I don’t know about you, but I’ve said and done stupid and hurtful things to other people, things I wish I could unsay or undo. Unfortunately, that’s not possible; once it’s said or done, it’s “out there” and it can’t be brought back in. I’ve damaged several relationships, some, perhaps, beyond repair. I’ve broken trusts that have taken years to restore, and some have yet to be restored. As I consider each of those situations–some weigh heavily on my mind–I wonder whether I can be forgiven by the people I’ve hurt. I have been blessed many times to have been forgiven by some of those people, whether I’ve asked for forgiveness or they’ve offered it without my asking, but there are still some whom I must seek out and others of whom I am afraid to ask. Perhaps you can relate to that?
Of course there are those others who have wronged me, and I must confess that forgiveness isn’t always at the front of my mind when I think about them. Can you relate to that, too?
How “funny” it is when we think about the people we have wronged and can only hope that they will forgive us, but when we think of those who have wronged us, forgiveness doesn’t come so easily or quickly. On one hand we might beg for forgiveness, longing for the relief it brings, but on the other hand, we withhold forgiveness for the simple reason that it might prolong the other person’s suffering, as if they must continue to pay on a debt.
In Ephesians 4:32 Paul writes: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Often we think of this command as a matter of “got to,” as in, “Well, Jesus did it for me; so I guess I’ve got to do it for you….” But Paul shows us that this is a matter of kindness and compassion. How would any of us feel if the people we have wronged throughout our lives told us we were forgiven, but only because they had to? Would you feel forgiven?
Rather than forgiving others under compulsion by God, we must forgive with the same attitude that Christ had when he forgave us, with kindness and compassion. That’s more than a canceled debt; it’s a restored relationship.
One of my Facebook friends posted this: “If you try to have a debate in FB, it leads to unfriending.” He later lamented the fact that the dispute was over college football. While I understand cutting ties with people who support certain teams, it’s not a healthy, biblical practice for maintaining relationships. Unfortunately, our fascination with “social media” may have led us to be less than sociable. The ease of posting our opinions seems to have led us to believe that our opinions are more important than our relationships, and many relationships have suffered.
We have to guard against this in the church. In Romans 15:7, Paul tells us, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” The context of the chapter seems to be about more than just differing opinions but about weaker versus more mature faith. While our squabbles are often over matters of opinion, the Roman church’s problems seem to have been about deeper spiritual matters.
It’s interesting, then, that Paul reminds the church that those whose faith is stronger ought to bear with the “failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). Of course, Paul isn’t suggesting that we accept sin; just a few verses later, in Romans 15:14, he tells them to instruct one another. However, Paul is clearly trying to bring together what seems to be a fairly diverse body of believers.
The church in Rome was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, people who were rich, people who were poor, both slaves and free men. They were just as diverse as we are today, and Paul told them to “accept one another.” But it wasn’t in the sense that the world understands acceptance; Paul said to “accept one another… just as Christ accepted you.”
Remember, then, as you scan your Facebook newsfeed or as you interact with people with whom disagree about politics, sports, or any other hot-button issue, that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Don’t allow these disagreements to break your relationships. Better yet, take the opportunity to use your disagreements to show God’s forgiveness and love “in order to bring praise to God.”
Soon after the apostle Paul established the church in Corinth during his second missionary journey, the church began to experience division among its members. People argued about all kinds of things, even who was baptized by whom, and the first letter to that church addressed many of those issues directly. But in the first few verses of that letter, Paul practically begged the church to get along with each other. In 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul wrote: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
“Agree with one another.” “Be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Easier said than done, right? Don’t forget: it’s an election year, too. For whatever reason, agreement within the church has always been a problem. In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul reasoned that much of what we argue about is distractions (1:22). While Paul wrote to correct specific problems throughout the rest of the letter, he stated that God’s purpose for the church was to focus on Jesus (1:27-31). That’s where we must agree, “perfectly united in mind and thought.”
While it might be nice if Christians could agree on how we “do church,” it is essential that we agree upon Jesus. Ephesians 4:11-16 shows us that the church, including its leaders and programs, are expected to build up the body in unity, in agreement “in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” Not only that, but these verses point out that it is this agreement in Jesus that binds the church together as one body with each individual member doing their work within the body.
So, in a season of political divisiveness, in a culture driven by rabid individualism, the church must be vigilant to seek and maintain unity within the church. All of this should lead us to understand that our starting and ending points are Jesus and that our course of action is directed by Jesus. We must agree on this. We must encourage each other in this. We must hold each other accountable in this.
If there’s one thing that the church and the world can agree upon it’s the idea that team work is a good thing. We understand idioms like “United we stand, divided we fall” and “Many hands make light work.” But there’s more to this than getting the job done; there’s a mindset that goes along with it.
Many of the jobs we have to do, whether it’s at our workplaces, within our homes, or even within the church, are too big for us to accomplish on our own. And when we’re faced with overwhelming task lists or monumental tasks, it’s easy to be discouraged. That’s why we need to motivate each other.
