Course: Life is a Journey
Lecture: Walking Together
A. Our New Family
When you and I became Christians, we walked through the gates of heaven, as it were, one person at a time; no family plan, right? We don't get into heaven because of mom and dad or uncles or aunts, we walk through one person at a time. Yet on the other side of that gate lies our new family; a family with whom we can walk together as we go through life and a family where we have a new father and new brothers. It's interesting that the word "brothers" is the most common way in which the New Testament refers to believers, men and women alike. We are brothers; we are a family that is not broken down based on gender or race or class. We are a family that is bound together by love for our Father, and then that love for our Father flows through Him out to one another; it is in fact this loving unity that is to characterize the family of God which proclaims Jesus to the world. In John 17, Jesus is praying to God for the church, and in Verse 21, His prayer is: "that they," meaning you and me, "may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us," Why then is that so important? "so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one." Then Jesus repeats Himself in Verse 23: "I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me." That is what biblical community is all about; as you and I are bound together in our love, people will look at us and they will say, "Oh how they love God." When people look at us, they will see the Father's love in us and see that in truth, God did send His Son to the world; all of this is tied up in the fact that you and I are the family of God. We are to be an authentic, biblical community.
B. Challenge of Authentic, Biblical Community
Because this authentic biblical community is so important, it should come as no surprise to any of us that there are great challenges in creating it. If it's really this important and if it is God's way of showing His love and drawing people to Himself, certainly we're going to expect great challenges in community. The American Culture (and this is an American phenomenon—perhaps partly European—but it is primarily our phenomenon) is one of individualism and of isolationism; it is not one of community. Gallup, in his polls, has shown time and time again that Americans are among the loneliest people on the earth; we have more toys than anybody, but no one with whom to play—this culture of fragmentation and isolation is lonely.
1. Circles of relationships
In "The Connecting Church," a book I would really recommend that you read, the author, Randy Frazee, talks a lot about the fact that we have many disconnected circles of relationships: The circle of relationships that we call the church
The circle of relationships that we call work
The circle of relationships that we call family We also have the circles of relationships connected with our kids: soccer teams, basketball teams, neighborhood stuff, Girl Scouts. The list goes on and on; we have many, many circles of relationships and so many of them are not connected. So the very thing that we crave the most, authentic deep relationships built upon the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, we will never find because we are so busy living fragmented, disconnected lives without margin. The American Culture is one of isolation; it is not one of community.
2. Changing culture
In his book, Frazee goes on to document the cultural changes in America over the last 100 years. What I enjoyed in reading this book were all the things that I take for granted, but then I realized that there was a shift, a change, from when I was a kid. He talks, as many sociologists do, about the flight of rural America into the de-personalized, big, urban centers in this country. He talks about how we used to sit on the porch and talk to people when they came by; but now instead, we sit inside our air-conditioned homes or perhaps go outside on our private back decks. We also used to walk to neighborhood stores, but now we drive to superstores. In fact, now we can go through the speed checkout and not even talk to a cashier. We used to walk around the block and now we have treadmills in our basements and our bedrooms so we can watch the news. We used to go to the post office; as fast as it is, there's usually a line. Now there are televisions that we can look at so that we don't have to talk to anyone as we stand in line. We are getting to the point where we never really have to leave the house; we can shop on the Internet and not even pay sales tax. In his book, Frazee talks about a man named Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who did some research, and his research shows that Americans entertain friends at home 45% less often in the late 90s than they did in the mid to late 70s. He also uncovered the rather shocking fact that between 1974 and 1998, the frequency with which Americans spent "a social evening with someone who lives in your neighborhood" fell by about one third. The home has become a place of solitary confinement. However, even this characteristic is nearly lost as the home has become, for many, simply a boarding house where people occasionally eat and mostly just sleep. The other day, there was a plea to American families to functions "as families". The plea was that if we could just do this, it would be one of sthe greatest thing we could do—have at least one meal a week together. We live in an individualistic, fragmented, lonely culture, and yet the problem is that we were built for community. When God made Adam, He looked at him and said, "It's not good that he's alone." We weren't made for isolation. What is true of the intimate relationships is also true with larger social units, the social units of family and the family of God, so God created the church to meet that deep need of community, which is inside of every one of us.
