Love Your Congregation

In Ephesians 5 the Apostle Paul said that women were to submit to their husbands. Most people reject this approach at face value today. And yet I meet many people who live happily together. I meet other people who believe that men ought to “rule” their wives (and wives who try to rule their husbands) and are not so happy at all. In thinking about this, it occurs to us that perhaps people in our culture incorrectly interpret Paul’s statement due to a cultural bias.

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We are here today to work on Important Stuff. We’re on the sixth of the series. Today we’re talking about how to show love to our congregation.

Why should we? Let’s ask that question first. To answer that question, we’re going to read what Peter said. In 1 Peter, the first chapter, the first verse, he said:

1 Pt. 1:1 – Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ…. So who was that? What was he like? Well, he’s the one that jumped out of the boat to walk on water, but then started to sink after he looked down. He was the one that whacked off the servant’s ear. He was the one who denied Christ three times later that night. He was the one who raced to Christ’s grave to see if it was really true – what the women said. He was the one who, according to tradition, was crucified upside down, because he was a leader of the Church of God. So he started out as a fisherman, and yet he writes one of the most powerful epistles that is in the Bible. And he says, Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.

So he’s writing to the church that has been dispersed – the exiles of Israel – the wanderers, the pilgrims of God. And he mentions four things that set out these people as distinct from all other people and unites them together.

He says, in verse 2 – the first thing here:

V-2 – …according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. So this group of people has this in common. Even though they are from all races, all cultures, all professions, all languages, all nations, they were all individually selected  – chosen by God – elect, he said – specifically chosen by God to be a part of His called out people, and to be wanderers and pilgrims, who were not satisfied with life the way it was, but were looking for something better than what we see in life now, and who were specifically selected for a very definite purpose.

When we look a Christian in the eye, we can know that we have something in common with them, but we might have not have anything else. We might not dress like they dress, we might not wear our hair the way they wear it, we might not even speak the same language. But we can know that that other Christian – like us – was selected for a specific purpose in Jesus Christ. Why do you think He picked you? I mean, that’s something we can talk about, right?

So we can, together, as a group, have an awareness that, in God’s great vast scheme, the people that we know, who are part of the Church of God, have been hand selected by God for a specific job. Most of the time we don’t know what that person’s purpose is, but that shouldn’t deter us from knowing that there still is one. God is greater than we are. He knows more than we do. He just doesn’t tell us everything. So we have that in common, right? We’ve all got a job to do in the Church of God.

What else do we have in common? The second thing that he said about this group of wanderers was…he said, “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father in the sanctification of the Spirit.” So God sets each one of us apart – He calls us – and the Holy Spirit is the proof of that calling. It’s like a badge or a name tag. Ever go to a convention or a conference? And you go in, and there’s a big table set up, and everybody that is registered has a packet – right? In the packet is a badge or a name tag. That’s all put there so we can make our way around the conference. There’s usually a map. But we’re supposed to wear that name tag so that everybody else knows that we’re a part of the group – or sports team, or military uniform – it identifies us. So that’s what identifies us as a part of the Church of God – a part of that special brotherhood of wandering pilgrims.

How do we know if somebody else has the Spirit? Well, often we don’t. But God knows. He knows who is His. We don’t really have to worry about that too much. If somebody shows up and they say they have it, then we probably should take them at face value, right? So, when we get together, we know there are other people who carry that same Spirit. And if we’ve known them for a long time, we can usually tell that they have it. And we can know that we have it if we’re able to, as Paul said, walk in the Spirit.

He said that these people – besides being in the sanctification of the Spirit – were sanctified for obedience to Jesus Christ. That’s the third thing that Peter mentions. All of us, in our congregation, were specifically chosen, and given the Holy Spirit, so that we could do the work of our special calling. And each one of us has a different contribution to make, but also the same. The job of the whole group is to make disciples. And each of us has a special niche – a special contribution – to add to that great purpose. And we’re supposed to obey that purpose and do that work. That’s what God has given us to do. So that’s something else that we have in common. We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing.

…for sprinkling with His blood. That’s an illusion to the Day of Atonement, when the priest sprinkled the blood of a bull or a goat on the whole congregation to symbolically remove their sins. That was symbolic of the blood of Jesus Christ. And today, when that happens, it’s so that we don’t get in the way, and our sins don’t get in the way, so that we can do the job that we’ve been given to do – all together. We have to walk according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh, in order to do that work.

