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iRelate: Making the Choice to Commit to Community - Week One

Rod MacIlvaine 09/09/2012 (1237)

We Are Hardwired for Community
Why Community is Essential to Your Spiritual Growth

Introduction:

This morning we start our fall spiritual growth experience. And I want to remind you why we do this. The purpose of our fall campaigns for the past six years has been to focus our attention on the key things God has calls us to as individual followers of Christ and as a church. And this year our fall campaign specifically addresses our need for community.

We've planned some great things over the next five weeks that, hopefully, will help you get connected to people here at Grace, and most importantly, get re-energized and re-connected to Christ. During this series, I want to talk about why community is so important, why it's so hard to maintain, but also how to productively weave it into your life. And we have some fun things planned to make this experience enjoyable.

This morning I want to start way back at the beginning, and I want to look at why community is so vital. Normally, we commit to those things we understand, so I want to take you back to the foundation, so that you understand community in the biblical sense.

Now, let's think about where we are today with respect to relationships. Today, we have amazing opportunities today to get connected, and a lot of it's about technology.

In the past six months I've done premarital counseling via Skype. When I first agreed to do this, I had no idea how it would work. On week one, the groom and I were in my office, and the bride to be was in a Houston. In the following weeks, bride and groom (to be) were in Houston, and I was in my office. And the whole experience worked seamlessly. It allowed me to continue working with a couple that I had a lot of respect for, but who happened to move. It was a great way to stay in touch.

I can also stay connected with my kids and grandkids through facetime. If one of my grandkids does something cute, I get a call…like…right away. Sometimes I get a facetime hug and kiss, and the screen of my iPhone gets all foggy!

Some of our students at Oklahoma Wesleyan University tell me about the creative use of their curriculum software. OKWU is doing some incredibly creative things in this area. And you'd think you couldn't do a class about relationships on-line, but with the creative use of these new programs, I'm hearing about great results from students who are doing this and loving it.

All this new connectivity is causing a new trend: long-lost friends are getting reconnected. A member of our church told me recently that he coached a little league team to the state championship in the 1990s. His former players caught up with him on facebook. They planned a team reunion. Every player from that team made it to the reunion!

We live in an incredible time for getting connected and staying connected.

But we all know that electronic media has huge downsides.

It's also very easy to use the internet to actually stay disconnected - even while you think you're connected. I'm sure you've heard stories of people who come home, they hole up, and they use the feeling of cyber connection to avoid real friendships.

We hear of people who hole up in their basements and spend entire weekends playing video games with acquaintances from around the world, stopping only to eat and drink, and sometimes not even for that.

We hear about people who spend hours on facebook, and they feel as if they have a lot of friend. But in reality they don't. These days, if we're not careful, it's like we mediate our entire lives through social websites, instead of doing the hard work of relating to each other.

Here's a cartoon that points this out. [Screens] This cartoon is funny because the couple is doing what we're tempted to do…construct the main part of our life on line. Real life becomes an excuse to tweet or update our status.

Look, in spite of the benefits of internet connectivity, we must create space in our lives for face to face interactions (yeah…that pun was sort of intended). But face to face interaction is never easy. Yes, you have to work through conflict. Yes, you have to address the pain of disagreements. And sometimes you have to work frustratingly hard to make relationships successful.

The good news is that the research currently being done on religion and wellness suggests that Christians tend to be more relationally connected that any other single group: more than atheists…more than agnostics…more than trendy new-age folks.

Studies on religion and wellness and community have been extensively evaluated from every vantage point imaginable, and the good news is that we're a very connected group. That's the good news. But I want to suggest that we need to excel still more if we're going to enjoy growth.

What I want to do today is to help you re-embrace the concept of community as a strong value in your life.

This is not something that is optional. This is not something that we can afford to blow off because "we're not like other people and we don't need this." Community is like the air we breathe. It's the relational stuff of life.

So let's start at the very beginning. Why do we need community?

1st reason - Community is essential because we are made in God's image.

Throughout the entirety of the Scriptures, God reveals himself as a Triune being.

We know from the Bible there is one and only one God. Consequently, there is one and only one divine essence. But within the divine essence of God there exists three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

And God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit have existed in a perfect love relationship from all eternity. There was never a time when the Triune God did not experience the most perfect form of love. And never was there a time when love within the God-head was broken…not even ultimately in the cross. In fact, we see God's love in extremely bold relief in the cross.

And this notion of the Tri-unity of God is obviously a mystery at multiple levels. We don't know fully understand how God can be three in one. Nor do we comprehend the idea of eternal love.

