Living in Community with Unity

Scriptures: Psalm 13; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; 1 Peter 3:8-12

One of the difficulties with choosing Scriptures and sermon topics three months ahead of time is sometimes things change. While the Scriptures are the same and there are many a message that could be given on perseverance and consistency in the faith, and being faithful in times of trial and struggle, in the community, God has given me a message that’s a little different. We’re going to talk about living in community together.

The focus is going to be on that first verse in 1 Peter 3, verse 8. God designed us to live in community. From the beginning, he said “It is not good for man to be alone.” When he made his promise to Abraham, and to David, it wasn’t just the founding of a family (though the family is the base unit for all God’s promises to be fulfilled). It was for the founding of a nation.

In the New Testament, Jesus did everything with the knowledge that community was to be the shape of things to come. From twelve disciples with him at most all times to the birth of the church as God’s presence here on earth through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in power, God wants us in community.

Now, one of the biggest challenges that we have is living in that community. Again, from basic family as seen in the Old Testament with Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, etc. to our own families today, we can see and know how challenging it can be – and how frequently we fail.

I believe it is one of the key areas that Satan attacks us at, because it is easy to get to with our fallen, self-centered and depraved natures. We see it on a larger scale with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the disciples in the Gospels, and the yes, even the church in the New Testament.

How often was Paul speaking of unity in his epistles? Looking at the church with metaphors like a body; speaking of them being no more Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but equal and one in the body of Christ, which is the church.

Peter, the disciple whom I love, was no different in his understanding. And I’ve shared this before, but one of the reasons why Peter is my very favorite apostle and why I love him so much is because he gives me hope. There was no apostle that stuck his foot in his mouth more often than did Peter.

What other guy could have a claim to fame where he professed Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, and then less than three minutes later have Jesus telling him, “Get thee behind me, Satan”?

Yet that same headstrong, brash, foot-in-the-mouth preacher whom, despite his denial, Jesus told to “feed my sheep,” writes of unity and the power of its witness in this world. In the chapters and verses before our passage today of this letter of Peter, he speaks of how to get along in marriages, and how to get along at work. Now, he begins to tell us how to get along in the church, and the community at large.

I believer there are five things he brings up, and I want to touch on each of these this morning. These five things work in churches, in small groups, and in any kind of committed relationship among people. They are equally applicable today as they were back then. Those five things are unity, sympathy, family, humility, and sincerity.

For unity, “we are to be of one mind with each other”. Community requires unity. As noted by a number of pastors whom I read and listened to, you can’t write “community” without writing “unity.”

I want to note that this is not uniformity. That is, it doesn’t mean we all think the same thing all the time, in lock-step. It doesn’t mean that we should look and act like clones of one another, or robots out of some factory. I think that is a common mistake that people seem to make today, this confusion of unity and uniformity.

What Peter does mean is that we, as a church should have a common and singular focus – Jesus Christ, and the sharing of the Good News of the Gospel. We should all long for the same thing – for Christ to come back and God’s will to be done.

We should be eager to see God’s love and mercy in action in our lives and everyone else’s, that we might glorify God and enjoy Him forever! We need to unified in our understanding, not of what constitutes the church, but of who God is as triune and how we are His children. We need to have unity in order to have true community.

We need to have sympathy – we need to react with sympathy. Sometimes translated as compassion (though not in your pew Bibles here), the Greek word literally is sumpatheia. It’s a word that means we are able to enter in to the suffering of other people, and to share in the things they go through that are difficult.

We are to “come alongside” someone at whatever stage of life they may be at, and lift them up. We don’t offer sterile advice from some position on high – as Job’s friends did, for instance. We offer love and concern, and help where needed.

Now, it might involve some advice; but such advice can only be spoken of from our own experience, and involves being offered humbly and with the understanding that people are free to reject it without prejudice or bitterness as a result – or an “I told you so” later on, if you prove to have been right. (That is something that as a father I find very hard.) No defensiveness on the part of the person receiving the help, because there are no conditions or ego attached to the help that is offered. This is sympathy.

Scripture notes that we comfort others with the comfort we have received. Did you ever notice that usually happens when we suffer ourselves? Did you notice, when we suffer some problem in our lives, our attention finally, frequently, turns from ourselves, and we notice the people around us? Sometimes I wonder if that’s why God allows us to suffer, so that we grow and recognize those around us who suffer as well.

