COLOSSIANS #26: LIVING THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST IN YOUR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others. Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all?

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Colossians #26.  Colossians 3:1-14, especially 12-13

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

We are now deeper into a section of Colossians that tells Christians how we are to act. But we need to remember the basis for the way we act. It is not in order to get God to let us into heaven. It is not to prove our worth in any way, or get God to be pleased with us. Instead, we behave in certain ways because God has already forgiven us, and imparted to us the character of Christ. This section of Colossians shows us what the character of Christ looks like in each one of us. Particularly for this time, it shows us what the character of Christ looks like as we live in community with other Christians.

In several key places Paul has given us reminders that our behavior should be the result of what God has already done for us:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him Colossians (2:6)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (2:9-10)

​If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (3:1-4)

So again here, Paul gives us the reason for our changed behavior:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on…

We relate to one another as the New Testament tells us to because we are God’s specially chosen people. He has made us holy, and he loves us dearly. Therefore, this is what it looks like to reflect the character of Christ that God has already given us.

Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others.

Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all? Since Jesus is now in us,  through the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we just sort of “naturally” behave according to God’s intentions? Why all these verses about what to do, and what not to do?

I think there are three things that might help us with this question.

In the first place, in this mortal life, before we enter the New Creation, we live under the influence of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, we are not in neutral territory. There are other influences on us, telling us lies, making us feel left out, encouraging our sinful impulses. Even if we “naturally” know how to live in the character of Jesus Christ, there is tremendous pressure to live for ourselves, or for the things the world values, or according to the lies of the devil. With so many voices speaking loudly against the things of God, it is important for us to have clear guidance about how to live, so that we know what is true, right and good, and what is not.

There is another thought. Picture a dog with its food. Imagine trying to train the dog to share its food with other animals, or even just other dogs. For many years we had a wonderful dog, named Mario. He was a truly sweet-natured animal. He was kind and protective, not only toward the humans in our family, but also toward all of our (many) other animals. I had no qualms leaving him alone with our three year old daughter, or even little babies. But there was one thing that brought out savagery in Mario, and that was if any other animal approached his food dish when he was eating. My point is, it would be difficult to train most dogs to share their food. It’s unfortunate, but true, that really the only way to do it would be to make the dog so afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t share, that it obeys the master’s command to share. In other words, the dog never actually learns to want to share. It merely learns that it is more painful to be selfish than it is to share. To put it another way, the nature of the dog does not become sharing. The nature remains selfish. Only its behavior is conformed to the master’s desire.

In contrast, picture training a young child to share her toys. This is also challenging, and in some ways, much more difficult than training a dog, because you don’t want to use fear or coercion, and you want not just a changed behavior, but also a changed attitude. However, there is something in the child’s nature that is not in the dog’s. It is possible for a child to learn to enjoy sharing, to want to share. But even though that potential exists in her nature, it takes teaching and training to bring it out. So, our nature, because of Jesus, has been changed from one like a dog’s, to one like a child’s. Even so, we still need teaching and training to learn how to use the potential of our new nature.

Here’s one more analogy that may help. The entrance requirements for the United States Air Force Academy are extremely high. You have to be smart, and prove that you can do well academically. You have to prove that you have leadership potential. You have to prove that you are person of character and integrity. You have to have sponsors – including a member of congress. Now imagine a young cadet. He has the smarts. He has the leadership potential, the character, and the sponsorship. He is fully qualified. He has what it takes. He has applied, and he has been accepted. So now, he is cadet in the Air Force Academy. The fact that he has what it takes is now taken for granted. However, he must now learn how to use what he has. Even though he is accepted as a cadet, he must learn to apply what he “has” to being an officer in the Air Force. And the process doesn’t end when he graduates. Once he graduates, he becomes a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He has the commission, he is an officer. Even so, has really only just begun to learn how to work and live like an officer.

So it is with us, who have trusted Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have what it takes. We are fully qualified to in God’s kingdom, to manifest the character of Christ. We have been accepted. Even so, we still need to learn how to use what we have been given. We need to learn to live according to the grace we have been given.

We have been  talking about what it means to live out the character of Christ. First, Paul explained some things to put away from us: sexual immorality, covetousness (greed) malice, obscene talk, and so on. Now, he is telling us something to “put on.” So, first, he covered the negative: “Don’t do certain things,” and now he is talking about the positive: “Do these other things.”

The things we are to do are focused on our life together with other believers. It is not wrong to treat strangers this way, but this text, and many others like in the Bible, assume that we belong to small group of other Christians – that is, a house church. The way we treat others begins in the house church. It doesn’t end there – we should treat all people well – but it starts with us learning to live with each other in the love of Jesus Christ. If claim to love “the world” but don’t actually live in loving relationships with other believers, we will be hypocrites. Also, when we understand that this was first to be practiced among a group of other Christians that was small enough to fit in your living room, things make more sense. It is difficult to have a compassionate heart for all of the other 4,987 members of your mega-Church. In fact, when we try to apply it too broadly, Bible passages like this one become meaningless. How can you be kind and humble and meek and patient with hundreds of people whom you don’t even really know? No, Christianity was always meant to be practiced primarily with a small group of others who became your spiritual family. The word “family” is meaningless if we apply it to so many relatives that we are talking about hundreds of people. The things that go along with our understanding of “family”  necessarily mean a fairly small group of people. It should be exactly the same with “church.”

I am not saying it is wrong for mega-churches to exist. But where they do, they ought to get their members into small groups where real-life faith can be worked out together in real community. Many of the best mega churches do exactly that. But until and unless you get involved in a small Christian community where you know everyone, and they all know you, these teachings in the New Testament will be quite difficult to actually apply to your life.

