Build Community that reflects God’s love audio (5MB)
What better occasion to be talking about community than at a confirmation and baptism service. The teenagers have just spent 4 weeks following a study called the People of God where they’ve thought about why God calls us to be members of his Church. You could ask them later what they found out.
But it’s also a good time to be thinking about the third element of our Mission statement because confirmation services are the occasions when young people say publicly that they’ve decided to join in the mission of their church. But let me warn you guys, this third mission directive is not the easiest thing to achieve. How do you build community when we’re all so different: different ages; different cultural backgrounds; different languages; different educational levels; different income levels; even different footy teams; not to mention people who don’t like footy! And of course we’ve just made it worse by expanding our ministry to include a third cultural group!
It’s a big task we’ve set ourselves, isn’t it? So how are we going to achieve it?
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, a church with similar issues concerning different cultures, he saw that his only hope was to get down on his knees and pray for God’s help. Listen to what he prayed (Eph 3:14-17): “14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
Do you see that within his prayer is the key to our motivation for building community, as well as the means for overcoming the obstacles that we might encounter?
He says “We are all part of the one family of God.” We may come from vastly different earthly backgrounds but we’re first of all made in the image of God and now God has brought us into the one heavenly family. Even if some churches don’t seem particularly heavenly that is our status before God. He’s adopted us as his sons and daughters. We have that in common. But still, we’re all fallen human beings. So we need more than that if we’re to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of loving community.
What Paul prays for is that they’ll be strengthened with power through his Spirit. He prays that Christ dwelling in their hearts might make all the difference. You see, this is the change factor: with the power of the Holy Spirit, with Christ dwelling in our hearts, we’ll be rooted & grounded in love. It’s this love of God that’ll make all the difference if we let it flow through us.
So how are we going to help that to happen? Again, Paul gives us the answer, this time in Romans 12, our reading for today. He lays out a process for change and then gives us a picture of what our community should be like - and how to achieve it.
The first step is the hardest: He says “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Do you understand what that means? It’s not the sort of sacrifice that people make when they give up chocolate for Lent or go on a 40 hour famine for World Vision. No, in Paul’s world a sacrifice means giving up your life; offering everything you have to your god. For us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice means giving up our rights, sacrificing our pleasures, our personal interests, for the sake of service to God.
The next step is just as hard. He says “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed.” And how are you to be transformed? “By the renewing of your minds.” And for what purpose? “So that you may discern what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” So how do we renew our minds so we can be transformed? Well we talked about that last week, didn’t we, in the English congregation at least? We renew our minds by filling them with God’s word. God’s word is given to us to teach, to rebuke, to correct, to train us in righteousness. And what’s involved in that transformation?
It starts with how we view ourselves doesn’t it? He says “Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought to.” Of course if you’ve already offered your body as a living sacrifice that might help you to think more realistically about yourself. One of the great obstacles to living together in community is that we’re naturally inclined to think that our ideas are the best. We naturally want the best for ourselves and our family. So we too easily feel we need to compete with others rather than being a servant to others. I wonder how good you are at thinking with sober judgement about yourself. We’re all pretty good at looking at other people and applying sober judgement, but not always ourselves. It seems to me there are two mistakes people make. One is to think more highly of themselves than they should. We can easily be blind to our own failings. That’s one of the good things about having teenage children – they love to help you see yourself more realistically. But the other mistake some people make is to think they have nothing to offer, to underestimate their value to the community. Notice he doesn’t say we should think less highly of ourselves than we ought to think. This is important because of what follows as he begins to discuss the nature of the community & how to achieve it.
The nature of the community & how to achieve it
The amazing thing about the church is that God has given us so many different people with lots of different functions. And together we make up the people of God. The image he uses is that of a body. Lots of different parts: limbs and muscles and ligament and nerves; all different but all part of the body and, more importantly, part of each other.
That difference is shown in the fact that God has given us gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, compassion. He could no doubt have gone on with a much longer list. But the point is that as far as we’ve received a gift from God we’re to use it to the best of our ability and in a way that’s appropriate to the gift. So the leader should be diligent; if you’re called to be compassionate you should do so cheerfully, not grudgingly. And so forth.
Notice the list of behaviours that’ll help us build a community that reflects God’s love.
He calls us to genuine love. Do you sometimes feel like you need to fake love? You come across someone who really gets up your nose but you know you should love them so you go through the motions of being kind and loving but deep down you don’t feel it. That’s what he’s talking about. He wants us to transform that into genuine love; love that focuses on the other person not on my feelings or needs.
Genuine love is love for what’s good and hatred of what’s evil. You might like to think about that. In our world we’re often expected to tolerate what’s evil in God’s eyes. But he says we’re to hate it, while holding tight to what’s good.
Genuine love means loving one another with mutual affection. Notice that. The mark of success in building this sort of community will be that we experience mutual affection between members. That is, people who genuinely enjoy being together, who treat one another the way they treat the members of their family – with love and affection.
It’ll also be shown by the way we show honour to one another. Some people find it hard to give praise to others - as though to praise others lessens their own value. A sense of competition is a sure way to spoil community. But you know, what I’ve found is that when we praise others we actually get built up ourselves, particularly in the context of the Church. When I honour someone else it reminds me how much God has blessed me by putting people like that in my community.
Next he says be zealous & spiritually passionate. Those of us who come from an Anglo-Saxon background may have difficulty with that. Anglo-Saxons don’t tend to be passionate – apart from over sport. But he’s talking about how we serve the Lord – is it with zeal and passion or do we do as little as we can get away with? And if we’re serving the Lord do we see ourselves as servants to the community. We have a number of people at St Thomas’ who are great servants. I’d love to see every one of us acting as a servant to others. Again, that would be a sign that our community is working.
He says we should be joyful, hopeful, patient & persevering in prayer.
And finally he says we should be generous & hospitable towards others. I think St Thomas’ is a fairly generous congregation. Our giving is relatively high – by Anglican standards at least; but I think some of us could be even more generous in the way we give to God’s work.
As I said at the beginning, this task is almost impossible, yet God is the God of the impossible. He can enable us to do amazing things if we let him. We can build the sort of community God wants, through the power of his Holy Spirit, if we let him, if we present him with our bodies as a living sacrifice, if we allow his Spirit to work within us to transform us, if we let his word renew our minds and if we let God’s love flow out from us to change the way we relate to one another as members of the family of God.