And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-27
When I was a freshman in high school, my brother was a junior, and our high school got a new varsity basketball coach, Coach Tim Dunham. Coach Dunham played professional basketball in the NBA and was coming from a public high school where his team had gone to the state finals – now he had come to our little Brookside Christian High School.
I never played for Coach Dunham, but my brother did. And what I remember most is the way Coach Dunham fostered a spirit of brotherhood amongst the players. Before practice, the players would gather together to study. On game days, they would go out and share a meal together, and then head to the school gym, pack themselves into a classroom, and take a nap together before getting dressed for the game. On the Monday practice, following the Friday night game, they would do sprints as a team for each individual error that occurred during the game. And when they broke a huddle, instead of saying their school name or mascot, Dunham’s team would say, “Brothers!” Dunham’s ultimate gifting as a coach was his ability to foster brotherhood, or community, amongst his team, and that community focused the group on their goal of reaching the state playoffs.
Community in our world is not a rare thing. There are thriving and successful forms of community in our society today. We hear of community amongst athletic and sports teams, we hear of tight community amongst military and law officers, we hear of community in and around non-profits that are doing various types of social justice and intervention. We see community formed over shared hobbies and common interests.
So what separates the community found within the Christian church from those forms of community within our world? How is Christian community, or gospel-centered community, differentiated and not just another group in the mix?
This morning I want to look at the divine reality of gospel-centered community, and how that reality is what empowers the building and edification of the church, as well as fuels the missional call of the church.
The Divine Reality of Gospel-Centered Community
In Genesis 1, 2, and 3, we see that God created man in His image. We serve a triune God who exists as three distinct persons in one God. The very nature of God is one of perfect community. As such, God created man and woman in His image and placed them in the garden. The Genesis account of the garden shows that man was in perfect community with God and each other. With the fall and the introduction of sin into the world, that perfect community was broken, both with God and with each other.
Pastor Mark shared with us last week the foundational framework for gospel-centered community. Consider the overarching Gospel Story: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. God is restoring us back to that perfect community as seen in the garden, perfect community with Him and with each other. Community is what we are called to, and created for.
Ephesians 2 teaches that “we were all dead in our trespasses…living in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath.” Apart from Christ, our nature drives us to live for ourselves and to pursue and do what is in the best interest for ourselves. Apart from Christ, our nature is one of self-promotion, self-edification, and self-interest.
Ephesians goes on to say, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5).
- By grace, we have been saved out of darkness and into light.
- By grace, we have been saved out of the old, and into the new.
- By grace, we have been saved out of a life fueled by self-promotion and self-interest, into a life of self-sacrifice and generous giving, one of love.
- By grace, we have been saved out of individualism and into community.
God, by grace, has saved us and now scripture teaches that we are one in Christ. We form one body, though we are made up of different parts, we are one body, with one spirit.
Consider that reality for a minute. We are made one. Where else in the church do we discuss individuals becoming one? In marriage: Scripture says that a husband will leave his mother and father and cling to wife, and the two will become one (Genesis 2:24). We celebrate the physical union of a husband and wife becoming one; how much more should we celebrate the spiritual union of believers, being baptized into one spirit. The same spirit that dwells within me is the same that dwells within you, and that which dwells within our brothers and sisters meeting this morning across this City. We are one body, with one spirit.
And as one body, what draws us together, what holds us together, what binds us, and what sustains us as one, is Jesus:
“Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Christ became the Mediator and made peace with God and among men. Without Christ we should not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him. But without Christ we also would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our own ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother. Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one.” -Dietrich Bonhoffer
Gospel-centered community is community grounded in and around Jesus Christ, His life, His death, and His redeeming work in our lives, and demonstrated by living out His love for us towards one another.
In John 13, it is recorded that Jesus was in the Upper Room with His disciples, and although the disciples weren’t aware of it, Jesus knew this would be His last supper with them before the cross. Jesus rose from the table, took off His outer garments, wrapped a towel around His waist, and proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet.
Foot washing was customary during that day, because their only modes of transportation were either animals or their feet. With the number of animals on the roads and lack of concrete paving, the streets were full of dirt and animal waste. Even if you had just come from the baths, your feet were likely covered with filth. Foot washing was a task performed by the lowest servants in the household.
Here we see Jesus take on the task of serving as He washes the feet of His disciples, one by one. When He comes to Peter, Peter questions what He is doing. Jesus’ response to Peter in verse 7 is interesting: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
By washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus foreshadows the greater washing that was coming by way of the cross. When Jesus completed the washing of the feet, He put His outer garments back on and returned to the table.
