Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Soul Friendship

John 13: 34-35 
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

1 Peter 1: 22
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” 

The Christian community is a little like boot camp. In boot camp recruits come together from all walks of life. They have nothing in common with each other, except their commitment of service to the army.

At first, there is a lot of friction, but the drill sergeant pushes them and drives them. In time, they become best friends. Their central commitment overcomes all disagreements and they become one. 

What the army does through power and intimidation God does by an invitation to selfless love. If we want to love Him, then we must also love one another earnestly and with a pure heart. Jesus gave us an example of selfless love in his life and on the Cross, and then said “follow my example.”  We sign on as citizens of the Kingdom of God by committing ourselves to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. This leads to union with Christ and union with each other. In the army, the first command is to “obey.” In the kingdom, the first command is “love.”

But here’s the problem. We don’t know what love is. What passes for love in the church is a pale imitation of what God had in mind. It isn’t grounded in Christ. It is neither self-sacrificing nor trusting. What passes for Christian fellowship is often an inferior copy of worldly friendship. We are less connected with our church brothers and sisters than we are with our work friends or our hobby club.  What makes Christian fellowship so phony is our tendency to spiritualize everything.

 We say, “I love you in Christ” when what we really mean is “I really don’t like you, and, wish you would go away, but I’m supposed to say ‘I love you,’ because I’m in church.”   We share scripture but not our hearts. We don’t listen we preach. We don’t accept, we judge, and think ourselves holy for doing so. 

Larry Crabb described this kind of fellowship in his book Soul Talk.

“Churches . . . have become as dangerous to the health of our soul as porn shops. People leave both superficially titillated and deeply numbed.  Religious events can be as irrelevant to real life as cocktail parties at country clubs.  . .

“Retired folks in coffee shops gripe about expensive prescriptions or brag about their children’s success . .  .  Middle-agers share stories about their problem teens, pursue whatever dreams are left, and worry about growing old. Younger adults talk about babies, new jobs, exciting churches and ministries, and Grandpa’s inheritance. Adolescents choose heroes, fit in or drop out . . . Through it all, in every age group . . . it’s all the same. Most people tuck their soul out of sight and try desperately to ignore that something is missing they can’t supply. We speak few words that come out of an honest look at our soul, and few words that are spoken to us that inspire the courage to take an honest look that give us the hope and painful authenticity that would lead us to real life.”

Churches aren’t just random collections of people--they are people whom God has called together to be friends. Friendship is where people are knitted together as one mind and heart.
People today have many acquaintances, but few real friends. Forty years ago, the average American had about 3.5 friends. Today the figure is 1.5. Many, many people have no real friends.

Friends in Christ are different from human friendships. Christian friendships do not necessarily have anything in common—not gender, age, or education of any of these things, but mutual love and respect. Christian friends physically represent Christ in front of us. When we love them, we love Christ. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am.” 

Why is two the minimum?  Because human relationships begin as one on one relationships. If we can’t see Jesus in the person in front of us, then we will never see Him in a hall full of strangers. To experience Christian community, we first need to learn what it means to relate to one other person. The presence of Christ creates a safe environment where we can develop true soul friendship in a community of faith.

We don’t need to be just acquaintances—we need to be friends. These friendships are based on mutual, unconditional love and respect. There are 3 kinds of soul friend relationships. We need all three.

We need “Paul” relationships—someone who can mentor us in the Christian life. 
We need “Barnabas” relationships—someone who can walk beside us, with whom we can share everything.     
We need a “Timothy” relationships—someone we are mentoring in the Christian life. 

These relationships are “soul friend” relationships. As such, they have certain characteristics. Here is what they are not. 

Users. Worldly friendships are often means of getting something. Christian friendships are best when no one has a promotional agenda. We are with each other to display Christ’s love to that other person, not to get ahead.

 Judgers. Christians do not judge. Period.  Being a Christian friend is not a license to judge. We should accept each other as God accepts us. Soul friends treat each other with grace.

Talkers. Have you ever been around someone who will not let you get a word in edgewise? Christian friends learn to listen to each other. We are thinking of what we want to say before the other is finished talking. We must learn to be quiet and not dump our chatter on others without permission.

Fixers. We can’t be someone else’s messiah. Before offering advice, we should wait until we are asked. Let your friends hear from God themselves—He will give them to the right answer.

Pretenders. Whatever you do, be real. Don’t pretend to be different from who you are. If people don’t accept you for who you are they are not your soul friends. 

Avoiders. Soul friends talk about differences.  They care enough to get below the surface. Soul friends are people you can open up to about what is really in your heart. 

Being soul friends doesn’t come quickly or easily. It takes time. But the beginning of soul friendship is easy. It starts when we drop our guard and start loving each other unconditionally. Soul friendships begin with these simple words, “I love you—really!” But for that soul friendship to take form, we have to cultivate it. Here are some of the ways we can cultivate soul friendship.

How can we be a soul friend?
--Be there. We start by being where people are. You can’t be a soul friend staying in your room.

