I got to preach at my church, Grace Point in San Antonio, a couple of weeks ago and wanted to post my sermon. Hope you like it!
Opening Up Authentic Community
Grace Point Church
July 9, 2006
Who Am I?
Really, who am I to be preaching a sermon on community? If community means a group of people in close proximity that are growing in their knowledge of each other and in their love for each other, then I’m really not sure what credentials I have to be standing here. I’m on staff at a theological university, but I’m certainly no expert theologian. I raise money for the school, so I understand the importance of relationships, but really I’m just as selfish with my own time and energy as the next person (maybe more so). I used to be a pastor. People ask me today if I would ever be a pastor again, and my response is usually “I loved being a pastor, except for all the people.” I’m a husband and a dad. In fact, I can be so bad at relationships that Sandra’s family scared me to death when I first met them. I mean, they did everything together. As a teenager I came from the typical American family, where we ate in front of the TV (when I was home for dinner), mom did all the cooking and cleaning (except for grilling of course, that’s a man’s job), and we each had our own TV in our bedrooms. The first time I was around Sandra’s parents, I noticed that they were different. They worked together. They cooked together. They cleaned up together. They cleaned the house together. If one wants to read, they usually both sat down with a book. About three months before we got married I went over to their house and told them that I was scared that they were too close, that they were going to smother me in my starting a new family with their daughter. I actually asked them to give us our space. So clearly, I am not the ideal candidate to teach about relational community.
I will tell you where I learned the most about community. I wish I could say it was in a church somewhere, but the truth is, the closest thing to real community I’ve ever seen and personally been a part of was my college football team. Think of the diversity that was there: rich kids, poor kids, middle class kids (economic); urban kids, suburban kids, country bumpkins (geographic); white, African-American, Hispanic, Pacific Islanders, Asian (ethnic)—there were 110 or so of the most diverse group of guys you have ever seen. (No women though, maybe that helps. Or hurts.) Yet by the time that I finished in 1988, the group of us that had played together for several years, experiencing the winning and losing of sports life, we were the best picture of community I have known in my 40 years. An odd group of guys working as one to win football games.
So here I am, an admitted selfish person, one who likes his own space, a confessed “situational extrovert”, to borrow a phrase from Wesley, about to talk through what the Bible challenges us with in the area of the church making the space to become a community. I’m no expert challenging others to do something tough, I’m a fellow struggler trying to figure it all out myself!
Let’s start with unpacking the word “community” again. I gave you a little of my definition earlier, but here it is again: a community is a group of people in close proximity to each other that are growing in their knowledge of and love for the others in the group. If you’re bilingual, I think an even better word is the Spanish pueblo. It’s people whose paths cross each other all the time, with some common interests and passions, learning to live and grow together. People with problems and dreams and issues and phobias needs and successes. And while my best experience with community was not in a church, I do know where there is a great picture of a church doing this.
In Acts chapter 4, verses 32-36, we get a little glimpse of how Jesus’ good news changed the lives of these early followers. We tend to think that Jesus’ good news is that you can go to heaven when you die. But really that’s just a piece of the story. The real good news is that you don’t have to do things in the old, stupid, self-serving ways anymore. You can do what is right and just, you can love your neighbor the way you love yourself. And these early guys got it. Check out what it says:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was brought upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Now that’s an amazing community. Being on the Jesus’ team in those early days meant that you were taken care of, regardless of your situation in life. The wealthy (in whatever area—this case is about money, but there’s all kinds of wealth) shared with the needy. This becomes then one of the markers of making space for community: those who have something sharing with those who don’t. Regardless of what you have or don’t have, you have something that the community needs from you, and you have something that you need from the community. And as the story of Ananias and Sapphira shows in the verses right after this, the sharing can’t be coerced, and it doesn’t create a system of power and subservience. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to shortcut community and look like they cared, while still keeping some of their “space” for themselves, and it cost them their lives. What do you have in life? Share it! Bring it to the table in the community and share it! Is it money? Shelter? Encouragement? Food? Faith? Don’t store it up in places where it can be stolen or destroyed. Preserve it forever by sharing with the community. And let the community share with you.
Flip over now to Ephesians chapter two, and let’s get a little of the theology behind community. In verse 11 it says:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Note the words in the early part: separate, excluded, foreigners, without hope, without God, hostility, barrier. These are words of division, words of war. But the good news of Jesus brings an end to these things. Instead of two separate people, one holy (circumcised) and the other evil (uncircumcised) Jesus make us one. Instead of two nations, where one is a citizen and others are foreigners and (illegal) aliens, we are all citizens in God’s nation. We’re in the same “pueblo”, the same household building, no longer without God but with God living in our community.
