MESSAGE FOR JUNE 17, 2007 ON COMMUNITY
This morning, we find ourselves nearing the end of the second part of our series of messages on a biblical vision for our church. Our emphasis on developing authentic, Biblical community at Mount of Olives has drawn on several Biblical truths. Before we present some ways to implement this part of the vision, today I would like to review the major points of this vision as we have seen them taught in the Bible. I do this for those who have not been here and because when we see the major truths of Scripture on this topic treated at one time, we can perhaps get a better idea of the profound importance of this much ignored set of truths. I have distilled seven truths from what we have said up to this point. This morning, we will not be doing in depth exposition—that can be found in the manuscripts and CD’s from the previous messages. This is a summary of what we have heard. The first truth is one that could be said about the entire vision for our church. That is: We must view establishing genuine Biblical community here at Mount of Olives not as a new direction for our ministry, but as the fruit of repentance. Our task is not to turn our ship in a new direction, but to cry out to God to bring life and vitality where now death and sickness largely reign. Though there is an administrative element to this, these reforms are not about implementing a community program; this is about God doing open heart surgery on us as individuals and as a church.
I put it in those terms because we have seen that a church that is not experiencing rich, Biblical community needs to repent on several important Biblical fronts. They can all be summarized in this one. In our present lack of authentic community, we are failing to magnify Christ, our chief purpose for being. Jesus says in John 13, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." When Francis Schaeffer said that love is the “mark of the Christian,” he derived that truth from these words of Jesus in John 13:35. He said that in making this statement, “Jesus turns to the world and says, “I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.” In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them.”
Perhaps the best place for Christ’s love is seen on a mass scale is as we gather in community. If an unbeliever were to come in among us for a few weeks at our gatherings and see no more love and concern and compassion among us as we would see on a military base or a Rotary Club meeting, then according to Jesus, they would have a right to conclude that the church is out of step with Jesus. If the love that the Father and the Son share for one another is not reflected in Christian community, that means that God is not making his presence known. D.A. Carson comments on John 13:35 saying, “Orthodoxy without principial obedience to this characteristic command of the new covenant is merely so much humbug.” In other words, according to Jesus, a group of self professed Christians who believe all the right things but fail to love each other in community screams to the world “We’re phonies!” Related to this is what John says in his first epistle. He says in 4:12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” His point here is to say that—though there is no visible manifestation of the Person of God on earth, he is clearly seen when believers show their love for one another. His abiding presence is demonstrated in us as his love is incarnated through us.
We must hear that this question of Christian community is weighty in terms of the glory of God seen in his church. When we model inch-deep, (“Hi, how you doin’, but I really don’t much care”) relationships in the church, when we cannot live in Biblically defined peace with one another—when we think that a couple of hours a week with each other is just fine, we are not only robbing ourselves of joy. First and foremost, we are grieving God and betraying his primary purpose for us, which is to reflect his loving character to a world trying to satisfy its hunger for God’s love on the dry husks of this world. The call to community is a call to repent—to cry out to God for a genuine change of heart that would issue in a new outpouring of love and concern for each other.
A second truth we have seen is: Authentic, Biblical community expresses who are as humans and even more, as believers. As we saw from Genesis, God created us as a people within a race—we are parts of a larger whole. No human has within him/herself everything they require to meet their own physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs. We were made to live in community and programmed into our human nature is interdependence. We need each other. When we come into Christ, our new programming only reinforces our need to live in community. The Christian life is by definition a group activity. To paraphrase a well-known expression, “It takes a local church to raise a Christian.” Paul says in First Corinthians 12 that “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” We were given new life in Christ to be part of a body. We are not simply a collection of individuals—we are placed by God into a corporate unity. We are meant to be part of something bigger. A huge piece of our self-understanding should be corporate. When we look into the mirror, we should see—among other things—a part of something bigger. We are corporately the bride—the one bride—of Christ. We must work at defining our identities as believers not just as individuals, but also corporately.
Those who try to survive outside the body are vulnerable to the spiritual predators sent by the enemy whose lie-based strategy is to isolate people from the community of believers. Stragglers from the flock are easy prey as they wander away from the protection of the herd and the undershepherds God has assigned. First Peter says we are individual stones intended to be mortared into the temple of God, his church. As part of God’s temple filled with his presence, we display the manifold excellencies of God. As a single stone lying on the ground, separated from the temple, we are not as readily identifiable as part of God’s temple.
A third truth is—Authentic, Biblical community wars against the values of both the popular culture and current North American evangelical culture. One of the most prized values of the American culture is individualism. We prize this for at least two obvious reasons. First, as we have said before, our unprecedented material wealth that makes it possible for us, more than any other culture in history, to live independently from others. If we see something someone else has that we like, after coveting it, we go out and buy it or put it on the credit card. We don’t even think about the fact that the entire process was initiated with our coveting. Because coveting is idolatry (Col3:5), the purchase is at its core idolatrous. It doesn’t occur to many people that they should investigate the possibility of borrowing it from someone else or even co-owning something with others. We want our own and it must be alright because we can afford it.
