This week, we continue to study Paul’s treatment of Romans 12. We have said chapters 12-15 make up a distinct section of Paul’s exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many aspects to the gospel which he has already covered. Here in this section, he focuses on the aspect of the gospel seen in the transformed life the gospel brings. In verses one and two, Paul broadly describes this change. This transformation results in a person who is a “living sacrifice,” totally devoted to God. This transformation comes about through a refusal to conform to the values and lies of this world, but instead be transformed by the truth of God. We have seen that the first specific area Paul addresses with respect to the transforming nature of the gospel is in the area of Christian community.
We know that within Christian community, having the right, renewed-mind perspective of ourselves is foundational to living with one another as a family. If we think of ourselves more highly than we ought, there is no chance for healthy Christian community. Community is based on mutual submission to each other and if we think we are better or more important or worthy of more respect than someone else, authentic, family love is dead on arrival. We have also seen that community happens only when we are active in the community by using our gifts and serving with diligence and faithfulness.
Last week, our text provided another key to open the door to community. Paul said, we are to “love without hypocrisy, hating the evil, clinging to the good.” We said that our love must be genuine.” The “Minnesota Nice” phenomena is lethal to developing a church that is actually a family. Putting on a mask of superficial pleasantness, while at the same time harboring ill thoughts toward others, or refusing to confront others about their overt sin is hypocrisy. The church is generally superficial in how we relate to one another. There is little genuine, sacrificial caring because we only have to be around each other for an hour or two a week and we can keep the mask on for that length of time. Paul says, that to love a brother or sister is to hate the sin, the evil they commit because their sin not only dishonors God, it also destroys themselves. We seldom relate hating evil with loving someone, but Paul links the two here in the text. Love also clings to what is good.
This week, we move to verse ten as Paul is still dealing with the elements needed for the existence of authentic Christian community. The kind of community Jesus spoke of when he said, By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Paul says in verse ten, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
This text is difficult to structure. Paul does not follow any logical or sequential pattern of what Christian community is. Rather, he is laying out some of the building blocks needed to build a foundation upon which Christian community can rest. This list of virtues Paul gives here are necessary for genuine Christian community to be present. If Christian community were a house, these virtues are the indispensable foundation stones for the development of Christian community. But before we look at these virtues as a foundation for Christian community, I want to take some time to look at the flipside of that coin. By that I mean, it is not only true that virtues like the ones Paul lists here like “brotherly love, honor, zeal and hope” are essential for authentic Christian community. That is true, but it is also true that the best and (for some) the main context where these virtues will get worked into our character is when we intentionally place ourselves within genuine Christian community. And the lack of genuine Christian community in evangelicalism is a big reason why there are not more truly mature saints in the body of Christ.
A familiar text that helps us see the role community plays in enabling us to grow to maturity is Proverbs 27:17. That is, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The point of the text is to say that a crucial element needed for us to become like Christ is to make sure we regularly spend good amounts of time with other people, believers in particular. In modern parlance, this text could be expanded to mean, “As sandpaper removes imperfections, so significant contact with other people’s rough edges sands us down to look like Christ.” Now, some of this “sanding” is done by others who, (as we pointed out last week,) love us enough to, with gentleness and humility, bring correction to us. We all have blind spots and others are going to see them better than we can because we are blind to them. Biological family members can do some of this this, families, by their nature, tend to share the same blind spots and so are unable to bring correction in some areas. Some of this sharpening or sanding which is used to hone these Christian character virtues in us occur intentionally through the words of loving correction we speak to each other. As we are gently corrected by a brother or sister, we are called to humble ourselves and seek Christ to bring us to repentance in those sinful areas of our lives.
It is also true (and this is a grossly neglected truth today) that much of the sharpening and sanding occurs in us as we rub up against people whose “rough edges” bring out the worst in us. Let’s face it, there are people, (even and sometimes especially) people in the body of Christ who have certain habits or practices or demeanors that drive us up the wall. They really bother us. Typically, when that happens to evangelicals, we deal with it by finding ways to avoid those brothers and sisters. So often, we just put up socially acceptable barriers between us and them. We justify our avoidance by saying things like, “I just can’t be around them, they make me crazy.” And we feel perfectly alright with that.
