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Showing posts with label Christian community. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christian community. Show all posts

Monday, June 1, 2020

Ekklesia 3 - Called out of the World


Introduction
I’ve felt like an outsider almost my whole life.  I never had any resentment about it—it was just the reality for our family when I was a kid.  My parents were both born in Georgia but met and married in Maryland.  So, I began my life as an outsider in Maryland, a child of two outsiders from Georgia.  Eventually, we moved away from Maryland back to Georgia.  In Georgia, I felt even more like an outsider.  In Maryland, kids teased me because I had a southern accent.  (I guess I picked it up from my parents.)  When we moved to Georgia, kids at school said I talked like a Yankee.  Some of the kids in my school in Macon had such thick southern accents, I couldn’t understand what they were saying! 

In all, I attended five different elementary schools and, each time, it reinforced the fact that I was an outsider—the new kid on the outside of a circle of friends.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  It was just the way it was and I didn’t know any better and didn’t resent it.
 
Then, after high school, I moved to Marietta to attend college.  Metro Atlanta was very different from Macon, and again, I felt like an outsider among people who had lived in the Atlanta area their whole lives.  They would talk about the different towns and roads and places assuming everyone knew where they were—and most everyone did (accept me, the outsider).  But that was OK, because by then I knew how to make it as an outsider—a stranger in a foreign land, as they say. 

After college, I worked for a small textile mill in Griffin—a small town where everybody knew everybody and everyone in the mill knew everybody else, and probably had for their whole life.  Except for me, of course; I was the outsider—that new college kid who thought he was smarter than everyone else. (That was their opinion, not mine, by the way.  I deeply respected their vast experience and just wanted to learn from them. I didn’t think I was better than anyone, but some perceived me that way simply because I had a college degree.)

And then I answered the call to ministry as a United Methodist minister.  And guess what?  United Methodist ministers are reappointed to new churches every so many years (the average is about 5 years in each congregation)!  So all together, I’ve lived in twelve different homes in my life and I have attended 10 different churches.

Now, the more I have matured in my Christian faith, the more I see the benefit of my life as an outsider, because one of the great truths is Jesus came to call Christians to be “outsiders” in this world.

John 15:18-19
18 “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. 19 The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.

Called Out of this World
As we think about the purpose of Church, we have to remember that Christians are a “called out” people.  The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is Ekklesia, which literally means “the called out people”.  The Church is not a building.  The Church is a group of people who have been called out of something old into something new--called out of darkness into light, out of shame into nobility, called out of the world into the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps it has been easier for me than for most to accept that Christians are outsiders in this world because I have never felt “at home” in this world.  My faith in Christ has assured me that feeling is OK because this world is not our home. 

Philippians 3:20 says, “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.”

You see, being a Christian isn’t a sentence to be an outsider forever.  It only means being an outsider in this world.  But it means being an insider in God’s Kingdom.  Hebrews 13:14 – “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.”

But many Christians struggle with being “outsiders in this world.”  There are too many things we like about this world.  Hank Williams Jr. once sang a song, “If Heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t want to go.  If Heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I’d just as soon stay home.”  How about you?  If Heaven ain’t a lot like the place you call home, would you still want to go?  Are you more a part of this world or of God’s Kingdom?  These are critical questions to consider.  Remember, all the things of this world will soon melt away, but the Kingdom of God will stand forever (see 2 Peter 3:10-12).

The Purpose of the Church
It’s important to always keep in mind that Christians are not just called out of, but we are also called into.  We are called out of the world, but we are called into God’s Kingdom.  And this reveals one of the essential purposes of the Church.  The Church is the place Christians gather together into a community--a community of faith, God's Kingdom on earth.  Right now, it's just an outpost of God's Kingdom.  One day, it will be God's full Kingdom on earth when Jesus comes to reign in power and might.  Until then, we need a place where the faithful can gather.  The Church is that place.

No one can make it in this world completely alone.  We’re not made that way.  It doesn’t matter how much of a loner you are, you cannot live in complete isolation from other people.  Everyone (and I mean everyone) needs to be part of a group of people.

