THE CHRISTIAN AND HIS COMMUNITY
October 3, 2004
There are several things about this time of the year which make us interested in our relationship to our community. Kay and I had an opportunity yesterday to visit family reunions for both sides of my family. I noticed that they had to have one on one side of the lake and one on the other side of the lake! But I thought about, in visiting with them, the people who made the community where I grew up. What an impact the community has on us and on the nature of our training and of our opportunities and of our happiness!
And then there is the fact that we are one month away from an election time, both in the local community and then in the state and in the nation at large. That makes us have some interest in what our responsibilities are toward our community and what the Lord wants of us as Christians in relationship to our community.
There are a number of passages in the New Testament that deal with this matter, and I thought it might be a good time for us to ask, “What does the Lord really expect of his people? What is his will for us as Christians as citizens in the community?”
THE PRAYER OF JESUS
We might start by just observing that the Lord’s overall assumption about the place that his people will play in this world can be seen in one of the most important circumstances of his life. That great prayer on the last night before the Lord was crucified, his longest prayer that we have on record, has within it glimpses of the role he wants his people to fill in the community. Just notice these to start with. In John 17:6, he refers to the people whom the father he says, “gave me out of the world.” Now the world is not just the created physical surrounding as you understand. It is also people, but it is also a certain way of life. It has to do with the realm of men who do not know God. Out of that realm the father gave Jesus some of his own. In John 17:11, Jesus says that while I am not going to be in the world, “they are in the world.” They are given to Jesus out of the world and yet they remain in the world. In John 17:14, he says that “they are not of the world.” And in verse 16 he says, “Father, I am not asking you to take them out of the world. I am just asking you to keep them from the evil one.” And then in John 17:18, he says that “as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Look at those relationships for just a moment. Here is how you and I as Christians form our view of our place in the world. We are called out of the world but left in the world to be different from the world and to have an impact upon the world. Another way of saying it is that this relationship involves separation from the world and involvement in the world and being a blessing to the community around us.
Now that is quite a task, but that is the basic assumption with which we as Christians are to approach life around us. We are not to see ourselves as people who are afraid and withdrawn and who have nothing to do with anyone around us unless that individual is a Christian. We are seen as people who are here for the Lord, and here to make a positive difference in our communities.
Many years ago, J.C. Ryle in one of his writings, made a comment that I believe might need to be heard by all of us. He said, “Separation from the world does not mean that Christians should take no interest in anything except religion. Some may think it very spiritual to neglect science or art or literature or politics, to read no books except spiritual ones, to read no newspapers and to know nothing about the government of their country. I think that is an idle and selfish neglect of duty. Paul valued good government (I Tim. 2:1-2); he quoted heathen writers in his sermons; he knew the law and customs of the world, as we see from his illustrations. Christians who pride themselves on ignorance bring religion into contempt.” That needs to be considered as you and I form our outlook on the world around us.
THE LORD’S TEACHING
Now how do we fulfill those relationships? In his ministry, Jesus taught some things about how his disciples function in the community. He used three vivid pictures that maybe all of us know, but if we could think about them in relation to our life as citizens in our country, it would be helpful to us. First, he used the picture of leaven in Matthew 13:33. He said the kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened. This is a picture of Christian influence within society. It says we have influence because of what we are -- because of our character and because of our nature. This is a picture where the kingdom works quietly within a society. And it is a picture that has some power to it. That little bit of leaven could leaven the whole lump. As the Lord’s people work quietly by being what they are within a society, their influence will be felt.
A second familiar picture is of salt. In Matthew 5:13 you will remember Jesus said that ordinary people like us, who are only different because they are his disciples are the salt of the earth. There was something distinctively different about them, and it was something that gave them a bit of a bite in their influence. This is a picture, I think, of negative influence -- of influence that keeps the world from falling into corruption and from pursuing dishonor. It is a preventative type of influence. I believe that it has to do with the nature of Christians’ convictions and what we teach. Decay is halted because of the presence of salt.
A third picture that the Lord used to illustrate this relationship is light (Matt. 5:14). His people, he said, were the light of the world, and they were not to be hidden or kept under a basket of some sort to prevent either their identity or their influence. This meant that the Lord’s people are intended to bring a spark of hope and of joy into a world where there is darkness and sadness. Their lives are to be lived out in the open like a lighthouse out on a point somewhere so that it can be seen. The task is to illumine, to show a better way, and not merely to be against things or to prevent decay like salt does. Christians are to enlighten and to build hope and to give a sense of direction in a positive sense to a world around us.
Now follow what I am saying. In his prayer you see the Lord’s overall assumption for his people. In his teaching, you get some idea of how this is to play out – quietly like leaven – to prevent evil like salt – and to enlighten and encourage and build up like light.
THE PRACTICED OF OUR FAITH
Then when we turn to the epistles in the New Testament, this assumption of the Lord is coupled with the picture that he had in mind, and it is applied. The letters in the New Testament show us a picture of Christian citizenship by showing how our faith is to be practiced in the midst of the community. The epistles describe a Christian’s relationship to his community.
I am going to read some passages that speak to this theme, and I want to call your attention to just one main idea in each of these texts. It is interesting that in each of these several passages a different theme stands out.
