March 17, 2013

Walking Together

If there are any readers of newspaper comics in here, you will almost certainly be familiar with Family Circus originally drawn by Bill Keane and now by his son.  The strip centers on little Billy and his siblings and they have been running around having a variety of misadventures for years.  While I can usually count on Keane’s work to give me a laugh, my favorite panels are always the ones in which we are given a perspective on how Billy gets from one place to another.  He might be walking from the kitchen to the living room, but he makes about three loops around the neighborhood in order to get there.  Having had the opportunity to observe Noah and Josiah a pretty fair bit, I have come to the conclusion that Keane’s estimation of Billy’s routes is about accurate.  If we ask Josiah to come to us in the dining room when he is sitting on the couch, he might run to the playroom, then back out to the living room, through our bedroom, make three circles around the ottoman in his own room, run into the bathroom to potty (by which he means blowing a raspberry in the toilet and flushing), and finally toddle into the dining room.  Depending on how tired we are, the effect is pretty funny.

Now, why do I bring this up?  I bring this up is because we are going to take a journey a little bit along these lines this morning.  Perhaps some of you have noticed, but my brain sometimes works along paths not so dissimilar from Billy’s.  I think it makes for more interesting thought journeys, but my wife tells me it just makes me a bit hard to follow at times.  When I first sat down to start working on this sermon a couple of weeks ago, I wrote for a while and then stopped for the day.  When I was later telling Lisa about what I had worked on that afternoon, I got about halfway through my thought process and she stopped me with a question: I thought we were talking about the spiritual disciplines.  What on earth does any of that have to do with the rest of the series?  A good question, to be sure.  I assured her that I was going to get there eventually and I think that when I finished my thoughts, I proved myself correct.  I say all of that to tell you this: even as I talk about each sermon series we go through as a journey, this morning we are going on a journey.  I want to show you something from the Scriptures that I think is really cool and will provide a great boost to our ability to live an Easter kind of life.  But, in order to do that effectively I’m going to take a few minutes to create a context for the passage that I think will put it in a really helpful light.  So hang on because even though it’s going to seem like we’re going somewhere new, we’re going to land somewhere familiar.  We’ve been talking about the spiritual disciplines for a month.  This morning is going to be no exception.  We are going to talk about a spiritual discipline this morning, but I want to do so in the context of something else that is pretty fundamental to living an Easter kind of life.  Something that, while not a discipline in and of itself, requires the disciplines in order to work like it’s supposed to: community.

I want to talk with you for a few minutes about community this morning.  Now, this is going to be a bit of a challenge because community is kind of an amorphous idea.  What exactly is it?  Is it a group of people living in the same general area or does it go on to describe something about the relationships present among that group of people?  Could it describe a group of people who don’t live in the same area?  Is it simply a word to describe a group of people who share some base level of commonality as internet communities often are?  The simplest answer to all these questions is: yes.  See the problem then?  It isn’t terribly helpful to talk about community generally.  You need to be more specific as to exactly what kind of community you have in mind.  A further challenge for us in light of our current series is that, again, community is not really a spiritual discipline.  All of that said, I think there are some aspects of community that will make starting here and jamming on it for a bit worthwhile.  These aspects are, I think, going to flow out of a further conversation about what exactly community involves.  In spite of what I just said about community being a bit too general a word to use without further definition, there are some things that are common in every community.  Community always involves some give and take.  In order for community to work, the people involved must be ready and willing to both give and receive.  If I am ostensibly part of a community but I don’t ever receive anything from other members (in other words, if I carry that attitude that I am fine on my own), I’m not really all that integral a part of it, am I?  If I don’t allow you to give to me, then I have shut out your ability to meaningfully participate in the community at least as far as I am concerned.  Community in this sense demands humility.  Thus, when Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens—an idea we are going to come back to before this is all said and done—part of that assumes that we are in fact sharing our burdens.  Participating in a community means you aren’t capable of doing everything on your own.  As long as we think we are self-sufficient, we’ll never become fully integrated into a community.  It is when we acknowledge our dependence on others that we really start to experience some of the benefits here.  You see, I’m not capable of doing everything.  But, I know I’m capable of some things.  Therefore, I must be good at some and not at others.  Yet simple observation suggests that not everyone is good at the same things as me.  Therefore, I must be designed to fit in some places while others are designed for others.  This in turn means that unless each member is filling its role in the community, the community itself is not going to run as smoothly or efficiently as it might otherwise.