Christians do not live out our faith alone.  We need each other.  Jesus, the Son of the living God, called together a group of 12 people.  Don’t you think Jesus, God in the flesh, imbued with all the power in the universe, could have saved the world all by himself?  He didn’t need the help of 12 flawed, feeble mortals to do His work.  However, he chose these broken men to be together because being together is essential to the Christian life.

Part of the purpose of Church is for us to be together.  Because if we are called out of the world and we don’t gather together, then we’re just alone; and being alone is a death sentence to your spiritual life.  I want everyone reading this to understand me clearly.  If you are trying to live as a Christian all alone, all bv yourself without a group of other Christians, you will die spiritually.

Now, don’t get me wrong, gathering as a “church” doesn’t have to look like it has traditionally looked in America.  Obviously, we’ve been learning a new way to do “church” through online worship for over two months.  Church could also be a group of men gathering for lunch at a restaurant for encouragement, accountability, and cooperation in the mission of the Church.  Church could also be gathering in your living room or outdoors at a campground.  But it’s not just gathering; it’s not the same as getting together with your family or friends for a cookout.  We gather for some specific reasons.  What are they?

The Church Gathers for Important Reasons
Here are some of essential reasons we must gather.  Now, I’m still praying about this and studying.  I don't know that I have this all worked out and organized.  A lot of this is me just thinking out loud.  But here’s what I think are some of the essential reasons Christians must gather together.

Worship.  Obviously, we can worship privately as individuals.  We can also worship online as we are doing in many churches during the COVID 19 pandemic.  Some people may prefer to worship online as we are today.  For others, being together in one room worship God with other people enhances the worship experience. We feel God presence more compellingly when we are in a group.

Learning and growing.  There is a certain amount of learning and growing that can be accomplished online.  We are learning that we might actually be more effective in some ways when we teach online.  The jury is still out.  If online learning is as effective as onsite learning, then why have we not yet abolished school classrooms and gone completely to online learning for public education as well as college courses.  Right now, these are options, but most students and teachers still believe being physically present in a classroom is essential for proper education.  I mean, do you want to be operated on by a surgeon who only took online classes in medical school?  I believe onsite learning in small groups, Sunday school classes, and Bible studies is essential in the church.  We are learning, however, that the right combination of online and onsite learning may be better than either one alone.

The Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism.  Jesus commanded the Church to perform two sacred ceremonies—Baptism and Holy Communion.  These can only be celebrated when a community of Christian believers are gathered together in person.  Some are celebrating online/virtual communions and I don't fault them; Christians long to celebrate Holy Communion and this is something many are trying to get by during a global pandemic.  However, I would say it's not really true Communion.  It is a stand in.  True Holy Communion must be celebrated as we gather in person. 

Cooperation for the sake of the mission.  Together, as a church, we are a team.  Christians are more effective when we work together.  We can do more as a group than we can do individually.  I’m good at some things, but not everything.  You are better at some things than I am.  When we get together, I add the things I'm good at your good things and the good things of everyone else in the church and it adds up to great things.  When we all pool together our time, our talents, our perspectives, and our resources for the sake of the Christ’s mission, we can accomplish greater things than we could ever accomplish alone.

Finally, there is fellowship.  And this is huge.  Sometimes, fellowship doesn't get the respect it's due.  Cynics may say a church that focuses on fellowship is just a social club.  That's not fair.  Fellowship is vital to the Christian faith.  People who don’t meet together regularly to fellowship in person will grow apart.  And if a church is going to work together as a team, weathering trials and tribulations, we have to know each other, trust each other, and long for each other.  We have to be one as a family—brothers and sisters in Christ.  I just don’t see how a Church can go to the depths of relationship building, working together on our great mission, and being the community of faith Jesus calls us to be if we don’t get together regularly in person all in the same space.  We can manage it for a time, but eventually we would grow apart.  Over the long term, we have to be together to be one in Christ to do the things the Church is called out of the world and into the Kingdom to God to do.  Fellowship is essential.

Closing
I want everyone reading this to seriously contemplate how you are called to be part of the Church.  Over the next month, we will slowly begin to resume onsite gatherings at my church, Pleasant Grove.  Is God calling you to be here. If you don’t live close enough, is God calling you to be in a church near you?  Please understand, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to worship in a traditional church building.  You could worship online at my church on Facebook on Sunday and then meet with a solid group of Christian friends for coffee on Monday morning and get the "in person" portion of Christian relationships you need.  Is God calling you to do that?

