A Christian Community
We are continuing a series of sermons today entitled Building…a Church for Life. Next week as we prepare to hold our church conference and vote on the proposed renovation and expansion project we will conclude the series. But over the last several weeks I felt it vitally important for us to rethink and refocus on what it means for us to be the church. Why do we exist? What is our purpose? What did Jesus want from His people? What difference does the church make in the world? And finally truly what does it mean for us to build a church for life? Because the reality is that if a church doesn’t have that figured out and settled then all of the buildings and all of the other outward and external things don’t even matter.
In week 1 we recognized that Jesus called the church to gather them together to prepare them to go back out into the world and to pursue His mission in the world. The church is the hands, feet and voice of Christ in the world. This means going into the world seeking to do justice, seeking to care for those who are hungry and those who are hurting and those who are in need.
Last week we talked about how Jesus welcomed the social outcast, the pariahs, the people that were considered sinners and tax collectors. And we said if the church is really being the church of Jesus Christ today then we are going to model a community that welcomes all people and that loves people regardless of where they are.
Now one of the prime values of people today, and especially of younger people is social networks; its friendships. So this generation gave us MySpace and Facebook and Twitter. And you know my kids – you know when I was growing up, I maybe had 10 friends. My kids have 100’s of friends around the world, people they’ve never even met but they talk to every single week and they share pictures and they share life with each other. And you know the rest of us who are older than 30 are sort of figuring this out and getting connected with more people in our lives. We place a high value on having connections, friendships, people who are doing life together with you.
And you know what’s interesting is the church is a community of people who come together to do life together; to support one another, to care for one another, and encourage one another.
Ideally the church is such that you don’t have to wear a mask when you come to the church and you pretend to be something that you’re not, but instead you’re welcomed where you are and people come along side you to bear your burdens, to carry your stretcher, and whose stretchers you carry. And I believe that if people saw that in the church they would say, “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. That’s what it means to be human; to be in relationship with one another.”
Now I want to remind you that we were made for companionship. God created Adam and the story tells us he was formed from the dust of the earth. God breathed into him the breath of life, placed him in paradise; the Garden of Eden. But then God looked at him and said this. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make for him a helper as his companion.” So God created us as human beings with the need for companionship and help. And then God created the new and improved model of the human being, the woman, and brought the woman to the man. And this story is not just about marriage it’s about life. We need other people.
And you know we understand that inherently. Even those of us who are introverts know that we need other people, and friendship and companionship is really important.
God has called us to build a place where people can grow in relationship to one another. Where people know your name. Where there are people who care for you. And where when you’re with them you can just be real. Where when you get together you help each other through life’s challenges and through the blessings of life, you celebrate. We need that. And the church is meant to be that for us.
Now this is important not only for your spiritual life and well being, but for your physical well being, I was reading a study this week by Doug Oman, this is actually several years old now from the University of California at Berkeley, the School of Public Health.[i] He collected data over 31 years on 6,545 adults in Alameda County. And what he found was that non-church goers, people who weren’t actively involved in a faith community were 21% more likely to die early or earlier than those who had a faith community. That being involved in a faith community had a significant impact on one’s physical health. In addition to that he found that people who didn’t go to church were 66% more likely to die of respiratory diseases and 99% more likely to die of digestive diseases by virtue of not being involved in a faith community.
Now what was it that made the difference? Well part of it of course is that when your connected with God in faith you turn your burdens over to God, the things that cause your stomach to be in knots well aren’t quite as knotty when you’re laying them before God. You find God’s peace and that helps and so the stress level s are lower of course when we’re engaged in our faith.
But one of the key factors was that people who had other friends in the church had people who cared for them and encouraged them and sustained them. When they were sick people brought meals to them. When they were in the hospital people came to cheer them up. When they were going through divorce or other crisis people sustained them through those periods of stress. That’s the difference being involved in a church makes in our lives. And so we were made for companionship.
Now the apostle Paul in Romans chapters 12-16, really describes what Christian community is meant to look like. Our passage of scripture today comes from the beginning of that, from Romans 12. And throughout those verses he’s teaching us how to be the church and he says this is what you should do in the church.
Now there are three Greek words that are found several times throughout these verses I want to share with you and if you have room on your bulletin you might want to write them down. These are words that define what Christian community looks like in the New Testament. I’d like for you to be able to remember them and to tell other people what these words mean.