The reason we have fellowship activities in the church is for the cultivation of soul friendships. That is their purpose, more than teaching or serving. There are lots of places in the community for expressing our desire to help the poor and even to evangelize. There are many books you can read or websites you can visit that will give you a better education in the Bible and Christian doctrine that we ever could. But there is only one place where you can do this and make soul friends at the same time—within the gathered body of Christ. In order to make soul friends, we have to be where people share our soul. 

-- Listen, don’t talk. Once we spot a potential soul friend, we need to get with them. Our first job is to listen. No one will trust what you have to say if you don’t listen to them first. Pay attention to them and hear the voice of their heart.  

--Share your stories. As you listen, learn their stories. Then share your own. Tell who you are and where you came from. Friendships are built on a mutual sharing of stories.  

--Practice hospitality. There is a big difference between hospitality and entertainment. We entertain strangers, we practice hospitality to friends. If we are worrying about what our house looks like before we have someone over, we are entertaining. We want friends with us even if our house is messy. They aren’t there to see the houses--they are there to see you.

--Do stuff together. Invite them to work and play with you. Go to dinner, a movie or concert together. Soul friendships are usually formed when we are not expecting them to be formed, in the off-guarded moments of life when we are not looking.  Share our fun times as well as our serious ones.  

--Pray together. One characteristic of a soul friend over a regular friend is what happens when you share a need. A regular friend will try to fix it, or will try to get away. A soul friend listens and pray.  He (or she) realizes that your friendship is in your mutual bond with Christ, and will have confidence that Jesus can fix your problem, so they will go to God in prayer about it. Soul friends are comfortable praying together, and pray for each other. 

--Stay together. Proverbs 17:17, “A friend is made for adversity. Being a soul friend is hard. It’s like a dance between porcupines. We are constantly trying to get close without being hurt. Having a friend is hard when things are not well. But soul friendships come together in Christ, so they are not put off by pain. They are held together in Christ. Our mutual connection to Christ gives us the freedom to be ourselves, and causes us to endure the struggles of mutual disagreement with humility and grace. 

We are the body of Christ, not just to the world, but also to each other. As we obey Christ, we display His nature to the other Christians around us. By showing His grace we bring grace to all people. We Christians are sometimes bad about being friends, but Christ is always our friend. He will never leave us or forsake us, and He will unite us together if we ask Him to.

Take the time to get to know each other, not for your sake, but for Christ’s sake. He can make friends of us all. 

 If we can’t find a soul friend, don’t worry. Christ is there. He is your friend. He will stay with your forever. Not only that, Christ will find you a friend.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What is the Church? - Ephesians 1: 15-23

Today we begin a topical study on the church of Jesus Christ. Today we will discuss what the Church really is.   
First, I want to clear up a series of misunderstandings concerning what the Church is. The first is that the Church is a building or an organization.

 Buildings and organizations are “worldly” structures—they exist in heaven and not on earth.  There are church buildings in heaven, neither will there be any religious denominations. They will not be needed. Christ is the great head over all the churches and there will be no need for any other. We will all have direct access to Him.   

The church isn’t an organization but an organism. It has buildings and structures, but they are not the church. We have clothes, but we are not clothes. We are living beings who exist inside dead clothes. The church is a living entity that exists within an organizational structure. The church is people. The word “church” means a group of people who are called to follow God. If the building or the structure disappears, the church survives, just as when we take off our clothes, we are still there. 

The second misconception is that the church is about feelings. Psalm 133 says, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” Don’t confuse good feelings with unity itself! Even if the church is fighting and fussing, it’s still the church. If you fuss with your family, are you still family? Enjoyment is good in a church, but that doesn’t make us brothers. Beauty is desirable for a woman, but that does not make her female. We should still the church, if it doesn’t act like it.

Paul talks a lot about the church in Ephesians. In this passage, we see Christ uplifted. The church, Christ’s body, is uplifted along with Him. To unite with Christ is to become part of the church. Christ draws us up to God like a magnet drawing iron filings off a paper. As we stick to Christ, we stick to each other, whether we have anything in common or not.  Christ is the center and the head of the church. 

Confusing feelings of unity with positional unity causes problems. To leave a church or switch churches for emotional reasons devalues our unity in Christ. It’s certainly more fun to be with people who share our interests, politics, and taste for music, but that isn’t a reason to stop fellowshipping. The basis for our community is a mutual allegiance to Christ, not how much fun it is to be together.  

Remember the old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together?”  It’s certainly true in the church! In the 80’s, Fuller Seminary studied thousands of growing churches. They developed seven principles of church growth. The most controversial was the principle of “cultural homogeneity.” People go to churches with people like themselves. They recommended starting churches aimed at particular sets of people. This has worked wonderfully well--in fact--it’s become a hallmark of the church today.  We have traditional churches, contemporary churches, young churches, old churches, churches for new believers and mature believers, hipster churches, hip-hop churches, cowboy churches, and biker churches.

