Something very interesting and also extremely instructive occurs here in Acts 14. It is toward the end of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, and they are almost at the end of the semi-circle that they have made from Antioch back around into Asia Minor. They are at a town called Lystra. Listen as I read Acts 14 beginning at verse 19: "But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra (remember he has just been stoned and left for dead in Lystra) and to Iconium (where some of the people who had stoned him had come from) and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed."
Notice in this situation that Paul saw something so important that it caused him to return to the city where he had been stoned and to the city where those who stoned him had come from in order to encourage the people to be faithful to the Lord. He wanted these new believers to make sure that they had the strength to continue in the faith and to finally sit down together with their brothers and sisters in Christ in the kingdom of God when it reaches its final destination in heaven. Apparently, Paul believed that what would give them the best chance to be true to the Lord and the best chance to continue in the faith and the best chance to finally enjoy heaven together was for them to be part of a congregation where they lived. The Bible says in verse 23 that what Paul did as he visited these locations was to organize congregations, to appoint elders for those congregations, to help the people continue in the faith and be true to the Lord.
The lesson that I want to call to your attention from that episode has to do with the importance of "my home congregation." God apparently believed that my being able to experience life as a part of a home congregation would give me the strength and the help I need to get to heaven. That is a blessing and a privilege that you and I need to be aware of in our lives this day.
Will you notice with me that the Bible offers a good bit of evidence about the importance of a congregation and that the Lord intends for each one of the children in God's household to be a part of a congregation. I could call your attention to a few lines of evidence about this from the New Testament. First, I would point out that the very concept of the word "church" implies a regular coming together with brothers and sisters in Christ in a congregation. The apostle Paul, for example, in I Corinthians 11:18, talks about them coming together as a church. In that same general context in I Corinthians 14:23, he talks about how when we come together as the whole church, the impression that is left can have a powerful impact even on any guests who might be present. So he anticipates that there will be a time when believers come together as the church. He didn't say "if," but he said "when" you come together.
A second line of evidence is that the fellowship described by the one another passages in the New Testament assumes and requires the existence of a congregation of the Lord's people. There are fifty-eight "one another" passages in the Epistles, and the passages either say "do this one to another" or "don't do this one to another." All of them are talking about how we as fellow Christians are supposed to be responsible and accountable toward each other. For example, in Romans 12, it tells us in verse 10 to love one another with brotherly affection and outdo one another in showing honor. Where are we going to do that without being involved in one another's lives and knowing what each other is experiencing? In Colossians 3:13 it talks to us about bearing with one another and even forgiving one another. Where are we going to need to do that unless there is some way in which we are bound together with each other in situations that are not always pleasurable and easy? You don't have to bear with one another unless somehow you are confronting somebody's weaknesses, and we don't have to forgive one another unless somehow we have hurt one another. I am not saying here to please go out and hurt somebody this week so we can be a congregation. I am saying that we are together, and this passage implies that such things will happen.
A third line of evidence is that the working of the church as a body illustrates the fact that the home congregation is basic to the Lord's plan. The church, when functioning is described, is referred to as a body. In the body is where we learn that we are dependent on each other, and where even people whose talent and interest and ability is different from mine are to be appreciated for what they contribute to the body. In I Corinthians 12, verses 12-26, Paul uses this picture and develops it. He says if the body were just one member, it couldn't be a body. Therefore no member should say either, "since I can't do what you can do, I don't need to do anything," or "since I can do it all, I don't need you." In a congregation is where we learn the value of each and every member, and where we appreciate and lean on each other.
In the fourth place we would point out that the scriptural organization of the church demands a local church. One illustration of that is in Acts 14, verse 23, which we have already read. In Philippians 1, verse 2, Paul writes to the saints in Christ who are at Philippi with the bishops and deacons. The bishops are the overseers, also called elders and shepherds in the New Testament. The deacons are those who serve. Paul's letter to the saints at Philippi deals with that type of a structure, that type of an organism working. In I Peter 5, verse 2, Peter does the same thing. And so there are some of the lines of evidence that God's will is for his children to have and to be a part of a congregation of his people.
