Thank you all again for coming out today. Today, we are excited to be participating in the national movement called Back to Church Sunday. All across the country, the body of Christ is gathering together to reflect on and to reclaim the true meaning of the church as a place of Christ’s love and hope.
As the Church, we are the collective hands and feet of Christ, who reflect Him and do His work in the world all as we grow in our relationships with Him and with each other. That’s not just us as a group of friends and family within your own church right here—it includes those who are gathering in the church across the street, and three miles down, virtually at home, those on the other side of our country and around the world.
And sometimes we do a good job of being those hands and feet, and sometimes not. And sometimes we’ve all done a lousy job of that calling to represent Christ. You may have a personal story and experience with the church—some stories may be good and life-giving; some bad and painful. For those of you whose experience with the church may have been painful, I’m sorry. I may not know each of your individual stories, but I do know how deep and how wide and how high and how pure God’s love is for each of you. And I am truly sorry for the pain you may have experienced when the actions of one or some of His followers fell short or contradicted His love for you.
But whatever path has led you here today, let me say that we are honored to welcome you and to get to know you. We are excited to be here together. This is a Sunday of belonging, and together is where we belong because we are stronger together!
If there was ever any doubt, or any sense of taking it for granted, the COVID-19 pandemic sure has reminded us how much we need each other. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” may be a cliche, but it’s cliche because there’s truth in it. Having to distance ourselves from each other sure has provided a powerful reminder of the value and importance of our need for connection. We have all been living through the most tangible reminder in our lifetimes that we need each other, that we belong in community, and that we are much stronger together.
So I’d like to share with you a passage from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. Just to give you an understanding of this book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes is one of the Bible’s wisdom books. Its narrator is called the Teacher, and the book is usually credited to King Solomon or someone writing for Solomon. Maybe you’re familiar with the book of Proverbs which King Solomon also wrote, and you may even enjoy reading through all those wise, brief insights in Proverbs. But I’ll bet most of us probably aren’t turning the pages of our Bibles again and again to Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes can be a little harder to read. It can sound downright dreary in spots as the writer explores life. Because the book walks through the ironies and empty pursuits of life, but ultimately it points towards trusting God as the one and only true God, and it offers so many wise insights along the way. The passage I’m going to share with you today, is where the Teacher is talking about companionship and needing each other.
“Two people are better than one, because they get more done by working together. If one falls down, the other can help him up. But it is bad for the person who is alone and falls, because no one is there to help. If two lie down together, they will be warm, but a person alone will not be warm. An enemy might defeat one person, but two people together can defend themselves; a rope that is woven of three strings is hard to break.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NCV)
Did you catch that last part? “A rope that is woven of three strings is hard to break.”
Most of you have used rope at some point in your life. But have you ever looked closely at a rope? Even if you haven’t, you probably know that a rope consists of several or many different strands braided together. Individually, each of those strands might hold a little bit of weight, but it’s when those strands are woven together that their strength multiplies immensely.
Let me ask you this: Would you rather water-ski behind a boat with a line of craft string or with a braided nylon tow-rope? Not much contest there. And while the craft string probably wouldn’t even get you out of the water, the result could be kind of funny.
How about this one? Would you rather rock climb on a 1,000 foot high cliff attached to a long line of yarn? Or tied into a climbing rope? Again, no contest. But with much higher stakes.
Rope is a pretty amazing tool. We may not use it everyday in our lives today, but back in the days of the Bible, it was a revolutionary tool. In fact, rope goes back as far as human history. Think of all the things ancient people could do with a rope.
Rope meant you could catch or tie up an animal to keep it or lead it — all of which led to food and survival. Rope meant you could pull or hoist heavy objects, which meant you could build things: structures and homes — or pyramids if you were the Egyptians.
It might mean you could move or carry something. It could help you cross a river or chasm, or hang food or supplies in a safe spot away from wild animals.
And rope was essential for sailing, which was a revolutionary form of transportation in and of itself. Rope was both a convenience and a lifesaver.
The important thing about rope is that it has always been made by twisting and weaving multiple strands or fibers together to make it stronger than one strand alone. Even in its earliest forms, people wove grasses or reeds or bark strands together to make them like rope. As time passed, people learned how to use fibers from plants. Whatever the material, weaving it together multiplied its strength into a more powerful rope. And actually, if we were to pull this modern rope apart and examine it, we would see that this pattern repeats itself into stronger and stronger results. The thinnest fibers are spun together into yarns, which are then woven together into strands, which are then braided into rope.
We are very much the same. We are like rope. We are stronger as we are woven together by and with Christ, and that happens on multiple levels. Today I’d like to explore three ways — three strands of our rope, if you will — that make us stronger together.
1. We are Stronger in Christ
When we talk about strength, we must begin with Christ. Jesus is not only our source of strength, He is our strength.
The Apostle Paul understood this very well. He famously wrote in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJV).
In context, Paul was talking about finding contentment in all circumstances, whether he was living with plenty or in want. But in the bigger picture, he was describing relying on Jesus, and being sufficient in Jesus instead of himself.