When I was a kid I used to lie in my bed, and I'd try to think backwards into eternity, and I could only get so far. You can't get you mind to stretch back an eternal length.

Trying to think of eternity is like walking into a bathroom, where you have a mirror in front of the sink, and you have a mirror behind you. And your reflection stretches backward into these eternal images. Well…not really…because at some point those images in the mirrored reflections get smaller and smaller, and less and less distinct, and you finally get to a place where you can't see yourself.

But eternity to God is different. Eternity for God is an eternal NOW that he has always enjoyed. And much of the joy is the joy of an eternal relationship lived out in community.

And this is why we call the infinite personal God a communal being. He has always existed in loving community.

You know, this separates the Christian faith from every other religion, philosophy or cult. Every other deity in the world religions is either impersonal (as in Hinduism), or lonely (as in Islam), or virtually non-existent (as in Buddhism). But no deity is perfected in eternal love…no one but our Triune God.

Now what does this loving communal God determine to do? He creates. Isn't this the same thing we see within loving marriages?

Most couples who are able to have children, at some point, say, "Let's start a family." Why do they do that? It's the nature of love to overflow. A healthy couple might say it this way, "What we have is so good, let's expand it with a bunch of little ones, who sort of look like us, and act like us, but who are independent creatures."

So you start your family, and your kids sort of look like you, and they're so cute you just want to scoop them up and love them. What's that about? Your love for each other has now overflowed into the joy of new creatures made in your image.

A communal being, perfected in love, wants overflows into new creation. We see this in Genesis 1:26-27: Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

I want you to remember that the primary meaning of Genesis 1:27 is not that we are in his image, but that we are his image. Sure, we resemble God; we're like God in many ways.

But more than that, we are his image. We reflect him to a watching world. That image shows up in the context of relationship. In Genesis as male and female related to each other, God's communal image showed up. Why? God is a communal being. We too are communal beings. In healthy relationships, something of God shows up and is deeply satisfying.

So the essential concept in marriage, from God's standpoint, is that diverse humans - male and female - come together into a covenant bond, and they experience a microcosm of what God experiences: the potential for deep love.

I know this is deep stuff, but I want to draw one thing from it. When we live in authentic Christian community, it's designed to pull us into the supernatural.

Think about Joseph and Mary. Here they are, newly married, and they're trekking to Bethlehem to register for the census. They're under tremendous pressure. They've been misunderstood. All around them are dangers and difficulties.

However, what do Joseph and Mary experience? They experience the presence of the supernatural Jesus. Jesus is in Mary's womb. He's unseen. But all along the journey, his supernatural presence is there, bringing unity, guidance and love.

How do we know he was doing that? We know this because when Mary shows up pregnant at Elizabeth's home, months before, John the Baptist - also in utero - leaps for joy.

So, when we experience authentic community it pulls us into the supernatural. God loves to show up in the midst of community.

I can remember some of my first experiences with this. I went to three different high schools, and when I was in high school in Chicago we lived in a fairly upscale community that had a terrible problem with drugs and addiction. I can remember walking on the Lake Michigan beach on a Saturday night and seeing clusters of kids. And I'm an on-the-fence Christian. But remember distinctly sensing evil within those groups.

Lives were in the process of being wrecked as they were drawn into a dark world of addiction.

One month later we move to Milwaukee.

Some kids I didn't know that well invited me to a Bible study. This place is packed with over 100 kids. About a month before I showed up, this Bible study had been busted by the police, because many of the license plates in front of the house were of suspected drug dealers. The police were astounded when they realized that all these kids had come to Christ.

What I sensed in that room that night was the polar opposite of what I encountered on the beach in Chicago not several months before that: it was the presence of the God.

That was my first taste, the first of many. But here's the deal: God wants to pull you into an experience with the supernatural as he draws you into community.

Now, back to the Triune God! Do you realize that God has operated in community since time began to accomplish your salvation?

I could give you many examples. But here's one from Isaiah 48:16.

Draw near to me, hear this:
from the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
from the time it came to be I have been there."
And now the Lord GOD has sent me, and his Spirit.

Here we have unidentified speaker. We know he's the Messiah, because he is very clearly identified in the next chapter as the Messiah. But notice what he says, "The Lord God has sent me and his Spirit." This is a prefiguring of the Trinity.

The Lord God is Yahweh God. He's God the Father. The Spirit mentioned here is the Holy Spirit…the Spirit who came in fullness at Pentecost. And the speaker here is the Messiah; he's Jesus.

One way that The Triune God enjoys community is working on our behalf to accomplish our salvation.

