When it comes to loving other Christians, are you more like a seagull or more like a goose?! Allow me to explain. I used to live quite close to a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve on the north-eastern coast of Scotland. Sitting on the bench outside the Kimberly Pub overlooking Findhorn Bay you could easily be entertained by seagulls as they soared on the blustery wind, dived majestically, twisted, turned, looped and generally put on a show! Sit on that same bench with some fish and chips in your hand and you attract a number of seagulls. And when you witness the seagull in a flock, you witness a completely different bird: you see a fiercely competitive and jealous bird that will attack and dive bomb other birds in order to steal a tiny bit of food. The concepts of sharing and manners don't really exist amongst gulls, do they?! What's worse is that if one bird stands out from another and is hurt or damaged, the gulls will literally pick on him and claw at him to the point of death.
That's a gull. Contrast that bird with another at that same RSPB reserve, this time a visitor - the pink-footed goose. From mid-September onwards, large numbers of geese arrive from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic regions. And when I say large numbers we are talking tens of thousands of these things. Over the winter they would sleep in the bay overnight and then take off to the surrounding fields for the day. I've never experienced anything quite like it! Over our first house the sky would almost go dark as these birds flew low-level overhead. The noise as these birds honk at each other was incredible. Our take-off and landing times for training sorties were dictated by these bird movements. And actually, they have a lot to teach us.
Apparently, the reason they fly in that famous V formation is that the flock together travels up to 70% faster and easier by maintaining that pattern; the guy at the front, lead goose, has the toughest job. He meets the most resistance and so he's rotated every few minutes; the easiest flight is experienced at the back and amazingly the strong geese permit the weaker geese, the young, the old and the ill birds, to take those less strenuous positions; it is even believed that the constant honking of the flock is a method by which the strong encourage the weak; and furthermore, check this, if a goose becomes too tired or ill, he is never abandoned. If he drops out of the flock, a healthy bird usually will go with him, he will try and protect him from predators and stay with him until he either dies or can continue in flight.
So, when it comes to loving other Christians, the title of our current series, are you more like a seagull or more like a goose? If we are going to truly love each other, Paul says in our passage for tonight, then the way we do that needs to be more like a goose than a gull. True, he never mentions these birds, but he does say…
- We need to put the concerns of others, especially the weak, above our own for the sake of the flock.
- We need to encourage and build each other up, yes by honking encouragement if necessary!
- We need to work together for the greater good – namely for the glory of our great God and our future hope.
So grab a Bible and let's look together in more detail at this this passage. Romans 15.1:
"We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves."
Let me just give you some context to this passage. Both the strong and the weak are Christians here. This is a passage written by Paul to Christians, talking about how they are to behave with each other in response to the good news of rescue in Jesus. So, this is not a passage that primarily deals with how we are to relate to outsiders. It is a passage about how we relate to each other because Christians are all different - when God's grace takes hold of our lives, it does so from as many different places as they are Christians. And what is particularly in focus for Paul here is settling disputes between Jews who had become Christians and non-Jews who had become Christians. If you're interested in the specifics of that you can look back in chapter 14 where it talks about food and drink issues and what day should be observed as Sabbath. What Paul is concerned with here at the start of chapter 15 is how they are going to love each other in spite of these differences and in verse 7 he says this: "welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you". So I have three headings for us tonight. Firstly:
1. What Welcoming Means: Putting others first by following Jesus' example
Just think about the feelings that word 'welcome' evokes for you. Think about a time that you felt welcome – how did it feel? Maybe you had an invitation to someone's house for tea – and you felt wanted. Maybe they wanted to talk and listen to you – and you felt valued. Maybe they took the time to prepare your favourite dish – and you felt special. Maybe they asked your opinion on something – and you felt included. Maybe you said something stupid or embarrassing, but you weren't belittled – and you felt accepted! All these words (wanted, valued, special, included, accepted) express what welcome means when you are on the receiving end; but Paul is concerned with articulating what welcoming means when you give it. Look down at verses 1-2:
"We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up."