The first one is a word many of you have heard before – I shared it with you a couple of weeks ago – it’s the word agape. And agape is usually translated love, but it’s a kind of love that isn’t really a feeling. Agape is the love that I show you by my actions even if I don’t feel it. So when the New Testament talks about what Jesus does on the cross and how He shows us the full extent of God’s love, it says he shows us the full extent of God’s agape by hanging on the cross, giving Himself for the world. Sacrificial love given for other people even though they don’t deserve it nor do you necessarily feel like giving it, but you give it anyway. That’s agape.
Jesus said this, “The world will know that you are my disciples in that you agape one another.” So part of what it means to be followers of Christ in the church is to demonstrate sacrificial love to others even when you don’t feel like it – even others who don’t have a right to claim it from you.
The second Greek word that defines what the church is supposed to be about is a word that maybe you’ve heard, a word called koinonia, and koinonia is a word that is most often translated as fellowship in the New Testament or community or it’s also translated as communion. So when we have Holy Communion in worship we’re having holy koinonia; we’re having a sharing in a relationship with Christ by means of the bread and the cup and we’re sharing with one another. So communion binds us together. It’s a family meal. And it connects us with God. We have communion, we have koinonia with God. This sharing together.
As a community, as a church we’re meant to share fellowship with one another. The New Testament says the Christians devoted themselves to fellowship with one another. So we get to know each other. We’re involved in our lives with each other. We’re helping each other, we encouraging one another.
And then finally that last of the Greek words is philadelphia, that kind of brotherly love or mutual affection that we’re meant to have towards one another that says that I’m bound to you like you’re a blood brother or a blood sister. I am bound to care for you like I would care for my siblings, because we are bound together in Christ.
These three words agape, koinonia, and philadelphia characterize how churches are supposed to act toward one another.
Now my hope is that you’re beginning to get the impression that joining a church and coming and experiencing inspiring music and a good sermon and then walking out the door is not what it means to be the church. Even putting your tithe in the offering plate, those are part of what it means to be the church, but that’s not really what it means to be the church.
To be the church is about a relationship you have with other people in Christ; how you sustain and carry them.
We saw that in action on Friday and over the last several days as so many of you opened your hearts and hands to show love and compassion and support for the family of Barry Ford. Barry was a lifelong resident of Sterling Park and well loved and respected coach and friend to many. And Friday night as over 400 people gathered here to celebrate his life many of you pitched in to help in many ways behind the scenes from setting up, to ushering, providing food, and hospitality. And I heard so many people comment on how warm and friendly our church had been and how much that meant to the family and to everyone who gathered here.
You know what you showed them? You showed them agape, and you showed them koinonia, and you showed them philadelphia. And that’s not something that is soon forgotten.
But here’s the question I have for you? What is it about our church that won’t soon be forgotten, besides of course the memory of their beloved brother and friend? Will it be my sermon? Well maybe a little bit. But I think primarily it will be the way the people showed them agape, koinonia, and philadelphia.
I mentioned last week that most people don’t come to faith because of our well crafted arguments. We have to know how to make the case for the Christian faith. But most people come to Christ because they see a case for Christ lived out in our lives. They experience His love.
Now let’s pause there and recognize that the church is this wonderful ideal of a community of people who truly give and truly love and truly demonstrate the grace of God to all people, all the time. And in the New Testament, the book of Revelation we find the church is portrayed as the bride of Christ, pure and spotless. But the reality is not like that. The church is not perfect. This church is not perfect. No church is perfect. And many times the church fails to live up to the ideal. It’s an ideal that we live towards but we’re not going to be perfect.
And so you need to be prepared for that. When you join a church you need to know it’s not going to be perfect. Why? Because none of you are perfect; nor me. And we’re all going to fall short and sometimes that disappointment is most profound because we expect the church to be this wonderful high and lofty thing and sometimes the reality is something else.
I was talking with someone the other day and he said he had gone to a large church in our area. He had been very involved in the men’s ministry there. He had given over 4 years volunteering as a leader in that ministry and in that church and then his life circumstances changed and he could no longer do that and he drifted away and he said no one has ever even called him; its been several years and not a soul.
I talked to someone recently here in our own church who had been in the hospital for 4 days and nobody from our church had even acknowledged that or had stopped by to visit them, me included. And it was really disappointing for them. This person felt uncared for and unloved. An active member of our congregation.
And I thought, you know there’s something not connecting here because you know I try very hard not to allow that to happen. I think it’s very important to visit with you when you’re in the hospital, and we have others around here that help me out with that when I’m not able to go. So I asked, “Did you let us know?” And they said, “Well I told somebody from the church and they were supposed to let the office know.” I checked with Maureen in the office and she didn’t know about it either.