Jesus came to call you out of darkness into light, to call you out of shame into a noble purpose.  He came to call you out of a broken world of sin into God’s glorious Kingdom of eternal life.  Won’t you hear His voice today and start to follow Him?

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Christian Community

Acts 2:40-47

Introduction
            If there's anything the violence of the last month has taught us, it's that our world is in desperate need of God.  I am starting to lose track of all the violent attacks reported on the news.  Less than a month ago, a gunman went on a shooting rampage and killed 49 people and injured even more at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  Just this past week, videos were released of two separate incidents where black men were shot by police officers who are now under investigation.  (Regardless of who's right or wrong, it is a terrible trajedy and telling of the kind of world we live in.)  Then, on Thursday, five police officers were killed and seven wounded along with two more civilians when a sniper opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Texas.  Our world is in chaos.  We desperately need God to save us from ourselves.  We all need to repent and turn our hearts back to God before it's too late.
            I long for our nation to turn back to God.  It is something I have prayed about for decades.  It is why I am a preacher.  Here’s something I wrote in my prayer journal way back on June 29, 1999--even before I became a preacher:
“Lord, we need You more than ever.  Please work in the hearts of every man, woman, and child on this planet.  Revive us, Oh Lord.  Turn our hearts back to You.  Save us from these crooked ways.  Bring us back to You.”
This has continued to be my heart's desire for 17 years.  It has directed my life and my ministry.  I’m not alone.  I believe there is a longing in many hearts for our community, our state, our nation, and even our world to turn back to God.  I long for this.  Don’t you?
            As we long for a more godly community, we have different ideas about what that looks like.  Some wish the community to be more like it was in the “good ole days”.  Some long for a more progressive community, where we are more tolerant and open to people who are different than us. Who's right?  If we don’t know what type of community you are aiming for, how can you hope to achieve it?
            Rather than aim for our own worldly ideas of a Christian community, let's look to God's Word.  There was a time when the Church community lived wholeheartedly for God.  Let’s read the Scripture to see what pure Christianity, pure Godly living, pure revival looks like.

Acts 2:42-47
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What were the characteristics of this early Christian community?
            First of all, we see these Christians were devoted. We sometimes hear about parents who are devoted to their children; who would do anything for them.  Sometimes perents are so devoted they smother their children or do too much for them and spoil them.
            We hear about sports fans who are devoted to their team; they won’t miss a single game—whether in person or on TV.  They dress in their team’s apparel, decorate their homes and cars with their team logo.  The most extreme
fans are so devoted they might even paint their faces or bodies for the game.  I’ve seen cheese heads at Packers games shirtless in the dead of winter in Wisconsin!
            The early Christians in Acts 2 were devoted to God.  Oh, that people in our churches today were more devoted to God than they are to the things of this world!  Oh, that we were devoted like the Christians in Acts chapter 2!
            The early Christians were devoted to the Apostles' teaching.  The Apostles spent three years with Jesus.  They learned from what he said and what he did.  They were personal witnesses of his death and resurrection.  In turn, the Apostles passed Jesus’ teachings on to the Church in Acts.  
            These early Christians—who were so close to God, whom we should imitate—were devoted to the Apostles' teachings.  They didn’t try to change the Apostles' teaching to fit their lifestyles.  They didn’t try to make exceptions for themselves.  No.  They humbled themselves, repented of any behavior that was contrary to the teachings—whether sinful things they had done or good things they had left undone—and devoted themselves to living the way Jesus said they should live.
            The Christians of Acts 2 passed these apostolic instructions on to others as well.  They challenged their family, friends, and the people of their community to repent of their sin and turn to God by following the Apostles’ teachings about Jesus.  More and more people started coming to the Lord—and it started to change their community and eventually the whole world.
            These early Christians were also devoted to fellowship.   In other words, they were together as one mind and body.  They saw each other as family.  The bond between these believers was even stronger than the ties between brothers and sisters.  Elders treated their younger believers as their children and young Christians treated their Christian elders as parents.  Everyone in the Christian community was part of the “family of God” and it was more than just words; it was real.  Everyone had each other’s back—to the point they would even sell their possessions for the good of the whole Christian community.  No one went without because everyone was wholeheartedly committed to their Christian family.
            The Church in Acts experienced the risen Christ in their midst because they were devoted to the Breaking of the Bread (otherwise known to us as Holy Communion).  The early church was not distracted by keeping up with the Jones’, making more money, or driving a nicer car.  They were not caught up in sports or politics. They were not glued to their TVs or their Facebook feeds to see the latest gossip in the news.  No.  They were devoted to worshiping the Lord through Holy Communion Thus, they were overwhelmed by Christ's presence in their lives.  Oh that you would be more like these early Christians!  As the song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus and looked full in his wonderful face.  And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”  The Acts 2 community's closeness to Jesus through worship, fellowship, and Holy Communion made them truly alive in Christ and dead to the world, but there is more.  
            These Christians in Acts 2 devoted themselves to prayer.  It was more than just saying they would pray for one another.  They prayed with one anotherThey met every day to pray together—in their homes, in the Temple, where they worked, in the streets.  They never did anything without praying about it first.  Daily, they prayed—not for safety from persecution or death (though these were ever present and real dangers), but instead they prayed—for boldness to share the Gospel of Jesus with the dark world around them.  If you want the dark world around you to change, if you want to see an end to the violence, you must get serious about prayer.  Revival starts with prayer.  It will change you and it will change the people around you.  Soon, it will change the whole world.

