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The Church: Marbles or Grapes

A Bag of Marbles or a Cluster of Grapes

 When I take a Sunday off, I almost always go to church somewhere else. In this session I want us to visit two churches in other cities. We'll need to travel back in time, via a kind of spiritual time machine. One church we'll visit will be a model for us, and the other will instruct us.

Jerusalem

Let's walk into the temple of Jerusalem, visit the first church, and imagine what's going on—Acts 2:41-43a.

 

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe...

Notice their devotion—v. 42. The Greek term for "continually devoting" suggests a constant, steadfast persistence; the same word appears in Acts 1:14 and 6:4. This was no halfhearted group of pew warmers. When these early saints gathered, their meetings beamed with intense devotion. As they sat under the apostles' teaching, assembled for fellowship and prayer, and took their meals together, the Lord God remained the focus. (Taken from The Bride, by Charles Swindoll, Insight for Living, 1994, p. 13).

Notice in particular, as we mingle with this community, how these first church Christians demonstrated genuine concern for others. These early believers would have a hard time relating to our custom of sitting inconspicuously in church, then slipping out the back door during closing prayer. They gathered not only to worship and learn, but to be with one another, to care for and share with one another. They came for fellowship—one of the activities to which they continually devoted themselves—v. 42.

The Greek word for fellowship, koinonia, signifies a close relationship. Its root, koinos, means "common" or "communal." The early church was a close, sharing group. That's the idea of v. 44—"All the believers were together and had everything in common.

Picture a glass full of marbles. Then picture another glass poured full of grape juice. Which do you think is the best illustration of what the Lord intends the church to be? Anne Ortlund, in her book Up with Worship, groups Christians into two categories—marbles and grapes. Marbles are "single units that don't affect each other except in collision." Grapes, on the other hand, mingle juices; each one is a "part of the fragrance" of the church Body.

The early Christians didn't bounce around like loose marbles, ricocheting in all directions. Picture them as a cluster of ripe grapes, squeezed together by persecution, bleeding and mingling into one another. Fellowship for them, then, was a genuine and free sharing of their lives as members joined together as one. It's sad to think of how many Christians today are missing that kind of closeness. Sermons and songs, while uplifting and necessary, provide only part of a vital church encounter. We need involvement with others, too. If we roll in and out of church each week without acquiring a few "grape juice stains," we really haven't tasted the sweet wine of fellowship.

A few years ago, a member of our church said to me the day before she died, "Thanks for letting me be a part of Hillcrest Chapel." That brought a lot of tears to my eyes. Oh, there were "grape stains" on us; we had worked through a lot of things in her family and personal life, but the end result was the beautiful wine of fellowship and grace.

The New Testament portrays true fellowship in two primary ways:

  • as an act of sharing something tangible to meet a need. Note v. 45—"Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." (Note it was needs, not wants. What a picture of sacrificial giving. Believers were selling land and personal belongings, then channelling the proceeds to people. They were not acquiring bigger or more elaborate stuff; they saw needy individuals who depended on them for survival, and shared what they had.

    Such unselfishness, Gene Getz explains, was crucial to the life of the early church.

    When the church was born in Jerusalem, it appears that the majority of those Jews who had come from distant places and who responded to the gospel, decided to stay and wait for Christ to return and to restore the earthly kingdom to Israel... Many had already used up their surplus of money and food. Those who were staying in public inns would need to pay their rent, and everyone needed food daily. To solve this problem, the believers decided to "have everything in common." This included both those who lived in Jerusalem and those who lived in other parts of the Roman Empire. But the residents of Jerusalem had to take the initial steps in solving the problem. This they did—willingly and unselfishly.(A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions, Gene A. Getz, Moody Press, 1990, p. 43.

    Add the families from out of town; those who were residents of Jerusalem who were ostracized or persecuted for their newfound faith; and the needs began to pile up with overwhelming speed.