What I think all this means is, very simply, that we need each other.  But, that is a general observation about human communities that almost no one would dispute.  What makes the Christian community any different?  How do communities built around the idea of the kingdom of God stand out from this as particularly exceptional?   Are they, are we, particularly exceptional?  Are we any different from, say, the Ruritan Club down the road?  After all, they have regular meetings, dues, and community service as part of their regular routine.  And as a further question, how does Christian community done well enable us to better live with the power of Easter?  Yes, Christian communities involve people in close proximity relating to one another in pursuit of a common goal, but I think there are two things which make them stand apart that are not inherent in any other community: unity and grace.  Christian communities are united around an idea which utterly eliminates all other distinctions, namely that all people are created in the image of God and nothing elevates one person above any other.  In this sense, the Christian community (when done right) is the one truly inclusive community in this world.  No other community has ever been able to match the kingdom in terms of its ability to receive, literally, anyone.  Others might give lip service to this end, but there are always people who are excluded because apart from the Christian worldview, they do not have the necessary philosophical capital to make it happen.  So how do communities of faith do it?  One word: grace.  Grace is what makes us stand apart.  Grace is what enables us to receive anyone and everyone.  Grace is what allows all these different people to come together and work in unity toward this one common goal.  We give to each other what none of us deserves and what we could never earn.  And what do we give?  Well, everything.  There is nothing that should be held back.  We need to be all in, making our fullest contribution as we have been designed by God, gifted by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit to make.  Anything less than this robs our fellow members of the community of something they are due as members of the community.  This means learning how we have been so gifted, working with others, leading them, and being led so that the fullest expression of the kingdom possible is made by our community.

I think this is all exemplified best in Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”  The “rather” at the beginning there refers back to infantile believers who are theologically impoverished in their understanding of the force which unites us in spite of our diversity (namely, Christ).  Without that anchor, we will fall to worshiping one of two things other than God: the latest fads or tradition.  Both of these will ultimately kill a church, though tradition will usually do it faster.  (As a quick throwback to our conversation about worship last week, one of the idols that many churches fall to worshiping is tradition.  We’d never give voice to that, of course, but the first time a group of believers thinks that a method or a program or a system is valuable enough to be preserved even when it is clearly not the most effective way to minister the Gospel to a lost community and grow real disciples they are worshiping the idol of tradition.)  Healthy, Gospel-centered churches have well-defined visions and filter everything through the lens of that vision.  If it doesn’t fit, it goes.  Period.  Rather, Gospel-centered communities pursue a method until it appears that the method isn’t the most effective anymore, at which point they walk the path to something new.  In all of this, they stay fanatically focused on the vision and put the gifts they have been given to their fullest use possible.  All this because they are united around the kingdom idea and showing each other lots of grace along the way.

What is it that allows this to happen, though?  Is there some driving, primary virtue that can enable this to happen on a consistent and long-term basis?  How is a community like this maintained?  Well, the answer most folks would give is love.  Love is how all this happens.  If we would just demonstrate the love of Christ to each other more consistently, all these problems would simply vanish and we really could manufacture kingdom communities all over the place.  I’ll be honest, though: that answer doesn’t sit well with me.  Now, before you think I’m anti-love, allow me to explain a bit further.  First, I think love is absolutely one of the, if not the essential ingredient in producing kingdom communities.  No question on this in my mind.  I agree wholeheartedly that the love of Christ applied liberally would solve many if not most of the world’s issues.  Here’s the problem: when people who have had their minds thoroughly shaped by our culture argue that love is the way, the definition of love in their minds is likely to be jarringly at odds with the actual love of Christ on display in the Gospels.  I have talked before about the theologically and, frankly, morally, impoverished understanding most people have of love.  Its use in casual conversation should leave us very much wary of kind of love the speaker has in mind.  There’s not time now for more than a reminder: love is an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be.  Expressions of this kind of love, though, will at times create a great deal of cognitive dissonance for people whose definition of love is primarily shaped by our culture.  The kind of love expressed in the context of a Christian community will on occasion seem decidedly unloving in such minds.  When most people today think about love, they think about an ultra-permissive amorous feeling toward another person that is content to endure a great deal of life-stealing vice so as not to seem intolerant or judgmental or condemnatory.  This is a pseudo-love content to water down biblical standards and the Gospel proclaiming them in order to not appear mean-spirited or harsh.  According to this (false) conception of love, God should have never thrown Adam and Eve out of the Garden in the first place.  This kind of love has no practical place in a kingdom community and will in fact do more to undermine its ability to capitalize on Paul’s advice than anything positive.