C. Model of the Early Church – All about God
Certainly, as we look at the model of the early church in Acts 2, we can see exactly what God intended for us to be like. Here is the description of the early church in Acts 2:42:"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
1. Center of our lives
When we look at this picture of the early church, we start to get a taste for what God wants community to look like; it starts first and foremost with God, doesn't it? God is in the absolute center; it's all about God. God pervades everything that they did: they devoted themselves to the prayers; they were praising God; they were involved in evangelism and people were being saved; day by day, they were involved in worship where they were attending the temple together. Jesus and God were the absolute center, the absolute focus, of the early church and He pervaded everything that they did. If God is not the center of this family, then we are nothing more than friends and casual acquaintances; that is all we are;. Without God, there cannot be anything else; we're just a social club and a community center. However, it's because God is our Father that therefore you and I can truly be brothers, not divided by gender or by race or by class; it's all about God, and He is in the absolute center. As we read the story of the early church, we quickly realize that if God truly is the center, both independently and corporately, then this very fact is going to have to push itself out, flowing in different directions. You can't just love God and do nothing else, can you? I love the fact that when they asked Jesus, "What's the greatest commandment?" He answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and the second is just like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Luke 10:27) I don't like that translation. It actually means that you shall love the "other person" as yourself. We can't love God and He can't be the center of our lives without it's flowing out into other areas of our lives—it's absolutely impossible, and Jesus makes that clear. There are at least three different directions out of which our relationship with God and our love for Him flows.
2. Growth into Spiritual Maturity
One way in which our love for God flows is into the area of spiritual maturity, both individually and corporately. As you and I love God, we will learn more about what He is like. In order to be like Jesus, we must find out what Jesus is like and then we will learn and grow. This is why the early church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching; this is the whole area of discipleship and growth. In Colossians 1, Paul is reviewing his ministry to the Colossian Church. He talks about how his goal for their lives was that they grow up—that they mature. In Colossians 1:28, Paul says, "Him," meaning Christ, "we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom," in order that we may present everyone mature in Christ." That is his goal, maturity in Christ. Then Paul adds, "For this I toil" (now watch the pronouns), "struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me." This is one of the ways in which the centrality of Christ in our lives and in this church pushes itself out. We must grow in our knowledge and then be transformed by that knowledge; therefore, we are committed to biblical preaching; there will never be any other kind of preaching from this pulpit, and that is our commitment. Growth into spiritual maturity is why this year in the adult Sunday school classes, we're going to go through a systematic theology so that we can learn and be challenged. This is why we have the Biblical Training Institute on Wednesday nights so that you can learn enough to call yourselves biblically literate. This is why, among many missions efforts, we support biblicaltraining.org, an online school giving away a seminary education to the world. These are all different ways in which we are taking seriously the fact that, as God is center of our lives, one of the ways in which that is going to affect us is our desire to grow into maturity — to train and be trained.
3. Devoted to Fellowship
The centrality of Christ also pushes its way out in a second way, and that is in the whole area of fellowship. The Acts 2 Church devoted themselves to fellowship; they didn't kind of pick and choose, did they? They devoted themselves to fellowship; day by day, they were breaking bread in their homes. I think as we read this passage, it's fair to say that the church was the social center of their lives. The circle of relationships in that church was the central set of relationships in their lives.
a. "Christian Crockpot"
I've often encouraged you with the idea of the "Christian Crockpot." The idea is to get up Sunday morning and throw a bigger roast in the crockpot, a couple more potatoes, a couple more carrots, and a couple cans of soup. The Christian Crockpot got me through seminary! It's not hard to do, just turn it on medium when you leave. You go to church and you look for someone you don't recognize and you say, "This isn't natural, you're my brother. Come on over, and let's get to know each other." What do you call a family where siblings don't know each other? I call it dysfunctional. So also in the family of God, we must be devoted to fellowship and that's why God made crockpots! (Not really!) May I encourage you to buy an oversized crockpot and then use it? When I was in graduate school in Scotland, one of the most influential families was a family who, every Sunday, would look for someone they did not know in the church and invite them over. (They always picked the students up, too, and brought us over because they felt so sorry for us! We had very sad faces.) Her ministry was to entertain, to make people feel welcome, and to say, "Welcome into my family"; we had this Sunday meal together so much of the time.