Here's another example: Matthew 3:16. God is now operating clearly as a Triune being as he accomplishes his salvation.

When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Here we see the three persons very clearly. Jesus is the one being baptized. The Holy Spirit descends, fluttering down like a dove. And God the Father booms from heaven: "This is my Son."

There are dozens of passages like this in the Bible that mention all three members of the Triune God together, in the same passage, at the same time, reminding us that God not only creates in community he redeems us in community as well.

And this tells us something else about community. In community, we not only encounter the supernatural, but we also gain a transcendent purpose in life. All of us seek purpose. All of us want something that's bigger than us. And we want that thing to last beyond our lives. This is hardwired inside us because we're created in God's image. But when we get into genuine community a sort of transcendent purpose begins to show up.

I'm sure you've heard that movie director Tony Scott committed suicide in mid-August. Tony Scott had lots of purpose on the human level. He was the director of the 1986 movie Top Gun. In the past few months, he was working on a sequel to Top Gun with Tom Cruise.

He was married to an exceptionally attractive actress and model. His combined movies had grossed over 2 billion in sales. In many ways he was at the top of his game. At first, it was alleged that he had inoperable brain cancer. That turned out to not be true. So no one really knows for sure why he took us life.

But here's what we do know: Purpose at the human level doesn't always satisfy. Plenty of people enjoy success, but they feel a crushing purposelessness.

But it's through authentic community God that grants us purpose at a higher level…an eternal level. And this is something that he wants us to really enjoy and take delight in.

So, because we are made in God's image we are wired for community: In community we sense the supernatural. In community we sense transcendent purpose.

But let's turn from theology to science.

I would say that medical science also powerfully demonstrates our need for community. If you lived in the late 1800s through World War 1, you would have lived in a very difficult time for faith.

Charles Darwin had proved that you didn't need God to explain origins. Karl Marx had proved that you didn't need God to explain historical processes. And in the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud had proved that you didn't need God to be mentally healthy.

Clearly, God was being systematically cut out of life at the academic level. It accelerated very fast in Europe. It didn't happen so fast in America. But a new view about humanity began to emerge that humans were merely a machine. You didn't really need parents. You didn't really need loving attachments. Social engineers thought you could address all these needs mechanistically.

This was the belief of Nicolae Shau*SHESS*koo (Ceausescu) of Romania. He was the communist dictator who was killed in 1989. And he completely bought into a worldview of atheistic humanism. He established orphanages for children whose parents could not raise them, but he engaged in drastic relational deprivation. Kids were rarely touched. They were not affirmed. No one loved them. No one cared for them. "They're machines; they can raise themselves" was the idea.

When his country fell in 1989, social scientists were horrified when they entered orphanages. These children were in the third to tenth percentile of physical growth. They were grossly delayed in motor skills and mental development. At times, they would rock themselves while grasping themselves seeking some form of self-soothing.

Blood tests revealed abnormal cortisol levels, indicating severe problems with the stress of chronic deprivation.

Since then countless studies have been done on the impact of loving community on the social, motor, mental and physical growth of children. The science here is conclusive. Children need loving purposeful community, of their biological (or adoptive) parents for healthy growth. Without it, they become stunted and blighted.

So community is not only important for theological reasons; it's also crucial for foundational medical reasons.

And how does this apply to the church? You may remember the series I did on healing prayer several months ago. The thing that amazed me as I prepared for the series is that the benefits of church attendance have been so extensively studied in the medical community. Most of these studies were written and published by secular scholars who were just going where the science led them.

The results of these studies have been remarkably consistent. The effects of community on health are indisputable: when you live in biblical community you tend to be healthier, happier and you live longer.

My hope is that the theology of community and the science behind community will produce in us a conviction: community is going to be a non-negotiable in my life.

I will commit to it at every stage of my life.
I will commit to it when it is hard.
I will commit to it when it's a sacrifice.
I'll do it for spiritual reasons.
I'll do it for mental health reasons.
I'll do it for medical reasons.

I will commit to community.

And here's the sobering truth: To reject community is to reject something of our essential humanity.

Imagine someone said to you, "I'll give you half billion dollars - billion with a B - if you allow me to do some experiments in the occipital lobe of your brain." "Now," he says, "You're going to have some damage there, but no problem. I'll compensate you with billion dollars."

Would you do it? Of course, not! You are messing with something that's part of what makes you…you. You're messing with an essential component of your humanity.

Well…to remove yourself from community does the same thing. It messes with your essential humanity. It makes you less than what God designed you to be. I hope this conviction rearranges your sense of priority in your life. This is important stuff!