While I applaud ministries designed to take the Gospel to special sets of unbelievers, these are ministries, not churches. The church isn’t something we do, it’s something we are, because of who we are in Christ. To make churches for special groups of people is to suggest that we don’t need each other. The church is all people who submit to Jesus Christ.  

In the early church, Greek and Hebrew believers worshipped together. They took pride in not being the same. They believed their mission was to unite to the world, not promote division. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  There is neither young nor old nor cowboy or hipster nor Republican nor Democrat nor contemporary worship lovers nor traditional worship lovers nor Calvinists nor Arminians, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.

A third misconception is that the church has one mission. The church isn’t about mission, but submission. 

I grew up in a mainline church youth group. In those days, we were told that our mission was basically the agenda of left-wing politicians of the day. Then, I worked with Southern Baptists who told me that the mission of the church was only soul-winning. Then I went to a Christian college and was told that the main mission was transforming society along conservative lines. Since then, I have heard different versions of the “main mission”—world missions, church planting, social justice, pro-life, anti-pornography, saving America--even world domination! They all can’t possibly be right.

The church’s mission is to submit to God’s will.  He’s the head, not us. What one person is called to do may not be what we all are called to do. If you build a house, you don’t need all carpenters--you need people of many skills and callings. 

Jesus has many different projects going at the same time.  Some people are not called to do anything, but just be in the church. Soul winning, social action, and good works may all be God’s calling on your life, but they should not define the church. Whenever one view of mission becomes the mission of the church, we start excluding people who cannot help us with that mission. We may have many ministries, but we are one single church. Our unity is not the ministry to which we are called, but to the Lord we follow. 

A fourth misconception about the church is that participation in it is a voluntary association. If I can choose to fellowship with certain people, I can choose to disfellowship from others. In the past, there was only one church in town, and all Christians went there. But with so many churches in town, churches have become a consumer driven choice. If I don’t like what happens at my church, I just go to another. 
Local churches are places where people commit to loving each other. If I don’t like my cable company, I can change it. I have no commitment to that company. But if I don’t like my mother, I can’t choose another mother. You are not my brother, because I happen to like you. You are my brother because you serve Christ. The relationship we have with the members of our local church is “mediated” though Jesus. It is not about how I feel about you, but how I feel towards Christ. 

Most people I talk to say that their church is loving, because the people inside are loving to them. All cliques are loving on the inside! They are just cold on the outside! If we fit together and have things in common, it is likely that we will choose to be together. If we have nothing in common, it’s harder to be together. So we choose to hang out with our friends instead of with others. I have seen churches where the people like each other so much that they don’t want to leave! They stand around after church in little clumps of people. Meanwhile, people who are new or hurting or unpopular, who come to church, because they are hurting or struggling or looking for friendship and encouragement try to enter those little friendship clumps, but bounce off like balls off the bumpers of a pinball machine. There is no room in those voluntary associations of like-minded people who do not want to be bothered to love someone who isn’t like themselves. I have heard people complain in a church that they would not come back if “so and so” were there,  because they just didn’t like them.

Under Jesus’ lordship, we can no longer say that. We have joined a family, and must accept them.

  The New Testament is clear that we are not segregated socially, racially, ethnically, or any other way. Church should bring God’s family together, not tear it apart. We are most like Christ when we love and appreciate our differences. 
So what is a local church? It’s a body of believers who accept Jesus Christ as Lord, held together by faith, and nothing else. 

We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do share a commitment to Christ above all, and to love each other Christ loves us. Churches are the places where people learn to live together as Christians. A church is the family of God.

We can’t just be a church for one kind of Christian, but for all Christians. A family is responsible for every member. We care for each other not because we like each other, but because we are family. Our love for each other is based on our mutual love for Jesus Christ. 

This family love is not based on convenience, feelings, or some visionary task, but on our mutual position in Him.
As family, we need to stay together. This is the Christian virtue of stability. In Matthew 10: 11-13 Jesus told us, Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart.”   In other words, don’t change homes, because someone else has a nicer house. Don’t be looking for greener pastures, stay and learn to love who’s here.

In the Middle Ages, monks promised to stay in one house, unless they were sent out as missionaries. Stay with the people you are, unless you experience a true call of God. Love requires a serious commitment. It is a duty, not a feeling.

Last week, I had a funeral for a woman who had been a shut-in for fifteen years. She suffered from dementia and was completely blind. They had no children, so her husband of sixty-five years was her only caretaker.

I wish I could say that they had a loving attitude towards her, but that would be a lie. She was often angry, bitter and frustrated, and would swear at him, God, and anyone else around her. No human being can always feel loving under such circumstances. He suffered times of deep and serious depression. He told me why he stayed with her for all those years. It wasn’t out of loving feelings. He said that sixty-five years ago he vowed that he would be faithful, and he was determined to be a man of his word.

That’s what love really is—not to enjoy ourselves but to stay faithful.

When we commit to a church, we make a promise to remain faithful—not to a church building or denomination, but to the God of the church and the people of the church. That’s what the church is—God and the people. It isn’t about how we feel, it’s about being His, and faithful to Him, to love those He gives us in Jesus’ name.