And then he says – after he’s identified this group of people, who are exiles, and who are called according to the foreknowledge of God – by His plan – and sanctified by the Spirit, so that we can be obedient to Jesus Christ because of the sprinkling of Christ’s blood on us:

V-2 – May grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. All of us, together, have been given that same hope. That’s what the badge says we stand for and believe in. So we’re all striving for that same goal together. We have that in common.

I made a statement a while back. “It’s easier to hang out with people that believe the way you do.” Well, we have this in common. We can hang out with each other, because we believe this together. And we can know that when we meet together and fellowship. Jesus Christ died for us, and for each one of us, and also altogether. We’re all part of that family of God. He doesn’t just love me. He loves you, too – no matter how irritating you might be, or I might be to you. He sees a bigger picture than we see, sometimes. And He gives each one of us just what we need. And He lets us each suffer just what we need to suffer. Sometimes what we need to suffer is each other. But that’s all part of His plan. It’s all part of a family.

He said, “Blessed be the God and Father of Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has called us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, [verse 4] to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you. That’s for me and it’s for you. It’s for all of us – each of us and all of us. We’re all together in that.

As we meet together with our groups and our congregations, we can look around and talk to the people that are in our group, and we can know that not only is our spiritual, eternal reward saved in a safe place, so also is that reward of the others in our group – that we’re going to be together forever! Now, sometimes, we might not like that. Sometimes we don’t get along so well. But we need to get past that stuff, because we’re going to be together for a long time. We have that in common. We’re all going to be rewarded with each other’s company for all eternity.

V-5 – …who by God’s power – we’re in verse 5 now – are being guarded through faith for a salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time. God has set a protective barrier around all of us together by the faith that He gives us so that we’re impervious to doubt and the wiles of the devil, so that we’re all together, and we’re all safe, and we’re all free to pursue our calling and the goal of salvation without being hindered. That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? “Who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time.” That’s kind of contrary to what so many believe about receiving their reward immediately after they die, isn’t it? Peter tells us that no one has yet received it. It’s still out there. It’s still a mystery. It’s still spiritually invigorating to those who walk in the Spirit – to look forward to something that nobody has seen yet, except for Jesus Christ.

V-6 – In this you rejoice – verse 6 – though now, for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials. We all have different trials, but we all have trials in common. So that’s one more thing that we’re all similar in.

V-7 – So the genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes – though it is tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. While we have these different trials, the purpose for each of us is exactly the same. And that’s to build our faith so that we’ll be able to be strong together and reach the goal. Faith is built by difficulty, not by ease.

And then he says in verse 8:

V-8 – Though you’ve not seen Him, you love Him. So we all love Jesus Christ together. That’s all something we have in common. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith – the salvation of your souls.

So this amazing process of being forgiven of our sins, covered by the sacrifice of Christ and His blood, and receiving grace, and then suffering trials and building faith – we’re all linked by that together. It’s something that we have in common.

We also have an impact on each other – making it easier or harder, depending on whether we’re walking according to the Spirit or according to the flesh. That’s not the body. That word there in Greek is not soma, which is Greek for the body. It’s the word sarx, which is talking about the carnal mind. There is nothing physical about the sarx.

Then he says in verse 10:

V-10 – Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours, searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ was indicating when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. That’s pretty intense language for a fisherman, isn’t it? He’d had a lot of practice at this. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves, but you. That’s interesting, isn’t it? That all these prophets of old – you know, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, and all the minor prophets, Moses, all the people in the Old Testament that were called prophets – it was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but us! …in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preach the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things which angels long to look into. See, it’s still a mystery – even to them! They don’t even know everything that’s going to happen. They can’t even figure it out. They’re just as curious as we are, maybe. And all the prophets of old knew that the things that went on in their day were merely models for what has come from God to us in our day – the Passover of Moses, passing through the Red Sea, the escape from Egypt, the temptation in the wilderness – that’s the trial, right? – the slavery of Israel and Judah – that happens when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, when you don’t keep your promise to God – the restoration to the holy land, the rebuilding of the temple. All of that is a picture. It’s a picture of what is going on now and what it to happen. So that was all a big, detailed picture of Jesus Christ and the relationship that we have with Him, and because of Him, and that we have with each other.