Well there was a mishap somewhere. There was a breakdown along the way. There was a piece of information that didn’t where it needed to go. I would have wanted to be there. Others who volunteer in this area would have been there. But for the person who’s sitting in the hospital, they don’t know that. They just know nobody showed up.
So here I want to just encourage you in this way if somebody doesn’t show up and you’re in the hospital the second day in a row, call us! Tell us, “Hey I’m in the hospital. Nobodies coming to see me.” Because I want to be there for you. We want to be there for you. We want to care for you. We want to love you. But sometimes somebody forgets to tell somebody and then we miss it.
Um, email. I have people email me or actually catch me after church sometimes and say, “You know I volunteered to help in this particular area of ministry and I sent an email and nobody ever called me back. Nobody ever responded to my email. And it kind of made me feel like maybe the church doesn’t really need me.”
I understand that feeling. You know, you email somebody and you expect a response. You call and you offer to give your time and nobody responds to you. And that’s just not a good feeling. And I believe our staff on the whole does a very good job responding to each email and phone call.
But I also want you to know just a little bit about what that’s like on this end. I did a little rough calculation and I figure that I get about 100 emails per day. Now when you filter out all of the junk mail and so forth that number is probably something more realistically about 50 or so a day. And I think that’s pretty typical for most all of our current ministry staff and office staff. If you do the math for our entire staff that roughly equals about 150,000 emails per year. So if we only miss the mark 1 out of every 1000 emails, if 1 out of 1000 we don’t respond to that’s about 13 people a month who didn’t hear back from us. That’s about 156 people a year who can say to me in the narthex, “Did you get my email? Or you know I sent an email and I didn’t hear back from anyone.”
So here’s what I want to say. I hope we are doing as well as 1 out of 1000, but if you don’t hear a response pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I didn’t get a response and I want to volunteer. I need some information. I need some help.” Whatever it might be. And then recognize the need for grace for the people you’re sending those emails to.
Here’s what I think about email: I love email. It is the most awesome amazing thing that was ever invented, and I curse the day it was born. Because it’s just sometimes – I was reading as some business guy was talking about the email tsunami. And that’s what it feels like to me sometimes. It’s like wave after wave of emails. And please don’t stop sending them, but I’m just saying it’s just hard sometimes to figure out how to keep up with that. And it’s not just me because I know when I email you I don’t always hear back from you either.
So sometimes we miss the mark in that way. But you know sometimes it’s more serious than that. Sometimes someone in church says something that really hurts your feelings. They did something that was really just they shouldn’t have done. Sometimes they don’t recognize it. And sometimes they figure it out later. Sometimes people in church gossip and they backbite. That shouldn’t happen. Most of the New Testament is written to address things just like that. Because in the early church, the New Testament forbids us from gossiping because the early Christians were excellent at it. And so the New Testament writers had to address it.
You know Jesus says this – He only uses the word church twice in all the gospels. The first was as we learned a couple of weeks ago when He says to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
The second time is in Matthew 18 where He says, “When your brother or sister wrongs you in the church go to them directly and tell them what they’ve done so you can make amends.” It’s interesting. Jesus had to address this because He knew in the church we were going to hurt each other sometimes.
Now notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “When somebody hurts you go tell your entire small group or Sunday school class about that terrible wretch that did something wrong to you.” It says go to the person and talk to them. And then you can be restored.”
Well part of what we recognize is that the church is not perfect. And this is why the New Testament authors wrote things like this. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 - a passage that we read at weddings but was really meant to teach the church how to be the church. Here’s what Paul expects of you if you’re going to be a Christian in community with other Christians. You’re going to love – there’s that word agape again - he says, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” He’s saying how we’re supposed to live and not live towards one another. He says, “Love does not insist on its own way in the church. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth.” This is how we’re supposed to treat one another as we try to demonstrate this kind of agape, that is selfless, not arrogant or boastful or proud or rude or irritable or seeking its own way. But instead is patient and kind.
Paul says this in Colossians 3; another passage we often read at weddings. But he says this: “Bear with one another (he’s talking to the church), Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against each other, forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven you so you also must forgive.”
I saw a woman a few weeks ago after church and she was telling me, she’s from another city and she said, “You know one of the leaders in my church said something mean to me the other day and it hurt my feelings and I’m thinking of going to go find another church.” And you know in the early church they couldn’t do that. There was only one church in Colossi. When your feelings got hurt you couldn’t go down the road to another church.
