Our theme for tonight is "unity". And the particular passage I want us to look at is Hebrews 12 verses 14-17.
Hebrews is an epistle that is so important for these days.
Its basic message is that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all that was promised in the Old Testament and so faith in him is the only way. All ways do not lead to God.
Hebrews chapter 1 tells us that Christ not only is the one through whom the whole universe came into existence and the one who now "sustains all things by his powerful word"; but it summarizes his mission when he came to earth that first Christmas. It was, I quote, to "provide purification for sins." It doesn't mention his healing the sick or his raising the dead, important as that was. No! The great need, it implies, was not mortality but how sins can be forgiven and how men and women can get right with God. And that is the supreme reason why Christ is the only way. He alone died for sins. Mohammed didn't; nor did the Buddha; nor did the Gods of Hinduism; and certainly Marx didn't.
But many of the first readers of this Epistle were being tempted to drift back to their old beliefs and their old religious ways. Three quarters of the problem of drifting was (and is) not living by faith.
So the writer tells us about the life of faith in chapter 11 of Hebrews. And that chapter makes it as clear as clear that faith is "practical trust" not just "theoretical belief". Faith is not just believing that God exists; it is also believing that "he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb 11.6). It is the belief that if you trust God, he will see you through. It is having sufficient evidence that God is real and then following him however dark and difficult the path.
Abraham is the classic example of such faith. So you read in Hebrews 11.8:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
And as you do that, as you trust and obey, so your faith grows. Ian Garrett is going on Sabbatical this week until September. When he decided to come here nearly seven years ago, I am sure it was a case of his trusting God, like Abraham, but not really knowing what he was coming to (quite literally as far as Newcastle upon Tyne was concerned). But that is the nature of faith. And doing that - living by faith - is not always easy. There are, indeed, dark and difficult periods.
Well, that brings us to chapter 12 and this very practical section of Hebrews. And because of these difficult periods chapter 12 warns of the danger of discouragement - of "growing weary and losing heart". Discouragement is a key factor in loss of faith and people drifting away from Christ. People don't suddenly give up believing - or not usually. They just grow spiritually weary and lose heart. C.S. Lewis once said:
"If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?"
So how does the writer to the Hebrews seek to encourage his readers when the going is hard? He first tells them to focus on Jesus himself (verses 2-3). Secondly he says, keep things in perspective - it could be far worse (verse 4). Thirdly, he says, remember that these hard times are God wanting to teach you lessons and so they are really signs of his love for you - strange as that may seem at the time (verses 5-7). Fourthly he says, "take action" (Heb 12.12-13):
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed ...
... which, being interpreted, means, "Behave in a way that will help rather than hinder others."
You say, "How do you do that?" Well, the answer is given in verses 14-17 which I now want us to look at in more detail in the remainder of our time tonight. There are five commands in these verses. And I want to consider them under two headings, first, PEACE WITH ALL, then secondly, PEACE IN THE CHURCH.
First, PEACE WITH ALL ...
... and the first command (verse 14):
"Make every effort to live in peace with all men."
You say, "why have that particular command here? And why is it so emphatic?" Yes, it is emphatic. You are to "make every effort" to live in peace with all men. The literal translation is "pursue peace" - chase after it like a dog after a fox. Well, the reason, surely is simple. When people are facing problems or pressures, morale gets low and there is soon friction and bad-feeling and a lack of peace. But the Christian is "to make every effort to live in peace".
It was Jesus himself who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Mat 5.9). And if we are to strive for peace, we are to strive also for unity. For peace is one side of a coin that has unity on the other. That, then, should be the goal we should all have in the Church. But Hebrews tells us we are to make every effort to live in peace not just in the Church but "with all men". So this relates also to the family, the work place, the state and internationally.
Now, because peace and unity are so important you can be sure that the Devil tries to distort them. And he does so in various ways.
First, through a lack of realism. In Jeremiah's day people were saying "'Peace, peace,' ... when there is no peace" (Jer 6.14). There was a refusal to face the facts - a bit like Chamberlain before the last war after his trip to negotiate with the Nazis in Munich and claiming that there could be "peace in our time". What nonsense - as history was to prove. And there are people like that in the Church and the world today.
There are "universalists" in the Church - people who claim that all will be saved and there is no such thing as judgment and Hell. They preach "peace", but they forget that there is no peace with God without repentance of sin and faith in Christ for forgiveness.
Then there are "utopians" in the world. These are people who also ignore human sinfulness. Many of our politicians and educators are "utopian". They promise false hopes of social peace without a prior change of hearts.
And then there are the "inactivists". This is where you have Christians who although there is a peace or unity between all believers - a unity in Christ - they don't live out that unity.
I often have to go on the Virgin Cross Country service to Leamington Spa for meetings of the Church Pastoral Aid Society. If ever there was a journey of faith, that is such a journey! I spend most of my ten or eleven hours there and back reading papers or books. As I am engrossed in my reading not infrequently I suddenly hear over the train's loudspeaker: "This is Leamington Spa". I have got there and not realized it - there is then a great panic as, of course. I have to take immediate action.
And that is how it is with some Christians. It seems they have no idea of the reality. But unity among Christians is a reality, even though they are hardly aware of it. So they need to take action to make that unity with other Christians real. And so should we all. That is why you should go to the Home Group or your equivalent (even though you don't feel like it), and why you should come to Church on Sundays and join with other Christians, and why you should take an interest in other Christians outside this church and around the world.