Okay, let me ask you this: Peter spent a lot of time and effort to show us that we have a lot in common, right? We’ve read twelve verses here. He spent a lot of time to show us that we have a great deal in common to other people in our congregation – even if we’re completely different in many things. Those things that we have in common – being especially chosen and loved by Christ, holders of the Holy Spirit of God, forgiven and covered by the blood of Christ, seekers of the same eternal relationship with God and with each other. These are things that are much more important and powerful than the little things that tend to keep us apart – if we’ll think about them, instead of the little things. If we can go macro, instead of micro with this, we’ll be a lot better off.

Do you think we should love each other in a special way? That’s one of the points that Peter is trying to makeLove Congregation, Fellowship,Church, Commandments to the people in the Church of God when they were under severe trial. He was one of those guys that were sitting there Passover night, when Jesus, after dinner, prayed that God would bind the disciples together – just as He and the Father were bound together. He got it! He knew what that meant!

Now, when people love each other, they have responsibilities to one another. That’s true at every level. The commandment to love your neighbor, which is the second great commandment – one of the ones that we’re talking about in this series – is delineated in six points. Right? The last six of the Ten Commandments. So we’re really talking about the application of those six points, as pertaining to a congregation today.

Verse 13: Here’s what he says we should do as a result of all these common things that we have.

V-13 – Therefore, preparing your minds for action – we read right over that – “preparing your minds for action.” There is something we’re supposed to do here on a daily and a weekly basis. Being soberminded – not thinking that this is just trivial – set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. If we love our congregation, we will not sit idly by. We will get ready to do something.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, Million-dollar Baby, is where Clint Eastwood is trying to teach Hillary Swank how to hit a speed bag. She’s been trying to be a boxer for years, but she’s never had any training. And he’s been watching her and he’s just frustrated to death with her lack of ability – or skill, I should say. So he finally – against his better judgment – decides he’s going to try to teach her how to hit a speed bag. And she’s got her gloves on and she’s all ready to go, and he says, “Assume an athletic position! Look like you’re going to hit something!”
If we love our congregation, we are not going to sit back and let everybody else do all the work. We’re going to prepare our minds for action, and we’re going to jump in there. We’re going to look like we’re going to hit something! We’re going to get ready. And we’re going to take action. We’re going to pitch in.

Why is that important? Is it that we’re all so great that we have this great contribution that nobody else can make? It’s because, when we do that, that helps everybody else get ready for action, too. It’s encouraging to other people. “Oh, I’m not going to go to church today. I’m just too tired.” I know that there are times when that might be necessary. We have to take care of ourselves. That’s true. I’ve said that before. (I do go to church most of the time, I think.) But we might not attend because, “I’ve just got too many problems. I’m too depressed.” – as though nobody else has any, right? Problems are one of the things that we have in common. It just calls them trials in the Bible. We go to church to learn that we’re not the only one with problems and to be encouraged that we’re not alone in them. Don’t be selfish with it. Don’t hoard your problem. Share it. Your problem might help somebody else. It might make them feel good to know that they’re not the only one that has a problem. So take your problem and go to church. Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together. Prepare your mind for action. When we don’t show up – especially as our congregations get smaller, because of the price of gas, because of a lot of different reasons, because in our society that is the trend now – when we don’t show up, it’s a downer for other people. It is! We might not realize that. We might be so self-centered we don’t realize that other people were looking forward to seeing us there.

Let’s read verse 14.

V-14 – As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. Since it is written, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” And if you call on Him as Father, who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. I’ve got to be there to encourage other people and to be part of this group. I have too much in common with them to just take that lightly.

God provides us with examples for us to see in the church. When we’re walking by the Spirit, we’re setting a good example. And when we’re walking according to the sarx, we’re usually setting a bad one. So don’t set bad examples. Set good ones. “I’m so depressed I don’t want to go to church. I don’t want to discourage everybody.” Well, then set a good example and bring your depression to church so that other people can have the joy of lifting you out of it. That’s the way we need to think about this. Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.