That means that one of the things that confronts the Christian in this mobile world is the question of how to go from being that individual believer to being a true part of a home congregation. In this world where there are so many people and you get lost in numbers and folks come and go, how do we develop that experience and that identity that this is my home, these are my people, and I'm a part of them and they are a part of me. That is what being members one of another means. Again, there are some lines of thought that will help us in carrying out and following through with this plan that we have been describing so far.
Obviously, in the first place, having a home congregation is going to begin with being identified with a congregation. Now when a person lives in a community and when that person through the teaching of the gospel is baptized into Christ, when he becomes a Christian, the Lord adds that person to his body. That action assumes the intention to meet with and to work with and to worship with others who have been brought into Christ or added to him in the same way. Occasionally some of you in your Bible correspondence teaching will receive a note or a call from someone saying "I want to be baptized into Christ." When that person is contacted, the person will say, "Well, I want to be baptized into Christ but I don't want to be involved with anybody else. I don't want to have any contact with any other people." The problem with that is when the Lord purchases us with his blood, we confront the fact that he has purchased a bunch of other folks, too. We learn that we have a relationship with those other folks and an obligation to them because we are a part now of the same family. So, that kind of identification is important. Probably we need to mention that in a mobile society such as ours when the average person moves every five years or so, it becomes necessary in a practical way for there to be a way for us to let other believers in that community we go to know that we are Christians who are committed to following the Lord. There is no Bible term for this, other than simply receiving one another. In a lot of the epistles of the New Testament the apostle Paul or one of the other writers will say, "here is such and such a person, you receive him." For example, in Colossians 4, Paul writes to say receive Mark. The little book of Philemon is really all about verse 17 where Paul writes to say, "I am sending Onesimus to you as a brother in Christ. Now you receive him." Sometimes today we use terms like "placing membership" or "being identified" with a congregation to make that same point. This is your brother in Christ so receive him. My home congregation starts with my being identified with a congregation.
Then, this idea of my home congregation grows and is developed by my "being there." By that, I don't mean merely attendance. I am talking about my being there. That is, it is not my home congregation truly until I begin to think and act in terms of my being a part of these people, until I learn to talk about "us" instead of "them." Until I begin to understand myself as having a responsibility to those folks, my being accountable to them, then it is not truly my home congregation. Our assembling together is one expression of this - something that is a way that we express our commitment to each other. In Hebrews 10, verses 24 and 25 - verse 25 talks about us assembling together and not forsaking that habit - but verse 24 says "Let's consider one another." It is a strong word sometimes translated "to provoke" one another or "urge" each other on, or "encourage" one another in our living for the Lord. Dependability becomes an issue. How can I encourage someone when they are not even a part of my attention or feel no obligation to them?
By being identified and then by being there and third, the idea or the feeling or the spirit of my home congregation means putting effort into being relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ in real life settings. What effort have I put into building a relationship of closeness and friendship and in interest and involvement and concern with any of my brothers and sisters in Christ? The answer to that question will tell a whole bunch about the spirit of a congregation. A congregation is where we love and enjoy each other, it is where we are accountable to each other. It is also where we sometimes "put up" with each other. A congregation is where my brothers and sisters in Christ know me well enough to be able to say of some of my odd, human qualities, "That's just how Bill is" without being offended at every thing that happens. A congregation is where I am accepted for who I am, where my brothers are going to try to put up with me despite the quirks in personality that make me different from everybody else. A congregation is where we know each other so well that we will understand, and put the best face on, and live with each other as a family of God.
My home congregation, that spirit, that idea, is lived out by the giving of myself, giving of myself, my time, my talents, my treasures even, for the building up of that congregation. In Romans, chapter 12, there are some wonderful examples of this as the apostle Paul writes. He says in verse 3 that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. He says in verse 4 that we are to see ourselves as members of the body who don't all have the same function, and then he says in verse 6 that we ought to begin to give of ourselves to build up the congregation, to build up the body. He mentions several different activities. Some have to do with proclaiming the word, so with serving, some with teaching, some with encouraging, some with giving, some with leading, some with showing mercy toward people who have problems. All of that is a part of giving of myself to build up the congregation. It won't really be my home until somehow I am doing that. The congregation is to be seen as an organism I am part of and contribute to and not as a market I visit to get from. It seems to me that those who know this most clearly are the ones who are in positions of responsibility as servants or of leadership. We have to understand that our task is about seeing what the congregation needs and then trying to give of ourselves in that way.