What were the results for the early church in Acts?
            These early Christians lived with a powerful sense of awe and wonder.  They saw God’s miracles all around them—in normal everyday things, and sometimes in dramatic actions—healings, people released from prison, impossibilities becoming realities.
            Have you lost your sense of awe and wonder when it comes to God?  Have you become a cynic, skeptical of everything you hear about God and the church?  Have you stopped seeing the Hand of God working in the world around you?  Have you ever had a sense of wonder about God?  I suggest you devote yourself wholeheartedly to the things I mentioned before as did these early Christians in Acts.  You see how they were filled with awe and wonder.  It will work for you too.  
            Another result was the early Christians saw people being saved everyday.  The rich, the poor, men, women, children, slaves, Jews, Gentiles, politicians, beggars, merchants, idolaters, prostitutes, people of all different races and languages, were convert to Christianity—drawn by the powerful authenticity of these people who devoted themselves to the Lord with their whole hearts, who lived what they believed, who were committed to the Kingdom of God above all else.  Daily, new people became believers and the Church grew and grew until it became the largest religion in the world.

Do you want the world to be a better place, a safer place, a more loving place?  It starts with you.  It starts now.  The choice is up to you.
            The Apostle Peter told us what to do—how to find the salvation we and our world so desperately needs.  Acts 2:38, Peter said, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
            He said repent, which means turn around; go a different direction.  Stop living the wrong way and start living the right way.  Stop being unconcerned, lazy, apathetic, indifferent, silent, uncommitted, and start living wholeheartedly for God!
            Peter said, be baptized.  Baptism is a symbol.  It means we die to our old way of living and are reborn to a new way of thinking and acting.  So you must be baptized with water as a symbol, but more importantly, you must die to your old ways and start living a new life.
            Some might say, “I have nothing of which to repent.” You better check yourself again.  We all need to repent of something.  We all need improvement.  We all need to grow.  And just because you are living like or have the attitudes people held in the “good ole days” does not mean you are living right.  Some of those “old” attitudes were wrong (racism, sinful pride, complacency).  It may be that Jesus has some new attitudes and practices He wants you to learn.
            Some might say, “I don’t want things to change.  I like my life the way it is.”  Well, what can I say.  You have fallen in love with the world.  I pray the Lord will break your heart until you realize the world has nothing worthwhile to offer.  Then maybe you will turn away from the world and turn to God.
            Some might say, "We need to protest!  We've got to stand up for our rights!  We need to fight!"  Violence will change nothing; at least not in any positive, lasting ways.  Look instead at Jesus' example.  If anyone did, Jesus had the right and the power to call down 10,000 angels to come and violently change the world.  However he didn't.  Instead, he offered forgiveness and grace.  He said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  In the end, he died on the cross for the very people who hated him.  As he hung on that cross, he prayed, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  Only love can heal our broken world.  God is love.

Perhaps it's time to repent and turn to God.