“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared these words more than once throughout his public life in sermons and speeches. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination at that Memphis hotel. His words still ring true today, “We must learn to live together as brothers.” When Dr. King wrote those words, his aim was at the shared humanity and a shared citizenship of white and black people. He declared, “We may have all come on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.” He fought for a shared unity among people from all races. His dream was that one day his four little children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” His dream was that a shared humanity and love would rise above hate. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Although Dr. King’s desire was right and true for humanity, it is even more poignant for the church. We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. We share far more than a shared humanity, but we share the same Spirit of the same Lord. We are citizens not of an earthly kingdom that will one day perish, but an eternal kingdom that will last forever. We are part of one body with one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over and through and in all. God has lavished his grace upon us and, as our Church Covenant states, there is now on us a special obligation now to lead a new and holy life, to live carefully in the world. We must work and pray for unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Dr. King was right, “We must learn to live together as brothers.” Unity and brotherhood is not easy, but it is a learned skill and a much-needed skill for believers today.
America is a powder keg of emotional turmoil and frustration. From political disagreements to racial strife, one inflammatory comment or tragic shooting ignites a fierce firestorm of frustration and anger and hurt and hopelessness. Our world is divided, but the church should never be. We must lead the way in unity amongst ourselves here in this body and unity amongst other believers across our land. We must work and pray for unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace. We must learn to live together as brothers.
As we think through unity, let me ask three questions to help us learn to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ. First, why should we even care?
Why Care about Unity?
Unity is hard work, and before we begin the necessary task of unity, we must see its value. I remember a story a few years ago about a father who always had a hard time losing weight. Nothing would motivate him enough to push him to work hard in getting healthy until his daughter needed one of his kidneys. The doctors told him even though he was a match, his weight made it impossible for the transplant to happen. He lost all the necessary weight in six months. He had the proper motivation. Before we begin with the hard work of the “what,” we must identify the “why.” Why care about unity?
Paul encourages unity to the church at Corinth: “I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Paul’s first appeal was based on their shared family relationship. “I appeal to you brothers.” When we repented of our sins and trusted in Christ, we were transferred from the world into the kingdom. We are no longer primarily citizens of this nation, but of heaven. We are brothers and sisters together in Christ. In the first century, being a member of the same family trumped anything else. Your greatest loyalties did not depend on political or religious affiliation, but on your blood. Your family depended your highest loyalty. When Paul appeals to their brotherhood, he is appealing to family.
Paul’s second appeal, and I believe the most important reason for our unity, is “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We strive for unity, because of our Lord Jesus Christ. I find it interesting that Paul does not say the Lord Jesus Christ, but our Lord Jesus Christ. We all have come to Christ. We all have recognize our need of him. The cross is the great equalizer. It casts judgment on all of humanity. The cross says everyone deserves death, but it also states that everyone is loved. Jesus died for all who would repent of their sins and turn to him. We are all sinners, and all need a Savior. Jesus has made a way. He has rescued us from ourselves. He willingly laid down his life to save us. He willingly was beaten and mocked and cursed for us. He willingly took God’s wrath for us on. He did so because of his love for us, Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We do not deserve God’s love, but he freely gives it. In the cross, we see love. In the resurrection, we experience hope.
Paul appeals to the Corinthians with the gospel. If you are here today and have never trusted in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, let me encourage you to consider the price God has paid for you and the love God has shown you in the gospel. We all know our sin. We all have experienced the pain, regret, guilt and shame that comes with sin. Those feelings are God’s kindness to you to show you that something is wrong so that you would come to him. Our sin separates us from God. Without a Savior, we will perish. Friend, God has made a way for you to become part of his family. The Bible says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” We call on the name of the Lord, not merely by saying we trust in Jesus, but by giving him our lives. When we call out to the Lord, he saves us and gives us his Spirit to live for him. Friend, we may all have come here on different ships, but we are in the same sinking boat. Only those who cling to Christ will saved from the ocean of despair.
Beloved, I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to pursue unity. Pursue unity because it pleases our Savior. There is no greater place to see the desire of our Lord Jesus than in the garden right before his crucifixion. Jesus pleads with the father that we may be one as he and the Father are one. One of the greatest desires of the Lord Jesus is that his church would be unified. And in that prayer, we see that our unity has a purpose so that the world may know that the Father sent Jesus and that the Father loves the world through the sending of the Son. True unity can only come through the truth displayed in Jesus Christ.