Now, let's move to the second reason why we need community. Not only are we made in God's image but…

2nd reason - Community is essential because we are commanded to follow the example of Jesus and his Apostles.

Look, if you call yourself a Christ-follower that means you keep to the example of Jesus. And Jesus organized his life and ministry in community.

Let me briefly tell you the story of Jesus' life in community.

After Jesus' temptation, he begins to minister in the power of the Spirit in the region of Galilee. Pretty soon he settles in the village of Capernaum, a bustling seaside town that stood at the center of four trade routes. All the while, he's developing relationships, and his reputation is growing.

Pretty soon it's time to call full-time disciples. So here's what he does. He climbs to the top of Mt. Eremos, now known as the Mt. of Beatitudes. And he spends the entire night in prayer. Maybe that seems like an impossibly long time for prayer, but if Jesus prayed just one hour for each disciple that would be a twelve hour prayer session. Seems reasonable!

When daybreak came, multitudes had gathered around him, and Jesus begins to call out of the crowd, twelve disciples, to be his full time followers.

Now, I'd wager that when people heard who his picks were, they were shocked.

As he calls out the name Matthew, people are silently thinking, "Jesus! You can't pick that guy! He's a Roman tax collector. You'll shrink your audience size for sure."

Then he picks Simon the Zealot. And people are thinking, "Are you kidding me. Having Simon the radical and Matthew the traitor on the same team is going to crush any sort of team unity." Bad pick!

And then he picks Thomas the guy who tended toward clinical depression. And people are saying, "Wait, Jesus you need positive thinkers. You need can-do people on your team."

We would never have picked these guys, but Jesus did. Why? This isn't an ordinary team. This is designed to be a supernatural community with an eternal purpose. In this community, ordinary people get equipped to do extraordinary things…in his power.

We see little snapshots of this in Matthew 10:8 and Luke 10: 9.

In Matthew 10:8 Jesus says, "Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers." In other words, these guys are going to do things beyond their natural ability!

In Luke 10:9 Jesus says (again), "Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.'" Again…we see empowerment.

If we're going to be a committed follower of Christ, we need to be in small groups where there is the potential for God's supernatural power to show up.

But let's not stop with the disciples. This pattern continues in the book of Acts, except with a twist.

There is a foundational principle in Acts 2:16 and Acts 20:20.

That foundational principle says this: Community always exists on two levels: public and private. It takes place in large groups and small groups. Community takes place when there is a big crowd and when there are just a few.

When Paul was reviewing his ministry to the Ephesian elders he said, "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house."

If I'm going to follow the pattern, I am going to periodically experience the risen Jesus in the context of large groups and small groups.

My first experience in small groups, as I mentioned before, was in Milwaukee WI when I was in High School.

Sixteen students, who were part of a denominational church, had personally received Christ at their fall retreat, and these conversions were dramatic. I arrived in Milwaukee at that church one month later. The authenticity I experienced in that group was like nothing I'd ever experienced. We just took the Bible very simply, at face value, and expected God to do things, like lead people to Christ, and he did.

And we were always praying for God's intervention on things.

From that point on, I was hooked. Any time I moved to a new place I sought out some sort of small group as my lifeline to authentic Christian experience. And that small group led me into larger expressions of community.

All along the way, I found a uniformity of Christian experience: Yes there were a diversity of people, but the uniformity of experience was that God showed up.

I found this on a secular campus. I found this during a semester in France. I've found this throughout my adult life. Small groups are vital, and they invariably lead us into larger expressions of community - typically a Christ-centered church where lots of people were committed to the same cause.

But here's the twist in the book of Acts: For communities to be authentic, they must be contrast communities.

And here's what I mean by contrast community.

The best small groups are those that identify themselves as being different from the surrounding culture.

The culture is going one direction. You're going another direction.
The culture exists on a merely human plane. You are operating on a different plane with God's values.

This has been the case in the great renewal movements around the world. Christians who sense they're in a contrast community feel as if they're part of a movement.

All over the world today there are contrast communities.

They're in big cities in repressive Muslim countries.
They're in jungle villages surrounded by Marxist guerrillas.
They're in Cuban barrios from Havana to Holguin.
They're in college fraternity houses.
We have them here in Bartlesville, OK.

When you feel you are in a contrast community, you feel this powerful sense of the presence of God…because you sense that you have this really important identity as a resident alien.

You sense you are part of an exiled people.
You're a citizen of heaven living out your days here on the earth with purpose.