You see, what Paul understood was that Christ was his life. He understood the truth that Jesus taught his disciples in a beautiful description found in John 15. Jesus said:
“I am the true vine; my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that does not produce fruit. And he trims and cleans every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already clean because of the words I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch cannot produce fruit alone but must remain in the vine. In the same way, you cannot produce fruit alone but must remain in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. If any remain in me and I remain in them, they produce much fruit. But without me they can do nothing” (NCV).
Jesus often drew examples from the landscape and the things that they saw everyday. In this case, maybe he and his disciples were walking past or seated on a hillside overlooking a vineyard. You’ve probably seen pictures, or maybe visited, some vineyard in a charming Mediterranean countryside. Grapevines are interwoven across trellises, spreading out wide with leafy branches filled with plump, juicy grapes. But it’s the vine that is the main stalk or trunk of the plant. It’s the vine that is planted down in the soil, sending out roots to draw water and nutrients up out of the earth.
Wine experts will often talk about flavors and characteristics of particular grapes that come from a specific location, or geography and soil. Wine tasters pay attention to what year a wine was made because different factors effect each year’s harvest: the amount of moisture in the soil, sunlight, storms, dryness, heat and cold. All of these characteristics are transferred from the soil through the vine and into the grapes.
In other words, the vine influences everything about the grape. The vine is the life source of the branches and the fruit. You don’t have to be a wine expert or a farmer to know that if you cut off the branches from the vine, those branches are dead. They’ll shrivel up quickly because they have no life source. Their strength and vitality are that vine. Without it, they are lost, disconnected, and starved for life.
This is why Jesus reminds his disciples and us to remain in Him — to abide or live in Him. Jesus is our source of life and strength. This is the strength we draw upon to live this life and face its challenges and transcend our human frailty to be the people God is calling us to be.
Which takes us to our second point: We are stronger in our weakness.
2. Stronger in Weakness
How does that make sense? When we are weak, we are strong.
Paul can shed some light on this one for us too. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about some problem, some ongoing trial or challenge, that he has had to continually deal with. We don’t know exactly what it was, but maybe that helps us all to relate. We all have some kind of weakness or struggle we wish we could get rid of. Paul describes his problem like a thorn stuck in his skin; it’s a nagging pain that won’t go away.
But he realizes it teaches him an invaluable lesson. Here’s what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9-11
“I begged the Lord three times to take this problem away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is enough for you. When you are weak, my power is made perfect in you.’ So I am very happy to brag about my weaknesses. Then Christ’s power can live in me. For this reason I am happy when I have weaknesses, insults, hard times, sufferings, and all kinds of troubles for Christ. Because when I am weak, then I am truly strong” (NCV).
This is a different way — a revolutionary way — of living and looking at life. Jesus has given His life for us, and when we accept and receive that gift, He gives us new life, a transformed life. We can try and try and try as much as we want to change, to improve, to find satisfaction, to be strong, to overcome our problems. But it doesn’t work. As the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes finds, it’s all meaningless without God. As Paul discovered, we can’t shake that ongoing flaw or struggle on our own. But Jesus says, “I’ve got this. Abide in me. Live in me. You’re weak, and it’s OK because I’m strong. Your weakness gives more room for my strength to shine.”
It’s a little bit like our rope analogy. Rope proves itself under stress. You can tie it around a heavy load or clip your rock-climbing harness into it, and it’s ready to go. If you’re climbing, it can help you feel safer. But that rope doesn’t really do its job until it’s tested. Until you start the wench and pull the heavy load into the air. Until you’re a hundred feet high on a cliff and you fall. When you are weak and powerless, that’s exactly when the rope is strong. That’s when it comes through to save the day and your life.
When we are weak, then there’s no doubt that it’s the strength of Christ that carries us through. And as we’re going to see next, He weaves us into community to make us even stronger.
3. Stronger Together
Together is where Christ magnifies His strength as we live out His love as the body of Christ. Each of us is a single part, woven together like that rope into a much stronger unit to support each other and function as the hands and feet of Christ.
Romans 12:4-6 says it like this: “Each one of us has a body with many parts, and these parts all have different uses. In the same way, we are many, but in Christ we are all one body. Each one is a part of that body, and each part belongs to all the other parts. We all have different gifts, each of which came because of the grace God gave us” (NCV).
We humans are made to be together. We are created in the image of God, and just like the Father, Son and Spirit are one in community, we need each other. We are stronger when we can lean on each other for support and help.
That’s the way the early church worked. As these people were risking their lives to follow Jesus and live like Him, they took care of each other in every way. They pulled together to make sure their basic needs were met. They used their skills and abilities and resources to accomplish the work Jesus had given them of spreading His love to the rest of the world. For the early church, Jesus was their strength and life. And even though, in many ways, they were a ragtag collection of powerless individuals in the midst of the mighty and oppressive Roman Empire, they eventually changed the world — together.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But I think it’s easy for us to dismiss the early Christians’ way of life as just great history. I’m not suggesting that we could or should exactly replicate the way they did things. We live in a different culture that has shaped our lives differently. But, unfortunately, I think our American culture often gets in the way of our understanding and realization of what togetherness really means.