I see this dynamic played out frequently in my own life. Whenever I look through the Sears or Target inserts I almost always discover something I need. I didn’t know I needed it when I opened the paper, but now I have a genuine need for it. It’s too expensive, I put it down. But I pick up another circular and guess what?--virtually the same item is in that one and IT’S on clearance at 20% off! This is not just a need anymore; this is God’s way of telling me it is his will for me to buy this. In the span of three minutes, I have gone from being in complete ignorance of this “need,” to being divinely commissioned to fulfill it. Just think, if I hadn’t opened up the paper, I would have missed the call of God for my life!... that’s not God. That’s me allowing market capitalism to work its magic—to light a match over the gasoline of my covetous, individualistic heart and in my self-deception, I see GOD in the explosion of my selfish desire.
We are so easily deceived in that way because of the second reason we so easily prize individualism. That is, because we are by virtue of the fall given to being prideful, self-centered people who don’t like relying on others. Any two year-old can express this sinful nature perfectly in three words, “Do it self.” That’s a toddler’s way of saying, “I want my own.” That attitude, which is fostered by our capitalistic culture that thrives on greed and self-sufficiency, is rampant in America. When God by his grace has removed our cultural blinders to an area of this within ourselves, we must see it for what it is—it is worldliness and work to repent of it. It is very subtle and in our idolatrous culture bent on seducing us, there is no way that any one individual can, on his own, discern whether we are being seduced. We need help. We need others to come along side us and help expose the truth.
Another symptom of our individualism is seen in what Mark Driscoll calls our tendency to become “techno-hermits.” What he means by that term is this--through technology we have been able to reproduce in the privacy of our homes things like movie theatres and ball parks and video arcades and virtual sports and hunting and even sex that once required the formation of human relationships. Now we can do all that and more in the privacy and seclusion of our own homes. You will almost never hear any news stories exposing the evil of this trend. The world is being seduced and it sees no connection between the increasing isolation of our population and the fact that 20% of Americans are medicated for depression. We are not meant to live independently as hermits.
The church is almost thoroughly acculturated here. We see very little wrong with this kind of individualism and have in fact “baptized” it and brought it into the church. The overwhelming way in which people conceive of their relationship with God is “me and Jesus.” Our songs are overwhelmingly about I, ME, MY love for and experience with God.” We don’t see the person down the pew’s spiritual health as being relevant to us or our family. We live in oblivion to the truth we saw last week in our business meeting—“a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” [1 cor5:6] That means my sin has an organic impact on the others in this body.
The consumer mentality dominates our churches and it is completely opposed to community. I don’t know how many times several years ago when we had about 200 fewer people than we do now I heard, “We love this and this and this about your church, but we don’t like this and so we will continue to look for a church that meets all of our needs.” That’s Christianity meets the Old Country Buffet. How does that smorgasbord approach to church shopping sound like Christ? What about—“I see this need in your church, so I am going to see if God is calling me here to come to help meet that need.” That’ sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? Now, that we have become a larger church, we are sadly probably pulling people away from other churches that need their gifts more than we do.
The local church is too often about getting MY needs met—pure, unvarnished individualism. It’s not a body to join with; it’s a ministry to receive. We saw a few weeks ago from First John 3:16, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Do you hear how that radical call to sacrifice for the brethren completely undercuts the consumer mentality so rampant in the church? It’s not about what I can get; it’s about me dying for you to manifest the love of Jesus. As we do that, we know true joy—not the superficial pleasures that come from going to a church that meets our self-defined “needs.” Ironically, the church has too frequently been an enemy of authentic Christian community. Genuine community as we saw in Acts 2:42-47 would be seen by many in Christ’s church as cult-like. There are genuinely cultish elements that can come into the church—where leadership and people are not held accountable, but wanting to be together and develop truth telling relationships with others is not cultic, it’s Biblical Christianity.
A fourth truth we have seen often is: Authentic spiritual maturity does not occur apart from authentic Biblical community. One reason there are so many immature believers in the church today is because we develop bad attitudes or unbiblical ways of thinking or acting and no one is there to correct us. It’s mostly done in the privacy of our homes or in our workplace and no one in the church knows much about those areas of your life because our relationships are so superficial. So, without anyone around us to lovingly scrutinize or ask the hard questions, the person may persist for decades in wrong thinking and unbiblical beliefs. Over time, their walk with Christ is decimated by a sin that no one knows about and from which they have perhaps unknowingly insulated themselves from scrutiny. The fact that this could be happening to us right now in our dearth of Biblical community—that should scare us.