But if we want Christian community where we relate to one another as a genuine family, avoiding those who bother us is not an option. This is NOT the way healthy families work. So, what is the answer? Here’s a clue, the answer is NOT to pray that those people will move away. No, the answer is far more radical than that. The answer is, when people drive us up the wall because of something they do or say or whatever, instead of firing off a quick dismissal of them, instead go to God and ask the simple question. “Lord, what is it that is wrong with my heart that this person should so powerfully trigger something so ugly in me?” Instead of looking at the other person and blaming them (and in so doing vindicating yourself,) ask God to show you what is wrong with you, why that person is doing should bothers you so much.
This is a clear implication of what Jesus says in Matthew seven when he says, “…why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye, and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, [let your love be without hypocrisy] first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” One implication of Christ’s teaching here is that when we see a problem in someone else’s life (and are irked by that) that we are look to ourselves first. “Why does this bother me so much?” Frequently, the problem we see in others may be less noxious to God than the problem in US that causes us to be so bothered by what is wrong with the other person. They have a speck in their eye but we have a log sticking out of our forehead. What is clear is that other people’s faults/idiosyncrasies and grating habits are intended by God to be used redemptively in our lives. Let me repeat that, “other people’s faults, idiosyncrasies and grating habits are intended by God to be used redemptively in our lives. Its as we find ourselves troubled by these things and look within ourselves for the log in our eye that we are led to the cross to die to whatever it is that is so bothered by that person.
This is a wonder, that God would use the sins, failures, faults, weaknesses and weirdness in other people’s lives to show us our own logs or blind spots. But know this: very little of that occurs unless we are willing to intentionally place ourselves in community with some people who drive us up the wall in some way! Its as we rub up against each other in this way in community, as we intentionally commit to sincerely love each other, that the power of the gospel is unleashed to transform us into the image of Christ. But if we do what most evangelicals do, that is, intentionally separate ourselves from people who rub us the wrong way, we will continue to walk around in blindness in the very areas that God has placed that person in our life to bring to light. If we only surround ourselves with people who are easy for us to be around, we will not be sanded down to Christ-likeness. Some people are especially hard to be around—they may be the very rough sandpaper in our lives. Maybe God wants to use them to take off really thick layers of our own self-centeredness. Is that the way we look at them? That’s Christian. If we just dismiss these people and insulate ourselves from them, God’s purpose for them in our lives will be largely canceled. And all of us are sandpaper to someone.
This failure to come together in genuine Christian community with people who in some ways trouble us is part of the reason why evangelicals tend to be so superficial. Its as we come to Christ and cry out to Him, “I know you call me to love this person as a brother, but frankly I can’t stand to be around them. Please forgive my sin and help me to love them with your love” God works powerfully in our lives as we humble ourselves and focus on ME and MY problem. “He gives grace to the humble, but opposes the proud.” Think about how arrogant we must appear to God when we come to him and, instead of praying that prayer of dependent humility pray instead, “Would you please straighten that guy out—he makes me crazy.” When God hears that prayer, mustn’t he think, “That’s exactly the reason I sent him into your life—to drive you crazy and to drive you to the cross so you could see the pettiness in you and allow Me to teach you how to love him as a brother.”
Now, this is hard work and this is part of the cost of Christian community. You intentionally place yourself in settings that are hard with some people who are difficult for you to be around. But this is Christianity. This is the life of the cross. This is redemption and redemption is always hard work. And this crucial part of redemption will never happen as long as we insulate ourselves from brothers and sisters and have only superficial contact with them. This won’t happen if we allow into our lives only those people who are easy for us to love. Jesus says, “…even the tax collectors love those who love them.” There is nothing distinctively Christian about loving people who are easy for us to love. The world does that every day of the year. No, what is different and what makes the world sit up and take notice is when we love people, accept them into our family, who they know they could never love. And you know what, when they see this group of people who will love anybody, it may just hearten them to think that maybe that group could love them too. That’s so powerful.
When we love people who are messed up, goofed up, switched up, screwed up (and that is ALL of us in some respects) THEN, God is glorified. This kind of love means grace is present. This is supernatural. If this kind of inexplicable love is not present, we are more of a club than the church of Christ. A club is a group of people who agree to accept one another because there is something about each one that makes them acceptable to the group. A commonly shared characteristic like a mutual hobby, past time, income level or lifestyle. Those kind of things are the unifying forces in a club. Sadly, the church often looks more like that kind of conditional-acceptance-club than the family of God. So often, our unity is based not in our common love and union with Christ, but by our mutually held interests—music, art, sports, education. Those things are all well and good for the world. But the difference between the church and the world is there is supposed to be something stronger and transcendent that binds the church together—Jesus Christ. And that means that rich and poor, educated and uneducated, professional and blue collar, old and young, black and white should come together and enjoy a community that cannot be explained any other way than the fact that Jesus Christ unites them. If that isn’t true of us, then we are more like a club than the family of God. If this vision of the church (as a family where we rub off the self-centered edges from one another) doesn’t attract us, then there is something radically wrong with us.
