I am going to be ordained soon because I believe in the local church. Because the local church is God’s design to the save the world. I am sure of it. He left this worldwide evangelism mission in the hands of a small group of believers and they started to gather into various churches throughout Jerusalem and spread out from there.
You may ask, why do I have to commit to a local church? I am part of God’s universal church. Isn’t that good enough? This kind of sentiment is popular on college campuses across America. There are many things I can say on this topic and eventually I will say more because it is so important to address. But for today, again, I want to stress the obvious point that we live out our faith in our bodies. We are limited. The Holy Spirit is universal because it can be at multiple places at the same time. We are not Christian ghosts floating around. We are limited by our bodies. We cannot be at two places at the same time.
Even Jesus incarnated. He took on human flesh. This means he limited himself. He came for the lost sheep of Israel following the history from the Old Testament. And all of his disciples were Jewish. Of course, he spoke to crowds, but he wasn’t here to start a huge movement. When he got too popular, he retreated to another region. And during his 3 year ministry, he devoted himself to 12 disciples. And they lived life together. They ate together. They laughed together. They ministered together. And as they went through various life experiences, Jesus was always teaching them because he knew his time with them was limited.
Because we live in the age of Facebook, I think we have a warped sense of friendship and what constitutes a relationship. I admit, I have a facebook account, but I rarely login. I blog about Christian things and those get auto-published to my facebook page but that’s about it. And without trying, I have close to 200 friends. I am not bragging because I know that is not a lot compared to some of you. But even so, I know that 200 is an inflated number. Because I am not that popular. Of those 200 people, who do I call or see on a regular basis? It’s a small handful. I don’t have 200 actual, close friends. But some of you have close to 1000 facebook friends and on your bday, you get like 500 happy bday pokes.
And those 1000 friends to me are like the universal church. You know them, kind of. You saw them last like 10 years ago or you worked together 2 jobs ago. Or you went on one mission trip together when you were in junior high school. But you don’t really know them. And they don’t really know you. But facebook gives you an illusion of being close to a great multitude.
Sometimes, I get a facebook message from one of my friends and I am like, who is this person? I probably got a friend request and clicked Accept by accident. We do not have a facebook faith. The relationships talked about in Romans and throughout the New Testament are concrete and personal and tangible. You are supposed to love your fellow brother and sister. You are supposed to carry their burdens. You are supposed to wash their feet and consider others better than yourself. You cannot do this in an abstract, universal, facebook-like way. No, relationships require close proximity and rubbing of lives and commitment.
It’d be sad if my marriage was nothing more than a facebook relationship status. And I never came home, but I always updated my facebook status about how much I love my wife and kids. That’s not a real relationship. No, I have to be home, I have to take the kids to school, I have to change Elijah’s diapers. And I have to take Jackie out to a nice dinner once in a while. Again, we live out our faith in our bodily existence and in a limited context of actual relationships.
Why are concrete, committed relationships critical for our personal spiritual growth? Take for example verse 3.
Romans 12:3 – 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…
How do you apply this verse? Let’s say for a marriage, you have a husband and a wife who have a bad marriage. Both are proud and stubborn and they come across this verse, what do they do? Marriage problems are a two-way street. Both parties are often at fault, but each person thinks the other person is 100% at fault. Getting a divorce would be so easy because they wouldn’t have to deal with their pride and stubbornness. And many choose this easy way out. But because of their Christian commitment to God and to one another, they try to work it out, they get marriage counseling, they ask for prayers, read books, attend seminars because they believe God expects them to work out their differences in the context of this marriage covenant.
Now let’s apply this to the church. Let’s say you are proud or stubborn — how can God address this problem so that you can apply verse 3 and not consider yourself more highly than you ought. We’re all sinners so in a church, 2 proud and stubborn people are bound to butt heads if you give it enough time. What do you do at that point?
Most people take the easy way out, forget that person, or forget that church, And you end up wandering from one church to another in search of that imaginary perfect church. And because that perfect church doesn’t exist, you settle for staying home and listening to podcasts or you find a church where you are recognized for the star that you think you are or a church where you are left alone. And your problem of pride is not dealt with.
Or, God shows you your problem and how you keep thinking you are better than that brother or sister. And instead of running away, you decide to stay put and you give God an opportunity to work on your character. And genuine humility and love for others is produced. It’s easy to think we are such great and loving people when we only surround ourselves with a small group of people who think and act just like us.
The Gentile Christians at Rome could have done that. Those Jewish Christians are so rigid with their laws and traditions. Forget them, let’s form our own church. And the Jewish Christians could have had the same divisive spirit — those Gentile Christians underestimate the value of rituals that remind us that we are a set apart, holy people of God. And they could have formed their own church as well.
Throughout Romans, Paul is addressing both factions and he fully expects that these two factions work it out through the power of the gospel. And God expects to work on our character in the same way.
What if after a few years, this church became a megachurch and I got a call from Rick Warren and he asks me to lead one of his ministries. And I left to take that job. This is completely hypothetical because this would never happen. But just humor me for the sake of this illustration. And because I had book deals and outside speaking engagements, I started acting like a spiritual rock star. And I went home to Philly to visit my folks and I started treating my parents like they are beneath me and now they better listen to everything I have to say. How would they respond to this kind of obnoxious behavior? They would say, who do you think you are? I birthed you, I changed your diapers. Come down from your high horse and take out the trash. I know you. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
And for the brothers and sisters here who have known me for nearly 20 years, they would say the same thing. They would remind me that I was that arrogant sophomore in college who thought I was God’s gift to the church. Brother John who shares in the preaching duties of this church would remind me, remember that basketball game in front of the entire church when I skunked you? I am known here. And because I am known and yet loved, verse 3 is no longer abstract. God has dealt with my character over the years in the safety and security of real relationships in the body of Christ.
The church is precious to me. So don’t date the church. Commit to her for she is the radiant bride of Christ. I want to end with verse 5.
Romans 12:5 – …so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Do you attend a church, or do you belong to a church? There is a world of difference. Have you committed yourself to people that they can say of you, we belong to each other? Life’s joys — we will celebrate together. Life’s sorrows — we will mourn together. We are in it, all of life, together for the long haul. That is my commitment to all of you for as long as God allows us to be together.
What is God’s will for you? What is his universal will for all believers? To recognize that Jesus is the head of the church and that we are part of his body, which when you break it down to practical terms, the body of Christ is a particular local church.
And I pray that all of us would commit to a church. It doesn’t have to be this church, but God’s will is for you to get plugged in and belong to some local church. And I pray when you graduate and you leave Pasadena, because you agree that God’s will is for you to belong to his body, one of your top priorities will be to commit to whatever church that God is leading you to.
What is God’s will for your life?
1) To know personally how much you are a recipient of God’s mercy.
2) In view of this mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.
3) To be a a living and active member of Christ’s body, the church.