In other words, quite simply, welcoming means putting others first for their good… so they feel wanted, valued, special, included and accepted! All of us should constantly have in view what is spiritually best for each other, over and above what we think is best for ourselves. But there is a difference that Paul highlights here. In one sense, this isn't selflessness between equals – there are two categories – one 'weak', the other 'strong' – and Paul here includes himself in the 'strong' category. Is he boasting? Has he lost all sense of humility? No, it's simply a recognition of fact. At any given time, some of us will be more secure in our faith than others. At any given time, some of us will struggle with one particular temptation more than another. At any given time, some of us will struggle more with one theological truth than another. When these things happen – the "strong have an obligation to bear with… the weak". That's exactly what the geese do – they bear with the weak and they support them. The strong do more of the work and go to greater effort for the sake of the weak.
The actual word used here means "to carry" or "to take on oneself" and the idea is to lighten the load of someone. Last year my eldest son completed his Silver Duke of Edinburgh's Award. On his practice expedition in the Yorkshire Moors, one of the weaker team members began to struggle with her load. So he, and one of his mates, removed her rucksack and took it in turns to carry not just their own equipment, but their weaker team member's too… so that they could all finish the walk. Brothers and sisters – our bearing with each other and not pleasing ourselves will come with a cost and effort. It won't be easy, but as Paul reminds the believers in Galatia (Galatians 6.2):
"in this way [carrying each other's burdens] we will fulfil the law of Christ."
Let's be clear though: 'Pleasing ourselves' is a temptation we all face every single day. It is quite simply what lies at the root of fractured relationships on every scale. Whether we are talking about families arguing about what DVD to watch on Friday night, or countries fighting to preserve their own national interests, 'pleasing ourselves' destroys fellowship, peace and harmony.
It's worth just hitting pause for a moment here to clarify something. When Paul says that we should please our neighbour, there are two important caveats to make. Firstly, he is not talking about pleasing others by doing something that is wrong – we can't welcome someone authentically by endorsing something that is wrong. Secondly, neither is he suggesting that our motive is to gain the favour of others. No, as John Stott says,
"neighbour pleasing, which Scripture commands, must not be confused with men-pleasing which Scripture condemns."
(John Stott, The Message of Romans, p369)
In other words, to seek the good of our neighbour is not the same as seeking his approval! So… welcoming means 'putting others first', but that's not all! It also means following Jesus' example. Look at verse 3:
"For Christ did not please himself…"
And look at verse 7:
"Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you…"
Whenever Paul wants to illustrate the quality of selflessness he does so by shining a light on Jesus. This hardly seems comparable though. In fact, when you think about it, this is a massive understatement by Paul. Comparing the greatest injustice and evil act in history when God himself hung on the cross taking the punishment that our sins deserve – with my minor inconvenience of welcoming a brother in need. As one commentary I read said: it's like taking a "doctrinal sledgehammer to crack a behavioural nut" (Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans, p216).
We see it again when Paul writes to the Philippian Christians encouraging them to have the same attitude as Jesus who – though he existed in the same form as God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but willingly made himself nothing and humbled himself by allowing himself to die on a cross (Philippians 2.5-8). But ethical and behavioural commands in God's word are always founded on these deep, deep theological truths. And so just as Christ laid aside his own rights in order to please us by restoring us to a right relationship with him, so we are to lay aside our needs and desires and love each other like he did: selflessly, sacrificially and unconditionally.
Now, if we can accept that, even though it seems incomparable… our next thought is: 'yes, but… that was the sinless, perfect, all-God Jesus. How on earth do we follow that example?' Well that's our second main point tonight:
2. How Welcoming is Done: through the encouragement of the Scriptures in the power of the Holy Spirit
And I think this passage points us to two truths to remember: both the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit have a significant role to play in enabling us to welcome each other. Verse 4:
"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction…"
And then in verses 9-12 Paul again refers to Scripture: "As it is written", he says, and then goes on to quote Scripture to provide reasons why non-Jews are just as welcome as the Jews in the new Kingdom! Scripture is given for our encouragement and to teach us how to welcome! It is relevant and practical.