Jesus stated, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” John 13:12-16
The grace we received in Christ, as Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, is the same grace we are to go and give to our brethren. Other forms of community congregate around causes, purposes, and common interests that are mutually beneficial for participants. But what differentiates gospel-centered community is the reality that we form one body, in one Spirit, and that Spirit calls us to come and serve. Because Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom, so now we give our lives to serve one another (Matthew 20:28).
Scripture does not prescribe how gospel-centered community should be structured. It doesn’t state, “Meet twice a week, once on Sundays and once on Wednesdays.” It doesn’t state, “Thou shalt have a Men’s breakfast group”, or “The Women shalt meet monthly at Panera.” Scripture is silent on how gospel-centered community is introduced into our daily lives.
Throughout the history of the church, the format or structure of community within the church has changed and evolved, as the cultural context within which the church is located has also changed and evolved. However, scripture does communicate truths about gospel-centered community. This morning we’ll look at some of those truths, using the passage from Acts as the basis.
Truths of Gospel-Centered Community
1. Diversity in Community
The community of the church is made up of different people who have been called together as one – One body, made up of different parts, yet One body. Gospel-centered community should celebrate and engage the diversity found within it.
As we read in Acts 2, the early church was diverse. At Pentecost, when God poured out his Holy Spirit upon His church, and Peter was empowered to preach the gospel and 3,000 came to faith, Jerusalem was full of Jews who had traveled from many distant places to celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. Based on verses 9-11, some scholars believe up to 15 different countries were represented in Jerusalem that day, coming from as far as Rome, Lybia, and Asia.
The sense you get from this passage in Acts is that there was a growing intimacy amongst this young church, which was full of diverse people groups and languages. It is significant that their diversity, or their differences, did not impede their growing together. In fact, when diversity is welcomed and embraced within community, I believe it spurs on growth and flushes out objective truth.
When Becky and I first moved to San Diego and found a church we were interested in, we started to attend a mid-week community group. It was hosted and lead by a middle-aged empty nester couple, and each week they prepared a meal for us. There was about 8-10 of us each week, and we would sit around the table and share thoughts from the weekly teaching and what God was doing in our lives.
This community was perhaps the most diverse group that I had ever engaged in a church. The hosting middle-aged couple were Caucasian middle class; there was a couple that were first generation immigrants from Korea and were practicing and successful medical doctors; there were two gentlemen who were recovering drug addicts, both of them struggling to stay clean and were currently living at the local rescue mission. There was a young biracial couple, a single elderly man who had spent his career as a Navy Seal for the US Navy, and there was Becky and myself.
And as I sat in this group, week after week, God showed me that each of these individuals loved Jesus, from the successful medical doctors to the struggling drug addicts, and each of them brought to the table an understanding and perspective on the gospel that I couldn’t ever have – there were applicable truths of the gospel that God wanted to teach me by way of their stories.
Diversity is often thought of in the context of racial or cultural differences, which is true, and we should desire that. But diversity is more than just racial differences. Diversity is also socioeconomic status, education, world views, political alignment, giftings and abilities, personalities, and more, and I believe that within community, God wants us to embraces these differences and to learn and grow from one another.
In order for this to occur, we must guard ourselves against thinking of ourselves as being greater, or more lofty, than our brothers and sisters. Remember, we were all dead in our trespasses, but for the grace of God, that is where we would still be. So we must allow God’s grace to make us learners, and not always be teachers.
2. Stirring in Community
We gather in community for the stirring and the building of each other’s faith:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25
The early church in Jerusalem was committed to gathering together, both in being together, and worshiping together. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and prayer, and daily they attended the temple together.
There is a right and proper place in a Christian’s life for isolation with God. However, in the gathering of the saints for worship and prayer our hearts are stirred and made more fervent, whether that gathering is on Sunday morning with several brothers and sisters, or in a time of sharing with two or three over a cup of coffee.
Dallas Willard, a modern-day theologian, writes:
In fellowship we engage in common activities of worship, study, prayer, celebration, and service with other disciples. This may involve assembling ourselves together in a large group or meeting with only a few. Personalities united can contain more of God and sustain the force of his greater presence much better than scattered individuals. The fire of God kindles higher as the brands are heaped together and each is warmed by the other’s flame. The members of the body must be in contact if they are to sustain and be sustained by each other. Christian redemption is not devised to be a solitary thing…But the life is one that requires regular and profound conjunction with others who share it. It is greatly diminished when that is lacking. -Dallas Willard
When you barbecue with charcoal, you pile the charcoal up and use a starter like lighter fluid to light the charcoal on fire. The key to success with this is not the lighter fluid but the tight close contact of the charcoal. If you spread the charcoal out and douse it with lighter fluid, it won’t get hot, no matter how much lighter fluid you use. When you’re ready to cook, you spread out the charcoal, but if you spread it out too much, the heat will dissipate quickly.
