At Christmas we often receive a composite picture of a family, which consists of many individual pictures. It is always interesting to study the individual pictures as they relate to the family as a unit and wonder what is happening in the household.
In one of the pictures sits Bob and his wife with a beautiful black child whom they adopted. Then there is Mary and her husband who is an oriental and has just received his Ph.D. from MIT. Pete, one of the grandchildren, is pictured in his baseball uniform. His cousin, Larry, sits all dressed up at the piano. In the front row of the family picture sits grandma, who looks like she is fifty and ready for anything. Grandpa, who has health problems, is not as spry.
As the parents looked at this picture I can just imagine what their conversation was. Grandpa says, Who would have imagined fifty years ago that we would have a black grandchild and an oriental son-in-law?
Our parents were from German and Norway. Most of our generation never went to college. Now all of our children have college degrees, and our son-in-law owns a doctorate from one of the most prestigious schools in the land. After arriving in Iowa from Europe our parents never left the state, but our children and grandchildren have traveled to many parts of the world. Yes, things have changed but one thing is the same: we are a family who love one another and appreciate the contributions each member has to make.
Is this not a picture of the Church? Although the family of God is a beautiful montage of different cultures, temperaments, colors, and gifts, she is united in one faith, one hope, and one Lord, yet celebrating her different contributions in making Christ known to our world. Our Lord prayed that His Church would be one. “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
In my theological education we studied in depth some of the great theological dogmas. On the shelves in my study are many books that deal with theology. I am convinced that a clergy person needs to be well instructed in theology and remain fresh on what is happening in the theological world. However, it is not necessary that we have theological agreement in all matters of theology to be one in Christ Jesus.
Five years ago a young professional man came to my office and asked me to summarize the Christian faith for him in fifteen minutes. I was thankful that in my evangelism training I had thought through the basics of the faith, which were essential for a Christian to believe. Here is what I told him.
1. You are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This means that you have a mind with which you can think, a will with which you can make a decision, and a soul that is eternal. You are the crowning work of God’s creation.
2. You exercised your will and chose to walk away from God. This sin, with which people were born and in which we live, has separated you from God. You are out of a relationship with God. You can talk about Him, but you cannot by your own nature know Him as your Father (Romans 5:12, 3:23).
3. God sent a Redeemer to rescue you. God could have discarded you and said, Let them go. I will begin all over with a new creation. This He did not do, but sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ into this world. He suffered and died on the cross for our sins, on the third day He was raised from the dead and won victory for us over sin, death, and the devil. Full payment has been made for the sins of the world.
4. If in faith you will receive Christ as your Savior, your sins will be forgiven. You will be restored into a personal relationship with God to enjoy His presence while on this earth and then to live with Him in heaven for all eternity.
5. As His child your life will be changed and you will have a desire to live for Him. He has called you as a believer to be His ambassador and will make His appeal to this world through you.
This man was satisfied with this simple presentation of the Christian faith. I ask you, friend, is this not the core of the Gospel? Is this not enough? Can we not find our unity in Christ as presented in these basic truths? I feel positive about what is happening in the Church of Christ today. I see a unity being demonstrated as never before.
Some years ago my wife and I were a part of a group touring East Germany. The wall separating the east from the west was still up, and security was very tight. Our guide, a fifty-year-old woman, seemed to watch every move we made. As we were approaching Leipzig, I asked if we could take a particular highway that would lead us past a factory that once was owned by the father of a man who had become my friend at home. Permission was not granted.
Then came the day when I stood outside the castle church door in Wittenberg where Luther had nailed the 95 theses. As I stood there thinking about what had happened on that very spot 450 years ago, Esther, our guide, came and stood beside me. “This is holy ground,” she said.
Looking into her face I asked, “Are you a Christian?”
She replied back with a smile on her face, “By the grace of God I am.”
“Then you are my sister in Christ, we are one,” I said.
And Esther replied, “You are my brother.” She game me a hug.
Think of it, an employee of the Communist Government acknowledged me as her brother in Christ and demonstrated our unity with a hug. For the rest of our visit in East Germany the wall between Esther and our group came down. I explained to her that we were Christian people traveling through her country. She sensed this oneness and became a part of our group. When we left Esther in East Berlin, she cried and said, “We will meet again.” That is what it means to have one faith, one hope, and one Lord.
A few years ago I attended a meeting of Promise Keepers. The speaker was Chuck Colson. As Mr. Colson preached the Gospel in a powerful way, I, a Lutheran, listened to him. Chuck was led to Christ by Tom Philips, an Episcopalian. Tom Philips had been led to Christ by Billy Graham, a Baptist. Whether we were Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Baptist was not important. We were one in Christ Jesus, Lord of all who confess Him as Savior and Lord.
At the University of Northern Iowa each Thursday evening a group of students numbering from 500 to 1,000 meet to share Christ. This is an organization called BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ). No one asks from what denomination they come; Christ is the one who unites these young people.
When our congregation members move to another community, many of them write and ask for their transfer. Often it is not a church of our denomination. When we asked how they chose this particular congregation, the answer was always about the same. “It is the church where we are best fed and have an opportunity to serve Him.”
But what about the denomination where we have been raised? We appreciate our heritage and wish to remain in the church that has been our home since we were children. By all means, stay there. The style of worship in our churches vary. Some are very liturgical and sacramental. Others are charismatic, and people love to give bodily expression of the message they are hearing. Others are quite contemporary.
At the last service in the church where I served as pastor for 43 years, the contemporary service has become very popular. At that service 750 people can gather to sing the praise songs. The organ is replaced with the guitar, drums, and other instruments. This is not the service for me, but I can’t overlook the fact that hundreds of people prefer this worship experience and are hearing the same message: Christ is Savior and Lord.
It is obvious that the hymns used in our different denominations vary. I need to sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and Grundtvig’s great hymn of Pentecost, “O Day Full of Grace”. I want to sing all five verses, for that last verse says: “When we on that final journey go that Christ is for us preparing to go. We’ll gather in song, our hearts aglow; All joy of the heaven’s sharing; And walk in the light of God’s own place; With angels his name adoring.”
Having said all of this about the hymns that have fed my soul since I was a child, I need to hear Fanny Crosby’s mighty hymn, “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” and Ira Sankey’s great hymn, “Under His Wings, I am Safely Abiding . . .” In our hymns we lift our voices to sing praises to God. Truly we are one in the Spirit.
But what about our theological differences? They cannot be swept under the rug. No, we must continue to discuss the great teachings of the Church as the reformers did. But if we are united in Christ, which is the will of our Lord, let us not let our theological differences destroy our unity in Christ.
If a person says, “I do not believe that Jesus is true God. I do not believe that through His suffering and death at the cross He paid the price for my sins,” there is no unity.
If, however, we are united in the biblical truth that Christ has died for all, there is a lot of room to discuss our theological differences. No one is damned because of a wrong understanding of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Let us be bound together in Christ and continue to struggle with the meanings of those parts of Scripture that are unclear to us, for today we see through a mirror dimly and know only in part. One faith, one hope, one Lord. Jesus pray for this unity. The disciples preached about our oneness in Christ. Let this unity be experienced in our midst not only today but everyday.