So then, what will do the trick when this kind of love is thrown out?  Or perhaps a better question may be: what will enable us to better employ the real, biblical love that is necessary?  I think the answer to think is gleaned when we take in a bit more of Paul’s words to the Ephesian believers.  The first teaching he lays on the Ephesians after calling them to the kind of community that will manifest the kingdom focuses on the kind of lifestyle necessary to make it happen, and, perhaps surprisingly to modern ears, much of it is in the negative.  If you would, open your Bibles or Bible apps to Ephesians 4 with me and I’ll start reading at v. 17: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles [or for us, simply unbelievers] do, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  What’s Paul’s first advice on achieving genuine Christian community?  Make sure you don’t look like the world!  (Notice, he doesn’t say to reject the world or to condemn the world or to judge the world.  He simply says not to look like it.)

Why is it that apart from Christ we instantly start to look like the world?  I know that’s kind of a big question, but here’s a simple answer: because that’s how we’ve been taught to think from day one.  Drawing on what we talked about last week: apart from Christ, we won’t worship God which means we’ll worship something else in our culture which means we’ll start to resemble our culture in word, thought, and deed.  Our minds are shaped by our culture.  We naturally think in cultural terms because that’s the water to our fish.  Our minds are fully consumed by our culture—the world, as Paul calls it.  When we become followers of Jesus, though, we necessarily embrace a new culture: kingdom culture.  Well just because I put on new clothes doesn’t make me a new person.  Now, Paul does say that we are new creations in Christ and we are, but the context here is different.  The reality is that God doesn’t do mind transplants for every new believer.  Our natural instinct will be to think (and thus act) in cultural terms.  This is why Paul says here that we must put off our old selves and renew our minds.  Given that behaving like the world and not the kingdom is natural, we need help.  Whence comes our help?  The Holy Spirit, of course.  But how does the Holy Spirit help?  Well, primarily by leading us to connect with kingdom communities well-practiced in Christ’s love so we can help hold each other accountable.  If we want to live Easter kinds of lives, one of the essential ingredients we need is accountability.  And real accountability only happens in community.

This at long last brings us down to the real issue I want to get at with you this morning.  Community is really important, but we need help to do community right.  As long as we try to do community on our own we will look little different from the worldly communities around us.  On our own we might as well change our name to something like Church Road Community Service League.  Working together and with the Spirit, though, nothing God has designed us to accomplish lies outside our reach.  The problem is: we don’t work together all that well.  And I’m not just talking about our church here.  People generally don’t work together all that well unless we have a surpassingly great vision on which we can place our focus instead of placing it on all the things that naturally divide us.  Now, there have been times and places in human history when people have gotten focused on a singular goal and great things have happened.  But, these have generally been the exception.  The rule is that we tend to look out for ourselves and our interests before anyone else’s and even at the expense of others.  As far as the world goes this is entirely natural, but there is an explanation for it beyond nature: sin.  In other words, the thing that keeps community from working like it should is sin and its fallout.  Sin is the best (if not always the most satisfying) explanation for why the world looks as it does and why worldly communities never last very long or work very well.

Let’s push this just a bit further.  When in our attempts to create kingdom communities we start to drift into worldly mimicry, one of the first things we start to do is tolerate sinfulness, or un-christlike behavior.  You see, the world doesn’t have any rational basis to judge or really even describe any kind of behavior as sinful beyond that it is currently socially unacceptable and thus worldly communities tolerate a great deal of what we would describe as sinful behavior.  And yet, it is this very behavior that keeps worldly communities from working as desired.  But they can’t see that because their minds aren’t functioning properly.  In rightly functioning kingdom communities, however, sinfulness is never tolerated.  Now, this doesn’t mean people are judged or condemned or excluded in any way.  Kingdom communities are actually better rationally prepared to be able to acknowledge our common sin problem and offer loving acceptance in spite of it than worldly communities are.  Kingdom communities say, “Hey, you’re a mess?  We are too, come on in and let’s work on that together.”  Worldly communities say, “You’re not like us?  Stay out!”  That doesn’t mean, however, we always get this right.  No, tolerating sinful behavior means doing three things: calling out sin when we see it, seeking to lovingly call the offender to repentance and reconciliation, and creating a culture of accountability that works to prevent future lapses.  This idea actually is born out of what Paul says in Galatians 6 starting at v. 1.  Turn there with me and I’ll read what he has to say: “Brothers [and sisters], if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual [that is, believers] should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ [that is, love one another].  For if anyone thinks he is something [in other words, able to make it on his own], when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”  Everything Paul describes here can be summed up in a single word: accountability.  We cannot walk in the power of Easter on our own.  It will not happen.  We need help.  This help is called accountability.  And we don’t just need to buckle down with the Spirit and fix our issues.  That’s not how God designed it to work.  The medium He designed for this to happen is called the church; it’s called community.  Real accountability only happens in community.