The first thing is “compassionate hearts.” A more literal translation might have something like: “compassion straight from your guts.” The word used for “heart” is actually “internal organs” and it means a deep, powerful feeling. Compassion means that you “feel alongside with” another person. Sympathy means you feel for someone, but compassion is feeling with. Thankfully, other parts of the Bible explain this clearly:

5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV, Romans 12:15)

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

3 Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (ESV, Hebrews 13:3)

We are supposed to be so connected to the other Christians in our local Christian community (that is, our house church) that we “feel with” them. If they are happy, it should cause us to be happy. If they are suffering, they should know that we are so connected that we hurt too.

Kindness is the next thing listed. There is no mystery here, I think we all know what it is. Again, our biggest need is not to understand it, but to actually practice it with other believers, first, and then, also the world. I think one of the easiest ways to be either kind, or not, is in our words. Sometimes it feels so satisfying, so powerful, to say unkind things to or about another person. But this is not what the life of Jesus in you wants to do. A kind word at the right time can build up a person more than we can possibly imagine.

Humility is all about allowing  God (not ourselves) to defend our “rights,” and to trust him to make sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Even if that doesn’t take place in this mortal life, we trust that God will make it right in the New Creation. With that sense – that we don’t need to defend our own rights, or pride, or honor – we can deal with each other humbly. We don’t need to insist upon our way, nor make snide comments when our way is not taken, and things don’t go smoothly. We can be right without rubbing the faces of others in that fact.

Meekness is a word I’ve struggled to define for many years. The closest I can come is a mix of gentleness and humbleness. Humility and meekness do not mean that we have to look down upon ourselves, or believe that we are always wrong, or not worthy of respect. If you look at the life that Jesus lived on earth, we can see what both humility and meekness look like. Jesus was (and still is) King of the Universe. Yet, he did not insist upon his rights, or his own way. He dealt gently with people who did not respect him – and there was, literally, no one worthy of more respect. He presented the truth clearly, but did not try to force anyone to comply.  He did, at times, force people to make a decision about Himself. Even then, he gently spoke to them until they had to face up what he was saying about himself. At that point, they had to choose to either believe, or not, but he did not force them to believe.

Jesus was, by definition, always right, but he did not rub anyone’s face in that fact. He knew who he was, certainly. He didn’t feel badly about himself, nor have low self-esteem. He didn’t pretend he was wrong. But he didn’t either insist that everyone recognize his rightness, or give him what he truly deserved.

I think we all know what patience is. But I want us to think about what it means to be patient with each other in Christian community. It might mean smiling and waiting it out when someone tells you the same story you’ve heard fifteen times already. It could mean remaining calm and hoping for the best when someone in the group fails to make the best choice – for the twentieth time in twenty days. It means everyone sticking with each other even when it seems like things aren’t going anywhere. It means sticking with individuals in the group when they continue to struggle with the same things for months – or even years – at a time. It means continuing to commit to the group even when there is a season when it feels like you aren’t getting a lot out of it. Your presence there may be the main reason someone else is getting a lot out of it, and what goes around comes around – but not usually very quickly.

Bearing with one another. No one is perfect, but when you get to know a group of people really well, you find that they are all a group of especially imperfect people. We need to bear with one another’s idiosyncrasies and bad habits, and socially awkward graces and body odor, and bad cooking and so on.

We have plenty to chew on for this time. Ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say to you right now? How does he want you to take action on these things? How is he calling you to trust him today?

 

COLOSSIANS #25: HOW DOES CHRIST-IN-YOU WANT TO RELATE TO OTHERS?

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 25

COLOSSIANS #25. COLOSSIANS 3:6-11

6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

We are continuing from last time, when Paul started warning about the dangers of lawlessness. We need to remember that we don’t avoid sin, or do good, so that God will accept us or forgive us. Our acceptance and forgiveness are already assured by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus and what he has done. But just as in a marriage we live not just for ourselves, but also with and for our spouse, so it is with God. We live not for our own selfish desires, but with and for Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us. We have entered into a kind of spiritual marriage. Earthly marriage changes the way behave. So does this spiritual marriage. But we change (in both cases) because of love.

[By the way, the Bible often says things like “brothers” when it means “both men and women.” It says we are all “sons of God through Christ Jesus,” because there was a special significance attached to sons, but the concept applies to both men and women. Women need to learn to understand that these concepts are not about gender, but about who we are in Christ. So now, men need to understand the same things when it comes to the concept of spiritual marriage. We are all (both women and men) the Bride of Christ. It is not about gender, it is about the kind of relationship we have with Christ.]

Last time Paul listed some of the changes that take place because of our spiritual marriage to Christ, and they were changes in our desires, and how we acted (or did not act) on them.

Now Paul continues and talks about how our relationships with each other should change. In the first place, we must put away all anger and wrath. I might have translated these words, anger and rage. Paul says we should “put them away.” The Greek does not mean “put them away” like putting away socks that you will use again. It means, “send them away from yourself;  distance yourself from them.” Now, the truth is, at times Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5). So, not all anger is sinful.  Paul says it this way in Ephesians 4:26-27:

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Clearly there are times when anger is not sinful, since God himself gets angry at times. Of course it is right to be angry about injustice. Who would not be angry to hear about someone abusing a child, or stealing from the poor, or treating someone like  a second class citizen just because of their ethnicity? Who would not be angry if someone wrongs them badly?

But we must set a limit to the anger. Paul says, deal with it before the day is over. We are not to nurse anger, or feed it, or dwell on it. Get it out of your system, and send it away. Sometimes, to do that, you might need to express your anger to the appropriate person. Do so as soon as you can do it calmly, and then be done with it.

Malice is the next thing we are to send away. Malice is when you are deliberately trying to hurt someone, whether through words or actions. It indicates evil intentions. Sometimes people who are malicious may ask a question or say something that is technically innocent (on the surface) but it is said to hurt someone.