And I said, “Have you ever said anything that hurt somebody else’s feelings?” She stopped and she said, “Well yes. Lots of times I suppose.” I said, “Well if you’ve done that to other people you’ve got to allow that sometimes people are going to do that to you. And what this requires is grace. “
Listen the church can’t survive without grace. We’re going to hurt each other’s feelings. Some of you, you’ve hurt my feelings in the past. And I have hurt your feelings in the past. Didn’t mean to sometimes. Didn’t understand that it hurt your feelings, but I’ve done that. If I quit the church as your pastor every time somebody had something negative to say or somebody hurt my feelings I would have left after the first week. If the church fired me every time I did something somebody didn’t like or hurt somebody else’s feelings, I would have been fired after the first month.
But here’s what we have in the church, we have grace. To say, “You know what, I know you’re not perfect and you’re going to make mistakes and I’m going to love you anyway.” And when we say that to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ we have a chance for authentic community. And when we don’t say it there is hope for us ever in any church to find real community – not without grace.
Ok I want to begin to wrap this up and paint a picture for you of what authentic Christian community; what it looks like when we practice agape, koinonia, and philadelphia.
I asked this week on my Facebook page, I said, “Have you ever experienced the real love of the church family? And would you mind just telling me your story?” And I had about 20 people who sent me their stories. Most of them from SUMC and I just picked 3 of the 20 or so that came in. They were all amazing and all along these same lines. I read these to you to say this is what it means to be a member of a church – not showing up to get a good sermon, inspiring music and walking out the door, but actually doing these kinds of things for each other.
So one young woman wrote, “Two years ago my dad died and it hit me hard. I hadn’t been to church in years but, people from SUMC brought food and even attended his funeral. This showed me that people who knew my family supported me by extension. I am now a fully active member of the church and love attending every service and event I can!! Thank you SUMC for restoring my faith!!”
Another person said,” So we just moved to the area and [our son] was born a couple months later...10 days after that, he was in an operating room having heart surgery to correct a heart Issue...the love and support that poured out of SUMC was amazing. We were not even members (yet) and everybody treated us like family. We are forever grateful to experience the love of a true church family.”
Finally listen to this one. “In October 1992 my husband had a severe heart attack and wasn't expected to make it through the night. He was 38 years old and we had 3 month old twins at the time. My SUMC family babysat, cleaned, did laundry and grocery shopped for me so I could be at the hospital with him while he was hospitalized. Then, in February 1996 he died. Christ carried me but when he put me down SUMC walked with me, prayed for me, stayed with me and helped any way they could. Many lifelong friendships were made. If it hadn't have been for my church family I don't know how I would have gotten through all these years raising my girls as a single mom since they were 3 1/2 years old. SUMC has been my prayer warriors through death, health, stress, and happiness. SUMC will always be family....no matter where I am!”
What these three describe for you is agape, and koinonia, and philadelphia. The folks who helped them out, do you think that they are just people who are out there who are not very busy in their lives and they were just waiting for something to do? Or do you think the people who showed up to help them were busy and they’re going 100 miles an hour and they said, “But you know to be a Christian, to be a part of the church family is to stop and help people maybe who we even don’t know.”
Are you willing to be that kind of church? Are you personally willing when you know somebody in your network or your neighborhood, or who goes to this church, and they're in need, would you stop and help? Would you encourage and care for, would you bear their burdens? Because that’s what it means to be the church. And here’s what I want you to know, the day will come where you’re going to need that from somebody else. Will you already have been living it towards them before you have need?
This is how we make it in life. This is how we live longer in life and healthier and have a great quality of life, by virtue of this kind of community.
Let’s continue to seek to build this kind of church. A church called to go out and to change the world. A church that welcomes everybody, regardless of whom they are or where they’re at. And finally let’s build a church that lives out what it means to live in community, where people actually love one another. Let’s be that kind of church. Let’s be a church that practices agape, koinonia, and philadelphia. Let’s build…a church for life.
While your heads are bowed and your eyes are closed, I’d ask you just to pray this prayer with me, quietly under your breath if you’d whisper these words to God:
Lord helps me to love. Help me to give of myself to care for others. To put the needs of others before my own. Help me to forgive those who have wronged me; to show them grace. And may we be a church that seeks to change the world, to welcome all of Your children, and to love people well. In Jesus name. Amen.
[i] Oman D, Thoresen CE, "Does Religion Cause Health?": Differing Interpretations and Diverse Meanings, Journal of Health Psychology, 7(4):365-380. 2002