V-18 – Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers – not with the perishable things, such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ – like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. Christ had to die so that we could have the badge of the Spirit and be united in holy fellowship with each other. Does that mean anything to us? We all come here. We’re all forgiven because of what Christ did for us, as the Passover Lamb of God. That’s why we get to come!
V-20 – He was foreknown – verse 20 – before the foundation of the world, but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you, who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

When we’re discouraged, it helps to know that there are people who have gone, and are going, through trials like we are – who are also believers in God, who have faith and hope in God, too.

V-22 – Having purified your souls – verse 22 – by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart. See! That’s what he’s talking about. He’s talking about how to love your congregation. There’s a very special love that comes to us for each other, even though we have our own lives, our own jobs, our own problems, our own families, our own interests, our own pursuits that are distinct from everybody else’s. There’s something that holds us together there. It’s called the unity of the Spirit.

V-23 – Since you have been born again – not of a perishable seed, but of an imperishable – through the living and abiding word of God. For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever. And so will all of us, if we don’t get discouraged and give up. We’ll all be there together. And he says: And this word is the good news that was preached to you – all of you together.

So, here’s another one of these responsibilities:

1 Pt. 2:1 – Put away all malice, and all deceit, and all hypocrisy, and envy, and, certainly, all slander. Sometimes we’re not discouraged about things outside of the congregation – being sick, our job, or something like that. Sometimes we get discouraged about things that go on within the group – especially since it’s so important to us.

When people get angry with each other, when people commit egregious sins, when people are deceptive about their motives and desires, when people talk bad about others behind their backs, when people are jealous of others and covet what they have, when people want control, when people are walking after the flesh, it’s harder to walk after the Spirit. The tendency is to prove that we’re no better and just go right down there with them. It’s hard to rise above it – put on the new person made by Christ. But if we really love our brothers and sisters in our group, we will. We won’t drop down. It’s possible to walk in the Spirit.

Verse 2 – we’re in chapter 2 now:

V-2 – Like newborn infants long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it, you may grow up into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Let’s stop and think about that. It’s say in Hebrews, I believe it is – Paul said this – that we have to know that God is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. So, if we have experienced that, then we can be motivated to walk in the Spirit. Like newborn infants long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it, you may grow up into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. What does that have to do with any of this? Well, I think that what he’s talking about is, if we do not know that God loves us, it’s hard for us to know that He loves other people, too – that He’ll take care of them, that He’ll look after them – and that we should respect them, like He respects us. If we don’t know that, it’s hard to project that onto others. So if we’ve experienced that – if we’re looking for the pure things – the pure attitudes – if we don’t succumb to the weaknesses when other people are walking in the flesh, if we rise above that, if we realize, “Oh, this person might have a problem right now, but they’re still called of God. They still have the Holy Spirit….” And just because somebody walks by the flesh doesn’t mean they don’t have the Spirit – just means they’re not using it right now – that’s all. And none of us does that perfectly.

He says in verse 4:

V-4 – As you come to Him – a living stone rejected by men, but in the sight of God, chosen and precious – you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. See, he’s comes back around now to what he started out with – about how we’ve all been selected for a job. Each one of us has been selected for a specific place in a spiritual building – the holy temple – New Jerusalem.

In days of old, when buildings were built of solid stone, it wasn’t like they do it now. You might buy a big bundle of two-by-fours and have it delivered to your house so that you can build something, and you might cull out a few of them, but every two-by-four is pretty much like another. It’s the same diameter. It’s the same length. But in those days, when they built something, every stone was different. They had to put those stones in just the right places, and they had to chisel and whack on them, and they would make them fit. But each stone had its own place. Each one was different from every other one. And that’s what he’s saying here.

Jesus Christ is the first and the chief cornerstone, we’re told, and by Him all the rest of us will be supported so that we can fulfill our role in God’s building – in God’s temple, in God’s Kingdom, in God’s family. It’s all the same thing. Just as Jesus Christ has a special place in that building, so do we all – all of us. And when we come here – wherever “here” is for you – we’re in the presence of others who are just as special as we are – just as unique – who’ve been given good things by God, because He loves them, just like He loves us. Of course, that means nothing if we don’t know that He loves us. So, it always gets back to you’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of anybody else.

So what do you think the spiritual sacrifice is that we’re supposed to make when we come here? Well, I think we could sum it up by saying simply, “To put aside the things of the flesh – the human, carnal mind – and to walk in the Spirit – to respect others the same way God loves and respects them – the same way God loves and respects us.” Of course, if we’re blind, weak and naked, so that we can’t see how much God loves us, then it’s harder to love and treat other people with respect, isn’t it? Of course, that’s a presentation for another day, I guess.
Skip down to verse 9 with me.

