Sometimes it is just single sentences

I have an American friend who (rightly) likes to tell me that people often say “books change lives” whereas it’s closer to the truth that sentences change lives. I think there is something in that. I think it applies well beyond books too. There are sermons that people will often pinpoint as key on their road to salvation, for example, but it often turns out they can’t remember all that much about the sermon itself. Rather, what they remember is a particular thought or sentence that was particularly provocative or change the way they think about something.

As it happened, I was not doing anything in our service on Sunday. We had a visiting speaker and another of our elders was leading the service. So, I had the privilege of being able to just be in the service, listening to someone else at the front throughout, and enjoy being part of the congregation with no particular responsibility that morning. Given that my mind wasn’t taken up with anything else, it meant I could really listen freely. Which I don’t often get to do.

As my American friend has said to me many times, Sunday was a case of one particular sentence standing out to me. It wasn’t in the sermon, good and helpful as it was. It wasn’t in any part of the live streamed bit of the service either, so you can’t go online to find it. I can remember plenty of things from those two bits, but it was not the thing that made me sit up. It was in the bit of the service that we don’t broadcast; our time of communion.

The elder leading communion read out a passage of scripture (as we always do), spoke a little about what was going on in the passage (as we always do) and then hedged the table with some questions (that we always ask). But it was a small part in one of his questions hedging the table that really gave me pause for thought. The three questions we ask are these:

  1. Have I personally trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ?
  2. Am I baptised and in church membership?
  3. Am I in good standing with other members of my church?

He explained why it was important to trust personally in Jesus before we take communion. He then talked about the significance of baptism, membership and walking rightly with our fellow members before taking. Then he said something to this effect: ‘It is in the church that we see what our hearts are like and our the reality of our spiritual growth. I see what my heart is most like when I rub up against people who disagree with me and I think all sorts of things about them in my heart. We easily forget that Jesus does not think those things about them; he went to the cross for them.’ I am paraphrasing, but this was the thrust of it.

I cannot say enough that we ask these questions every week. None of them take me by surprise. Perhaps it was my brother’s preamble about not allowing communion to become routine and a matter of rote that made what he said afterwards land. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, I don’t know. But something in that really stuck with me.

As I reflected on it, I thought about whether I do what my brother described. At first, I thought, there’s loads of stuff I am happy to sit with disagreement so that’s not really me. But then, of course, I started to think, but the rubber doesn’t hit the road on the stuff where I’m happy with disagreement. The issue is when it is stuff I feel, very deeply, that disagreement is quite difficult. What do I think in my heart about people then? I know what I often think and feel. It is a very searching question indeed.

That is not to say that all disagreement is okay. Interestingly, in the service, there was a bit of a laugh (and a subsequent impromptu explanation) over somebody’s use of the phrase ‘churches together’. What was clear enough is not every disagreement is acceptable disagreement. Not every matter can be placed in the ‘tertiary or indifferent’ category. Some matters of disagreement are serious and cannot be set aside. Other matters of disagreement really do not warrant nearly the response that our heart so often wants to make. You preferring the seats in a different configuration to me should not be the start of a civil war! But then, there are loads of matters that sit between those poles. Things that do matter and on which we have to form a position, positions that may even exclude people from our churches (or us from theirs), without necessarily suggesting that we think Jesus has not died for that person. Knowing exactly where various issues land is difficult indeed.

But the point, I think, lands best when we consider those within our own church. We agree on the gospel (otherwise we aren’t even the same religion). We presumably agree, or can tolerate, where we land on the majority of secondary matters (otherwise we wouldn’t have become members in the same church). Which suggests the majority of the things we’re hitting on inside our own churches are tertiary matters. What my heart thinks of brothers and sisters who disagree with me on matters to which the Bible may well speak, but doesn’t deem vital to the gospel or the life of the church itself? On those terms, it is a very telling question.

The sermon itself spoke about the importance of the local church in this. We may think we’re terrible Christians and need the church to help us see that there is, really, the evidence of spiritual growth in our lives. Others of us may think we’re awesome and need the church to knock us heads together and tell us we’re not all that. But it is in the church, rubbing up alongside other believers with whom we may have nothing in common other than Jesus, where we grow most. We must remember that these people are the ones for whom Jesus died. He went to the cross with their particular names on his hands, he calls these people brothers and sisters and he stands next to the Father reminding him that this lot are with him and he’s not ashamed of them. Jesus isn’t sick of them. Jesus isn’t tired of them. What would church look like if we all remembered that next time someone annoyed us, disagreed with us or pushed something we wished they wouldn’t?

As my friends says, sometimes it is just single sentences that do it.