Here in America, we have a long history of romanticizing and glamorizing being alone. For instance, think of those old Western movies. I know some of you probably grew up watching old Westerns. I still like to watch the old shows today like Gunsmoke and Rifleman. Who comes to mind when you think of those? John Wayne? Clint Eastwood? The Lone Ranger? Matt Dylan?
For years, Hollywood served us a steady diet of rugged cowboys who ride alone and like it that way. Solitary figures who don’t need or want anyone else. They never hang their hat anywhere. Now there’s a lot to be said for strong individuals, but in many ways, we’ve bought into the lie of the tough individual, who lives up life all alone — the lone wolf who goes it all alone.
But even that lone wolf image really isn’t accurate. In reality, wolves are pack animals who live and die together with very organized social structures. In a pack, each wolf has a different role, and each one does its part to keep the pack alive and thriving. They hunt and eat together. They mark their territory and protect their home together. They look out for each other. They know that what’s good for the pack is good for each individual animal. In fact, did you know that the alpha wolf actually makes sure the pups get food before the rest of the pack is even allowed to dig into a meal? Wolf life is all about pack life.
There are some lone wolves, but they are an exception. Only about 15% of wolves go out alone, usually if it’s sick or weak and driven out of the pack when food is scarce. Sometimes a younger wolf might venture out alone, but its goal is to start another pack. Living as a loner isn’t a preferred or long-term lifestyle. It’s dangerous. A lone wolf has to spend much of its time and energy trying to avoid other packs’ territories. And forget living up life and howling at the moon. A lone wolf doesn’t howl much for fear of giving away its location. The life of a lone wolf is lonely, and it’s not a predicament a wolf wants to find itself in for long.
We humans are a lot like those wolves. From the moment we’re born, we need human interaction. Scientists have made fascinating discoveries about the powerful recognition and bonds between newborns and their mothers. It’s why hospitals regularly have baby cuddlers who hold and soothe premature and sick newborns when their parents can’t be there. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a large body of research linking the lack of human touch in orphanages to infant mortality, failure to thrive, and developmental delays.
As humans, we belong together. We are drawn together. Is it any wonder that social media is the defining technology of current generations, used by billions of people around the world? Even as our technology evolves and gives us individual access to amazing tools and information, we are still drawn together, using our technology to seek connection even if it can’t fully replicate the power of face-to-face interaction and real-life relationship.
Connection and relationship aren’t just a luxury for us — they are a need. They are hardwired into the fabric of our being by our Creator. They are a reflection of His very nature and the order of the universe that He has put together.
And as our God calls us into a relationship with Himself, He also calls us into relationship and community with each other. His work on earth for us is relational. He has chosen us to fulfill His mission. Like Jesus’ original disciples, He sends us out into the world to represent and introduce Him to our fellow humans through love and relationship.
As we join together and find our place in the Body of Christ, we find our true place. We experience acceptance and belonging. For those who have or have had a positive home and family life, it might feel like that sense of coming home, even in a place you’ve never been before. Or that sense of freedom to be yourself, to truly let down your guard and shake off the fear and worry about what other people might think of you. It’s allowing yourself to be vulnerable. To be free. To be accepted just as you are. To find that even in our weakness, we are stronger together as Christ fills us with His life and power.
That doesn’t make us perfect. Let me be the first to tell you we’re far from it. We are the family of God on earth, and every family, even the healthiest families, have a little bit of their own weirdness or dysfunction. Despite our best intentions, we hurt each other. We bicker or disagree or wrong each other. But it’s my hope and intent that we are a body that:
- lives like Jesus, receiving and giving grace,
- that treats each other with humility,
- that apologizes and seeks forgiveness when we wrong each other,
- that ultimately loves and serves each other and the world around us as God calls us to.
When we come together like that, we experience the power of God’s Spirit within us, and we are so much stronger together.
As we close our time together today, I’d like to return to our rope for a moment — that rope woven of three strings. We’ve all been living through some of the most trying times in recent history for our nation, our world, and for many of us, our individual lives and families. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our weakness and vulnerability — along with our need for each other. I’d like to suggest that as we join the cord of our life with the cords of weakness and the cords of others around us, we let Jesus weave those strings together, so He creates a much more powerful rope. He makes us stronger together.
Let me offer an ongoing invitation to each of us: Let’s continue pursuing togetherness in God’s love. Let’s lean in together to deeper relationships and support each other. Maybe that means taking the next step of joining us regularly for worship or joining a small group or a service outreach. Maybe it’s just greeting someone around you who you don’t know. Or reaching out to a casual acquaintance. There is a place in this community for every single one of us. You are welcome here, whoever and however you are. And we are most definitely stronger together.