There is a song by Tim McGraw called “Find out who your friends are,” and I’m going to read the lyrics to you.

Run your car off the side of the road
Get stuck in a ditch way out in the middle of nowhere
Or get yourself in a bind lose the shirt off your back
Need a floor, need a couch, need a bus fare

This is where the rubber meets the road
This is where the cream is gonna rise
This is what you really didn’t know
This is where the truth don’t lie

You find out who your friends are
Somebody’s gonna drop everything
Run out and crank up their car
Hit the gas, get there fast
Never stop to think ‘what’s in it for me?’ or ‘it’s way too far’
They just show on up with their big old heart
You find out who your friends are

Everybody wants to slap your back
wants to shake your hand
when you’re up on top of that mountain
But let one of those rocks give way then you slide back down look up
and see who’s around then

This ain’t where the road comes to an end
This ain’t where the bandwagon stops
This is just one of those times when
A lot of folks jump off

You find out who your friends are
Somebody’s gonna drop everything
Run out and crank up their car
Hit the gas, get there fast
Never stop to think ‘what’s in it for me?’ or ‘it’s way too far’
They just show on up with their big old heart
You find out who your friends are

When the water’s high
When the weather’s not so fair
When the well runs dry
Who’s gonna be there?

You find out who your friends are

This is the compassion – the sympathy that should be throughout the whole of the church. Now, I know I’m biased, but I think this is something that small churches and small towns actually do better than large ones – mostly because we all know each other well, or are, frequently, related. Still, it is something that we need to work at each and every day as we serve God and love Him and His children.

Now the third thing is we’re to respond like family. We are often called, in the New Testament, brothers and sisters. As adopted children of God, we become in a very real sense, brothers and sisters. And we are to love like brothers and sisters.

Now I know for some of you, your first thought is “not like me and my brother/sister”! I mean, look at what happened to Cain and Abel. Well, let me share a little personal story with you. Many of you might know, I was raised in a military family and I moved twelve times before I was eighteen years old, and friends were few and far between, and they weren’t family.

My brother and I – well, we weren’t like Cain and Abel, but … maybe Jacob and Esau. I learned as a teenager, with some therapy and counseling, that it’s OK to love someone even if you don’t like them very much.

We don’t get along real well. But, let me tell you, somebody from outside the family threatened or hurt any one of the family – even my brother – or hurt me, the family – my sister and brother and I, we were right there together in facing that threat from the outside. You might fight all the time. But you draw together when there is a need

They say you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family – as much as some people might like to believe otherwise. We, as the church and the Body of Christ, are family. I didn’t choose you, nor you me; but God chose us both.

And in this hostile and fallen world, we need to stick together; to respond as a family, to love as a family, the way God intended and tells us how to do, in His Word, and stay bound together. It is too easy these days for folks to simply walk away.

Forget commitment, forget caring. We don’t like this, that, or the other thing, so we pack up our toys and we leave. We “disown” those we may have been with for decades, and fail as disciples because we fail to reconcile and renew our relationships with each other. Relationship is what it’s about.

Because real Christianity isn’t a religion; it is a relationship! And that carries over to those around us. We need to be in relationship with each other, all working to lift each other up, hold each other accountable, and pointing people to the God who loved us enough to send His Son to die for us just so that our relationship with Him could be healed. This is what it is about. And we do this best as a community.

Next I want to mention sincerity. We reach out in sincerity. Your pew Bible translated it as tender-hearted. Another Bible translated it as compassion. I think in order to be tender-hearted and authentic, you have to be sincere.

The world will make you hard-hearted. There is very little tolerance for, or showing of, vulnerability. Being authentic isn’t the way; rather we have masks and roles we slide into so that we don’t rock the boat, or cause a fuss. Even today, when we have all of this focus on letting the “real me” out, we still end up putting on masks. We won’t be vulnerable.

Yet what the younger generation so desperately wants is that authenticity. Let’s face it, kids can tell a fraud, from a very young age. The old adage of “do as I say, not as I do” never works! Because impacting them far more than the words that you say is the love that you show.

