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Monday, May 25, 2009

Why Gospel Community Matters

A wise friend told me that when she leads other women it works much better when she walks in humility rather than feeling like she has something to offer. This is something I have experienced too. I still struggle with pride in it—ashamed of my hypocrisy when I can see God’s beauty and truth in His Word and I communicate it with others, but fail in living it out. My least favorite verse is: James 1:22 “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” I fail on that account the most. I hate that I fail, and I hate that teaching other women constantly reminds me that I do not measure up! I hate being a hypocrite.

I am a hypocrite, but God is teaching me that as He uses me to teach other women, He is just as equally using those opportunities (and those women) to teach and transform me. He is doing a double work of sanctification—in them and in me. It all re-emphasizes to me something I am learning in His Word in increasing measure in the last year and a half—we are created for community. We are firstly created to be in community with the God of community (the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). We are secondly created to image the gospel in community with God’s people.

Matthew 22:34-40 “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ 37 And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”

Two of the main purposes for community that I see in Scripture are 1) to help and build up the Body of Christ; and 2) to display the gospel to the world and even to the heavenly realms to the praise of God’s glorious grace.

First of all, it is important for us to see how important to the Church (the worldwide community of all who believe) is to Jesus. The Church is actually called the BODY of CHRIST… my Savior’s own dear body that He obtained by His own blood—see Acts 20:28! When Jesus confronted Saul about persecuting the Church, He said to Saul: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?” (Acts 9:4) He did not say to Saul, why are you persecuting my friends or my people. In Matthew 25:31-39, Jesus says that acts of loving service done to His brothers (believers) are acts of loving service done to HIM. In John 17, Jesus says that He is one with believers, just as the Father and the Son are one. Jesus identifies with the Church as His own body! An earthly (and less powerful) analogy to this would be the way that a husband would identify with the wife he loves… when my husband was working in Alaska and our friends served and took care of me while I was home alone, my husband felt loved by those acts of service as if they were done to him. We see this concept in Ephesians 5.

Our God cherishes and loves the community of believers, and being in community is a primary way in which God administers grace to each of us who believe in Him. First, God blesses us by pouring His Spirit into us, so that we can see Jesus in His beauty and truth and so that we can love Him! His Spirit then bears fruit in us like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self control (Gal 5:22 and there are others of this type discussed elsewhere). He also graciously gifts every Christian with different spiritual gifts to be used to build up the body in love (Ephesians 4:11-16). [And we know that NONE of our spiritual gifts mean anything without the fruit of the Spirit—especially the fruit of love! (1 Cor 13). When we try to exercise some gift without the Spirit, our efforts are not honoring to God and will not prove to be fruit that lasts!] Then He entrusts us with stewarding the grace He has poured into us that is to be poured out for others. (1 Peter 4:10-11; Ephesians 3:2). For this to work, we need to be continually poured into—that is, seeking to be filled with the Spirit so that we can increasingly know and love Jesus and so that we can increasingly be conformed to His image. This happens through private times of prayer (asking for it!) and studying the Word, AND ALSO through meaningful community that brings us back to prayer and the Word. The beautiful part of the community aspect is that God administers grace to us through our brothers and sisters and He helps us—shows us the deceitfulness of our own hearts (Jer 17:9), the deceitfulness of our sin (Heb 3:13), reminds us of His love and grace through the hands and feet and tongues of our brothers and sisters, and encourages us to move forward in Him.

James 5:13-20 “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Hebrews 3:12-13 “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

Paul says to the Romans in Romans 1:11-12 “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.”

In order for this to work, we need to be real, sincere, honest, and vulnerable—walk in the light.

1 John 1:5-10 “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

No matter how grand our spiritual gifting is and no matter what measure of grace we have received, we all need the Body of Christ--we need each other and we belong to each other.

1 Corinthians 12:4-31 “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

(Note that the “higher gifts” are the ones that most edify the Body of Christ! Also note that the more excellent way is love, as we learn from the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, which is chapter 13).

We get to administer the gospel to others and we get to receive the gospel from others. Incredibly, as we are helped, God gets the glory!