    Do our churches display this same generous spirit we see demonstrated by the early church? Such selflessness seems to be the exception today, especially in the financial arena. Offering help to someone in need may draw more sneers than cheers. "Many would rather let their funds ferment in the vat of plenty than quench the palates of the needy, unless, of course, they could get a tax break." But in the early church, sharing something tangible to meet a need was one form of fellowship.

     

  • as an act of sharing one's self with someone else. This involves the expenditure of emotion, compassion, time, etc.: weeping with those who weep; rejoicing with those who rejoice; grieving with those who grieve. In other words, true fellowship displays the best thing we can give: ourselves. Who can assign a dollar value to the tears we shed for someone else's loss... or the time we give to listen to a friend vent his or her frustration... or our applause upon learning of a peer's promotion?

    What the church and those outside the church need is the fellowship/koinonia seen in the church in Jerusalem, even though many of our circumstances are vastly different today! It happens when God's people come together in the spirit of sharing; when full hands and hearts share with empty ones, and the Body of Christ is then strengthened. And hopefully, the world takes notice.

That ends our quick glimpse at the church in Jerusalem. The second stop on our church tour is the Ephesian church, established by the Apostle Paul—Eph. 4.

 

Ephesus

Let's view the letter, and what Paul had to say to this church about community.
The apostle Paul is speaking to them in his letter about the gift of community. He's writing from a Roman prison to the Ephesian church, but with the intention that the letter will be circulated to a number of other churches because the issues he deals with are universal. Churches down through the ages are exhorted to "[be] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Paul is saying here, "Take care of the gift of community!" Ephesians 4:1-6 is a powerful imperative toward unity. It's a call to responsibility. (Doug Goins, "If My Church Is a Community, Why Do I Feel Like a Piece of Machinery?" from series: "The Reality and Responsibility of Unity," Catalog No. 4248. Ephesians 4:1-6, Second Message, March 17, 1991. 1995 Discovery Publishing, a ministry of Peninsula Bible Church.)

Let's look at Ephesians 4:1-6.

1] "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2] Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3] Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4] There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called—5] one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Paul's commitment to community is illustrated in verse 1. He is writing from prison because he's sold out to follow Christ, and has surrendered to God's accomplishing His will even through his imprisonment. Making it clear he wants the Ephesians to do the same, Paul urges them to "live a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called." Then he begins the practical application of this reality, and shows us how God expects his community to live and act. Interestingly, however, he doesn't address the Body as a whole here, but individuals within the Body—v. 1. He focuses on the personal implications.

This responsibility to fulfill our calling as the church belongs to each of us individually, at least at the beginning. In the light of verse 1, I must ask the following questions: Do I walk my own talk? Is my lifestyle consistent with who I am in Jesus Christ? When I think of the problems in our church fellowship, do I examine my own attitudes and behavior first? C. S. Lewis said, "Of all the awkward people in my home and in my office, there is only one I can do very much about."

Likewise, Paul makes the appeal to me personally. In other words, when I think about community, I've got to start with myself. In verse 2 he points out the need to examine my character, my attitudes: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." This runs contrary to my own natural tendencies in community-building. If I want to begin building community, or diagnose and repair a breach in community, I don't naturally think of these personal moral qualities/character traits.

When I see a church in trouble, I tend to think first of the whole, the externally defined structure or organization. I ask, how can I fix it? My first instinct in community-building is toward being an activist. I want to schedule meetings, encourage dialogue, get a policy statement down on paper, set goals, etc. But it doesn't work! Paul says you and I need to start with our own interior lives, to let our Christian lives be evidenced by four character qualities. Those qualities will, in turn, have a powerful influence on the community we enjoy.

 

  • First, we're called to humility or lowliness. That idea was despised in the first-century Greek culture. They even caricatured that word as "the crouching submission of a slave," cowering in terror before his master. Jesus wiped out that caricature, living a life of perfect humility. He was the "servant of all," in His own words.

    The actual word in Greek means to think humbly. It's recognizing the infinite worth and value of every other person in the Body; taking the attitude that they are of greater worth than I am and deserve more deference than I do. It's other-centeredness, not self-centeredness. It's Jesus' example of self-emptying in Philippians 2: "taking the form of a servant." Humility is a willingness to give up my rights for someone else, and Paul says it is essential for community.