Next, I would point out that my home congregation, that relationship, involves considering the affect on the congregation as I make choices and decisions. When I am a brother to brothers and sisters, it means, at least partly, that I have given up some of that right to say this is my life and it is nobody else's business. Oh, yes it is. "Because I don't live to myself or die to myself," Romans 14 says. So I must ask, "Will this help build up my brothers and sisters in Christ? What will it cause outsiders to think of the Lord?" One purpose of life in a congregation is the defeat of the abject selfishness that can so often be a factor in American life.
And then, my home congregation is something which is demonstrated over time. I can't remember how long ago it was, but Gerald brought me a copy of what, I think, was a 1948 directory of the North National church. He had counted how many people were still here who had been members of this congregation when that directory was printed. Of course, that has been at least 50 years, hasn't it? What that means is that this congregation existed because there were folks who had been that dedicated to the Lord and to each other. I have wanted my children to have heroes in their lives and models of what a human being was supposed to be that were like some of you folks. I have not wanted them to get their picture of what a human being is supposed to be from network television from some of the shows that are on prime time right now. Anybody can use folks as long as they suit them and then do something else. It takes a strong person to do what some of you have done, and you are to be commended and appreciated for it. Growth in life is the deepening of appreciation for what is near us. Growth is not merely about the experiencing of things that are new to us always.
And then, the kind of commitment we have been describing that allows a congregation to be my home congregation has to be shown by loving behavior toward that congregation. A favorite chapter of all of us is the great love chapter, I Corinthians 13. We have read statements from I Corinthians 13 very often. Do you remember, though, that this chapter is found in a context which is actually discussing a Christian's attitude toward the church when it comes together? Have you ever thought about that? I Corinthians is in the middle of I Corinthians 12 and 14. That whole section is talking about the members of the body as they come together. I Corinthians 13 defines love by what love does. And so what if we take this paragraph and apply it, not just individually, but in my attitude toward you and my attitude toward the congregation? Paul said, "love is patient and is kind." Are my actions and words toward my home congregation patient and kind? "Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way." Really? Does that fit my attitude toward my home congregation? "It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things," and that is what makes a congregation my home.
Harding University puts out a little paper called, "Church And Family." In that little paper a few months ago a sister in Christ who is now an elder's wife in one of the congregations, I think in the Searcy area, wrote about her home congregation where she had grown up. The article was title, "Thank God for the Church Where I Grew Up." She said in it of her and her husband, "We traveled around enough for me to know that every congregation in the brotherhood is worthy of some commendation and that no congregation is perfect. Why then," she said, "do we adult Christians allow ourselves the luxury of detailing the inadequacies of our congregations to anyone who will listen." She talked about what her mother and dad did in bringing her up to help her to see that being a part of a congregation is crucial to Christian living. I want to quote just a couple of paragraphs at the end of her article. "Not once did I hear my parents threaten to leave the body and to worship elsewhere when their advice was rejected or their suggestions shot down. This made a deep and lasting impression on me because others actually did leave the body claiming their children were overlooked or their needs weren't met. I learned that church was not about being recognized and appreciated. Rather, church was about my response to Jesus and my obedience to his commands." Then this sister said this, "I am thankful for the church I grew up in, not because it was free of arrogance or arguments or jealousies, but because I was taught all along that it is our command to love the body of Christ in a given location without embracing or denying its weaknesses and errors. After all, isn't that what I beg our Lord to do for me?" A congregation is where you give to other people what you ask from the Lord for yourself. That is what we have been able to have together here at North National. We are so thankful for it and for you who make it a place like that.
Our loyalty to the Lord has to be at the head of all of this, and what makes all the rest of it possible. It might be that this morning you are thinking about your relationship to the Lord and what you are asking from him. It might be that you are needing to obey the gospel of Jesus. It might be that having made that beginning, you have not continued in the faith as we read about in Acts 14, and you have a desire to be restored. If either of those things are true, it would be our thrill and joy to get to assist you in that. If we can help, won't you come this morning while we stand and sing together?