Slander is actually the Greek word from which we get our word “blasphemy.” Slander/blasphemy is saying something about God or someone else that is not true. I think it includes incidents where you say something that you don’t know to be true. In other words you are telling a lie or something that you know might be a lie about God or another person. So, perhaps I wonder if someone is having an affair. If I tell others that this person is having an affair, when I don’t know it is true, that is slander/blasphemy. Paul doesn’t mention gossip in this context, though he does in other letters. Gossip is repeating a fact that is not yours to repeat. So, to use the affair example, if I know for certain someone is having an affair, it is still not my business to talk about it with someone who does not need to know it.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is obscene talk. He says something like this also in Ephesians:

29 No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. (CSB, Ephesians 4:29)

I am both astounded and disappointed at how many Christians completely ignore both our verses today, and Ephesians 4:29 above. I have met probably more than a dozen pastors, and know of many others, who freely swear, tell dirty jokes and generally use foul language. They tell me that they are just trying to relate to “the people.” By this logic, they should commit adultery so that they can help adulterers!

A lot of people use foul language more or less as a habit. You get used to using certain words, and they sort of slip out of your mouth before you realize it. I am not deeply concerned about this, though, I think our scripture today is telling us that it isn’t a neutral habit and we should do what we can to change it. I think Ephesians 4:29 (above) gives us the important thing: the way we talk should uplift people and give grace to those who hear. I think we can say that in general, the F-word does not give grace to those who hear, nor do any of the other words. I think it is safe to say that the life we have in Jesus is not consistent with dirty jokes, or suggestive sexual language, or racial slurs, or insults, or demeaning labels. I think a big part of the problem is this: if these things come out of you, that means they are inside you in the first place. Jesus put it like this:

14 Summoning the crowd again, he told them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
17 When he went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated” (thus he declared all foods clean ). 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23

Another thing Jesus said:

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (ESV, Matthew 12:33-35)

I’m not trying to make anyone feel terrible about themselves. But what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what is in our hearts. Again, swearing is sometimes nothing more than a bad habit, and you shouldn’t stress too much about it. But it is a habit that you ask the Lord to change in you.

When I’m working with someone, and they hit their finger with a hammer, and they swear, I don’t think much about it. But when someone hits himself and does not swear, that gets my attention. In some jobs or circumstances, you can say a lot by not saying certain things, if you catch my drift. Many times, I have ended up having spiritual conversations because people noticed that I don’t swear. I will freely admit that it is easy for me not to swear, because I never got into the habit in the first place. But I think our language can say something about Jesus to other people. More often than not – maybe 75% of the time, at least, I find that those who don’t swear are Christians.

The final thing Paul puts here is “do not lie to another.” Part of the Greek word for “lie” is “pseudo.” The word goes beyond simply telling  a lie, and includes any kind of deception or falsehood and could even include “putting on a false front,” or hypocrisy. This is really important. We cannot grow together as a community if we are not honest with each other. Sometimes we are afraid of honesty, because sometimes it brings conflict. But listen, dear friends, listen well: Conflict is unpleasant. But when you have walked through conflict with someone else, and resolved it, you are closer than you would ever be if you never had issues. We are God’s children together forever, so there is no question of conflict destroying your Christian community, provided we go about it in a godly way. And so honesty, even when it leads to conflict, leads ultimately to greater love for another, and a greater sense of support and encouragement.

Verses 9-10 are extremely important in order to put all in this context:

…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

This is the key. Remember, this all builds upon what we have already learned. I don’t want anyone to confuse all these commands with some kind of legalism. Instead, these things are a guide. They show us what the character of Christ looks like. They show us how to put to death the old person, and let the new us, in Christ, be manifested more and more. We are being renewed in the knowledge in the image of our Creator. This isn’t about following rules, it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to renew us in God’s image. In a sense, it is about “unpacking” the gift of Christ in our everyday lives.

This also gives us a diagnostic tool. If there continues to be anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, if we continue to deal with others in hypocrisy and deception, then there is some sort of problem. The life of Christ is not flowing out into our souls and then changing how we live in the body. The problem might be that we don’t truly believe who Jesus Christ is, and what has done for us. It could be that we are feeding our souls with the things of the world and flesh, instead of the things of the spirit, like the Bible, Christian fellowship, prayer, worship and music.

I am quite sure that the actual Colossians, the first readers of this letter, would have understood these things to be especially important to how the lived in Christian community with each other. That is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write verse 11:

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

In Paul’s world, there were many divisions and distinctions between people that threatened real Christian community. Greeks considered themselves to be cultural elites. Jews thought they were better than all others, because their ancestors were chosen to be God’s people. “Barbarians” had a different meaning than we might imagine. It meant nothing more or less than someone who didn’t speak Greek, and was therefore not part of the Greco-Roman culture that dominated that area of the world in those days. Scythians were the real barbarians. They were white-skinned Europeans who lived far to the northeast, in crude huts, with a brutal, primitive, savage tribal culture. Perhaps a few made their way into the civilized world of the Mediterranean and became Christians. Slaves, were not exactly the sort of slaves that lived in nineteenth century America, but their freedom was certainly limited. We will talk more of slavery later in the letter, but in some ways, the big difference between slave and free in those days was that slaves had less money.  All these were ways of dividing people from each other in Paul’s time. But the Holy Spirit, through Paul, says, that these are meaningless distinctions. The only important thing about all people is where they stood in relationship to Christ. There is only in Christ, and not in Christ. And in Christ, there is no distinction worth mentioning.

In our day and age, we are tempted by divisions also. Some people consider themselves intellectuals and elites, and they might be tempted to think of themselves as better than others. Some might have a strong religious background, and so look down on people who only started following Jesus after many years without him. Some might be Westerners: part of the Western European culture that has dominated the world for the past four hundred years or so. Others might be from non-Western countries. Others still might come from very primitive places in the world. Some might be in economically difficult situations, while others have more money than they strictly need. Unfortunately, in America, as other places in the world, we also allow ethnic differences (which some people call “race”) to divide us.