Church, do we need any higher motivation to fight for unity than this? Our great and glorious Lord Jesus desires our unity. And our unity will help bring more people to Jesus and therefore, will bring Jesus more glory on the earth. Our beloved, let us learn to live together as brothers for the sake of the glory of our loving and compassionate Savior.
Where do Divisions Begin?
We know we should fight for unity. We know we should be at peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that is not often the case. Why? Where do these divisions begin? They begin in us all. James 4:1, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Fights and quarrels, arguments and divisions, begin in our hearts. Our desires and passions wage war within us. We desire something, and we do not get it so we fight against others made in God’s image. Unity is hard today because it is not natural to man. The natural man, or one who has not been made alive through the spirit of Christ, has his highest allegiance and loyalty to himself. He does what he wants when he wants. He looks out primarily for his own interest. Author Tony Reinke says it this way,
What causes our fights and quarrels? We want. We are want-ers. We are driven by desires. And want-ers, driven by unchecked desires, find themselves in a lot of fights — some bloody fights, but mostly unseen fights, non-physical fights, the kind of internal loathing towards others, a pot of boiling acid that simmers under the surface and only rarely bubbles up and bursts out in verbal disdain. Under the surface is where we nurse this insidious porridge of worldly yearnings for what others possess: a certain house, or car, or salary, or physique, or spouse, or background, or spiritual gift, or gift, or ability. “If only . . .” we think. We lust and we covet and we become fighters. We fight because we are want-ers, and we want the wrong things.
We want the wrong things. Our wanting of things and reputation and prestige shift us from wanting the highest good: God. God and his pleasure with us should be our highest good; our strongest motivation.
If you look around at the heated discourse of our day, we see a lot of ‘Christians’ fighting for a lesser good than God himself. We too often are not careful with our tongues and allow our internal passions to control us. Divisions and strife begin in us. All of us! It may start in a small way when a friend doesn’t recognize that you’re hurting. You desire to be loved, but feel ignored because a close friend is not aware of your struggle. You begin by harboring bitterness and anger towards the person. You may never blow up and yell at the person, but you intentionally cool your relationship. You distance yourself. You pull back. Your desire to be loved starts to control and create malice in your heart towards others. It may start when you see a social media post on race or a comment defending the president.
Friends, we all have passions and desires that wage war within us. They show themselves in different ways, but to deny them is foolish. We must learn to navigate our hearts. We must search and study our desires to pull them inline with Christ. Remember Paul words, “I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” It is not that we just want to have no divisions among ourselves, but we want to be united in the same mind. God demands far greater unity than just an absence of conflict. He wants that conflict to be replaced with love.
What is the Way Forward?
How do we strive for unity in the bond of peace? We know we should desire unity. It has extremely high implications: the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and the salvation of sinners. There is nothing more important in this world that God’s glory and the redemption of sinners. This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully a good place to start.
We are called to have the same mind as Christ. In James 4, after exposing our sinful passions, he encourages humility. James 4:6-8, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, your double-minded.” We begin in our quest for unity by humbling ourselves before God. We recognize our sin. We confess it and repent. Humility and repentance is the beginning to the end of any strife and dissension.
In humbling ourselves, we are reminding ourselves and following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus. Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to think about their salvation and being connected to Christ. He tells them to do nothing from self-ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Then says, Philippians 2:5-8, Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The key to unity is humility. It is beholding the humility of the Lord Jesus and following his example.
Only God can change human hearts. Only God can bring peace from division. One of the reasons our churches are so filled with strife is because we are a prayerless people. If you have bitterness and anger towards anyone, pray for them and watch your bitterness and anger melt in the heat of God’s presence. I have known people overcome much bitterness and anger from being severely sinned against through prayer. As I have known others remain angry and bitter from minor offenses because of not bringing them to the Father.
Beloved, if we want to be united as a local body and as a larger Christian community throughout our country, we must pray. We must seek God’s help, God’s power and God’s Spirit to bring peace were there is division, to bring healing where there is pain, to bring joy where there is sorrow.
Believe the Best about Others
It is so easy to believe the worst about people. We are slighted in some way and we assume it is because the person hates us when it could be the person had other things on their mind that day. Training your mind to believe the best of others is a powerful defense against disunity. The natural mind looks to faults while the spiritual mind looks for blessings and evidence of grace. It is natural to criticize and condemn others, but we should make it our practice to see God moving in someone’s life rather than where he is absence. For example, we may be upset that we have less time with a friend or mentor, but we can thank God for how that friend of mentor is pouring himself into others. We can bemoan someone’s lack of giving, but celebrate how kind they are to help serve in the nursery. We criticize the tone of someone’s fight for justice, but we can affirm their desire for justice as a good and godly thing.