Perhaps the greatest example of this which most of you have undoubtedly heard before is the group of unlikely people the Lord Jesus drew together. There is much that could be said about how different these people were in some respects. First, you have Simon the Zealot, a man who had given his life to the overthrow of Roman tyranny over the Jews. Sitting across the table from him at dinner was Matthew, the tax collector. A Jew who had sold out and actually worked for the Roman government and no doubt had profited like other tax collectors by skimming a portion of the money that would be used to finance Roman control over the Jews and keeping for himself. I wonder if they ever talked politics. Matthew was also well to do, throwing banquets for people at his own home, while most of the rest of the crowd was blue collar and smelled like dead fish. No chance for bigotry to enter in there, was there?
Then there was James and John, the sons of thunder, inclined to call down fire on people’s heads who didn’t treat them right. How would you like to confront them? Do they sound like warm, fuzzies? Then there was Judas Iscariot. His name indicates he was from Judea. He was the only Judean of the bunch. All the rest were from Galilee as far as we know. The Judeans hated the Galileans and saw them as crude frontier hicks. This was the man who carried the money for the others. Think about that for a minute. Then there was Simon Peter. Do we need to say anything about him?—brash, impulsive. He had enough nerve to take Jesus aside and rebuke him. This man scares me. My flesh would avoid his type like the plague. And we know these men weren’t spiritual giants. They had a tendency to argue among themselves as to who was the greatest among them. That topic would have slight tendency to divide, rather than unite. How on earth did these twelve manage to stay together for three years without mauling each other? Surely, this is one of the unsung miracles of Jesus.
The truth is, the men had something bigger than themselves to unite them...much bigger. They, with the exception of Judas, loved Jesus and that is what unites very different kinds of people, love for Christ. All other differences fade into oblivion in the light of that reality. If we aren’t getting along with someone in the body, the first question we should ask is not, “What is wrong with them?” But, “Why don’t I love Jesus enough to accept and love them?” Surely, part of what honed them into men who would die for Jesus was the very fact that living in community with one another brought them into contact with the ugly truth about themselves and how desperately they needed Christ and his work on the cross. Surely, it was the presence of community, relating to each other as brothers for three years that was, in part, used to make them into mature disciples of Christ.
Here are some examples of how the presence of Christian community works to bring redemption into our lives. If you want to find out how patient (part of the fruit of the Spirit) you are, spend lots of time with someone you are called to love but who has a grating habit that you detest. That will show you just how supernaturally patient you are. If you want to find out how much supernatural kindness you have, see how kindly you relate to people whose personal idiosyncrasies are like fingernails on a black board to you. If you want to find out how faithful you are, see how long you are willing to minister to someone who seemingly, every time you try to help them, lashes out at you. That’s what deeply hurting people do—they lash out at people who try to help them.
Christian community shows us our hearts in a unique and powerful way. It can be valuable in showing us our hearts in ways that a good sermon could seldom be. Christian community is part of the laboratory of Christian life where the lessons of the sermons and Sunday school lessons are worked out. Genuine, Christian community is often the anvil where Christian character is pounded out and if we are not experiencing this, we are never going to be very much like Christ. And that is simply not an option for a person who is being transformed by the gospel. The point to remember about this is that not only is Christian community built on the foundations of Christian virtues, but many Christian virtues are only developed in the presence of genuine Christian community.
Having said that, let’s go back to the text for a brief introduction of the truth found there. Let’s read it again. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.” We have been focussing on the power of Christian community as a tool God uses to work the fruit of the Spirit into us. Now, we turn to Paul’s main point and that is “Christian community occurs when brothers and sisters manifest Christian virtue.” Don’t miss this. Christian community as Paul sees it here as an expression of the gospel doesn’t just occur when you put a bunch of Christians together.
If you chose nine men at random and put them together, you couldn’t with any validity say, “There’s a baseball team.” The only thing that group has in common with a baseball team is the correct number of people. A baseball team is made up of individuals who have some level of skill and play together as a team. Likewise, Christian community is not present just because you have a bunch of Christians congregate in one place at one time. God-honoring community CAN occur there, but there must be in place certain foundation stones that are necessary for Christian community to express the gospel. These foundational elements are certain virtues which Paul gives here.