     

  • Second, we are called to the word gentleness, or meekness. That word is not a synonym for weakness. It means strength under control. It means moderate reaction to things, rather than harsh overreaction or outbursts of undisciplined emotion. It's the opposite of being manipulative and overbearing. Findlay says in his lexicon, "It is the quality of a strong personality who is nevertheless master of himself and the servant of others. It is the absence of the disposition to assert personal rights, either in the presence of God or of men." Obviously, the community is enhanced by our choice to be gentle people—to exhibit strength under control.

     

  • Third, we are asked to be patient, which means to have a long fuse with other people; to be long-suffering toward people who are aggravating, just as God is with us. When Paul wrote to Timothy in his first letter, he was concerned about Timothy's reticence to assume leadership; his poor self-image; his struggles to be who God called him to be. Yet Paul writes in 1:16 about his own personal experience with the unlimited patience of God and the perfecting of patience in his own life. He could be merciful and patient with Timothy, because he has experienced God's patience himself. Patience is tolerance for the shortcomings of others, and it is necessary for community.

     

  • Fourth, we are encouraged to grow in our bearing with one another. The word "bearing with" or "forbearance" is a bit different from patience. Forbearance means the willingness to put up with people until God changes them or as God is changing them. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that "love bears all things." This expresses the same idea. He literally says, "love covers over everything." I see the struggles in your life, but I make a decision not to concentrate on that, to see instead the Lord at work in you in those struggles. I choose to cheer you on, to catch you doing something right. I may at some point need to confront, but I choose at times to catch you doing things right rather than watching very closely every problem in your life.

    1 Peter 4:8 says that "love covers over a multitude of sins." Unless I learn to forbear with you, I'll be a detriment to the community. I won't be able to enhance our relationship in the least. Patience and forbearance protect us from having unrealistic expectations of one another in the Body; from a superficial idealism that says, "How can they act like that?" Often when I say that, it shows I haven't really learned patience through the Spirit or forbearance with the failings of others. Patience and forbearance will help us live with the imperfections we see in Christian community.

    Doug Goins wrote a wonderful illustration of the need for this kind of patience and forbearance.

    "As a young man just out of college, I was given a job on the program staff at Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center. I was pretty cocky and arrogant, and I thought I pretty well knew everything about running that place. I wasn't content to do just my own job, but I was quick to tell everybody else how to do their job as well. After about 18 months, some of the men in leadership at Mount Hermon discussed the possibility of letting me go. When I look back on it now, 25 years later, they had every right to do that! I'm surprised they didn't; it really showed patience and mercy. But it was one man, Bill Gwinn, the executive director, who stood up for me and said, 'No, this young man is in process. We'll do damage to him if we fire him.' Now, he confronted me and told me the truth about my attitudes, and God used that truth in my life. But he wasn't willing to give me the thumb. I thank God for his patience and forbearance in my life."(Discovery Publishing)

    Can you relate to this example? Look back over your life, and think of those moments when people have loved you and put up with you, even though you were less than what you should have been. Have you forgotten that? Have you granted that same patience to others (friends, relatives, children, fellow church members, pastors, new converts)? Do you think you can grant patience to the people in your church? They need it!

     

There is one more word here. The umbrella word that ties these four characteristics together is love "agape" love. It's the supernatural love of God, and can be expressed only when the Spirit of God is in control of us, expressing Himself through us. It's the quality that embraces all of the preceding four words.

Colossians 3:14 expresses it this way: "And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." Our natural instincts are very much in contrast to asking the Lord to work on our own character. We don't pray for and pursue individual relationships with the supernatural love of God as we should; we begin with what's wrong. We also address problems in the community from the perspective of external structures, and sometimes avoid personal responsibility in relationships. Neither my heart nor yours, however, can be changed by externally imposed organizational structures.

