THE ENCOURAGING COMMUNITY
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In what I hope is a made up story from his book The Good and Beautiful Community, James Bryant Smith shares the following: “Several years ago I was speaking with a group of pastors…and one of them had a story… ‘A year ago I felt called by God to encourage our people to read the Bible more,’ he said. ‘I challenged them, from the pulpit, to read the Bible for an hour each week. Not all at once, but perhaps for ten to twenty minutes on different occasions. After offering this challenge on several Sundays, a woman who had been in the church for several years came up to me and said, ‘Pastor, I want you to know that I am leaving the church.’ I asked why and she said, ‘Because when I joined this church, reading the Bible was not in the contract.’”
While this seems like quite an extreme case, it illustrates an erroneous view of the church that can seem all too reasonable in our consumerist culture. The church exists to meet my needs. What can the church do for me? I’m not here to be made uncomfortable in any way or to have any demands made on my life because it’s all about me.
Smith offers a different narrative – “The good and beautiful community is not made of merely comfortable Christians but Christlike men and women growing in their life with God and each other… The community exists to shape and guide my soul. The community has a right to expect certain behaviour from me, and can provide the encouragement and accountability I need.”
Throughout these weeks what we are talking about is known in theological circles as ecclesiology. What we believe about the church. What we believe about the community of Christ followers. At the beginning of January, we talked about the image of the church as a group of living stones being built up into a spiritual house. We talked about the importance of transformation and asking of our (or any) congregation – “Is transformation happening here?” This changes the question from “What can the church do for me?” to “How can I become caught up in the transforming work of God’s Kingdom in this place – both in the individual sense and in the cosmic sense as in Christ God is bringing back all things to himself?”
We need images to help us have a proper view of the church. We’ve talked about the church as a caravan – a group of people travelling together, united by a common faith, united by a common destination, the Spirit of God travelling along with us. As we go along we’re called to encourage one another. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this in Heb 3:13 – “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today…’”
Encourage one another. Hearten one another. Encourage. From the French for “heart”. Coeur. It’s right in the word. What are we putting into one another’s hearts? What are we supposed to be putting into one another’s hearts? As always, any talk of what we are called to do and who are called to be is founded on who God is and what God does. Our scripture today is from the 10th chapter of Hebrews. Leading up to this the writer (or more accurately “preacher” as the book is really one big sermon) has spent 10 plus chapters expounding on themes like what God has done in human history. Themes like Christ’s divinity and humanity. Themes like the church as Christ’s family, being transformed into the image of Christ. Themes of Jesus as our great high priest – the mediator and guarantee of a new covenant, as the once and for all sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world.
The preacher then gets to the “so what”, in the classic language of faith, hope, and love. Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Let us hold fast to the confession of hope without wavering. And finally – “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.”
Encouraging one another. Heartening one another. Putting good things into one another’s hearts. Putting blessings into one another’s hearts.
Not neglecting to meet together. It’s important to get together regularly. The weekly gathering has been going on for thousands of years now. I don’t say this to appeal to history or to be a nag. It’s important that we get together. Why?
Because in getting together to worship together, we remember. We remember what God has done. We celebrate what God is doing. We proclaim what God will do. We put these things in our hearts, together. We encourage one another.
We remind one another. I often think that this is one of the major roles of a pastor. To remind. I often say during our Wednesday small group Bible study and lunch – “I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before many times.” We need to be reminded though. We need to hear the messages in here constantly because there are enough counter-messages coming from out there. We need to be reminded that all are made in the image of God. That God loved the world so much he sent his Son to save it from sin and death. To hear ourselves addressed in God’s words at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” You are God’s beloved child. To proclaim these things.
To sing these things and be reminded. Think of some of your favourite Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We’re told to thank God with them. We do this together to be reminded. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Blessed assurance Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine. To remind ourselves. In Christ alone, my hope is found. He is my strength, my life, my song.
To gather around the family table. To be reminded of what God has done in Christ. To be reminded of what God is doing through the Spirit. To be reminded that one day we will all sit around the wedding banquet table. Do not neglect this.
Don’t neglect this. I often say I don’t like to be too directive and I suppose it’s a bit of a failing of mine. I need to work on it a little (though those who are in the band might say otherwise). I often think it stems from my whole youngest child “don’t-tell-me-what-to-do” stance. Part of encouraging one another though, is showing and telling one another in love what we can become. What God’s will for us is. What we were created for. To be transformed into the image of Christ. To ever grow in holiness, which is wholeness. To be healed. Smith puts it like this – “We not only need to be reminded of who we are but also to be challenged to reflect that identity in our daily lives. This involves encouragement, admonishment and watching over one another in love. A good and beautiful community creates an ethos in which people are encouraged to engage in specific activities on a regular basis.” Such as gathering together weekly. Such as gathering together in smaller groups to ponder God’s word together. To pray for one another. To share one another’s burdens. To encourage and provoke one another in love and acts of love. Let us consider how to do this. The word for “consider” in Heb 10:24 means to consider attentively, to fix one’s eyes or mind upon. To encourage one another to go out from this place and be the church, to be agents of hope, of service, of reconciliation and forgiveness.
To make sure we’re getting it right here first of all. To hold one another accountable out of love. We can be indifferent to one another of course. We can turn a blind eye to things. That’s easy. Holding one another accountable can be tough. It’s not always about admonishment of course. We looked at 1 Thessalonians 5:14 during Advent – “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” We need to pray for discernment to know which is called for. We need to pray for patience, for hearts of love and humility.
Because admonishment can be tough. I’m leery of it. I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily. It can come from a place of self-righteousness. It can lead to abuse of power. It can cause a lot of hurt. I always say that if we feel the need to admonish let us examine our motivations – make sure that our motivation is to care for the person. We mustn’t miss this though. Sometimes it’s called for.
I remember not being in this job very long and having a hard time of things. Things were getting on top of me, I was feeling overwhelmed. I was sicker than I’d been in a long time. It’s true that no one has time for bronchitis. I wasn’t myself. I was snapping at people in board meetings. I was being a jerk. It wasn’t good. One of our church leaders took the time to sit down with me. Ask me what was going on. Told me it didn’t seem that I was acting like myself. Not an easy conversation. The person could have let it go. They didn’t and I appreciated it. It was done out of care for me. I learned things because of it. Things like taking the time to care for oneself. To not think that it’s all up to me and my own striving.
This is one of the ways we show each other that we care in this peculiar community.
We’ve talked about how encouragement happens in our corporate worship. How it happens in small groups. How it happens among individuals. We need people that will help to hold us accountable in love individually. One Thursday night I told our group of young adults that if we can’t find someone we can confide in, someone we can share our burdens within church then we have a problem. Someone with whom we can share questions like “How is your soul?” “In what ways do you need to be encouraged right now?” “What if anything is holding you back from living more fully for God right now?” I told that group if they didn’t know someone like that in church that I would try and help find such a person with them. I put the same invitation out to you all, and bring Pastor Abby into it because she will help you too. I know you can’t force relationships like these, but perhaps we could help facilitate one. It would help I think, in us becoming a community in which sharing one another’s burdens and thereby fulfilling the law of Christ, is borne out ever more fully.
So friends let us continue to encourage one another. To be the instruments by which God puts blessings into our hearts and changes us. May this be true for our community of faith in this place.