That is what Dallas Willard is saying here: the heat of our spiritual lives is dependant on that tight proximity. We keep each other warm and fervent for the gospel, and all saints play a role in this.
Now, picture that grill with the charcoal spread out ready to cook the meat. The charcoal is white-hot, glowing red, edges overlapping to form a nice tight circle. But then begin to remove at random charcoal from the middle: 2-3 here, 2-3 there. Not only do the charcoal briquettes that were removed from the circle quickly cool off, but those that were in contact also begin to cool, even though they are still part of the bigger circle.
The easy tendency when we view community is to think about how it affects us: How are our needs being met? How are we being built up and encouraged? There is a role to this and it is important, but the danger is if our perspective of community ends here, this mindset allows us to disengage from community when all is well, and seek out community only when we need it – it can become a self-focused perspective.
Gospel-centered community is a perspective that God sovereignly calls each of us to a community to serve and give ultimately for God’s glory. God has equipped each of us uniquely to help meet the needs of the body He has called us to.
3. Bearing in Community
In gospel-centered community, we walk with each other through the good and the difficult of life:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
In Acts, we see the early church sold their possessions and belongings and distributed the proceeds to those who had needs. This is not referring to the general poor in society, but specifically about helping to care for our brothers and sisters. This can be a physical sharing of our resources, but can also be giving of time, being available to a brother or sister, being present during a difficult time.
When I think about the word bearing, a building structure comes to mind. A truss is a single structure made up of small interconnected pieces, designed to bear weight. Each piece plays a different role to bear the weight, just as we play a role in one another’s burdens. The church should be reflective of the truss and not the beam. Often we struggle to bear one another’s burdens because we feel that if we don’t have an answer, we aren’t helpful. But bearing someone’s burdens doesn’t mean solving someone’s burden.
Bearing one another’s burdens most often requires sacrifice of yourself. The more who are willing to bear, the less sacrifice it requires. But nonetheless, any bearing still requires sacrifice. In bearing one another’s burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ. Jesus calls us to serve, but the divine reality that occurs in bearing one another’s burdens is deeper than that. By coming alongside a brother or sister and lightening their burden, we are rehearsing the gospel and giving that brother or sister a tangible physical experience of the greater burden that was alleviated on the cross. That is what Jesus did for His disciples by serving them and washing their feet, and what we can do for one another.
4. Enjoyment in Community
In Acts, it specifically mentions that the church was devoted to gathering together for meals. I picture this as a time of gathering to enjoy good food and drink, as they laughed together and told good stories…churches have been doing potlucks for 2,000 years. There is much space within gospel-centered community to enjoy life together. God has given and blessed us with five senses to engage our world with, and a large part of community is being human together as we engage the created world together.
Gospel-centered community goes hand-in-hand with the missional call of the church. What we see in Acts is that as they lived in gospel-centered community, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Does that mean that they didn’t do anything to reach those outside the church? No – the same four truths we just discussed for gospel-centered community also fuel missional community.
Diversity – Through celebrating and embracing diversity, not only does God equip the church to reach the different facets of our society, but it also equips the body to be comfortable at engaging those who are different from us.
Stirring – When we gather together for prayer or worship, we are putting on display a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. And for those outside the faith who are willing to come and participate, even without Jesus yet, this is a profound moment in the discipleship of that individual.
Bearing – Yes, the call to bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters is significant, but when we love our neighbors by bearing the burdens of our neighbors, we give them a glimpse of the kingdom of Heaven.
Enjoyment – And as we enjoy life with our brothers and sister in gospel-centered community, let’s invite our neighbors, co-workers, and others to come and enjoy as well.
Gospel-centered community is a big call. The reality is that I am broken. We are broken, and so our community is going to be broken. Our call to community is not an ideal utopia way of living, but rather a divine reality. And although in Christ we are sanctified fully, we are also in the process of being sanctified. We are being restored, but God’s grace is greater than our brokenness. We desire and pursue genuine gospel-centered community…but we find that we fail. We fall short. Our encouragement this morning is that Jesus is the redeemer of all things. In our failure, His grace intervenes.
In closing, let’s return to that Upper Room where Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion. Let’s partake in communion together in remembrance of His sacrifice, as we remember that Jesus and His work on the cross ground us in gospel-centered community.