I long for us to be a contrast community at Grace.

I hope that we are different than the surrounding culture, because of our worship, connect serve passion.

I hope we are different than the surrounding culture because of our commitment to live in fellowship with the supernatural God…experiencing his answers to prayer…experiencing his leadings…and hearing his voice.

We're not seeking a-Christianity-as-usual…status quo type experience. We're not driven by a cultural tradition. We're seeking God's moment-by-moment presence as we endeavor to shape this word in tangible ways.

So that's the theology and the example, let's move to the challenge.

My challenge to you is this: Commit to community in anticipation of the blessings that come from it.

There are tangible blessings to community.

Think about 2 Timothy 1:16. Paul says, "May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains."

We're going to look at this passage in more depth later on in this series, but think about just this verse: Paul is in the horrible Mamertine Prison in Rome. There was no light, or running water…no sanitation. It is as bad as you can possibly get. And yet, who shows up? Paul's friend Onesiphorus!

Onesiphorus had ransacked Rome to find Paul, and when Onesiphorus found him, it was like cool water to Paul's parched soul.

When we enter into community we should anticipate that there will be blessings.

Many of you know that our son Jared was married on August 11th in Seattle. It was a great event for us. But we faced unexpected challenges. I mentioned these a few weeks ago.

Cindy had a gallbladder attack. She had to go to the emergency room three times.

But the body of Christ was a huge blessing.

The body of Christ from Grace Community Church was a blessing. The body of Christ from our son and daughter's church was a huge blessing. Many of Jared's friends who were part of Jared's discipleship group hauled tables and chairs in their pickups. We had people laying hands on Cindy, praying over her that she would make the rehearsal dinner and the wedding…and be well enough to enjoy it.

The body of Christ got us through something that would have been nearly impossible otherwise.

When you think about committing to community, you can get stuck by anticipating the commitment and the work. Don't do that. Anticipate the blessings that flow out of serving and being served.

The next thing we need to do this this: Make four decisions.

Decision #1: Place a high value on community as non-negotiable part of your life. Maybe you were hurt in the past. Maybe you struggled to connect in the past. Maybe you were discouraged by the inauthenticity of a Christian community in the past. Even so, risk it again.

Decision #2: Look for "organic" expressions of community. "Organic" community refers to those natural webs of community that are easy to enter. You determine that you'll hang with people who are like you, with your common tastes, with your common values, with your common life experiences.

But at other times you make a different decision (this would be decision #3) to seek to be with people who are different from you…different socioeconomically, different racially, different culturally. Why? It's because Jesus shows up powerfully when we commit to a diverse community. Diverse communities are instrumental for your growth.

And then decision #4 - Be open to God's leading that you might lead a small group at some point in your Christian life. People in the New Testament were often quickly elevated into places of leadership where they were operating at the very edge of their maturity. If God calls you to that, will you have the courage to do it?

Now, let me tell you how we've structured community at Grace this year.

We're trying to structure community at GCC so that everyone is able to find a niche that allows them to experience his supernatural presence and his transcendent purpose. So, take a look at the screens, and let me show you four broad categories.

First we have learning-fellowship communities.

We have small groups for adults.
Our youth and kids' ministries are all based on small groups.
We have small group Bible studies for men and women
Precept Ministries often functions as a small group.

Second, we have equipping groups.

We have men's discipleship groups studying a piece called Every Man a Warrior.
We have women's discipleship groups. For instance, Apples of Gold ministry functions as an equipping group.

Third, we have care and recovery communities.

Celebrate Recovery helps people address hurts, habits and hang-ups.
The Landing and Celebration Station apply recovery issues to students.
Our team that ministers in nursing homes and retirement home is a small group.
The Stephen Ministry leadership team functions as a small group.
Care receivers in Stephen Ministry receive the benefits of biblical community.

And fourth, we have organic groups structured along the lines of natural interests. These ministries include…

The Ladies Book Club.
Men's cycling group.
40+ singles
The women's jail ministry.
College and early career.

Our passion at GCC is that these groups live and breathe a culture of authenticity in which the values of biblical community can be tasted: service, the supernatural and authenticity.

Conclusion: Present the iDate card concept.

Now, I want to close with one application. I want to apply community to couples. In your GCC Update today, you have a set of cards. As we move through this series, I want to challenge married couples, engaged couples and those couples who are dating with a dating challenge.

We've given you some guidelines for three creative dates that we want you to take through this series for this reason. We think that as you taste creative community as a couple, you will be more inclined to commit to authentic community within the body of Christ.

Here's how it works.

Let's pray.

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