Thess. 5:14, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” Unruliness destroys the unity of the Church.   No organization can function without authority.   It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about government, business, family, or the church, prideful anarchy will destroy unity.

     Finally, heresy destroys the unity of the church.  For this reason, we labor so much in the word of God in this church.  We must never allow false doctrine to infiltrate our ranks.  In our time, some Christians seem to think that the key to unity is not having dogmatic beliefs.   Well, we have tried that approach for over 100 years now.  How unified does the Church look?   In the true Church of Jesus Christ, it is truth that unites us.  Nothing destroys unity in the Church quicker than false doctrine. 

            We have seen how this characteristic of being of one heart and one soul can be destroyed.   Is it possible to ever get back to this kind of unity and singleness of purpose that we find in Acts 4?  It is possible if we realize that this kind of unity is a miracle produced by the Holy Spirit.   That is why I started out by saying that this verse, Acts 4:32, describes a miracle.  By nature we are prone to divisions.  The Apostle Paul wrote in Gal. 5:19-21, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,  Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,  Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Notice those words, “hatred, variance, wrath, seditions, heresies, envying.”  By nature, those are the things we love.  We are naturally prone to divisions, to all the things I have just been speaking of this morning.   But that should not be true if you are a Christian.  You are not in the flesh; you are not dominated by your sinful nature.   You are in the Spirit.   Your characteristics are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,  meekness and temperance.  If people in the Church were really characterized by those things, being one heart and one soul would be natural.  It is the Holy Spirit who does this supernatural miracle of making us one.   In I Cor. 12:12-13, St. Paul writes, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”  When we were baptized, we were baptized by the Holy Spirit into this one body.  Because we are one body, look at the effect:  “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (I Cor. 12:26).  Since the Holy Spirit has baptized us into the Church, we are so much one heart, one soul, that when one member suffers, we all suffer, and when one member is honored, we all rejoice, rather than being filled with envy and jealousy. 

      Though unity in the Church seems such an impossibility, our unity is based on solid foundation.  In Ephesians 4:4-16, we read, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism,  One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”   We believe in one Lord, one Lord Jesus Christ.   We have one faith, that we confess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.  We believe in the same Lord Jesus Christ.   We are saved in the same way.   We believe the same basic doctrines of the Christian faith.  We even have one baptism.   And we have one God who is in us all.   How could we not have unity when all that is true of us?

            Furthermore, we are united in one common purpose.   We are here to worship God, to spread the gospel of Christ, and to grow people to maturity.  Why isn’t that enough to unify us? Why do we allow ourselves to be distracted and divided?   If these things I have described are true of us, how could we ever allow insignificant personal differences and squabbles divide us?   We must repent of these sins that I mentioned earlier that cause us to forget that we are one.

            To really move forward in the Lord’s work, we must be of one heart and one soul.  We will never be like this church, until we have one mission, one mission so strong, one mission which so captivates us that we march together to spread the gospel..  Let us pray each day, “Lord, let it be said of our churches that we are truly of one heart and one soul.”  Amen.

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