Let’s face it: the task of the church to go into the whole world and make disciples of all people is a huge task. Perhaps that’s why so many people are discouraged about discipleship and evangelism. Even when we look at “smaller” tasks within the scope of discipleship–taking care of widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, teaching everything that Jesus taught, etc.–we find ourselves to be overwhelmed. God offers us encouragement in Hebrews 10:24 where it is written: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (NLT).
Not only does God expect us to do these things, but he wants us to encourage each other to do these things. Not only should we be working together, but we should be encouraging each other to work together. There could be many reasons why individuals don’t do what God calls us all to do: fear of rejection or resistance, fatigue, confusion, lack of knowledge or skills, even laziness. Regardless of the reasons, God calls us to motivate each other to do acts of love and other good works.
Frankly, we ought to assume a position that won’t take “no” for an answer. The NIV translates this verse to say that we should “spur one another on,” and the KJV says we ought to “provoke” one another. Perhaps what we need, in a more modern context, is a figurative kick in the seat of the pants or whack on the side of the head. There’s a lot of work to be done, both within the church’s programs and outside our walls. If you’re headed out to do the work, take someone with you. If you’re not feeling the motivation, be prepared to answer the call!
In Matthew 10:30, Jesus indicates that God knows us so well that he has even numbered the hairs on our heads. One one hand, it’s comforting; on the other, it can be unnerving knowing that God is aware of the things that we are trying to hide from other people, if not from God himself. When we walk into the church building on a Sunday morning with a fake smile stuck on our face, God knows that we don’t necessarily mean “Good Morning!” when we say it to that person who wronged us last week. God hears the sighs, sees the rolling eyes, feels the icy stares when we react to the presence of others for whom we have little respect and those with whom we are angry.
To be honest, I think God gets that. It wouldn’t surprise me if God would suddenly let us know just how frustrated he could be with us and say something like, “You think they’re bad? I have to put up with all of you! You guys drive me crazy sometimes!” I don’t imagine we’re much better than the people of Noah’s day, but God promised he wouldn’t wipe us out again (at least not with a flood).
Here’s the thing: God can relate; he gets it that we don’t always get along with each other. He knows that we irritate and annoy one another. However, God’s relationship with us is based in grace and forgiveness; so he really expects the same among us. In Ephesians 4:2 Paul writes, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love,” and in Colossians 3:13 he writes, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
That seems to be the point we forget. It’s not a matter of whether our anger is valid; it’s a matter of forgiving others the way God forgives us. We know what God has forgiven in our own lives; are those offenses lesser than what others have done to offend us? Probably not. How often do you find yourself repeating the sins for which God has already forgiven you? Shouldn’t that lead each of us to be more patient with each other, especially when this person or that person continues to do that one annoying thing that drives us crazy? Praise God that he has forgiven us! May he continue to bless us with the grace we need to be patient with one another.
Last month I wrote that, even though we all have our differences, we ought to submit to one another so that the kingdom of God might grow. Unfortunately, because we value our individuality so much, we often find ourselves passing judgment on each other. While we might give up our own freedom in Christ, we resent those whose faith might be weaker.
In Romans 14:1, Paul wrote: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Paul is writing to those who have confidence in their faith and who do not stumble over disputable matters, in this case, from verses 2 and 5, food and drink and “holy days.” What if a formerly Jewish Christian decided to celebrate his freedom in Christ on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) by eating a bacon cheeseburger? Do you suppose other formerly Jewish Christians might have a problem with that? What if the bacon had come from a pig that was sacrificed in a pagan temple? Do you suppose other Christians who used to be pagans might have a problem with that?
In the spirit of Romans 14:20, which says, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble,” the Christian with stronger faith ought to give up the bacon cheeseburger for the sake of the other Christians. If he gives it up grudgingly and his attitude is a matter of “They need to grow up,” then he is sinning, despite his freedom.
The weaker brother or sister isn’t off the hook, however. If those Christians who have trouble with their brother’s actions insist that he give up his freedom for their sake, because of what the Scriptures say, they have put themselves in the position of having the stronger faith. If they can point to the Scriptures and say, rightfully, “Do not cause anyone to stumble,” they must also be careful not to judge their brother.
Regardless of your starting point, if your attitudes and actions come from the perspective of “my freedom” or “my faith,” it is not coming from the perspective, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31, of doing it for God’s glory. Let’s not destroy God’s work over disputable matters.
Our culture values individuality, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We know from Romans 12 that the body of Christ is made up of different parts; so it’s important that we recognize our differences. However, our culture guards individual differences fiercely, to the point where the differences themselves are more important than what we do with them. While Paul wrote in Romans 12:5 that all members are different, he also wrote that each member “belongs to all the others.” The world would have us believe that we ought to defend our differences, even if it means dividing people. It’s no wonder that the world is in such turmoil over so many selfish things.
