- Up, In & Out: In
- Genesis 2:18; Ephesians 4:15; Romans 15:7; 1 Corinthians 12:7; James 5:16
- Lyndol Loyd January 26, 2020
I’d like to ask, if you don’t mind, that right now you take a look at the back of the head of the person in front of you. This is kind of the picture, to me, of what happens in churches. Sometimes people go to church and just stare at nothing but the back of the head of the person in front of them week after week, month after month, sometimes for years, and you never see that person’s face.
I was thinking, “That could be the back of the head of somebody who could change your life.” It could be the back of the head of somebody who might become your best friend, or might stand with you through the great crises of your life, or might pray for you, or might open doors to possibilities for you that God would use in amazing ways. You never know if all you ever see is the back of their head.
Let’s try a little experiment to test how easy it is to connect. We don’t want to look at just the backs of heads today. I’m going to count to three, and then, if you would, turn around so the person behind you can see your face. Here we go. One…two…three.
The last two weeks, we looked at this dimension of “Up,” our relationship with God, going into a transforming relationship with Jesus. Today we’re looking at “In,” and that’s being in authentic community with each other. I want to talk about why community matters in life and what Christian community looks like.
We are designed for community. We are created for it. Genesis 2:18 states, “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” Just like a tree is rooted in the earth, and that’s where it gets nourished, human beings are created to be rooted in the hearts of other human beings.
Community is the assurance that somebody else loves me, is for me, pays attention to me, watches over me, is the indispensable condition of healthy, stable life. Our well-being depends on community.
A guy named Robert Putnam, a little over a decade ago, wrote the classic, definitive study of community in our modern-day society. It’s called Bowling Alone. He cited research which states that the most isolated people are three times more likely to die than relationally connected people.
Putnam said if you do nothing else, if right now you’re not part of a small group, if you just join a small group, it cuts the odds of your dying in this next year in half. We are going to make that the motto of our discipleship ministries — “Join a group or die!”
Another study looked at hundreds of people who volunteered to be infected by the virus that produces the common cold. Odd study to volunteer for, but a bunch of people did. It turns out that relationally isolated people are four times more likely to get sick than people in community. They have higher levels of virus, and they produce significantly more mucus than connected people. I am not making this up. Unfriendly people are snottier than friendly people.
We don’t grow just in isolation. Paul says this to the church at Ephesus in Ephesians 4:15, “Speaking the truth in love to each other, we will grow to become in every respect not mature individuals, but the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Growth requires community.
When I’m by myself, I can deceive myself. I can read, “Love one another,” and think, “Well, I agree with that. I’m pro-love. I’m all for love,” and I give myself credit for maturity on the love scale. Then I run into actual people, and it gets scary.
I was driving home one day when I came to an intersection. There was a guy who was wanting to cross the street. I was in my car at a stop sign. I waved for him to cross the street because I’m a pastor, and he might recognize me, and I’m being humble and patient. But he didn’t cross the street; he waved for me to pass. I said, “No, I’m following Jesus. The first shall be last. I don’t want to lose this star in my crown. You go first; I’ll go last.” He wouldn’t go. He told me, “You go.”
After a couple of times of doing this, I started to feel like he was trying to boss me around; like he’s trying to tell me what to do. I’m not going to do what he’s telling me to do. “I’m not going first; you go first.” We just sat there waving at each other, and nobody would move. I finally backed up and went around the block in reverse just so he wouldn’t get the satisfaction of making me go first. Can you believe how immature he was being? Okay, not really, but you get my point.
In isolation, I will give myself credit for growth based on my hypothetical agreement with the Scripture, and I can get all moved about how much I love God. It takes real people for me to see how much sin there is in me, just what a knucklehead I am, and that “knuckleheadedness” is always there. It’s in community that we see the truth about ourselves.
It’s in community that we help each other recognize our blind spots. It’s in community that we get loved and encouraged and taught and admonished with one another and cheered to keep going. We grow in community. There’s this great misconception, “I can grow just me and God all by myself.” No one can grow in isolation.
Paul writes in Romans 15:7, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” This is a really serious command. This command is written as an imperative.
How does Christ accept you? Does He ask what race you are? Does He ask whether you’re rich or poor? Does he ask if you’re smart or dumb? Does he ask whether you’re male or female, or beautiful or homely; whether you’re married or single or divorced, whether you’re charming or awkward, whether you’re athletic or uncoordinated? No. Jesus’ only question is, “Do you want my love?”
At the center of human history, over the rubble of failed human community, stands the towering form of the cross. Its very shape suggests the two dimensions of its work. The upright post of the cross stands for the restoration of my community and my relationship with God. I’m that vertical post.
I’m reminded God came down as low as He could go. In Christ, God came all the way down from his transcendent, holy perfection, all the way down into the abyss, into the pit of my sin, my deception, my brokenness. Jesus died on that cross so my sin could be forgiven, so my debt could be erased, so I could be reconciled to God. That’s the vertical bar.
Then there’s a crossbar, and on that bar, Jesus’ hands were stretched as wide as they could go. Those outstretched hands say every single human being on this planet matters to God. Every human matters equally to God. Nobody more, nobody less. Those outstretched hands on that crossbar say that in His new community, old barriers, old hostilities, old lovelessness, old alienations, have been destroyed at the ultimate cost of the death of the Son of God.
He has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of enmity, through the cross by which he put to death their hostility.