There are times when we should speak and at times be critical, but only after much prayer and searching of our own heart. This is true for our closest relationships as well as our response to our public leaders. Instead of assuming the worst of others’ actions, let’s make it a practice to see the good rather than focus on the bad.
Build Relationships in Person
Social media and the online world has its benefits, but we should not over depend on it. God has made us relational beings. We all have ignorance. It is natural to fear what we do not understand. One face to face conversation with someone you do not know can begin to help you overcome your ignorance. The most valuable experiences of my life have been when I had the privilege to enter into someone else’s world. It is only in entering their world that I began to understand what they experience. The knowledge gained in relationships is essential to overcome our ignorance and prejudice.
I would be a very different person if I never lived in Washington D.C. and if I never taught at an all-black high school. My five years in D.C. exposed a lot of prejudice in my own heart. God exposed my prejudices, so I could confess it and move beyond it. I would be a very different person if I never lived at a group home with teenage mothers in foster care. It was only through those relationships that I could understand the how and why of the decisions. It was learning about who they were and they life stories, that created empathy and compassion in my heart to them.
We do not want to be ignorant of the lives of others. We do not want to assume. Get to know people who are not like you. If you are young, get to know someone older. If you white, get to know someone who is black or Hispanic, so you can learn how it feels to live in America as a minority. If you are black, get to learn the struggle of a white person navigating their own privilege and prejudice. God wants to expose our ignorance and our prejudice, so we can be changed and Jesus Christ can be glorified and sinners will be saved. Jesus said, “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do no even the Gentiles do the same?” The calling of Christians is far higher than the calling of this world. We have been redeemed to live redeemed. We are the light of the world. Let our light shine so that others may see our love and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.
Read to Understand
We can confront our ignorance by reading books on the experience of others. If you are man, maybe it would be valuable for you to pick up a book written by a woman on ministry. There is so much we can learn by entering someone else’s world by reading. Read the books that have impacted different cultures. If you want to understand Germany in the 1940s, it is wise to read Mein Kompf. If you want to understand South Africa, read Nelson Mandela’s biography. Read to understand.
Race is not going away. It has been one of the most widely debated and controversial issues in our society. We must learn to live together as brothers and one way we can do that is understanding the history of our brothers and sisters. The goal is to understand the lives of others and develop empathy and compassion for their struggles. We do not have to agree with everything we read or even like it, but we must strive to understand. The world is watching Christians. The world is watching how Christians specifically respond to the issues of the day. Let us show the world that we may be from different backgrounds, but our goal is glory of Christ.
It is hard to be patient in general, but it is especially hard to be patient in matters of justice. Patience means to be able to accept or tolerate delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. There will always be people who want leaders to move faster than they do and others who want them to slow down. Progress is slow. Waiting is hard. There are no easy answers or quick fixes for disunity. It takes time for people to work through their ignorance. It is takes time for prejudice to be exposed. It takes time to get over the hurt of racism. It takes time to grow in godliness.
Beloved, be patient with each other. Love each other enough to be patient with your brothers and sisters as they work for unity in the bond of peace. Life takes time. We may not love the pace of change, but we can love people as they change. This pleases the Lord. God does not only care about where we get to but he cares about how we get there.
Sanctification in our own lives is usually a slow process. Of course, there are times and seasons we may experience rapid growth, but most growth in life is gradual. Let us be patient in the sanctifying work of the Spirit in others lives and in the life of the church.
We can be patient because we know God is at work. God is not surprised by anything that is happening in our lives. God uses the injustice to sanctify his people. God uses suffering to build character, endurance and hope in the hearts of his people. God uses pain to create a holy longing for the day when there will be no more tears or sorrow. God took the worst injustice that ever happen: the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God to bring eternal salvation to sinners. God will work all things to the good of those who love him and called according to his purpose. God is trustworthy.
Unity is a glorious and beautiful thing. It may be as fragile as a snowflake, but what immense beauty happens when that fragile snowflake is united with others. It creates glorious wonder. Friends, we must learn to live as brothers.
In an old Peanuts cartoon, Lucy commands Linus to change the channel. Linus said, “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” Lucy responds, “These five fingers. Individually they’re nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.” Beloved, a holy and unified church is an awesome weapon in the hand of God. Let’s curl ourselves together into a single unit for glory of our great and awesome Savior.