I came across this photo recently and it struck me; we often undermine the power of close fellowship. Serving in Iraq these soldiers join together to pray to Jesus. It brought a tear to my eye as I pondered the contrast between the chaos of war and the peace that comes with knowing the Lord Jesus Christ-irregardless of our situation. Even in the midst of death, murder, bullets and bombs these soldiers know that the Lord Jesus Christ says “Come unto me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest”. This picture captures a moment of that precious rest given us by His grace. We come to Christ to receive grace, for it is God’s grace alone that gives us the strength to endure, to go on, to not lose hope. These guys are walking in Psalm 23, in the valley of the shadow of death, they know that each day might be their last, they realise the futility of making plans because they just want to survive today. There exists a camaraderie, a oneness between them; they are one in survival, one in battle, one in Christ. Each of them no doubt has different sorrows, different pains, different fears and different doubts. Look at the guy with his back to us beside the guy with the Bible. He’s wearing a wedding ring. No doubt he has a wife and a kid or two back home. He misses them. He just wants to go home and be with them. But his comrades are there to throw their arms around him and lift him up to the Lord in prayer. Grace and love is central in this community of soldiers.
Likewise we are to build communities of love and grace in the name of Jesus. Our churches should be places of fellowship, of genuine love and support for one another. Do we forget that we are in a daily spiritual battle-zone of temptation, doubts and sins? We need grace. We need it first and foremost from God himself. If we do not first go to Jesus then we have no hope. Today so many people turn to material items, self-help psychology manuals that claim we can change ourselves or overcome our problems, drink, promiscuity and even drugs. I see so many lostand wearied souls searching for something that they will never find.
With this being said it’s also important that we receive and give grace from and to one another. I think of the apostle Paul who opens his epistle’s repeatedly with “Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This warm affecionate opening to his letters showed the recipients that Paul cared for them and loved them. Likewise, we should learn from Paul’s example by loving one another and bestowing grace upon one another through prayer, encouragement, support, deeds and so on. I often question if we have lost sight of this in today’s church. Do we truly model New Testament churches like those we read of in Acts or are we more like the Corinthians who of course were in a state of disarray. Today we get so caught up in the things of the world, in our careers and our selfish desires that we often fail to take the time to just stop; to just stop and realise that we have been called into God’s family. We are a community of believers who are part of one body……not multiple individual bodies or cliques. Not the rich and the poor, not the beautiful and the ugly, not the cool and the uncool, not the intelligent and the unintellingent, but one.
Tim Chester, author of Total Church (amongst several other books), and founder of an organisation called Crowded House, wrote an article recently on how we can create such communities of grace. He suggest seven ideas and I think we would do well to listen to what he has to say. How can we be so ungracious at times to one another when our God has been so gracious to us in forgiving us our sins, through the death and resurrection of His one and only Son?
How can we create communities of grace? Let me suggest seven ideas:
(1) Make the connections
We need to teach grace. We need to often speak, pray and sing of the cross. But we also need to make connections with people. Plenty of people believe in justification by faith for the final day, but doubt justification by faith for the next. On a Monday morning in the workplace they are still trying to prove themselves, to find identity in their achievements. We need to paint a picture for people; to show them what grace in action looks like; to fuel their imaginations, tell stories.
(2) Welcome the mess
Welcome messy communities. Welcome messy people. Obviously you’ll want them to change, to become more like Jesus, to be set free from their slaveries. But don’t make your welcome dependent on change. Don’t suppress conflict. Don’t hide problems.
(3) Stop pretending
Don’t hide your own problems. You’ll need to exercise some discretion. Let everyone know you struggle. Let some people know what you struggle with. A break through moment in our context was when I confessed long-standing sin to a small prayer meeting. I didn’t do it to create a break-through moment, but that was the outcome. Other people suddenly felt able to confess their sin and it has led to a time of change and accountability throughout the community.
(4) Stop performing
Don’t put on a show. Don’t push people to perform, to produce results, to get it right all the time. Give people permission to fail. We’ve realised that polished Bible studies and articulate prayers disenfranchise semi-literate people.
(5) Eat and drink with broken people
The Son of Man who receives all authority in Daniel 7 comes eating and drinking (Luke 7:34). Jesus eats and drinks with sinners. It’s a powerful expression of community. We think we are enacting grace if we work among the poor, if we serve them. But we are only half way there. It is not really grace because we still act from a position of superiority. We think we are humble when we serve. But we have missed the dynamic that is going on. What we really proclaim is that we are able and you are unable. I can do something for you, but you can do nothing for me. Think how different the dynamic is when we sit and eat with someone. We meet as equals. We share together. We behave as friends. We affirm one another and enjoy one another.
(6) Give people time to change
I think there are some tensions and questions here, but we need to give people time to change. How long did it take for you to become perfectly like Jesus? Of course, you’re still changing. There are some sins we’re prepared to work on over a lifetime, but there are others where we demand instant change. Why is this? The answer, of course, is that we want them to become respectable. We don’t want a messy community. So we say, ‘You’re saved by faith, but to become part of the church (e.g. to be baptised) you need to change your life.’ So which is it? Are we saved by works or are we saved by works?
(7) Focus on the heart
What’s your agenda for change? All too often we focus on behaviour. We can list the behaviours we would like someone to stop or start. But Jesus says our behaviour comes from the heart (Mark 7:20-23). Our focus needs to be on the heart. Our job is to help people love God and treasure Christ. In Philippians 1 Paul says the aim of his ministry among them is their joy (1:25-26). He wants them to find joy in Christ – only then will people turn from the pleasures of sin. I do need to describe a life that pleases God. But my job is not to go round telling people to reform their lives or change their behaviour. My job is help people find joy in Christ.