I want to speak, very briefly, about racism. This scripture shows us that it is a sin when we use peoples’ ethnic background or appearance as a means to judge them, put them down, or divide us from them. Paul says very clearly that these things don’t matter: in Christ, we are all the same. In Christ, the important thing is that we belong to Him. I think there has been some confusion about this. Sometimes, in the United States, it seems like we are supposed to be especially sensitive to a person’s ethnic background. The Bible seems to be saying the opposite. I’m not saying we should insult each other with racial slurs. Obviously, the rest of this passage calls that sort of thing sinful. But I am saying, that in Christ, race is not important. Any way we have of making it important pales in comparison to the oneness we have in Christ.

Sure, we can celebrate the heritage of our historical cultures, but in America, even that sort of thing has had the tendency to divide more than to unite. In Christ there is neither black nor white. The idea that blackness or whiteness is somehow important, is, I think, one of the great lies of the 21st century. Let me put it this way: anything that starts you thinking about “them” and “us,” can become a real problem. I realize that racism is a thorny and difficult issue, which I will not solve here. However, I have seen race relations between blacks and whites deteriorate during my adult life, and that deterioration was accompanied by the idea that we should be especially sensitive to a person’s race, as opposed to simply striving to see every person as a person, regardless of his or her appearance. Also, when I was young, tension between American Asians and American whites was almost non-existent. However, as our culture has drawn more attention to race, and insisted upon “sensitivity,” racial tension has grown up between these two groups, where previously there was very little.

What we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years has surely not been working. Could we find a better place than scripture for guidance? In Christ, there is no black or white, Asian or Native-American, man or woman. Christ is all, and is in all. None of these things are supposed to matter. None of them should make any difference to the fellowship we have in Jesus.  None of them may be used as excuses for anger, rage, malice, slander, obscene talk or deception, or anything else that interferes with our one-ness in Christ.

What if, in listening to this message, you realize that engage in some of these sins, or allow these differences between people to be important? What then?

First, do not panic. The presence of sinful flesh does not, all by itself, mean that you are not a true Christian. But a true Christian responds to sin by repenting, and giving Jesus permission to change him or her. Repentance is not about generating will power in order to avoid sin in the future. But repentance agrees that what the Bible calls sin, is in fact, wrong. A repentant heart wants to change, and gives God permission to work so that it can be changed. The main questions are: do you agree with God that your behavior needs to change? Do you give him permission to change you? Do you believe that he can and will change you through the power of the Holy Spirit? Will you try to go along with the changes he wants to make in you?

The change may not happen as quickly as we think it should. That’s fine. I don’t think it is up to us evaluate how much and how fast we change. But, is there any movement in a direction that looks more like Jesus and less like your sinful flesh? We don’t get to decide how much progress we make, only that there is movement in the right direction. The good news is given to us right here in these verses:

you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

And…Christ is all, and in all.

For anyone who is in Jesus, the putting off of your old self and the putting on of the new is a present, spiritual reality. You are being renewed in knowledge after the image of  God. Maybe not as quickly as we think it should be, but it is happening to us, and our main job is to not fight with God about it, but let him do it. For those who are in Christ Jesus, he is all to us, and he is in all of us.

COLOSSIANS #7: If We Belong to the Head, We belong to the Body

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Christ is the head of the body, the church. You are part of the body, the church. That’s the deal. That’s part of what you sign up for when you surrender your life to Jesus. Part of trusting Jesus is trusting that he has made you part of his body.

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Colossians  #7.  Colossians 6:18

 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.

In this message, I am going to say some things that may be difficult for some people to hear. I want you to stay with me. It may seem like I am being unrealistic at one point, but hang in there, because I will cover our topic today as thoroughly as I can, including taking into account the reality of this sinful world.

In verse 18, Paul moves from a universal view of Jesus to a more personal one. He is the creator of all things, Lord of the universe. That is true, and wonderful. Even more wonderful is that this Creator God takes a personal interest in you and me. He is the head of the body, the church. He attained resurrection so that he could give it as a gift to us. He is God, and yet, he took upon himself the responsibility to repair what we had broken: ourselves, and this world.

And he is the head of the body, the church. There are two important things for us to understand in this statement. The first is that one metaphor for church is that of a body. This is extremely important, for a number of reasons. Let’s look at the idea in greater depth, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 12:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (ESV 1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

This has huge implications for how we live our everyday lives as followers of Jesus. We follow Jesus as a part of his body. It seems to me that millions of Christians don’t understand this. So many people think that religion is very personal and individualistic. There is a small element of truth in this. We do each need to have our own connection to Jesus, because ultimately, he is the only one we can always rely upon. We each have to receive the grace of God, and not reject it, as individuals. But once we are connected to Jesus, we are also connected to his body. And this connection to the body of Christ – that is, to others who follow Jesus – is supposed to last as long as the connection to Jesus himself: that is, eternally.

I have met many, many Christians who claim they are fine “going solo.” Unless everyone else you know who claims to be a Christian is actually a hypocrite – that is, they don’t really believe – there is no justification for that. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” Could it be any more plain than that? You cannot say to other Christians, “I have no need of you.”

Have you ever met a toe? Just a single toe, wiggling around through the world? Obviously not. A single toe, unconnected to the body will die. That is a biological reality. That is also a spiritual reality. A Christian without regular Christian fellowship will eventually wither away. People have asked me, “Can’t you be a Christian, and not be part of a Church?”

My answer has always been, “Yes, but not for long.”

Some people say, “I am connected to the head, (that is, Jesus) just not the rest of the body.”

All right then, have you ever met a head with a toe sticking out of the side of it? Stay with me here, I know I am being ridiculous – but so are the Christians who claim they do not need to be connected to other believers. Now, if you are a toe, and you are connected to the head, let me ask you two questions: how do you think the head looks to other people? Pretty weird, right? You aren’t doing Jesus any favors, and you aren’t helping him look appealing to the world if you are not connected to the rest of the body.

Second, this: if you are a toe, and you are connected to the head, and nothing else, what is your function? Why is there a toe on the head? How does the toe help out, up there on the head? If a toe is connected only to the head, it contributes nothing to the rest of the body. There is no purpose for it.