For example, in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the emphasis is upon meeting obligations as a citizen. A Christian is someone who will want to fulfill his responsibilities as a citizen in a community, or in a state, or in a country. In Romans 13:1-2, Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment.” That is a straightforward way of saying that God ordains the authorities or the higher institutions among men. What is remarkable to me is who some of those people were at the time when Paul wrote some of these passages: Roman emperors who sometimes could act more like tyrants than someone who was any kind of servant of God. And yet, Paul says that Christians make themselves subject to these higher authorities.
And look what he says a little later down at verse 7. “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, and honor to whom honor is owed.” You say, “Well, everybody does that.” Think about the spirit of what Paul is saying. Christians take the lead in a community in showing a respectful attitude toward those who are in places of authority. Hatefulness and ugliness does not have a place in our lives in doing this. We attach God to these kinds of situations and not just wills of men or political parties. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t have responsibilities to be an influence. Apply what we have said in the previous points here.
In fulfilling our obligations as Christians, one responsibility in a country where we have the opportunity to do so, is to influence the direction by the use of our vote. If I am not mistaken, this next Wednesday is the deadline for registering in the state of Missouri. You and I have the obligations, each one of us, to inform ourselves and then to pray for wisdom, and then do what we believe is the right thing in fulfilling that obligation. Nobody can tell us how to do that, and we don’t have the right in the Lord’s church to undertake to tell someone how to vote or who to vote for. But we do have the task of reminding each one of us that we are citizens and that we have a responsibility that we should fulfill. I noticed a brother wrote just recently, “We are blessed to live in a country where we have the right to participate in selecting our government, and we have the responsibility to do so. If Christians cannot participate in government, then the ungodly, immoral, and unbelievers will determine the government and the laws under which we live.” That is true.
Notice in the second place that in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the accent is not so much on just fulfilling these obligations as a citizen, but instead it is on an orderly lifestyle and working to provide for our own needs. Some at Thessalonica were assuming that being a Christian and hoping for heaven and expecting the Lord to return meant that we don’t have any real responsibilities in common, everyday life. Some of them were not preparing for their future, were not meeting their responsibilities because, after all, their home was in heaven. And Paul says, “Now wait a minute. If you are a citizen of heaven, that means that you live a more upright life in the here and now.” In I Thess. 4, he says in verses 9 and following, “Now concerning brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” The word for “quietly” here doesn’t mean that I will put a good lock on my front door and when I come home from work in the evening, I will raise that door with the opener and I will close it before I get out of the car, and I will lock myself in my house and we will be quiet. No, it means to be orderly, to go about life in an orderly way. It doesn’t mean to withdraw but instead to be upright and honorable in conduct.
In 2 Thess. 3:11-12, he says it like this: “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. (That is not a very flattering picture, is it?) Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” Be busy with something good and worthwhile and go about life that way.
Then in Paul’s letter to Titus, the stress is upon courtesy and respect in all human relations. In Titus 3:1-2, Paul says, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one and to avoid quarreling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Our son, Rob, in getting through college, worked as a waiter in restaurants. He told me after his first summer working there, having to work every other Sunday afternoon, “Dad, everybody in the restaurant hates to work then more than any other time.” I said, “Why is that? Is it just because it is Sunday afternoon?” He said, “No. It’s because the church people come.” I said, “So?” He said, “They enjoy their meals less and complain most.” Wow! We have work to do in our attitude and courtesy toward other people.
You see what we are getting at. As Christians in a community, courtesy and respect toward people is a premium. It is crucial. Paul explains in Titus with his purpose phrases - three times in Titus 2. At the end of verse 5 he says, “that the word of God may not be reviled.” Verse 8 says, “so that an opponent may be put to shame having nothing evil to say about us.” And at the end of verse 10, he says, “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior,” to make it more beautiful by attitude and action.
Then in Peter’s letters, his emphasis is on personal honor where the passions of the flesh are concerned. Peter says that as a citizen in a community, I am to be somebody who does right by abstaining from the lust of the flesh. I Peter 2:11, 12, 16, 17 says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh which war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable so that when they speak against you as evil doers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God in the day of visitation…. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God, honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” That is another way of saying to be honorable in your personal desires and be honorable in your treatment of other people.
And then in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul deals more with our church life as it touches our community. It is interesting to find him reasoning about how we are to relate to each other within a congregation, not based on the nature of God or the work of Christ, but instead based on how it is going to look to outsiders. He says in chapter 2:12 and following, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” There is the picture of loving devotion to God in the midst of the community. It has an impact. It makes a difference if the Lord’s word is held out in that way.
You and I are interested in our community life as Christians for several reasons. We care about the quality of our own lives. People matter to us. We want the cause of the Lord to prosper. But more than anything, we are concerned about the community around us because the Lord expects us to be concerned about it. Paul wrote to Timothy in I Timothy 2 in a familiar passage. And he says in these first 4 verses, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” We are concerned about a kind of a community where people will have an opportunity to live godly lives and be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
The place to start with that is to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth ourselves. The Lord who gave himself for all the world gets down to individuals, and he says to us through the gospel, “Come to me. I will save you and I will make of your life something that will be a blessing to other people.” Maybe this morning there is some individual here that needs to be added to the community of Christ and then to make a difference in the community of this world. If you are ready to place your faith in Christ and to be baptized into him, we would urge you to do that today. If you are a citizen of the Lord’s kingdom who drifted away and need to come back home to him, we urge you to do that today.