So true peace can be distorted by people not facing up to reality - by those in the Church who say all is well for everybody when it isn't (universalists); by people in the world who say all is well for everybody when it isn't (utopians); and by orthodox Christians who say unity is a given spiritual reality (which it is), but who then never make it real.
Secondly the Devil attacks the concept of peace and unity in making them into false ideals. We need to make sure that when we talk about peace and unity we mean what the Bible means by peace and unity. Not all peace and all unity is good. In our Old Testament reading about the Tower of Babel there was a unity that was abhorrent to God. It was a unity in defiance of God and God took action to disrupt that unity.
When I was a student or just after, you had the hippie ideal of peace and unity. It was a call to "love and peace and pot". This was the sort of ideal that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were selling. But it was New Age romanticism and quite pernicious. And remember there is also the peace of the dead and the unity of the graveyard. But that is not what the Bible means by peace and unity either.
Then, thirdly, there is perhaps the most dangerous of all the devil's attack on peace, true peace. It is when he tempts you to have peace as the only ideal and the only command. So peace and unity are pursued at any cost and exclusively. You ask, "what does that mean?"
Well, you will see what that means as we look at the second command here in Hebrews 12 verse 14:
Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
You see peace isn't the only ideal or command. You have to have peace and holiness; in the same way as you have to have unity and truth. In fact it is holiness that brings peace, as truth brings unity. As you seek to live by the apostles' teaching - doctrinal and moral - so you have peace and unity with other believers who do the same. But once you depart from that doctrinal and moral teaching of the apostles there is inevitably disunity and discord. And, of course, holiness covers the whole of life.
It relates, therefore, to the work place - to being a doctor, to being in business, to working in a factory or to working at home. You will, undoubtedly, from time to time be tempted to keep a false "peace" when you know you should be promoting "holiness".
This is more and more the case in medicine. It has long been the case in business. It is sometimes the case in the Church. It is wherever there is sin over fundamentals. So everywhere, both in the Church and the world, the Christian is to "make every effort to live in peace with all men" but not at the expense of holiness (or truth).
It was John Calvin who said: "good nature should not degenerate into compliance, so that for the sake of preserving peace we are complaisant to men's sins."
Let's move on to our second heading.
Secondly, PEACE IN THE CHURCH
There are three commands under this heading - they are in verses 15-17. And they are three essentials for maintaining peace in the Church.
First, the writer says (verse 15):
"See to it that no one misses the grace of God."
Presumably that refers to "saving grace". It means "see to it that none of your number is unconverted". Yet there are Churches where you get people even in senior leadership positions who seem to be unconverted and uncommitted to Christ. That leads before long to a lack of peace and unity. There are rows in PCC meetings or in Home Group Leaders meetings (or in the equivalents in other denominations). I was hearing of such a situation in a Church in the South just before Easter.
Secondly, the writer says (verse 15):
"see ... that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many."
And there are all sorts of bitter roots. One bitter root is doctrinal error. And if that comes from the top - from clergy and senior teachers, what hope is there? Another bitter root is people who may be doctrinally orthodox but they are just wanting to push themselves forward all the time. They are the opposite of being humble. Or there are people who are gossips or backbiting or always grumbling. Oh, yes! You get such people in Churches.
Thirdly, our writer says (verse 16):
"See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son."
Sexual immorality and Esau's godlessness are linked. The problem with both is that they offer short term pleasure at the expense of long term well being. Esau was desperate for something to eat so he sold his inheritance to get it (you can read about it in the Old Testament in Genesis 25). But he only did that because he cared so little for his inheritance rights - he cared so little for what was good for him. That is the same with sexual immorality. Short term you get a thrill. Long term it is disastrous in so many ways.
But if you want to destroy the peace and unity of the Church have sexual immorality and godlessness approved and tolerated! Tragically that is what is happening at the moment in the Protestant world in general and the Anglo-Anglican world in particular. Some church leaders are equivocating over homosexual sex and saying it is permitted for the laity. And many are wanting to shift from the biblical position on marriage and have remarriages in Church.
But our writer here says "see to it that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau."
Now he is not saying that there is no forgiveness if there is repentance. In Esau's case we don't read of repentance but just of remorse (in Genesis 27). You see, repentance is not feeling sorry that things are going badly for yourself and life is miserable. Repentance is being like the Tax Collector in Jesus' parable and saying "God have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18.13).
Yes, you can have had a homosexual past. Your marriage history can be sordid. But at Calvary, where on the Cross Christ died in your place bearing your sin and guilt, there is forgiveness for every kind of sin - the sins of sexual immorality and godlessness included.
But what you can't have is people then saying in the Church "these things don't matter. These things aren't wrong." That is the way to destroy the peace and unity of the Church.
I must close. And I do so with a basic truth of the Christian faith, namely that there can be no peace on the human level unless there is first peace on the divine level, with God.
Perhaps there is someone here tonight who has been bemused by all I have been saying. Well, have you yet found that peace with God in your own life? Listen to these words from Romans 5.1:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The secret of peace with God is faith in Jesus Christ. If you have never taken that step of faith, why not follow in the footsteps of Abraham, and trust Christ tonight. Say,
"Oh! God, I am confident in you. I see what you have done in Christ. I believe that he is risen and alive. And by his Holy Spirit he can give me forgiveness and new life now. I'm not sure of the future. But I want that forgiveness and a new start. I then want to live for him. And the first thing I will try to do, in his strength, is to "make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy."