Together: a sermon series for November

October 4th, 2022

As you plan for next month and the end of the church year, here are four sermon starters for a sermon series on a major theme of my new book, Don’t Look Back. All of these Sundays are built around a central theme of "together"—a theme that helps us look ahead to what's next and how we can move toward that future together. I hope they are helpful to you and your ministry in the weeks to come!


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Week 1: Sinners—Together

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
(Luke 15:1-2)

It’s not easy to be the church, not only because 60% of young Americans say they can get along fine without any church. Church is a challenge because Jesus Christ won’t let us choose with whom we’ll be church.

Contention in our congregation? Disagreements? While it’s true we live in a combative, quarrelsome age where the world’s political divides also afflict the church, some of our conflictedness is a predictable spinoff of Jesus Christ’s wildly expansive notion of salvation. 

A Savior who seeks, finds, and saves the lost (Luke 19:10), who when criticized because of the company he kept at table smirked, “I’ve not come for good, respectable, Bible believing, justice-advocating, biblical-world-view, holy living, moderate, Methodist, hypersensitive-to-other-people’s-wounds church people. I’ve come for sinners, only sinners.” (Mattew 9:12, paraphrased), is bound to assemble a sometimes hard-to-get-along-with crowd.

Jesus got into all manner of difficulty, not because he refused to be married to a woman, nor because of questions about his orthodoxy or biblical interpretation. The chief charge against Jesus was that he saved those whom no one thought could be saved, whom no one wanted saved. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

Never once did Jesus command us to love the lovely, loveable, and loving. Never did he allow his disciples to waste time attempting to determine which sin was the worst or whom to ban from discipleship. Welcoming outcasts and saving sinners were his obsessions. Or as John Wesley put it, “Salvation for all!” 

Jesus’s determination to save sinners, only sinners, would be challenge enough for us sinners without Jesus’s equally determined insistence to put those being-redeemed sinners together in the church. Salvation in Christ is a group thing. 

Paul’s favorite name for the church is “The Body of Christ,” Christ’s bodily, physical presence in the world. So if anybody in our town encounters the risen Christ, it will be through the ragtag, divinely contrived gathering otherwise known as church. Us. Christ’s crazy plan for how to accomplish his will in the world. Us.


Week 2: The Answer to Jesus's Prayer—Together

“I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” 
(John 17:21)

On his way to the cross, Jesus pauses to pray for his followers. Us. The main thing he prayed for is that we would “be one” (John 17:21), commanding us to get along with one another. Yet, from the first, we’ve been unable fully to live up to Christ’s expectations, having so little in common with one another except love for him.

In our church we congregate because we’ve been assembled. Our being together was Christ’s idea before it was ours. Little wonder that, from the first, there was disputation.

Division and differences may not be signs that we have fallen short of being church but rather signs that we are actually trying to live out Christ’s wildly expansive corporate salvation. 

Be honest. The most challenging aspect of being commissioned by Christ is to be gathered by Christ with those with whom we have little in common other than Christ. Whatever song Christ wants sung in the world, he chooses to do it in concert with the unruly choir that he assembles. Church. Us. Christ is not only the great delegator but also the relentless congregator. We’ve got to be his disciples together, or not at allSalvation in Christ is always as ensemble. 

I’ll be honest: The hardest part of being pastor is having to work with anybody Jesus Christ drags in the door. Now you tell the truth: The tough part of being laity is having to listen to the unlikely ones whom Jesus Christ called to preach!

Division is easy, a natural propensity in a culture of rugged individualism, consumerism, political factionalism, and self-protectiveness from discomforting truth. Togetherness is hard. Congregating requires empowerment from outside ourselves, not I “but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 3:20). When Jesus interceded for us, he prayed not that we would bow to biblical authority, be orthodox or prophetic or even that we would be right. He begged God to make us one (John 17:21). “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:35).

Jesus, tell us what you most want from us as a church. 

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” (John 13:34)

That’s Jesus for you. Giving us a command, not a suggestion. But when we do manage to be of one heart and mind in this congregation, we become the answer to Jesus’ most sincere prayer.



Week 3: Following Jesus—Together

As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons,… he called them. They followed him…. 
(Mark 1:6-20)

What’s the very first thing that Jesus does to begin his mission? With a simple “Follow me!” he calls people to work with him and requires them to be in a group of disciples, whether they like it or not. 

When Christ calls us, he assembles us. Whatever he wants to do with us, he chooses to do it with us together. Christ’s propensity to congregate his followers, to save and to deploy us together, to speak to us and to reveal himself to us together, means that in every church you can expect differences and disagreements, arguments, and dissension. Even in a church as loving as ours, be surprised when we’re all on the same page about anything other than Jesus. 

Differences in our congregation can be life-giving. Debate, listen, and expect to be corrected and thereby brought closer to Jesus by a fellow Christian who may not be your type.

How would I have grown and matured in my faith without the jostling and insight that I received from pesky preachers, contentious congregants, and quarrelsome colleagues whom God used to say things to me that I didn’t want to hear? 

My ideal church member is that person who is able to love Christ enough to say to me, “While I don’t agree with you (as best I understand you from your rather incoherent sermons), since Jesus Christ has brought us together (without giving either of us much choice in the matter) and then commanded us to stay together (even though it would be easier to keep to ourselves), I’ll keep talking, continue listening, and keep praying that we will grow more committed to Christ—together.”

Ask Jesus’ first disciples. They’ll surely testify that following Jesus is too difficult and demanding to be done solo. We need help from our friends. How much easier it would be if it were only a matter of my loving Jesus. Alas, Jesus makes discipleship difficult by commanding us to love one another. We can’t follow him without being in relationship with his best friends. 

When it comes to being Christian, it’s better to be in relationship than to be right. Or as John Wesley put it, “Christianity is a social religion. To turn it into a solitary thing is to destroy it.”



Week 4: Put Up With One Another—Together

Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. (Colossians 3:13)

Paul’s injunction to “be tolerant with each other” another in love (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2) ought to be tattooed on the biceps of everyone in this congregation. While the CEB renders the Greek word as “tolerant” I prefer the older “put up with one another.” I could make a case that whenever we’re about to discuss some contentious matter in this church, I ask everyone to stand, raise our right hands, and repeat the words, “I promise to speak honestly, to listen carefully, and then to put up with one another no matter who offends me.”

I’m sure that The Letter to the Colossians was written (as just about all of Paul’s letters) to a disunited congregation. The letter opens, not with talk about division, not by choosing up sides and debating who’s right and who’s wrong (rarely does Paul waste time citing the specific details of congregational disunity), not by arguing who’s in and who’s out (Paul is clear: all have sinned and all receive Christ’s mercy, Romans 3:23-24). Colossians opens by singing of Christ the grand congregator: “All things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church…he reconciled all things to himself through him— whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:13-18)

Because Christ is not only savior but also reconciler, if we’re going to be close to Christ, we must put up with one another, have the courage to congregate, not simply because that’s the only way we’ll survive as a church, but because our church, yes, for any of its faults, has been given the truth about God. God really is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, bringing all things together. How? Maybe not exclusively but certainly primarily through our congregation. 

We didn’t create our church, don’t own ourselves, and will ultimately be held accountable to a truth that the church doesn’t produce. You can’t tell the gospel to yourself; you must receive Christ from the hands of another.

Be fair to those who avoid church. Think what we’re asking of people when they join our congregation: to believe that there’s a gathering more important than their nation, their political party, or even their family, to give money for the needs of perfect strangers, to stay in conversation with those who are put off by their politics, to receive the gospel of God from the hands of another who may not be their type. 

It’s so much easier to leave a congregation than to put up with one another in love. Easier to rally around your cherished cause or huddle with folks who share your values than to obey Christ and put up with one another even as Christ has time and again put up with us.


Along with this sermon series we are also offering you a Leadership Resource Guide as a tool to help you engage this book with your congregational leadership as you look to what's next.

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