Perhaps the best way to structure this text is to use the structure Paul uses in the original language. Paul uses seven prepositional phrases that communicate the main Christian virtues necessary for Christian community. Then, he connects to each prepositional phrase to an expression of that virtue. Let me give you the structure. He says literally, “in brotherly love, be devoted to one another. In honor, give preference to one another. With zeal, not laziness, boil over in your spirit, serving the Lord. In hope, be joyful (or rejoice). In tribulation, endure. In prayer, be faithful or attend constantly. To the needs of the saints, contribute. And he concludes with “practice hospitality.” Do you hear that each one of those prepositional phrases presents a basic Christian virtue. Then, Paul elaborates on how that virtue actually looks in the presence of Christian community.
Brotherly love expresses itself in devotion—a warm, family kind of love for one another. Honor, (and honor means the value you place on each other) is expressed concretely by placing other people’s needs ahead of your own. You are to show the honor you have for one another by putting your own needs and wants at the end of the line. When Paul gets to zeal, he feels the need to qualify it with “not laziness.” The implication is that we are by nature lazy people. The law of inertia states that objects in a state of rest have a tendency to remain at rest unless they are acted on by some external force. We are all subject to that. We are by nature, people who tend to remain at rest unless something propels us into action. Christian community needs zeal, but not a zeal that is unfocussed or only emotional or superficial. This zeal is to be expressed in serving the Lord. It is to be focussed on serving the Lord.
Hope is expressed in rejoicing or showing joy. Hope is what we get by knowing the future will be bright as long as we have Jesus and He is in control. This hope that looks forward should be expressed in joy as we feel the freedom to NOT worry about the future but have hope in a loving Lord and his good, acceptable and perfect will. Those truths about our future should manifest in joy as we look to Jesus. Notice, our joy is not tied to our present circumstances. Our hope is linked to the certainty that Jesus is in our future and His will for us is good, perfect and acceptable. Good, perfect and acceptable is not the same as easy or comfortable. God’s will is seldom easy or comfortable. If it was, we wouldn’t need Him. Our joy is tied to the fact that the future will be good because He is in it and He is working all things, pleasant and unpleasant together for good and we will spend eternity with Him. Because I have hope, joy bubbles up with me. Joy is the fruit of hope. No joy, no hope.
In tribulation, we are called to express endurance. The word endurance literally means “to remain under.” Christian community is seen when the body goes through difficult times together or maybe just when one member suffers and the rest of the body helps them to “remain under” the weight—to stay on their feet when they feel like they will collapse. Tribulation will come and Christian community is expressed when we are used of God to help each other “remain under” without collapsing from the weight of the trial. In prayer, Christian community is expressed in faithfulness. The word literally means to “constantly attend to.” Constantly attending to prayer is a building block of Christian community. This kind of prayer keeps the evil one at bay. This kind of prayer binds us together and keeps us from resenting one another. It’s hard to stay angry at someone you are constantly praying for. Without prayer, all the rest of the virtues will not occur because they are only present when people humbly pray them in from God’s throne room.
Finally, we will conclude with the aspect of community that is expressed when the body contributes to the needs of the saints. At any one time in the body, some believers will have material needs and community is expressed when the body comes together and takes care of the needs. This doesn’t mean they throw money mindlessly at irresponsible people. There is room for gentle, loving correction here as well. But we see this expression of community in Acts chapter six when the apostles formed the first group of deacons who were enlisted to meet the material needs of the Grecian Jewish widows. These women had a need and it was simply assumed that this need was to be met by the church. Acts four gives us a snapshot of how this worked in the early church. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…(v.34) There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
There appeared to be among
the early believers an aversion to owning anything because the needs of the community dictated what they did with
their material goods. Its
no wonder these people turned the world upside down.
Can you see the beauty of this community where these foundational
virtues are present? A
family where brotherly love is shown in warm, family love, where honor is given to each other by putting each others
needs above our own, where there is genuine zeal to serve the Lord, where there is hope that rejoices and support
to help those in tribulation endure. Where there is constant prayer which fuels this community and where the material
needs of the saints are met by those in the body who have an abundance.
That is community in the church.
That is heaven on earth.
And this is what will communicate to the world that we belong to Jesus. May God
give us grace to want this and to see that Christian community not only requires Christian virtue, it also provides
a context where it is produced in our lives.
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