Are you starting to get it? The whole idea of a Christian who is not connected to the church is utterly silly and ridiculous. It gives other people  a skewed view of Jesus Christ, and it takes away the purpose that Jesus has for you in blessing others.

By the way, sometimes, I think this is why people are turned off by Christians and churches. Metaphorically speaking, The face of Jesus is covered by toes and fingernails that should be rightly connected elsewhere, but they aren’t, and so the church does not seem to be an attractive place.  Or, even if the face of Jesus is fine, they see a body that is missing feet and fingernails and eyelashes, and think, “That’s a little strange and creepy. I’m not sure I like it.”

Christ is the head of the body, the church. You are part of the body, the church. That’s the deal. That’s part of what you sign up for when you surrender your life to Jesus. Part of trusting Jesus is trusting that he has made you part of his body.

I meet some Christians who say, “I love Jesus just fine, but I really don’t love other Christians.” Listen, brothers and sisters that is impossible. If you love Jesus, you will love your fellow Jesus followers. If you don’t love your fellow Christians, then either you haven’t met enough of them, or there is something wrong in your relationship with Jesus. There are some things in the Bible that are difficult to understand, or are unclear. This is not one of them:

9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (ESV, 1 John 2:9-11)

If you think you are a Christian, and you hate other Christians, then you are mistaken. Being connected with Jesus means you are connected with his body, because he is the head. One sign that you are a Christian is that you love other Christians.

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. (ESV, 1 John 3:11-14)

Now, at this point, some of you may be getting a little nervous. The reality is, you just haven’t met many Christians that you can connect with. You feel like you really don’t love the rest of the body, but you really do love Jesus. What can you do? What does this mean?

If you are sure that you love Jesus, and you are sure that you don’t love other Christians, there are a few possibilities. The first is that you are mistaken about either one, or the other. Maybe you really don’t love Jesus. Maybe you still have not surrendered control of your life to Jesus, and you think you have the right to arrange your life however you want, even if sometimes that goes against what Jesus wants. All Christians fall back into this pattern  at times, but I am talking about something deeper than just falling back into sin from time to time. If you really don’t love your fellow believers, perhaps there is something wrong in your relationship with Jesus.

There is another possibility, and that is that you have not yet found your place in the body of Christ. There are many Christians that I can appreciate from afar, but with whom I will probably never be very close. I love them in the sense that I am committed to their best good because we are fellow believers. But I don’t necessarily enjoy hanging around with them. I believe the Lord has a place for each person who belongs to him, a place of deep, loving community with others. Not all churches are the same, and I think this is by God’s design. If we want to use our body analogy, the hand is made up of all sorts of bones, and tendons and tissues and blood vessels. The knuckle of the first finger on the hand works very closely with the other parts of the hand. It is also connected, ultimately, to the stomach, but the hand and the stomach don’t spend a lot of time together. They need each other, but they are not working together as closely as they are with the parts that are nearest to them.

The devil is against us. The world is against us. Our own sinful flesh is against us. Should it be any surprise that it is difficult to find a group of fellow-Christians with whom we can really connect? Of course it is going to be hard, at times, to find the part of the body where we truly belong. But it is absolutely essential that we do.

As a pastor, I need to be connected not only with the people in my churches, but also with the leaders of other churches. It took me the better part of twelve years to find good connections with other church leaders near where I live. I went to pastor’s gatherings, prayer meetings, and events for church leaders. I prayed, and I asked around. Finally, at a retreat for men, I met some other pastors and leaders that I can connect with at a deep level of fellowship. I never quit looking. If I was that intentional about finding secondary fellowship (with other pastors – I already had fellowship in my congregation) then it may require some diligence on your part to find your primary fellowship. Do not stop looking until you find it. It is an essential part of belonging to Jesus. If you belong to Him, you belong to the body. If you do not belong to the body, you will not belong very long to him.

In case I haven’t been clear: it is OK if you don’t connect with the very first church you visit. It may take you some time to find “your people” in the body of Christ. But it is not OK to stop looking until you do. This is of utmost importance. Pray for fellowship. Talk to people you know and ask for suggestions. Be willing to give people a few weeks of your time before you decide you can’t connect with them. Also, be regular. You will never develop fellowship with people if you visit once a month. Also, try and meet Christians outside of Sunday morning church. Fellowship will come extremely slowly if you only see your fellow members of the body once a week.

Now, I have been very strong about this as something that we must do. And we must. Some of you reading this may need to adjust your behavior to conform with Christ as the head of the body. But the reason for doing so is because being a part of the body of Christ is a tremendous blessing. Christ is the head of the body because the best thing for his followers is to be a part of that body. When we commit to Christian community as the Bible describes it, it is an inexpressibly wonderful blessing.

I am an introvert. I need to spend time alone in order to regain energy. Even so, I feel tremendously blessed to have genuine, honest relationships with many Christian brothers and sisters. There is no secret in my life known only to myself – I have the kind of Christian friends to whom I can tell everything. I know that I am loved and appreciated. I know many people who won’t let me get away with stupid stuff or pretensions. I have laughed harder and more often with my fellow Christians than anyone else. I have their backs. They have mine. During the best times, I realize that the love and fellowship I feel with my fellow Christians is a true foretaste of the joy of eternal life. In short, the body of Christ is one of the greatest blessings in my life, and has been for decades. It takes work to get here. You sometimes have to work hard to find the right people. You have to be willing to go through conflict with one another, and work through issues together, without running away, or giving up on each other. But when we live in accordance with the head, Christ, being part of his body is one of the greatest joys we can know on earth.

LOVE IN ACTION

love-in-action

What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches.

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Download Matthew Part 88

Matthew #88. Matthew 25:31-46

PLEASE BEGIN BY READING MATTHEW 25:31-46

Our passage for this time is a parable, and parables are usually intended only to make one or two main points. When we get down to it, the points Jesus is making are pretty broad and straightforward.

I do realize that other issues are raised by this story, but I want to start by taking the text for what it is. If we need to, I’ll address the other issues in the next sermon.