Unfortunately, we see this in the church, too. Where our differences ought to be used to build up the body; we use them to tear it down. The church is in turmoil when we focus on our differences rather than on our common goals and purpose. So Paul warns us to change our perspective from ourselves to the body. In Ephesians 5:15-21 he writes: “Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
So, even though Paul knew that we are all different, he directed us to put our differences aside out of our love for Jesus. Even though our differences are important and can be used in important ways to bring people into God’s kingdom and to build up the body of Christ, we need to put others ahead of ourselves. This is more than merely being “nice”; Paul says this is a practical matter. We must submit to others “because the days are evil” and to make the most of every opportunity. If we focus on ourselves, we will miss the opportunity to bring others into the kingdom. If our differences within the church become more important than leading others to Christ, then we have become fools who do not understand what God’s will is. I have a lot to give up; what about you?
Our culture celebrates diversity, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact of the matter is that we are a diverse people. We have all kinds of differences among us, and some of them are worthy of celebration–for example, I enjoy celebrating my Scottish-Irish heritage, and I enjoy the (usually) good-natured rivalries over college football.
For some reason, however, once we get into the church, we find ourselves in conflicts over our diversity. We’re different in many ways: economically, educationally, spiritually, racially, musically, etc.; so perhaps some of the conflicts should be expected. However, if we can expect conflicts over differences, we also ought to prepare to deal with them. In Romans 12:16, Paul writes, “Live in harmony with one another.”
When we think of living in harmony, many understand that to mean “identical” in thought or practice. We cannot deny that there are areas in which we ought to be in agreement with each other–for example, Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:5 that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”–but we are also a body made up of individual parts, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12. While I’m not a musical expert, I know that notes that are in harmony with one another are not the same, but they are arranged in a consistent, orderly, and pleasing way.
This is how we ought to live within the church. We don’t all have to have the same interests, backgrounds, or abilities, but we do need to put some effort into being a consistent, orderly, and pleasing church body and using those differences to connect, grow, and serve as a healthy body. I have been in enough choirs to know that harmony sometimes takes a lot of hard work. Paul gives some examples of that work in Romans 12:10-21: honoring others above ourselves; being patient; sharing with others; practicing hospitality; blessing our persecutors; rejoicing and mourning with others; living at peace; not taking revenge; feeding our enemies. Ultimately, when it comes to living in harmony with those who are different from us, it’s a matter of overcoming evil with good. That’s what Jesus did for us; shouldn’t we try to do the same?
The American church seems to be both blessed and cursed by it’s historical and cultural heritage. We are blessed to have grown in a country that was founded upon religious freedom and with a heritage that has been largely Christian in nature. However, our nation’s history of freedom and independence has also been a source of temptation for even the church to be self-centered. These days, our independent nature as Americans has encouraged us to become selfish Christians, thinking that our greatest concerns should be our individual relationship with Jesus.
Paul warned of this in Philippians 2:1-4: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” While each Christian recognizes the blessings God gives individuals through Christ, Paul wrote that this should lead individuals to look out for each other.
If we have learned anything from the Easter Experience sermons, videos, and small groups, it should be that we have all experienced separation from God and that we all have the same opportunity for individual transformation through Jesus. But it is our common past and our common transformation that should lead us all to share a common interest in each other.
While the world continues to tempt us to look out for ourselves, our transformation through Jesus should lead us to look out for each other. Our shared faith should lead us to shared encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, and compassion, as verse one reminds us. These shared blessings should lead us, together, to like-minded actions based in love and humility. These are the things that distinguish the church from the rest of the world.
What does fellowship mean to you? For many it’s a matter of getting together, sharing a meal, and having fun with other people. Those are good things; I like those things, and we should be doing more of those things as a church family. However, fellowship in the church should be more than that.
Our Sunday morning Adult Bible Fellowship group is currently going through “BASIC,” a video series about what it means to be the church by Francis Chan, a Christian writer and minister in California. In the episode dealing with fellowship he states that we should have “a fellowship together, a sharing. Not just of thoughts, ideas, but a sharing of everything, to really care for one another.” In the video he referred to Acts 2, where the early church met together regularly and shared meals and studied the teachings of Jesus, and to Acts 4, where the early church shared everything they had with whomever had need. But I that is just the starting point; fellowship is more than getting together and more than sharing what we have.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:2 that we should “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” In this passage, Paul is instructing believers about how to deal with sin problems within the church. He states that by helping each other deal with our sins, we are fulfilling Jesus’ command to love one another.
But how can we bear one another’s burdens if we don’t share our burdens with each other? How can we share our burdens with each other if we don’t know each other well enough to trust each other? We have to make an effort, and the easiest way to begin is with simply getting together.
The Easter Experience groups have been a good first step toward getting to know other people in the church. But we need to keep growing together as a body, as a family. As we wrap up the Easter Experience, consider continuing to meet with your group or even starting a new group. Get together once a week or a few times a month for a meal; pray together; talk about the last sermon together. Keep growing together in love so that those who are not part of the family will long for what we have and decide to follow Jesus and join the family.