The problems that threaten community always have to do with character; what's inside of us. They are issues of arrogance, insensitivity, self-assertion, jealousy, impatience, pride, harshness, possessiveness, irritability, lack of concern for others, holding grudges. These kinds of problems cannot be organizationally managed, but can be covered only with the cleansing, forgiving blood of Jesus Christ.

I see problems in this church, in the 60-some churches I relate to as an executive presbyter, and in other churches in Bellingham. We all have areas in which we need to grow—faults and inconsistencies and blind spots—but before we can have complete unity in the church, we must ask the Lord to develop in us

  • humility
  • gentleness or meekness,
  • patience
  • forbearance with others
and over it all we must be motivated by love.

What should our practical response be to these truths? Can we continue to make Hillcrest a place where people feel not like pieces of machinery, but valuable parts? Verse three of Ephesians 4 holds the answer—a powerful imperative we are to obey beyond who we are.

3] Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace... The New International Version
3] ...being diligent to preserve the unity... The New American Standard
3] Earnestly endeavoring to keep the unity... The King James

Markus Barth in his commentary on Ephesians has this to say about verse 3:

 

"It is hardly possible to render exactly the urgency contained in the underlying Greek verb. Not only haste and passion, but a full effort of the whole man is meant, involving his will, sentiment, reason, physical strength, and total attitude. The imperative mood of the participle found in the Greek text excludes passivity, quietism, a wait-and-see attitude, or a diligence tempered by all deliberate speed. Yours is the initiative! Do it now! Mean it! YOU are to do it! I mean it! Such are Paul's overtones in verse 3.

Finally, we have an emphasis on activity, something to do to keep, build, or maintain unity and community, i.e., grapes rather than marbles! It's an activity of maintaining, preserving, keeping what God has already created. We are to recognize the reality of our unity, and look for ways to pursue relationships with people as peacemakers—and we are to do it now!

Paul implies in verse 3 that we do have problems with unity in the Body. We have our differences. We are an extremely heterogeneous community in the church universal and in the local church. Our Hillcrest church family, for example, has become very diverse—from every economic strata, educational level, family size, political affiliation, doctrinal persuasion. More than 50 percent are without church background, and of those who do come from a church background, the vast majority are not from evangelical churches. All this diversity and influence could be at work to undermine our unity, but thankfully to God, we have had very little conflict about essentials.

We cannot just assume this will continue without our involvement, however. We must understand we have an external enemy trying to destroy the church. At the end of Ephesians 6, Paul talks about how to deal with Satanic attack. Here, however, Paul is dealing with the internal enemy. As Pogo said, "We have found the enemy and he is us!" We can be our own worst enemies in maintaining community, so we must "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." We have to make sure we don't stereotype people in our church who are different from us. Active love will refuse to indulge in the "we/they" dichotomy; we must constantly encourage others to understand we are all in this together.

Each of us is responsible to be an initiator, to be a peacemaker in relationships with others. We must not let anything in the church or without divide us. Only as we recognize our own need to develop our character and if we rely on the Spirit to help us keep the bond will we be able to do this.

I want to close with the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, to be a reconciler, a peacemaker, a person who makes a difference, a person who's part of the solution instead of part of the problem in maintaining community. This prayer may suffer a bit from its familiarity, but try to listen to it again with new ears.

 

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

All five of the destructive things listed in the first section could someday be at work in our church community—in our own lives, or in the life of someone we know: hatred, injury, doubt, darkness, and sadness. We have a choice, along with St. Francis,

 

  • to express love in response to hatred
  • to offer forgiveness
  • to encourage faith
  • to shine the light of truth in the darkness, confusion, and despair
  • to bring joy.

The second section lists legitimate needs we all have: consolation, to be understood, to be loved. Again, we make the choice to offer consolation, to extend understanding even if we don't feel understood, and to love aggressively, expressing an "in-spite-of" kind of love to those with whom we come face-to-face. Thus we become peacemakers in our church and wherever we are.

God has called each of us to the glorious responsibility to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace," because as verse 4 says:

 

4] There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called—5] one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

It matters greatly to God how we obey this passage. Let's do it!