First, let’s remember our context. Jesus has been talking about the end of the world, and the fact that his followers need to be prepared for it. In verses 14-30, he tells a parable to illustrate what he means about being prepared: we should use our lives, and everything we have been given as managers. We don’t own what we call our “stuff,” and we don’t even own our lives; therefore we should invest what we have been given in the interests of the Master.

In the next parable – our text for this time – he is now giving us a specific example of what it means to invest ourselves in God’s kingdom. The example he gives is this: we should care for our fellow Jesus-followers.

I think many of us, when we read the passage today, have a certain picture of what this looks like. We think we are supposed to go out on the streets and find people who are hungry, or inadequately clothed, and give them food and clothing. We think we should go visit random people in jail or hospital. If we examine our thoughts carefully, we would find a disconnect between doing those things, and how we live our daily lives. Even at best, most of us probably picture dashing out and doing “homeless ministry” once a week, and then coming back to our “normal life.”

Those sorts of thoughts would have been strange to most Christians in New Testament times, but not for the reasons you might imagine.  Some of you may be a little unfocused, and perhaps you didn’t notice something important about Jesus’ words. Let me say it again with emphasis: this parable teaches us that we should care for our fellow Christians.

Let’s look at the text:

40“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ (Matt 25:40, HCSB)

In the New Testament, the Greek word adelphon (“brothers”) can mean, obviously, “male siblings.” Far more often, throughout the New Testament, the word is used to mean, in general, “followers of Jesus, whether male or female.” Now, unless Jesus is talking specifically about James, and Jude (his half-brothers, each of whom wrote a book of the New Testament), he means “my followers.” The context shows us that he was obviously not talking about James and Jude. The “sheep” in this parable are commended for feeding, clothing, welcoming and visiting followers of Jesus, specifically.

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is that we have lost this understanding. We think we should do good “for the poor and needy.” Then, we fervently hope that the “poor and needy” are some remote group out there that we can keep separate from our own lives. We have no actual relationship with the poor and needy, and we typically skip over helping people with whom we do have relationships. Far too often people in churches throw money at a problem, or rush out and spend an evening serving food to the homeless, or spend two weeks on a mission trip, but we always go back to a kind of status quo of not really living in meaningful community with one another. We’ll serve food to the homeless, but ignore the lonely single person in our church who would enjoy coming over for dinner once in a while. We pay a pastor to go visit the sick and those in prison, and we thank the Lord that we, personally don’t have to do such things, because we just don’t have the time. We will give money to a homeless shelter, but balk at opening our home to a visiting missionary.

Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is good to give money to organizations that genuinely help to relieve poverty in the world (like Compassion International). I think it is worthwhile to go serve supper to strangers at a homeless shelter. Short term mission trips don’t usually give much real, long-term help to the people in the countries that are visited, but they do have some value in opening the eyes of Americans to different cultures and conditions around the world.

So those are OK. But did you know that virtually every example of charitable giving in the New Testament, and almost every single instruction about such giving, refers to either providing financial support to those who teach the Bible, or to helping other Christians?

What Jesus and the apostles consistently taught is that love-in-action should be expressed first toward our fellow-Christians. It can (and should) overflow to our world-at-large, but it will only truly do so if we actually love one another. I realize that this is almost counter-cultural, at least to American Christians these days. But it is unquestionably what the New Testament teaches. It is certainly what Jesus is teaching in this parable, as I have already pointed out, by saying “to the least of these, my brothers.”

Consider these other verses, which are only a few of many. Bear in mind that “brothers” in each of these verses means “fellow Christians.” I have italicized certain parts to make my point clear. The first is another one from Jesus, found earlier in the book of Matthew:

40 “The one who welcomes you welcomes Me, and the one who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me. 41 Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet  will receive a prophet’s reward. And anyone who welcomes a righteous person because he’s righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple — I assure you: He will never lose his reward! ”

Again, Jesus is teaching the value of love-in-action toward other people who follow Him. Next, John records these words of Jesus:

34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

This verse is frequently ignored. The world does not know we are His disciples because we do good deeds for the world, or show the world how much we love them. Instead, the world will see Christians loving and caring for each other, and the beauty of that testimony will show outsiders that we follow Jesus. Trust me, when the world sees Christians fighting, and gossiping and hurting one another, they are not seeing Jesus there. Who would want to become a Jesus follower, if it means joining a group that barely tolerates its members, but tries to show love only toward outsiders? Or who would want to join a “community” where you will hardly get to know each other? The first Christian church grew, in part, because people were attracted by the warm, loving, family-style relationships they found there.

Here are a few more passages:

6 The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal 6:6-10, HCSB)

10Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 12No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us. (1John 4:10-12, HCSB)

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (James 2:14-15)

Am I wrong about all this? Aren’t these all commands for Christians to love each other? Don’t you dare say, “Yes, sure, but we must also love the world.”  Don’t you dismiss this lightly! You need to start where Jesus and the apostles start, which is this: love your fellow Christians. You cannot properly love those outside the faith if you don’t love your fellow-Christians.

In fact, the whole point of our text today is that if you don’t love your fellow Christians, there is probably something wrong with your faith, and with the relationship you have with God. Lack of love for fellow Christians may be a symptom of the fact that you are a goat, not a sheep.

The church in New Testament times became like a family for those who followed Jesus. Sometimes you fight and wrangle with those in your family. But in the end, you are committed to one another, and you take care of each other.

One reason we have such trouble loving each other is because, by and large, we don’t have these close, family-style relationships with other Christians. The way we engage in church is often a major obstacle to this. Worshipping together is one part of loving fellow believers. But it is only one small part. The first Christians understood this, and they not only worshipped together, but they shared their lives with each other.