Let's be honest though, who here doesn't struggle from time to time to seriously study God's word in a disciplined manner? It's difficult, isn't it? We all know that reading and studying God's word is something we should do and yet when that word 'should' is attached it makes it sound like a duty or a chore with no real practical relevance or value. And when we think like that, our Bibles sit on our shelves – unread and gathering dust. But, brothers and sisters, we have the opportunity to be instructed by God himself. God, the Creator of the universe, the sustainer of all things, all knowing, all powerful, all loving wants to help us practically. If we could only grasp that truth more regularly – we wouldn't stop reading would we? Look again at verse 4 and see how endurance, encouragement and hope fit together:
"For whatever was written in former days [i.e. all of Gods' word – even the old part is of value] was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
In other words, God says, it's really quite simple. Our ability to handle the difficulties of this life, to be welcoming to each other, to be geese and not gulls, is directly proportional to how much we feed on God's word. If I don't listen to God in his word, it's easy to get discouraged. When I'm discouraged I can easily become impatient, worried and despair and lose hope. But if I listen to God in his word and allow him to instruct me, my hope increases. As hope increases so does my ability to endure and be patient, and that is encouraging. Friends, if God's chosen method of instruction, endurance and encouragement is his word, we need to learn how to pay attention to it – not just for 20 minutes on a Sunday, but daily allowing his truths to seep deep into our very souls. Mercifully though, he's promised to help. This hope and encouragement isn't something we rustle up all by ourselves. Oh no, it is a gift from God. Verse 5:
"May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,"
And then in verse 13:
"…by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope".
So how does this all cash out in practice? Just how harmonious are we actually being right now? Are there some ways you are tempted to please yourself, and not others, in the life of our church?
Maybe you don't like our style of music – it's too old-fashioned, it's too new, too quiet or too loud – will you seek the good of other brothers and sisters in this who may prefer something different? Maybe it's our use of liturgy, our service times or how much our emotions are expressed in a service – will you seek the good of other brothers and sisters who think differently to you? Perhaps the issue is a point of theology – say on creation or evolution. Clearly God created all things, but just how he did that is not so clear to everyone – will you, who hold one view, think less of your brother or sister who holds a different one? Perhaps you've not been with us that long, in fact truth be told, you don't stay in any church for too long and your consumer mentality is driving you around different churches shopping for the one that will give you the best hit – will you seek the good of your brothers and sisters by staying put and seeing how you can serve them? Or maybe you love this church. Maybe you love your ministry group so much that you don't want it to change – will you seek the good of the brothers and sisters who you don't know and welcome them in when they come? And then there are all sorts of ethical issues. Maybe you know a Christian who drinks or smokes and you don't. Maybe you know someone who does yoga, shops on Sunday or who only takes Communion twice a year! Will you who are strong, bear with those who are weak?
Friends, God is disgraced when please ourselves and refuse to live in harmony with each other. When we won't welcome others, when we are judgemental and condemning, vengeful or impatient, when we get jealous or selfish. How dare we… we who are recipients of grace… show a lack of it to others? That is quite literally a dis-grace. But, on the other hand, when we are selfless and welcome each other; when we receive a brother or sister without discrimination or condemnation, then we are doing what God would have us do and it's all for the most fantastic reason. Look at verses 6-7:
"that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."
And so my final heading and our conclusion tonight:
3. What Welcome Achieves: Unity for the glory of God
This past Thursday I was leading another session with the Air Cadets in Gosforth – where I'm a Chaplain. I asked some of the cadets why they don't believe in God. One young man answered because he couldn't see God, there was no evidence for Him. Common enough complaint isn't it? And all too often we can be quick to reply to that by talking about God's revelation in Scripture, in nature and through Jesus – but do you know what? According to Paul there is another way that God makes himself visible. Maybe, just maybe, the invisible God makes himself visible as the local church breaks down barriers and lives together, showing to each other the kind of amazing grace that God has shown to them. That grace has reached out and brought into the Kingdom people from every conceivable background. If you don't believe me just take a look around you – who else would bring together a gathering of people like this – we are a truly diverse bunch, in every sense of the word, and humanly speaking we are incompatible! But the miracle of the humanly incompatible welcoming each other, loving each other, putting each other's needs first, working together, carrying each other's loads, honking encouragement to each other - that miracle is what glorifies the invisible God by making him visible.
We are the living proof that will make the unbeliever see that there is one true God of all the world who alone is able and capable of bringing together its brokenness and healing and restoring it.
I said at the start that this is not a passage that primarily deals with how we are to relate to outsiders, but the result of this truth is all about that! How well we copy our Lord and Saviour, and welcome and accept each other, is all for his glory to shine in an unbelieving world. Wouldn't it be great if, like I was attracted to marvel at those geese, our world could be attracted by the visible church of Christ, and join us in marvelling at the God we all so desperately need and the grace he so mercifully provides?