2 Cor 4: 5-11 “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

God does a work in us through community and we get to display the gospel in community. As Christians, we image the gospel in community. The primary way we do this is through the Church. (Unfortunately, in American culture the term “church” is often associated with a Sunday service. This is not the church as defined scripturally. The Church is simply all who belong to Jesus by faith.) We interact with the Church in our local expression of the Body of Christ, but we also interact with the Church in other relationships with believers. We interact with the Church through our relationships with our believing husband, wife, parent, child, brother, sister, employer, employee, governor, citizen, etc. We are called to live out the gospel in these relationships. This is why the New Testament is so full of practical ways we are to relate to one another with longsuffering, scandalous, sacrificial, pursuing, and persevering committed love. These ways of relating to one another are gospel actions. These are the ways that God has related to us in the gospel---out of His Great Love and Mercy, the Righteous and Mighty God of the Universe humbled Himself to save those of us who were His enemies--people who sinned against His Holy and Good Name--at great cost to Himself so that we could enjoy relationship with Him forever. This is how we are to relate to each other. We are called to love each other with the same love that Jesus showed us. In doing this, the world will know we belong to Jesus. This is how we display the gospel.

Jesus prayed to the Father about us:

John 17:20-26 “20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

John 13:35 “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. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In all of these Scriptures, Jesus is talking about the way believers love other believers. We are only able to have these “other-worldly” love relationships because the Spirit of Jesus lives in us. The very love between the Father and the Son lives in us through the Holy Spirit. We cannot love like this on our own, but we love like this only because the One who loved us first teaches us how and empowers us by His Spirit.

(I would like to insert a caveat here. Please do not get me wrong, we are absolutely called to scandalously love those who are outside the Body of Christ too. Not engaging with and not loving unbelievers is a grievous sin. Jesus is our best example of engaging with and loving those outside of the Church. He does this with the woman at the well, with Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, etc. He was known for hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors. Indeed, He did this with all of us. His kindness leads people to repentance. His kindness led us to repentance. Scripture contains lots of examples how are to treat unbelieving spouses, employers, employees, governments, etc. with scandalous love. Jesus even gives us many examples of how to treat our enemies with scandalous love. Let us never forget that Jesus washed Judas’ feet even though He knew Judas was the one who would betray Him. My only point is that we image the gospel the most powerfully through relationship with other believers because both we and they are connected in Christ and are empowered by the same Spirit that enables “other-worldly” love in action mutually.)

The amazing thing is that we as the community of believers (the Church) get to display the gospel to each other, to the world and even to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places!

Ephesians 3:7-13 “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”

The rest of Ephesians is all about how we image the gospel in community. Here are some snapshots:

Ephesians 4:1 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:11-16 “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 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.”

Ephesians 4:25-32 “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 5:1 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Then Ephesians goes into relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters, etc.

Ephesians ends with telling us how we can do this---how we can live out of other-worldly scandalous love. It tells us how we can resist the temptations and the opposition we will face from our enemy who hates gospel community. It tells us to pray, to be armed with the Word of God (which requires that we know the Word, we study the Word, and we rightly handle the Word... which we do with the assistance of those in the Body), to believe the Word of God, and to obey the Word of God.

The beautiful thing is that the community we experience here on earth is only a shadow of what is to come. One day, there will be no sin to separate us from God and one another in any way. One day, we will experience fullness of relationship with God and with each other in glorious community. This is what we are saved to. Salvation is so much more than not going to hell and getting to go to heaven. Salvation is being in an unfettered relationship with God firstly and secondly in an unfettered community of worshippers of God to the praise of His glorious grace!

This is why gospel community matters.

I want to close with these glorious words that embody the gospel community that we are called to live out on earth by God’s grace and that we will one day live out in perfection in heaven with Magnificent God and with our dear brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what we are saved to:

1 Corinthians 13:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient and kind;

love does not envy or boast;

it is not arrogant 5 or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;

it is not irritable or resentful;

6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

7 Love bears all things,

believes all things,

hopes all things,

endures all things.

8 Love never ends.

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

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