(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 24, 2005)
About ten years ago, our now twenty-four year old son and I were walking with my father on the street where I grew up in Columbus. My folks had moved out of the house in which we’d lived and taken up residence in my grandparents’ old place, just seven doors down, on the same street. We were walking toward my boyhood home, tracing the same steps I used to take in my walks home from junior and senior high each day.
I couldn't help remembering those earlier walks. As some of you know, my adolescent years were pretty horrible for me. I was obnoxious and had a penchant for rubbing all of my classmates the wrong way. The result was that many afternoons of my junior high years, I was in a fight with two to five other guys. During senior high, I had almost no friends until I hit the twelfth grade. At the end of another hard school day, it was always a relief to walk down my street.
On my later walk, I turned to my Dad and my son and said, “You know, when I was a kid, walking home from school each day, this street seemed to be the most perfect place in the world to me.”
God invented the family to be an oasis of support, encouragement, and discipline to us as we grow up. That’s why it saddens me to know that so many children come home from school in the afternoons to empty houses or houses in which parents or others subject them to abuse. That’s also why I believe so much in the mission and work of the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County. For a few hours each day, young people who might not otherwise hear an affirming word or receive help for their homework are shown, if I might put it this way, how much they matter in the eyes of God. No wonder one of the kids at the New Richmond club once said, “Walking into the club is like walking into a church.”
That young person was onto something. The Church is meant to be an oasis of support, encouragement, and discipline for followers of Jesus Christ as we grow up and mature. The Church is the family of God and all who follow Christ are privileged to be part of it. Last week, we talked about the first purpose of our lives: to worship God with our whole beings. God created the Church to help us fulfill the second great purpose of our lives: To live and grow within the fellowship of God’s family.
Fellowship is a lot more than having coffee and cookies or cake after worship on Sunday mornings. Fellowship is being God’s family together. The Bible makes it clear that being part of this family is so important that if we fail to be an active part of it, there is no way our life can ever be what God intended for it to be.
The New Testament calls the Church Christ’s body and each of us portions of it. Some people like to say, “I can be just as good a Christian apart from the church as I can be with it.” Well, maybe, but I’m not so sure. You see, as impossible as it would be for a toe or an arm to function without the rest of the body, we are dysfunctional without a vital connection to Christ’s body, the Church.
This idea violates our human pride, our desires to be self-sufficient. But I think it’s true. I’ve rarely seen people grow in their faith or mature as people who weren’t active participants in the life of a church.
Those of us who stand apart from Christ and the Church remind me of what our church's little ones used to say when she was much younger and didn’t want help: “Mine-a do it.” People who insist on “Mine-a do it” living never fulfill their life purposes. In blunt terms, we need each other. We need the fellowship of God’s family. That entails making a commitment of love to the people of our church.
Why is that so important to God? I think that there are three reasons. Let me explain.
I read once about a man who had an out-of-town business meeting. His flight was later that day and all of his suits needed dry-cleaning. He didn’t know what to do and then remembered seeing on the other side of town, a place with a big neon sign that read, One Hour Dry Cleaning. So, he packed everything but his suits and dashed to the place. After filling out the paperwork, handing over his suits, and paying up, the clerk said, “It’ll be ready tomorrow.” “But your sign says, One Hour Dry Cleaning!” the guy replied. “That’s only the name of the place,” the clerk told him, “we can’t have your suits done before tomorrow.”
In our second Bible lesson, part of an incident that happened just before Jesus was arrested, Jesus says to His followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It wouldn’t matter if we hung neon signs around our necks saying we were Christians, if people saw that we were indifferent to those in our church family, it would just be one more example of false advertising.
When people see us truly caring about each other, it authenticates that the risen Jesus is living in and among us. That's the first reason God wants those of us who are part of the church to love one another. The New Testament book of Acts tells us that the early church grew as people remarked, “See how they love each other.” When people see Christians living the love of Jesus, they want to be part of God’s family too.
Another reason that God wants us to love His family, the Church, is that God doesn’t want us to be babies in our faith. He calls us to grow up. The Church is the family in which we help one another grow. And the growing never stops, no matter how old we may be.
In a recent book he wrote with his wife, Barbara, Pastor David Sorenson talks about Lawrence, a ninety-two year old whose wife had recently died. Sorenson visited Lawrence one day and Lawrence complained that few people came by to see him any more. Instead of surreptitiously arranging for a stream of visitors to come see Lawrence, Sorenson came up with a better idea. Because Lawrence still had his driver’s license, Sorenson asked him if he would take the upcoming Sunday’s worship bulletins to people unable to attend. That way, they could follow along with the service as they listened to it being broadcast on a local radio station. Ordinarily, Sorenson explained, they would have mailed the bulletins, but he told Lawrence that a personal visit from him would lift people’s spirits.
Two years later, Sorenson came to see Lawrence, who was dying. From his death bed. Lawrence thanked him for the ministry Sorenson had given him to do. Within the family of God, in a ministry of love for other followers of Jesus, his faith in Christ had grown. Even at age 92! So, God wants us to be actively involved in fellowship with others in the Church to authenticate our faith in Christ and to help us grow in our faith in Christ.
There is a third reason. We see this in the true story I call, ‘Multiplying Mocha.’ It happened at a drive-through coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. A customer asked to pay not only for her own mocha, but also for the mocha of the person behind her. The owner who had taken the order smiled as she told the next customer that her mocha was free. The second customer was so happy that she paid for the coffee of the next person in line. This string of kindnesses went on for two hours and twenty-seven customers.
So, what’s the point? Just this: When you live love, generosity, forgiveness, and kindness, it has a way of multiplying.
When you consider it, the commandment that Jesus gave on the night of His arrest is sort of strange. He made a big point of calling it a “new commandment,” that we in the Church learn to love each other. But months before, Jesus had summarized all the Old Testament laws--by then, thousands of years old--by giving the Great Commandment: Love God and love neighbor. What was so new about this new commandment?
Well, have you ever noticed who you treat the most cruelly and with the greatest unkindness? Or who you most take for granted? Isn’t it usually the members of your own family?
The same can be true of our church family. We can start to take each other for granted, like old shoes that may be comfy but beat-up. The habits of our fellow church members, once so endearing, can become annoying and we can start to pick at others or withdraw from spending time together. Jesus says, “Love these folks just like I love you even though you’ve got your own quirks, foibles, and annoying habits.”
If we can learn to love each other in the Church, sharing the love of Christ among us, this love will become a habit. Jesus’ love will multiply from us in the same way the kindness at that coffee shop did one special morning.
Fellowship, loving God’s family, the Church, is the second purpose of our lives.
It’s important because living the love of Jesus will help the world authenticate the truth about Jesus; because under the loving nurture and discipline of the family of God, we grow as people and as believers in Jesus; and because the Church is the laboratory and training ground in which God prepares us for spreading the Good News of forgiveness and hope and new life that belong to all who turn from sin and receive Jesus as through Lord.
May God help us as we learn more about this second purpose of our lives through our readings and our small groups in the coming week.