b. Primary social circle
May I encourage you to make the family of God the primary social circle in your lives? Again, may I encourage you to make the family of God your primary social set of relationships, because as long as we have many, many circles of relationships that are disconnected and our lives are fragmented, we will never deal with the loneliness that is in our lives. We will never have a sense of connection because we're scattered all over the place. One of the things that Frazee is really encouraging in his book is to narrow our scope of circles. We can have friends outside the church (hopefully we all have non-Christian friends outside the church), but may church be the primary social circle of our lives. I would love to see the day in which this church building is full every single hour. I would love to see when you young moms are going a little crazy with the kids, to call up another young mom that's going crazy and say, "Let's meet at church for coffee." We always have coffee here at church! While you're here, let your kids run rampant; you can clean up when you're done. Have coffee together, talk together, share your lives together, and be encouraged by one another. I look forward to the day when my son comes home and says, "Dad, let's play basketball (which he loves to do because he can always beat me now). So instead of going to some center, we would say, "Hey, let's go to church to play; in fact, let's call someone up and let's have him and his son come, too. We'll set up the hoop in the gym and we'll play together." I would love to see the day when those of you who have moved into retirement from teaching all of your lives, which means you now really have time to serve the family of God, say, "I've taught math and science for 40 years, I'll be in the Library from 2-4. If your kids are struggling, bring them by; I would love to share my life's experience with these, my young brothers." Retirement means now you really have time to serve the family of God. I can see that day when these things happen, but it's not going to happen until we become devoted to fellowship, and that means making this church body the center of our relational lives.
Authentic biblical community is a lot more than just the fun times and the sharing times; as important as those times are. If we are going to be devoted to fellowship, I think it means that this place will have to become a haven of grace. I've been reading Philip Yancey's amazing book, "What's so Amazing About Grace?" I would encourage you to read this book. Through the pages, Yancey is trying to define what it means for God to treat us with grace. He says that God's grace means that there's nothing that I can do to make God love me more and grace means there's nothing I can do to make God love me less. God doesn't love me for who I am; God simply loves me. He is a God of grace to me. Oh that you and I should become receivers and givers of that kind of grace! This is where all the "one anothers" come in Scripture. Scripture says: We are to live in harmony with one another. We are to not pass judgment on one another.
We are to not speak evil of one another.
We are to encourage one another.
We are to show hospitality to one another.
We are to bear one another's burdens. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:32: "Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you." It's impossible to be obedient to God in isolation, isn't it? It is absolutely impossible to be an obedient Christian and live in isolation. If we're off living by ourselves, how can we bear one another's burdens? If we refuse to attend services, how can we show compassion to one another? It's impossible. What it means to be devoted to fellowship is to have God central in our lives, not us, not our jobs, not our wealth (which is really God's), not our fame, not our fortune, but God. If God is truly central in this life of ours, we will push out and we will be devoted to fellowship just like the early church was devoted to fellowship.
In Acts, there is a third way in which we see that the centrality of Christ pushes its way out into their lives, and that is in the whole area of ministry. If God is central in our lives and if God is central in the family of God, then it will show itself in service and outreach.
