The death of community
We live in a day and age that has lost sight of what true community is. We live in a world today that has the "United Nations" and the United States of America and yet is more focused on selfish ambitions and selfish desires than ever before. I can't help but feel troubled with the ideals and mentalities of a world who hasn't figured out that God didn't create enough for everyone's greed. He only created enough for everyone's need. I can picture God creating the universe and knowing something about the humans that he had created. He knew that when he created eve by Adam giving up part of himself, the world would be seeking to take back what had been "taken." I can picture him sending his only son Jesus Christ to show us, once again, that life has nothing to do with ourselves, but it has everything to do with dying to ourselves. I can picture Jesus setting up the first church community as he left his Holy Spirit to guide us, convict us of our selfishness, and show us just how far we have fallen from true community. But what troubles me most, what makes me sick to my stomach to think about, is the lack and absence of true biblical community where it was first started; the church.
I've grown up in and around church my whole life. I've seen and experienced disunity, or "discommunity", in a church that is so wrapped up in self righteousness, and has such a smeared and crippled idea of what true community is, that it gets in its own way of pushing each other toward God and sharing the gospels to a lost world. Brennan Manning once said, "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." So many churches that I've seen in my short time on earth, and so many that I know of, are frozen and lifeless. My troubles don't come from bad theology or from a lack of service to groups of people in need, but what makes me sick is the lack of openness, the with held pain and struggles, the idea that community means everyone has to put on their church clothes, sing the songs, raise their hands, and be "good Christians". Yet we believe, and even teach, forgiveness, love, and being nonjudgemental. Are our churches today so afraid God isn't big enough to handle all our crap that we shy away from true community?
The church in Ephesus was one of the first, and one of the main, churches mentioned in the Bible. It exploded, grew, and changed countless lives as the gospel spread to the city of Ephesus. It was a true church community that was on fire for God and alive breathing life and wellness onto all around them. It was the picture perfect view of what true community was meant to be. Yet less than 50 years after it started so strongly and shook a region it disappeared. What happened?
Revelation 2:1-5 is the last time the church of Ephesus is mentioned. It reads, "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your had work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary." Stopping at verse three we come to think the church of Ephesus has stayed strong and is a community that is just as much alive as it started out to be. They are doing great things; serving others. They are working hard and they're persevering through hardships. They even have the discernment to be able to realize false teachers and false doctrine; they're theology is good. If I saw a church who had great theology, was persevering and working hard, and was serving everyone around them, I feel it would be a church that was alive and moving in powerful ways. Just having those things is more than most churches I've experienced or know about, but even those things left this once "picture perfect" church lifeless. What happened?
Lets read on and pick back up in verse four. It says, you have all this amazing stuff going for you that makes you look like a perfect church on the outside, "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place." Just like so many church "communities" today, this is saying, "You look beautiful on the outside and make yourselves appear all together, but there is so much more than that."
First, "you have forsaken the love you had at first."
The church of Ephesus had lost sight of, or turned away from, their first love. This new passion and fire that they had experienced when they first began. The passion that over took them when the Holy Spirit came upon them. It was such an overpowering overflowing of passion that Peter had to explain to those who witnessed it. He says in Acts 2:15, "These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning!" He goes on to explain in verse 17, "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people... And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." What is he saying?
Sometimes crazy offerings of praise and worship are the best. It's important to be so completely all out for God that everyone around can't help but be swept away with the over pouring of the Holy Spirit. The first thing a true biblical community needs is to have a unified passionate love for God as if every day is the first day we experienced Him. A true community falls in love with God over and over each day together and is constantly pushing each other closer to His infinite majesty and wonder.
Acts 4:32-34 says, "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them." First thing true community has is a continued and constant rememberance of Jesus Christ who was and is our first love as one heart and mind. Each member of the community headed in the same direction; toward Christ.
Second, "Consider how far you have fallen! Repent..."
I think this is where I feel that the church of Ephesus relates to our modern day church filled with "shiny plastic people." Don't forget how imperfect you are, but also don't with hold or hide your imperfections. The second thing a true biblical community needs is openness and acknowledgement that everyone's messed up. With holding parts of yourself that you feel isn't very pretty or that you aren't proud of will kill any community. By with holding parts of yourself, you set up walls not only in between you and the community of people around you, but will set walls up in between you and God as well.
In Acts 5 people have been selling their houses so that other members of their community could survive. A couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold their house along with everyone else. They served those around them. They gave money to provide for this new community of believers. They didn't lay it all down, but they with held some of what was theirs. In Acts 5:3 Peter has this to say about Ananias, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?... You have not lied just to human beings but to God."
You see, Satan knows how to bring death into a community. He feeds us lies that, in order to be a "true Christian," we have to have no problems. He feeds us lies that no one else is going through or struggling with what we are. He feeds us the lies that if we don't with hold any part of our lives from our church communities that they will reject us. He feeds us lies that if we don't reject people who are honest with their struggles, that people will reject us. So we bury our struggles, temptations, and hard times deep within us and hide them so no one in our communities can see them. Then we let all the "perfect" people around us condemn us and pull us farther from God. All of a sudden... Our community is filled with fear, our community loses all fire and passion for a God who longs for us to give him our all, and we end up being disconnected from not only human beings, but from God as well.
So, before you turn to put a brother or sister in Christ down, before you with hold what is weighing your heart down, before you decide you "have to be perfect" to be at church, consider how far we have all fallen and know you are not alone. Paul writes to Timothy in his final letter and tells timothy, "Fight the Good fight of faith." This life is a constant fight where some battle are won, some are lost, but if you repent and don't hide your hard times and struggles, Satan can't win the war.
My challenge to you today is to not be fooled by the world's idea of community, but seek unity; unity in heart and mind. My challenge to you is to never lose sight of your first love, but pursue love's face in all that you do. I challenge you to change your mindset from, "what can I get from others," to, "What can I do for others." Whatever you do, I pray you always consider how far you have fallen. Know that you don't have to be perfect. Know that God may hate acoholism. God may hate Drug addiction. God may hate every sin, but God still loves the acoholic, God still loves the drug addict, God still loves the sinner, and His heart breaks to see the sinner He sent His only son to die for in a community where they feel condemned and feel they have to with hold parts of their lives from.
Finally, I challenge you today to encounter a God who longs to have a personal all out relationship with you. I pray that if you have not already asked to receive the free gift of eternal life that He offers, that you would do so right now. Open your heart to let him change you. Open your heart in such a way that people around you can't help but notice that there is something different about you. That they can't help but be moved by the overflowing of the Holy Spirit working in a way that has them thinking, "Wow! It's only nine in the morning!" I pray you can live your life in all out devotion, reencountering God's love for you and your love for God each day, and that you see the true biblical community that sprouts forth from being forthcoming.