How we show the love of God, and live out our faith makes a much greater impression – not only on children, but other adults – on people and a much greater witness than all the honey sweet words we might say.

It takes courage to be sincere; courage to be authentic, and vulnerable to someone rejecting us for who we are and might be. It is the kind of courage that can only come from the power of Christ within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I know in 1 John he says perfect love casts out all fear; but courage is not a lack of fear. Courage is feeling that fear, setting it aside, and moving forward anyway as we try to reach others in the community with the love and the heart of Jesus. We show to the world the tender-hearted nature of our Savior.

A woman named Joanna Sievert wrote a story for a preacher’s magazine about the kind of tender-heartedness that showed Jesus, as a person’s heart broke for someone else’s pain. I summarize and paraphrase here; she speaks of an 8-year-old girl in a hospital room Joanna visited, the girl’s body riddled and disfigured with cancer. The injustice of it all, and the suffering there, broke Joanna’s heart.

But even more poignant was the grandmother who was there with her, just lying beside her on the bed and holding her. The grandmother never spoke during the visit, just held the girl and participating in suffering she could not relieve; and yet somehow her faithful presence and love did exactly that for the little girl.

Noted author and preacher David Jeremiah says “It is only as we plug into the truth of the Scripture, and get close to God and begin to emulate His Son Jesus Christ that we can become real people. You can’t become a real person by yourself; you need others to come alongside of you and help you in that regard.”

Sincere people; authentic people; loving without an agenda, and living as God, not the world, calls us to live. That is part of community, and that sincerity and authenticity are one of the best witnesses we can give.

Now the last part of this is humility. Community reinforces humility. The Greek word used here really has to do with someone who humbles themselves before someone else and not lifting themselves up. I think this is one of the symptoms that shows most greatly today just how far we have strayed from God’s word and way.

Very few people have any courtesy for anyone else, because very few people are willing to humble themselves before others. After all, isn’t all about me, today? Nowadays most people take courtesy as one of three things – disrespect for the other person (they call it chauvinism, etc.); general weakness or meekness, and therefore you’ll be taken advantage of; or flattery, because you want something.

As I noted earlier, I was raised in a military family. I have to say, my dad had certain rules. We were “brought up right,” if you will. I always called him “sir,” and my mom was “ma’am,” and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody else say, “I’m not a sire, I was a non-com,” and I can’t help it, I call him sir anyway.

But the other thing he did was he taught me courtesy with women. This is an honest experience I had when I was in high school: I took a girl on a date, and pulled into the parking space where we were going, jumped out of the car, ran around, and the door was opening up already so I pulled it open and stuck out my hand, and she looked at me and said, “What? You think I can’t do this myself?”

She was insulted that I offered her that courtesy. She took it as some sort of looking down on her. And I was just trying to be nice, as it were.

I was at a Promise Keepers event, the very first “million man” thing where we went to pray for the nation, in Washington, DC. The whole mall area there was filled with men praising God, and that was an amazing thing. There were protesters there as well, quite a few.

But the thing I remember most is not the songs we sang or even the preaching I heard. The thing I remember most happened afterwards. Washington, DC has a wonderful, wonderful public transportation service.

Because it is so packed, because there is so much to go to there, because they have so much tourism, they have parking areas that are way outside town, all over. Then you go in on the subway (which is very clean, the cleanest subway I’ve ever been on), into town, and you can get from there to anywhere, and one pass gets you everywhere.

So we went to the subway after the event. And there were a million of us there, you know, so we kind of filled up the cars. And as we filled up the car, four women – they happened to have been protesters – came in. And immediately, four men got up from their seats and offered their seats to the ladies. I can’t repeat here in church what the ladies said, but it wasn’t much of a lady-type thing. They took that courtesy as an insult.

And yet we’re called to that kind of courtesy, that kind of humility. You cannot relate to one another with grace, without humility. You can’t always get your own way. You have to learn how to bend or flex some. Scripture calls us to submit to one another and to serve one another.

Our faith, our community is built around sacrifice and humility, as we realize the kind of humility and sacrifice that Christ showed to us, when he (as Paul says in Philippians) emptied himself for us, taking on the form of a slave, and being obedient even unto death, death on a cross. We need to be humble, as we relate to one another in community.