V-9 – But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

There was a time when we had nothing in common, but that time has passed. We’re now united by the sacrifice of Christ and the Holy Spirit. We’re God’s people now.

The rest of this chapter is about the next topic in this series, which is Loving Your Community. So we’re going to stop there with that. But I want to talk a little bit about some challenges that we face today in the church, if we’re going to live out what God wants us to live out.

Sometimes people here talk about loving those in the congregation and they don’t realize that any group of people must have boundaries and rules to function by. And those are in place in the church. And if we don’t follow those, then it won’t work for us. If people break those rules repeatedly, they need to be called on it. Otherwise we won’t have a group any longer.

I was working with a family some time ago in my private practice. And there was a teenage girl in this family who was more out of control than any kid I’ve ever heard of. She was literally destroying the family. She kicked her little brother in the head after she’d knocked him down. Very bright, but finished a year of high school with a failing grade point average. Her GPA was so low I thought she probably had to work at it. And I think she did. She used the most vile language. And she accused and taunted everybody in the family – her parents, her siblings. She was doing drugs. She was promiscuous. And of course, we ask, “What happened? What caused her to be that way?” Well, I’m sure there is a reason for it, but it’s never an excuse. See, we have to understand that there’s always a reason why people do what they do, but there is never an excuse for bad behavior. After awhile, the other children in the family started to show signs of the stress in their own lives – in their behavior, and bad grades, and depression and anger. And the parents realized they had to do something to save the family. Now they still wanted to help their daughter, but she was so dangerous and toxic to the family, they had to seek to remove her before the whole family went down. Very sad. The parents had to be willing to do that – to take that step.

If any group – a congregation, a family, a country – is not willing to set and hold boundaries for what is appropriate, then it will not last long. And it’s not just the responsibility of the pastor. If the group has one, it’s still the responsibility of the group. How can we know that? Well, we can know that because Paul saw that the Corinthians had a toxic member in their midst. He didn’t quietly tell the elders to get rid of this guy. He wrote a letter to the whole church, instructing them to put the man out until he gave up his toxic ways. If the group will not do that – you know, as Peter said, “Prepare their mind for action” – but put it off on the minister to do their work for them, then he becomes the target of the toxic person and other people will succumb to his toxicity as he complains and rails against the person that took action against him. But when the whole group confronts him, there isn’t anybody for him to complain to. So that principle applies to those who slander, all the way up to the person who is mentally ill and might go postal on your group. That has happened in the Church of God.

So this kind of love – although most people, that consider themselves loving, don’t know too much about this kind of action – is, maybe, the most sacrificial kind of love of all, because none of us likes confrontation. And yet the Bible tells us we must do this. So we have to be willing to take it on when necessary – out of love for the group.

Another kind of situation that comes up in our groups today is that groups need to deal with the controlling people. Every church group needs to have written down how things will be organized so that no one person can override that and take over. It needs to be protected. Then, if the boundaries are transgressed, then the group needs to take action.

I heard about a small group Bible study once, where a person tried to change the topic to his own pet issue. The facilitator, once he realized what was happening, interrupted the offender and asked the group to weigh in on this person’s efforts to hijack the Bible study. I don’t think he used that term, but was, in fact, what was happening. And everyone was very polite, but they also expressed disappointment that the study had gone off topic. And once this person realized the group wasn’t going to allow that, then he backed off. I don’t remember the upshot of it. I know some people won’t back off. They usually leave rather than not get their way. But most people, if we let them know what we want, they’ll comply. I think, in this case, this guy had the sense to realize the group wasn’t a place that he could take over. So the power of the group prevailed, as it always does. We’re social beings and groups have more power than individuals.

So we talked a little bit about how to love in our congregation. Sometimes there’s tough love and sometimes there’s gentle love. And we’d all like it to be the gentle way, but, if we’re not willing to stand up for what’s right and what God has approved, then we probably don’t deserve to have a group or be in one.

So that’s what Peter had to say about how to love your congregation – and a few words about the challenges we sometimes face. We’re going to continue this series next time and we’re going to talk about Loving Our Enemies.