God hates division, favoritism, and elitism. God hates it when we put Caucasians at the top and minorities below. God hates it when we put the rich at the top and losers below. God hates it when we put men at the top and women below.
God hates it when the beautiful are put at the top and the unbeautiful below. God hates it when I put people who look like me, dress like me, think like me, talk like me, my tastes, my style, my preferences, my culture, my generation at the top and others below. That is not the beauty of the church. That is the strategy of hell.
This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Each person is given something to do that shows who God is. Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! This is joyful servanthood.
When I thought about the spirit of servanthood, I thought about riding on an airplane. Have any of you been on an airplane recently? Was there a spirit of joyful servanthood all over the plane?
Patrick Lindsay (a great writer about business and a great Christ-follower) talked recently about being on a plane with crew members who just didn’t want to be there. They just didn’t want to serve, and everybody could feel it. They had bad attitudes, grudging spirits, and joyless faces.
What was worse, Patrick said, just before takeoff, there was a video where the CEO of this airline greeted the passengers and said, “Service is the hallmark of our company.” Really? The video was filled with smiling, happy crew members who couldn’t wait to take care of the passengers. Patrick said the gap between the rhetoric of the video and the reality on the plane was just painful. He felt embarrassed for the crew members who were watching it.
Patrick said he would have preferred the CEO to do the video and just be honest, to say something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying our airline. Though we say you have a choice, these days, you probably don’t, as we may be the only airline serving this route right now. I know all too well the service you get when you fly with us is terribly inconsistent, if not downright unfriendly. Unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, I can’t get into here, it is difficult for us to get rid of surly flight attendants and, for that matter, reward the really good ones. But I hope you’re fortunate enough to have a really good one today. If not, I hope the overall experience isn’t too unpleasant.”
Patrick said, “I would have stood up and applauded if he would have said that on the video.” It’s better to do servanthood without talking about it than to talk about servanthood without doing it.
One of the ways we’re going to measure how we’re doing around the “in” component is through spiritual gifts. How many folks have identified their spiritual gift(s) and are involved in building up the body of Jesus here, not just by serving, but by serving as part of a small team?
A bad thing can happen in churches, and I’ve seen it happen. Certain people can get called ministers, and folks in the church think they’re the ones who do the ministry, and other people just watch the ministry, and it doesn’t count unless a minister does it.
Community is always built on mutual servanthood. Do you understand God’s plan for His church is that it be a community of servants organized around spiritual gifts? There has never been an organizational principle as brilliant as that in the history of human thought. God’s plan for the church was to give everybody who follows Jesus a spiritual gift, by the Spirit, and that the church ought to be organized around that with no higher tier or lesser tier.
Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me…” In other words, “I’m not coerced. I don’t have to do this. I lay it down of my own accord, voluntarily. I have the power to lay it down; I have the power to take it back up.”
Jesus is the ultimate volunteer. The incarnation, the crucifixion, is the ultimate act of volunteerism. The Trinity, the ultimate circle of sufficiency, is from all eternity a volunteer community. We love that word.
We heal in community. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” We heal in community. You will never heal all by yourself in isolation. It will not happen. This is where, as is always true, Christian community is about more than just bodies being in the same room. It requires vulnerability, and that takes courage. This goes way deep to what it means to be human. This is a spiritual reality.
Genesis tells us the first human beings were naked. Have you ever observed that nakedness is a condition that only applies to human beings? We never say, “Look at that naked cow,” or “Look at that naked pig.”
But it’s true about human beings. We are vulnerable, and when we hide, we die. When we come into the light, we can be known. When we are known and loved, we can be healed. This is the way life in the spiritual realm works. But it takes courage.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was intent on this kind of community amongst believers in Christ. He formed people into what were known as “Bands,” no not musical groups, think more like our life groups, but with the purpose of people having others to be authentic and real with; with the purpose of accountability.
Each time they met, they would ask each other the following questions:
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
- Have you just lied in any of your responses?
Some of you are hearing that, and it feels a little extreme to you. You find that kind of thought to be a little bit out there. But let me ask you this, what kind of a difference would that level of friendship and connection make in your life?
The truth is that every time we have to step into the light, it’s embarrassing to us. Every time we confess, it’s kind of embarrassing, but every time, we heal a little bit. We’re moving toward the light. If we could be that kind of place with each other, where there’s no pretense, and we’re all moving toward the light, what difference would that make in your life?
Where are you hiding? Is it around money? Is it around sex? Is it around alcohol? Is it some habit? Is it something you’ve done in your past? Is it some attitude? Is it judgmentalism or bitterness? Will you come into the light? We heal in community.
We’re made for community, we grow in community, we get accepted in community, we serve in community, we heal in community
I mentioned human beings’ need for community is unchanging. One thing is changing, and that is people get more and more isolated, especially here where we live.
One study in 1985 asked folks if they had someone to talk to about important matters. 10% of people then said, “I have no one to talk to about important matters.” By 2010 it was up to 25%. “I have no one to talk to about important matters.”
If you’re not in a life group, get in a life group. If you’re not serving, find out what your spiritual gift is and be part of a small team. Maybe you’ve been blessed by Christian community for years, but you’ve just been taking in, taking in, taking in, and God is saying, “Come on. Step up. Give back. You ought to be leading a small community here. You ought to be finding some folks who are not connected by now and inviting them to be part of a small community where you can care for and love them.”