What are some of the ways you might live in community, that we together might exhibit community to the rest of the world? First, celebrating worship together, even as we are at this moment, and bringing other people to that worship. This is to be one of our primary focuses, as we glorify God.

I can tell you from personal experience – and I don’t say this because I’m a preacher and I get paid by the church – that there is a qualitative difference between personal devotional worship and corporate community worship. It is completely different, and much more fulfilling in many ways, as you come together with others and give praise to God.

You can learn together in Bible studies and Sunday School, and small groups. Here in this church we have a couple of adult Sunday School classes, we have a couple of Bible studies – one is more of a small group, and I just made the offer of another one.

There are opportunities to plug into the church in ways that you can relate to one another, you can bond with one another, and you can learn more about the God who loves us and saves us all, and how to live together as His faithful people.

Third, you can mentor younger members of the church, being there to guide and assist them as they begin to understand their faith more fully, and helping to prepare them to be strong in their faith in a hostile world. And while, yes, this is most of the time speaking about youth and young adults – and we’re going to have a confirmation class starting this fall, and I need some mentors. But it can even occur with older folks.

There have been those who have gone away from the church for thirty or forty years, and they come back to the church, and they understand and begin to know Jesus Christ in a real way. Just because they’re older doesn’t mean that they’re not new in Christ and that they don’t need mentoring. That mentoring comes from you who are mature in the faith, as you help them to grow and learn, and prepare them to be strong in their faith, in this hostile world.

The fourth way we can show community is as we serve in the church. We’re Presbyterian, so there are committees. You can serve on committees, in outreach attempts, and even leading if God calls you to that. Everybody has a gift. No one has all the gifts. God made it that way so we have to be with each other in order to get things done.

But there is no one who can sit there and say “there is nothing I can do.” There is always something. God gave you a gift. God gave you a talent. God gave you a passion. And those three can be connected to serve the church in some way.

Number five is stick together in times of trouble, and when we are in the midst of it, reaching our and letting others help us rather than walking away. You know, I’ve said this before as well. We here in the American church are very good at offering our hands to others, giving money, giving help, etc.

But we are terrible about asking for it. We say “I don’t want to be a bother” but frankly, I just think it’s pride. We don’t want to be seen as weak. And yet, if we’re to serve one another, how can we serve one another if nobody asks for help?

Christians are supposed to be realists, the most real persons in the world, not just because we’re authentic, but because, as a bumper sticker once said, “Christians aren’t optimists, merely hopeful.” We understand the fallen nature of humankind. We understand the transformative relationship you can have with Jesus Christ. We understand the transformed people and Spirit-filled people that you can be. Grace-filled people.

So understanding that reality, we can, without fear, without a sense of being degraded or lesser, reach out for and ask for help when we need it, knowing that it will be given joyfully and cheerfully and with grace by those who love us, even as we love them. We stick together, and we help one another and lift one another up.

Sixth, we become authentic and sincere in showing our love and care for one another and the community at large. You need to be who you are. You are a child of God. You are a royal priesthood. You are a sinner who is being sanctified by grace.

And if you are sincere and authentic in your representation of who you are, then even when you stumble, as you pick yourself up and other people pick you up and help you to get back on track and begin to worship and praise God again in the way that He intended us to be, others will be impacted by that reality.

Now, some of them might be snarky and say, “well, you’re just a hypocrite because you fell,” and you can sit there and give the same answer I give which is, “well, join the bunch.” Because none of us is perfect. But the fact is that that reality of the love that was shown, the reality and honesty you showed, will impact them for the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.

Now, is this easy? No. But let me ask you, did God call us to an easy path, or a rewarding one? Are we called to perfection, or faithfulness? And can we succeed as a church and community in this corrupt and wicked world today by ourselves? I think you know the answers – especially for the last, if you haven’t been sleeping through this entire sermon.

But it requires that first step by you. Or that next step. Because, let me tell you, never is there no step, for faith never stands still. And neither does life, which we get live – abundantly, through Jesus Christ. So pray. Pray for that unity, that sympathy, that sincerity, and that humility, that we might live as family in community with God. And may He get all the praise and the glory, for the great things He has done, for you, and for me.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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