So if this is part of the good news of Jesus, how do we do it? How do we make space for authentic community in our lives, the way my daughter makes space for herself between her mom and I on the couch? Individually, we make space for community by changing the way we work and think about our daily lives. I have to decide that the experiences that lead to community—being in “close proximity” with people, knowing and loving them—are valuable in my family, in my work, in my friendships. I have to pop the bubble of self-interest that I tend to walk around in all day, wondering how I’m going to get my job done, how I am going to relax, how I need my space. I heard an interesting report on NPR the other day about the size of houses and how they’ve grown over the past 50 years. In that previous generation, people had no choice but to interact with each other, they lived and worked in close proximity. Bedrooms were shared by multiple kids, houses only had one living room, and everyone shared the same bathroom (or outhouse, as the case may be). Today we can each have our own space right in the comfort of our own homes, just by closing the door or putting on the mp3. I have to decide I’m going to get out, be with people, talk, live, learn, love. We should stop building castles and instead create coffee shops. I think the ideal model for what our homes should become is Starbucks. Do you really think it costs $4 for coffee? We’re paying for ambience, for atmosphere. Starbucks goes out of its way to create a place where community happens. Dialogue, authenticity, play, work—it all happens there.
But I also think we as the church need to do something to make space for community. Community relies on what has been known recently as fellowship. If you’ve read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life you know that there are 5 basic purposes for followers of Jesus: worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry and fellowship. In recent years there has been something of a backlash against “fellowship” events or programs in our churches for two reasons: it doesn’t seem as important as evangelism and, unfortunately, many of the churches we grew up in were known for “fellowships” but never really did evangelism. We have rightly swung the pendulum away from a country club mentality for churches, but I think we have swung it too far away from the need for people to be together in authentic relationships, knowing and loving each other in the midst of all the stuff of life and humanity. Authentic fellowship with God and other people in joint pursuit of the kingdom of God is THE goal of joining team Jesus (think great commandment). You don’t recruit someone to a football team and tell them that their main job is to go recruit other players. You recruit them and train them and work them out and teach them how to use their skills to win the game. Grace Point has to make sure that some of the things that we do well—worship, evangelism, etc—are not seen as more important or more of a sign of maturity than building community. They are not. We need each other, we need to be in communal relationships with each other, and GP needs to make sure that it is programmed into the church’s DNA.
Finally, let me say that this is counter-cultural to the world we live in. It is revolutionary. Our world needs open/authentic believers to reverse the isolation and individualization of our lives. In fact, this is exactly how Jesus says they will see the good news. Look at John 17. This is the real Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus himself offered before getting arrested later in the evening. He prays for himself, he prays for his disciples, then he prays through time for you and me. Look in verse 20:
My prayer is not for them [his band of followers then] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in my. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Jesus says that the world will know about God’s love for them by our unity, our community.
1 Corinthians 13 has often been a passage used in wedding ceremonies for its poetic and lofty description of love being patient and kind and selfless and all of those things. But the poem is not about husbands and wives, it’s about churches, about communities of Jesus’ followers. When I was in college, I would often hang out with a group of Christian friends. Several of us were a little edgy, a little different; okay, a little weird. One of our little games was to be in a restaurant, at the mall, or some other public place and I would start singing “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Somewhere in the middle of the verse my friends would join in and start singing, and I would stop and yell, “Hey, shutup! I’m singing here!” Then we’d all pretend to yell and fight and be mad at each other, then I would finish singing the song. Okay, a stupid thing to do, but it’s often exactly what the world sees when they look at a church—a group of people who sing about loving each other and God for 30 minutes a week and then are fighting, gossiping and just downright ignoring each other the rest of the time.
At the risk of being overly provocative, let me offer a modern paraphrase of the first few verses in that chapter of 1 Corinthians:
If we sing and worship with passion and energy, led by a band with musical harmony extraordinaire but have not love, we are only resounding gongs or clanging symbols. If our preaching and teaching is theologically accurate and totally applicable to our lives, but we don’t love each other, we are nothing. If we have the greatest children’s ministry and the most exciting youth ministry and dynamic 360s that draw hundreds and thousands to our services but don’t have love, we have gained nothing. If we plant 100 churches in 10 years but reproduce only the shells of church programs and not loving communities, we have done nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious or boastful of what it has done compared to others. Love doesn’t treat people rudely either through speaking poorly to them or speaking to them not at all. Love puts others first and encourages them, draws them in, knocks down their barriers and includes them. Love never fails.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.