That’s not the pattern we saw laid down in Ephesians chapter four. That text taught us that God gives gifts to the body in the form of gifted people to equip the saints to minister so that the church may be built up until we reach maturity in Christ. At the very least, that tells us that our spiritual maturity in Christ is hammered out in community with one another. Certainly, Christian families are fundamental, but Ephesians four speaks with reference to the local church, not the immediate family. When Paul speaks of spiritual maturity he thinks of it not only (and perhaps not even predominantly) in individual terms, but also the corporate maturity of the body. The ultimate goal for Paul from this text is the spiritual maturity of the body. You’ll remember from verse 13, the goal is the “unity of the faith” and the “unity of the knowledge of the Son of God.” When we think about spiritual maturity today, we almost always think of it in purely individual terms—MY walk with God—to the exclusion of anyone else. In Ephesians four, we said that Paul does not picture the race toward spiritual maturity as a sprint to the finish line with each person running in his/her own individual lane, separated from the others. It’s a unified body, moving together with the other members, serving in ways we have been equipped and relating to one another in harmony.
The implications of this are manifold. One is that your personal spiritual health and the health of the church are intimately related. Your positive movement toward Christ will help draw others to maturity as they see your godly example. Likewise, those who are backsliding or who are spiritually lukewarm will negatively impact others’ maturity in the body. A large part of what enables that maturity is seen in verse 15. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” As we form close relationships where genuine trust can develop, we grow in love for one another. If you see a sin in my life and have prayed for me, you care too much about me to allow me to continue in something that is dishonoring God and hurtful to me and those around me. After you have taken the log from your own eye and prepared your heart, you are then free to come to me in a spirit of gentleness and speak into my life, motivated by your love for God and me.
You simply cannot reach maturity on your own and your own spiritual virtues and vices will impact others in the body. Because that’s truth, one good barometer of your current heart condition is how you have responded to these messages on community. If you genuinely want to grow in Christ, then even though these truths about community may be a bit scary to you, ultimately you are anxious for this to happen here because it will mean that you can grow more conformed to Christ. If you want to stay on course with God, you will deeply desire genuine community because it helps keep us from wandering away as we are led by our own, unchecked blind spots.
A fifth truth about community we have seen is: Authentic Biblical community is inseparable from outreach. So often we separate these two elements that have been joined together by God. We saw from Acts 2:42-47 by implication that people were coming to Christ in response to the dynamic fellowship the early saints enjoyed in Jerusalem. As people come into a church where Biblical community is present, they see the glory and sweetness of Christ and are either drawn to Him or repulsed by him. That is the clear witness of the early church. Community without a commitment to outreach is not authentic community—it’s an exclusive, “members only” Jesus club and that is a distortion of Biblical Christianity. Acts 1:8 tells us that the Holy Spirit was given so that we might be witnesses for Christ. Authentic community does not build a wall around itself—it is quick to invite outsiders in to see the beauty of Christ in his church. If community truly expresses the nature of Christ, it will have the heart of Christ and the heart of Christ is for lost people. Our community should always have one eye trained on how we are relating to lost people.
A sixth truth is: Authentic Biblical community implies making a covenant commitment to others. We discussed this only a few weeks ago, so I won’t say much here. Community is intended to make disciples and making disciples without relationships with people who will hold us accountable is a gross mutation of discipleship. Unless there is a formal vehicle that gives us permission to hold each other accountable in love like covenant membership, then we are whistling in the wind. Becoming committed to others through covenant membership is an inescapable implication of authentic community. Again, I quote Mark Dever. “Do you want to know that your new life is real? Commit yourself to a local group of saved sinners. Try to love them. Don’t just do it for three weeks. Don’t just do it for six months. Do it for years. And I think you’ll find out, and others will too, whether or not you love God. The truth will show itself.” Christ identified so deeply with the church that when Saul of Tarsus was persecuting her in Acts chapter nine, he took it personally. If Christ identifies that deeply with the body over which he is head, should we as its members also deeply identify with it? Members of Christ’s body are not packed off from one another. We are not like those cheese slices that are individually wrapped so as not to stick to the others in the package. We need to be peeled apart from one another—we should not be easily separable from one another.
Finally, as we end our summary of this crucial teaching of Scripture, another truth about authentic Christian community is: Authentic, Biblical community will not occur by making minor adjustments to our lives, but by changing our fallen, individualistic paradigms for spiritual life and health. Most believers would admit that having a regular time in the word and prayer are crucial for their spiritual health and those who are truly committed to spiritual maturity make sacrifices for those and other spiritual disciplines. If Christian community is another essential element necessary to spiritual maturity and it is, then we will need to make time for it.
In a few weeks, we will be laying out some simple, basic structures intended to encourage the development of this community, but that is not the answer. The answer lies within our own hearts. If we want this community, we can begin right now by reaching out to the new people we don’t know so that they can more and more feel a part of what God is doing here. As I heard a few weeks ago at a meeting I attended, we can come to church for the worship service and stay for the day—come and have a cookout. We have what is basically a 15 acre campground here with nature trails, open spaces, picnic tables and even Weber kettles. Come and experience a true Lord’s Day with other believers—do barbeques, stretch your social skills and invite people into your home. In the end, it will be our God-placed desire to do those kinds of things that will help create community here. As we move forward, may God give us the grace to repent of our isolationism, our indifference to most of the body here and move forward in love together so that Christ may be seen clearly among us and our joy will be full.
Page last modified on 7/16/2007
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