8We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1Thess 2:8, HCSB)

 42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. 43Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, HCSB)

Even Christians who were strangers to each other recognized that they were bound together in love and common faith. On one of their journeys, Paul and his companions arrived in a strange city, and sought out the Christians in that place. There they fellowshipped, and stayed with these strangers for a week. Luke describes it:

2Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail. 3After we sighted Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4So we found some disciples and stayed there seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. 5When our days there were over, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, 6we said good-bye to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home. (Acts 21:2-6, HCSB)

These days, most of us just go to church on Sunday, and then go home. That is not Christian fellowship, and real Christian love doesn’t develop well in those circumstances. In contrast, the Christians of the New Testament walked through life together. They spent time in each other’s homes, they ate together, they laughed together, they fought with each other at times, they forgave each other, they grieved together and celebrated together. If one of them was in need, they helped each other. They lived in real Christian community, and developed real love for each other.

Notice that in the parable of Jesus, the sheep are surprised. “When did I do that?” they ask. This is because when you are in real, loving community with others, good works come naturally. Visiting sick people that you love comes naturally. Visiting prisoners that you love is easy. When someone you love is in need, the normal, natural thing to do is to help them.

Some folks might say, “OK, but in my circle of Christian community, everyone has enough food, clothing and a place to live. So how can I really practice this?”

That’s an excellent question, and I’m so glad you asked it. There are two answers that might be helpful. First, perhaps your Christian community needs to be open to welcoming some Christian brothers and sisters who don’t have it all together yet. In other words, maybe, as a group, you need to include some Christian people who aren’t like you.

Second, I believe that the needs listed in Jesus’ parable can also be understood spiritually. Perhaps there is a person in your group who is not literally a stranger, but who feels lonely. You can minister to them as “the stranger,” in this parable, and invite them to be more a part of your lives. Maybe there is someone else who is not literally in prison, but who suffers from the “imprisonment” of depression. You could make room in your schedule to spend more time with that person. There are all sorts of spiritual and emotional needs that we could minister to, even among those who are physically OK.

If we are to really live as this ministering Christian community, however, several things must happen. First, we must find a relatively small group of Christians with whom to be in community. You can’t have real community and fellowship with a hundred people at once. Second, within that community, we must commit to being vulnerable and open about our struggles. This is an emotional and psychological risk, but we can’t minister to one another if we don’t know what each person needs. Third, all of this takes time. Most people in America probably need to cut something else out of their schedule in order to have real Christian community, and thus to minister in the ways Jesus is talking about. We need to be available to each other outside of Sunday morning.

Now, you might consider all this and say: “Wow. I’m in trouble. I don’t much care for my fellow Christians, and I’m not really in true fellowship or community with other believers.” So what do you do about it?

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. First, do not try and fake it. I mean seriously, do you think God won’t know whether or not your love for your fellow Christians is genuine? If your good works do not come from genuine trust in Jesus, and real love for fellow-believers, you aren’t going to fool God.

Second, admit that you have a problem. Confess it to God, and, if it seems appropriate, to others.

Third, ask God for help. Part of this means giving God permission to change your lifestyle. I remember a time when I realized I didn’t really love my Christian brothers and sisters. I also realized that if I was really going to learn to do it, I would have to change my lifestyle, so that I could be in real Christian community with others. I’m an introvert, and that thought was extremely scary. But I confessed my sin, I asked God for help, and I gave him permission to work in my life as He pleased. God responded to those prayers. My comfortable, introverted little life was changed, and to my great surprise, I have been consistently grateful that it did. I feel tremendously blessed by all the people I have come to know so well, and I can honestly say that I love them. I’ve never wanted to go back to the “faith in isolation” that I used to have.

Let the Lord speak to you about this right now.

SHARE THE BURDEN, LIGHTEN THE LOAD

share burden

No one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Allow your fellow believers to fulfill the law of love, by sharing your burden.

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Galatians #23 . Chapter 6:1-5

Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

With these verses, Paul gives some practical applications of what it means to walk by the Spirit. He mentions the case of someone caught in wrongdoing. “Caught” could mean that a person’s wrongdoing is discovered, or it could mean that the person was entrapped by sin; as in caught in a trap. I think the Greek favors the second meaning. I think common sense favors it as well. Otherwise, it sounds like, as long as you aren’t caught by other people, it’s OK to sin.

Paul says “you who are spiritual” should restore such a person. He’s just been talking about walking by the Spirit. I think he means, “You who are walking by the Spirit, help someone who is trapped in the ways of the flesh.”

By the way, I want to make this very clear. Our business in this case is with Christians who are in our own circle of friends, family and church. There’s no point in trying to get a stranger to shape up to your standards. And there is no point trying to get someone who is not a believer to stop sinning. Of course, in appropriate ways and moments, we should tell the truth about God and sin, but no one is going to shape up their behavior to conform to something they do not believe in the first place. With non-believers, we may need to talk about sin as we preach the gospel, but the message of the gospel is not “shape up.” It is: “You can’t shape up. You need Jesus for forgiveness and for transformation.”

Telling non-Christians to shape up and stop sinning is like telling people with the flu to stop having a fever. It is pointless, until the root problem has been addressed. Moreover, I am sure that most of them feel it is pointless also. Since they don’t share our core beliefs, it is unreasonable to expect them to live by our morality. With non-Christians, the first thing to talk about is who Jesus is. Lifestyle changes only come after they trust Jesus.

Paul, however, is talking about people that we personally know, and whom have put their trust in Jesus, and yet, fall back into sin. They haven’t abandoned their faith. There is war in their souls between the Spirit and the Flesh. Paul says we should help each other in this situation.

I hesitate to get more detailed, but I want us to have a defined idea of the kinds of situations Paul is talking about. First, I think Paul is implying that the Galatian leaders who were trying to lead the church astray were trapped in wrongdoing. Paul is saying, “restore them to the right faith.” So, some people are trapped by false teaching. Usually, some sort of straightforward conversation or intervention is needed to address the false teaching.

Second, I think Paul means this generally when someone in our church-family is trapped in sin. There are certain kinds of things I think of when I hear “trapped in sin.” Addictions and regular “binging” trap us. We keep on doing these things, and can’t seem to quit. I think this passage is applicable when Christians are caught by addictions and binging. Again, that is a situation where intervention is warranted. Another common sin-trap for Christians is an adulterous affair. That’s the kind of situation that often benefits from intervention by other mature Christians.