Look closely at what Paul says here, though.  First, he talks about people being caught in sin.  This doesn’t mean we nabbed them in the process.  It simply means that someone’s sinful behavior has come to light.  If someone who has been wallowing in some un-christlike pattern comes into the light, whether by choice or under compulsion of some kind, what are we to do?  Judge them?  Condemn them?  Throw them out?  No.  That’s not accountability.  That’s stupid.  That’s responding like the world does.  We are to restore them.  And how should we do that?  Embarrass them?  Make them pay?  Make sure they understand the gravity of their offense?  No.  That’s not accountability.  That’s unloving and unhelpful.  We do it with a spirit of gentleness.  Gentleness means that while we have the power to do much more, we wisely use only what’s necessary to see restoration happen.  And here’s the thing: restoration may take some time.  It’s not very often that restoration is an immediate affair.  That means it can only happen in the context of a group of people willing to bear with the offending person until they are willing to walk in the light once again.  In other words, real accountability only happens in community.

Paul’s second warning is that we have to watch ourselves in this process of accountability so that we don’t become tangled up in the sin we are helping someone else to leave behind.  The way this happens is by walking together.  We hold each other accountable.  We bear one another’s burdens.  Jesus invited those who are weary and heavy laden—perhaps by sin—to come and lay their burdens on Him, on His body.  Guess what functions as the physical manifestation of Christ’s body on earth?  The church.  The kingdom community.  Guess where we are to come and lay our burdens when we are weary and heavy laden?  Real accountability only happens in community.  Folks, you can’t do it on your own.  You can’t live the Christian life on your own.  You can’t live with Easter’s power as a solo venture.  If you think you can—if you think you’re something—when just the opposite is closer to the truth, you are delusional.  On your own, you will naturally resort to thought patterns that are common to the world.  This is how you have been trained to think your entire life.  You need other Jesus followers who are committed to the same destination and lifestyle as you are to walk with you offering you encouragement, help, hope, and, if necessary, rebuke.  This is all part of what it means to live with the spiritual discipline of accountability.  And it can only happen in community.  Real accountability only happens in community.

So how do we do it?  How do we develop the discipline of accountability?  How do we create a community in which it is safe for people interested in moving in the direction of Jesus to wrestle with all the changes that entails?  Well, it’s not easy.  There’s a reason this is called a spiritual discipline.  When we have left the path of life, the natural thing for us to do is hide.  When Adam and Eve ate the apple, the first thing they did was scream, “Ah!  You’re naked!” and run for the bushes.  When we’re mired in sin of any kind, the last thing we want to do is let somebody else know about it.  And yet this is exactly what we must do if we are to remain in a life-giving relationship with Jesus.  This is not, by the way, so that we can receive forgiveness.  We don’t need to go to anybody but Jesus to receive forgiveness when we have sinned.  Telling someone is necessary for us to receive the support and encouragement we need to get back up and keep walking on the path.  As long as we are hiding, we can’t receive any accountability.  If we’re hiding—and there are a lot of different ways to hide—we’re not really part of the community.  We’ve pulled out.  We’ve created distance.  We’re no longer giving or receiving.  Without a gracious mess from God we’re not going to come out of this on our own.  Actually there’s one more thing that will pull us out: a community intentionally dedicated to seeing us become fully who God designed us to be and not willing to settle for anything less.  Indeed, real accountability only happens in community.  So if you want to incorporate the spiritual discipline of accountability into your life the very first thing you need to do is get fully invested in the community.  Don’t settle for anything less than that.  Don’t remain on the periphery.  Don’t content yourselves with being involved on your own terms.  I’d say the only person you’ll hurt doing that is yourself, but that would be a lie.  You’ll hurt the rest of us too because we’ll miss out on the incredible gifts God has given you to use for our benefit in our collective journey to manifest the kingdom in this little corner of the world.  Real accountability only happens in community.

The other side of this is equally important, though.  Church, we have to make sure we’re a place that’s safe for people to let their hair down.  We’re a pretty homogenous group here.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But we have to keep in mind that the final kingdom is going to be a huge place of incredible variety.  And if we’re going to be committed to this idea of creating a place where people—all of them—matter, we have to make sure that we can not only stomach, but actively encourage variety.  We must make sure we are a community that is never shocked by sin and yet which refuses to tolerate even an inkling of it as far as it depends on us.  We must make sure we are a community absolutely committed to receiving everyone just as they are—kind of like the old song says—warts and all, and yet who is also equally committed to not leaving anyone there.  Let us commit ourselves to holding every part of our community accountable to the standards of Christ and also to restoring those who fall with gentleness and grace, remembering that we have and will yet again be in need of restoration ourselves.  Real accountability only happens in community.  Let us make this a community where it happens often so that we can live Easter kinds of lives.