a. Within the body
The centrality of God will show itself, first of all, in service to the body. In Hebrews 10:24, the author says, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works." That's a great way to say it, isn't it? Let's sit down and think through how we can go about encouraging and stirring up one another, to love one another, and to do good things. Let's be deliberate about this, and think it through. "Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another." This is why Paul repeatedly says that all the gifts that are given to the church: the gifts of ministry, the gifts of service, the gifts of preaching and teaching and showing mercy and giving and having faith. All of these gifts were given for the edification of the body and for the common good; they were given to you and me so that together we can serve one another; we can serve the body of Christ. That includes our finances, which was certainly one of the outstanding features of the early church. God was so central in who they were that while they weren't commanded to sell everything, they did and they shared with the people. I know people often think, "Well, it doesn't say that I have to sell everything"; that is true, yet there are many other passages that perhaps give us cause to think. For example, in 1 John 3:16, John writes, "By this we know love, that He," meaning Jesus, "laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers." What does it look like in practical application? "If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" The answer is "It can't!" If you and I love God, we, of necessity, must love the other person. "Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth." In other words, talk is cheap.
b. Outside the Body
If God is central in our lives individually and corporately, it will push itself out into ministry, into service for the body, and also into service outside the body; this is what missions and evangelism is all about. As you and I are pervaded and unified by the love of God as our love for Him grows and spreads out so that you love me and I love you, people will look at us and say, "Boy, they're different; look at how they love Jesus; that message of the cross must be true." This is the goal that Jesus sets up in John 17; it is something that comes out of community. As you and I live in community, we show Christ to be sweet to the world. People will respond to us in the same way they responded in Acts 2—we will have favor with all people. People will be saved and will be added to us.
D. Hard Work
Community is hard work, isn't it? If you're reflecting on what I'm saying, this is not some light, easy task that comes naturally; it's radical and countercultural—just like Jesus and just like the early church. Paul says, "For this I toil." Toil is a word that refers specifically to manual labor that is used if we were going to go out and dig a ditch; this is the word that is used. "For this I toil and yet I am struggling, not by my energy but by His energy that He is working powerfully within me and through me." (Colossians 1:29) Community stuff is hard work.
1. Begins With a Common Purpose
Community begins with a common purpose; that's where it all starts. This church is neither a community center nor a social club. It is not a place where you can come and have your spiritual sensitivities tickled. This is the family of God that is here for one central purpose, and that is to glorify God in everything that we say and do and don't say and don't do. I love the illustration of A.W. Tozer when he says, "How do you tune one hundred pianos so that they can all play together? You don't tune them to each other, you tune them to the same tuning fork." As our lives are focused on one tuning fork, and that is God, it pervades our lives so that we say and do only what will advance the kingdom of God; even in our eating and drinking, Paul tells the Corinthians. Do whatever you do with your driving purpose to glorify God; that's our common purpose; that's the tie that binds us together, not the fact that we meet in the same building. It's God who is central. If our commitment to God is central in our lives, it must fan out into at least these three different areas of discipleship, fellowship and ministry.
2. Simplify your life
May I encourage you to simplify all your life, even as I struggle to simplify my life? I've been faced with this issue that I have to simplify my life. Again, I would really encourage all of you to read Randy Frazee's book, ¬The Connecting Church," because it's a very convicting book along those lines. May I also encourage all of us to make these, our brothers, the central set of relationships in our lives? Has anyone here lived in a natural family where there has never been conflict? I'm not seeing any hands. When conflict comes, what do we do? Do we run away and hide? I encourage all of us to work through it, to lean into it, to grow from it, and not to turn tail and run. We need to be kind to one another, tenderhearted to one another, forgiving one another; just as God in Christ forgave you, so also you and I should forgive others.
3. Become "Haven of Grace"
If we do that, then in God's way and in God's timing, we will become that haven of grace, that place of honest open authentic relationships where the masks come down, where we have freely received grace from God; where we have freely received grace from one another, so in turn we turn around and we extend it back; where we bear one another's burdens; where we encourage one another towards holiness, a place where loneliness will no longer be, but instead a place where that deep sense of belonging that is built into all of us will be satisfied. More importantly, though, we will be a place where people come in and they look at us and say, "How they love Jesus! Jesus must be who He said He is; He must be the answer to the problems in my life; He must be the solution to my sin." This is a radical and countercultural way of looking at life. It's especially radical for Americans to look at Acts 2 and say, "Let's be that kind of church"; radical and countercultural just like Jesus was radical and countercultural.