An additional kind of situation where we should get involved is when there is some kind of ongoing, major hypocrisy. Suppose you have a an elder or deacon, or some other sort of leader in the church. He professes faith in Jesus. He talks a great talk about Christianity and the Christian life. But then, you discover that he is dishonest in his business dealings, treats his employees poorly and shows no real evidence of his faith when he is not at church or around other members of the church. This is a big problem, because it means he is deceiving himself and others about his own standing with God, and what it means to follow Jesus.

These probably aren’t the only situations, but I won’t go on. The main thing, is that Paul is talking about serious situations, situations where either a Christian is following an ongoing pattern of the flesh, or a single failure that creates serious consequences (like adultery). I think especially if there is deception behind it (as there is in false teaching, addiction, adultery and major hypocrisy) it may be a situation that requires restoration.

Paul says that the Spirit-walking Christians should restore the person who was caught in sin; they should do it gently and they should do with humility, being aware that they are also susceptible to failing. I want to touch on each of these things.

The Greek word used for “restore” is the same word used of setting a broken bone, or putting a dislocated joint back in place. This is important, because it means our call is not just to tell people when they are wrong. It is to help them get rightly related to Jesus again. Paul does not have in mind that Christians should go around telling other Christians, “You’re sinning!” That may be required, if someone who claims to be a Christian doesn’t acknowledge their sin. But there is so much more to it than that. Paul says, there should be restoration.

Some churches do this with pastors who are caught in a serious sin. There might be a process that they go through. The sinning person needs to be repentant, to start with. He needs to submit to accountability. In other words, he needs to be willing for his life to be an open book, with no secrets. Those who are restoring him should have access to the details of his life, so they can know if he has truly turned away from the sin that caught him before. Part of the restoration, I think, should involve points along the way, where the person has opportunity to really feel and express that he has turned a corner. As the person proves trustworthy, there should be points along the way where greater trust is restored to him.

Paul says we should be gentle with each other as we do this. We aren’t meant to be watching over each other, so we can jump from around a corner and shout “Aha! Gotcha!” every time someone screws up. But when someone gets trapped in a sin or has been deceptive, we have their best interests at heart. We initiate restoration out of love and hope, not anger, frustration or the desire to put someone down. Matthew Henry wrote about these verse:

“[Jesus] bears with us under our weaknesses and follies, he is touched with a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; and therefore there is good reason why we should maintain the same temper towards one another.”

Paul also says that we should watch ourselves, so that we don’t caught in the same way. In other words, we maintain a healthy dose of humility. We don’t need to live in fear and self-doubt, but we should realize that no one is immune to temptation. We can look at the person whom needs restoration, and say, “There, but for the grace of God, am I.”

Paul adds this beautiful and significant thought:

Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2, HCSB)

In other words, no one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Without a doubt Paul sees the struggle against sin, and the process of restoration as part of carrying each other’s burdens. I think it also goes beyond that. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Are you having financial troubles? Let your church family come alongside you with encouragement and prayer. Give them a chance to ask the Lord if they should give toward your need. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Are you sick? James tells the sick person directly to ask for prayer.

Others cannot help you bear your burdens if you will not be honest and open about them. This too, requires humility and vulnerability. But think of it this way. Paul says right here that bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ. It is the practical application of what Jesus meant when he said:

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

If we refuse to be humble and honest with each other about our struggles, we are denying each other the chance to practice love. Jesus’ call to love each other can’t be fulfilled without honesty and vulnerability.

For those of us in the Life Together Churches network, this is a tremendous affirmation of house churches and house church networks. It’s difficult to bear each other’s burdens if we only see our fellow-believers as we sit, facing the front on Sunday morning, and for ten minutes of coffee after the service. It can happen, but only really accidentally. If we bear one another’s burdens as a result of being in a choir, it is only accidental. The same is true of Sunday school, committee meetings and almost any program you care to name.

We need some context where we can get to know each other and be safe as we are humble and vulnerable. That is one reason that in our house churches we don’t share, outside the group, what other people say in the group, unless we have permission from them.

I’m not saying that house-church or cell-church is the only way to do things. I know many of you who read this are not part of a house church or cell church. But a committed, regular small group is a tremendously effective context for sharing our burdens with each other. Before I move on, I want to offer a quick reminder. When someone shares a burden in church (small group), it is easy to become a therapy group. But our groups are not for therapy. They are for Jesus. The thing to do when someone shares a burden is to turn to Jesus with them. That may mean sharing a scripture that comes to your mind, or a thought or picture that the Lord seemed to put in your head. It definitely means going to the Lord together in prayer, maybe laying hands on the person as you pray, to be Jesus’ hands, touching them. We don’t have the answers. Jesus does, and he is revealed in the bible and manifested in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on:

For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load. (Galatians 6:3-5)

Once again, Paul is encouraging the Galatians (and us) to be humble. This reminds me of a verse from Romans:

For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts. (Rom 12:3-6, HCSB)

Paul doesn’t want the business of restoration, and bearing each other’s burdens to become an opportunity for people to judge each other, or to boast. If someone has an affair and goes through restoration, it might be easy for a person who never failed in that way to feel superior. Paul says, it is not. You aren’t judged based on how someone else struggles. That means there is no place to feel that you are better than someone else. As it says elsewhere:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom 14:4, ESV2011)

We are called to share our struggles and bear each other’s burdens. At the same time, each person has his or her own relationship with Jesus. Our burdens can be shared. We must also take responsibility for ourselves. We can’t take spiritual responsibility for someone else, and others cannot do that for us. The sharing of burdens is not an excuse to give up responsibility, nor an opportunity to look down on others for how they struggle.

This passage gives us some tremendous helpful insight into how we interact in Christian community. Ask the Lord to make it real to you right now. Listen to what he has to say to you.