September 12, 1999 / Ephesians 2:19-22
Salvation is a very personal matter between an individual and the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is not private. Anyone who is born anew unto salvation is simultaneously born into the family of God. And that means she is a sister to every other person who has been spiritually renewed in Christ.
To say it another way, every saved individual is also part of an alternative community to the world that is called "the church." The church is made up of everyone who is a child of God by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, not just the people within your denomination or the ones most like yourself in your own group. And one of the things that makes Christians strong is our participation in the fellowship of the body of Christ.
If I may, I want to begin our study not with a biblical text but with a quotation from Aristotle: "No one would want to live without friends, even if he possessed every other endowment."1 Most of us would likely agree with that statement. For myself, I could tell you about some important friendships in my life with people such as Batsell Barrett Baxter, L.H. Hardwick Jr., David Jones, or Terry Smith. But the surprising thing about this quote from Aristotle is its source and meaning in context.
In his Nichomachean Ethics, written in the fourth century before the birth of Jesus, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) produced what many philosophers still regard as the most complete book ever written on the subject of ethics and character. As Dr. Russell Gough points out, he devoted the single greatest portion of that work ó nearly twenty-five percent ó to a discussion of friendship. Why would he devote so much of his treatise on human moral behavior to friendship?
Aristotleís answer to this question is anything but obsolete or archaic, and it in fact offers those of us at the dawning of the twenty-first century a refreshing and much-needed perspective on the profound ethical dimensions of true friendship. For Aristotle, the truest friendship is far more than mere companionship, mutual hobbies, and a common network of acquaintances. Friends in the highest sense of the term are those who make a conscientious effort to take ethics and personal character seriously and inspire each other to be better ó in thought, in action, in life.2
Let me tell you what I understand Aristotle to be saying about the importance of friendship3 to good character with a series of questions. If you wanted to become an artist, what would you do? If you wanted to become a football player, what would you do? If you wanted to become a surgeon, what would you do? All these questions have essentially the same answer: You would go to a community of people already about that task and join yourself to it.
Reading manuals and learning the rules of football, basketball, or baseball isnít enough. You must eventually join a team, if you want to play the game. Buying an anatomy chart and some sharp knives wonít qualify you to be a surgeon. You get basic training in medicine, apply to a community of licensed and practicing surgeons at a medical school, and study under experienced experts ó first seeing them perform appendectomies, then doing several of the same surgeries under their supervision, and eventually passing along the skills you learn to a new generation of students.
There is a discipline to music, surgery, or baseball. One doesnít simply get a "gut feeling" one day that he would like to be a concert pianist, vascular surgeon, or pitcher and begin performing. There are specific virtues within a demanding profession or career that must be mastered over time. There is real craftsmanship to doing any of these things well.
You will be part of a larger team, college, or association devoted to learning that discipline. You will surely develop a relationship with a mentor somewhere along the way who will teach you some of its finer points in a one-on-one setting. But you will ultimately be alone with the task to succeed or fail at it ó at the keyboard on a stage in the concert hall, with scalpel in hand over a breathing human being, handed the ball by your manager with the game on the line.
Aristotle said that the formation of noble character is best achieved among persons modeling and pursuing that end for themselves. I believe he was ó and is ó right. And I also believe that what he taught about character formation is true of Christian spiritual development. The church is Godís society for modeling, transmitting, and refining the authentically spiritual life.
Jesus came among humankind not to teach ethics but to introduce the kingdom of heaven. The terms "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God" signify the sovereign rule of God. The fulness of that reign will be realized, of course, only when time gives way to eternity at the return of Christ and all things are delivered over to God. Sin will be vanquished, and everything that defiles Godís holy purposes will be destroyed. Truth and righteousness will finally prevail. In the meantime, we pray "Your kingdom come" and surrender our hearts and lives to him.
How can we learn a kingdom lifestyle ó a God-ruled and God-honoring lifestyle ó in an environment ruled by Satan as the "prince of this world"? (cf. John 12:31). Doesnít it make sense that the best way to learn a new way of living is to come alongside others already committed to that lifestyle? Many of whom are experienced and mature in it? Many of whom are known and respected precisely because of their demonstrated ability to honor the Lord in a hostile world filled with sin?
The church is not the kingdom of God but it is the community of people studying about and praying for it. The church is a fellowship of people pursuing the disciplines of kingdom living ó prayer, worship, holiness, ministry. It heralds the coming of the kingdom. It calls its own to submit to heavenly rule. And it is even willing to rebuke and correct its own who fall prey to the thinking and ways of this present world. You could learn a lot within the instruction and discipline of such a community.
Jesus was followed by huge crowds that frequently numbered into the thousands. But he hand-picked a dozen out of the larger group. He nurtured them as a small group ó and frequently one on one. He eventually sent them out by twos in his name to tell others about the kingdom of God. Is it any wonder that we have discovered that the same process still works today?
For the past three or four years, we have been encouraging members of the Woodmont Hills church family to be open to Godís leading you into small groups. Do you realize that we have something over 2,000 people here practically every Lordís Day? That means that we can have some wonderful times of worship, teaching, and celebration. We can pool the collective talents of all these men and women for inspirational times that must resemble some of the spiritual experiences Jesus shared with the large groups he drew to himself in the first century. But out of the larger group must come many small groups of people who will nurture one another in authentic spiritual fellowship.
In the Book of Acts, we start out with a church that has over 3,000 members from the first day. What electricity there must have been when those Christians filled the temple courts with joyous music and heard teaching from the apostles! But the life of that ever-growing church appears to have been sustained by house-to-house nurture among the believers (cf. Acts 2:42-47).
People today who say they prefer a small church over a large one probably mean one of two things: Either a small church is all theyíve ever seen and all they can imagine or else they think they can have the nurturing experiences they need better in a group of two or three hundred than in a group of a couple of thousand. The truth is that spiritual nurturing takes place in groups of eight or ten or a dozen. Within these small groups or house churches, burden bearing and one-on-one nurturing take place. Then, with the combined encouragement of their larger church family and personalized help of their small group, a Christian man or woman grows to the point that he or she responds to Christís call to meet with him alone. Out of this experience comes strength and security enough to stand against Satan in the ordeals of testing.
And there is Terry Smithís model that he has been teaching throughout this church during his tenure with us: Jesus meets with us in the many "groups of twelve" that exist, sends us out in twos and threes to serve him by ministering to others, and simultaneously allows us to hear his call to meet with him alone for strengthening and support.
God doesnít save groups. Nor does he save individuals by virtue of the group in which they hold membership. He saves individual men and women one at a time. Each one of us must respond to the gospel in personal repentance and faith. Each of us makes a personal decision about confession and baptism. Yet, Paul writes: "We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body ó whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free ó and we were all given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Cor. 12:13).
Our Christian fellowship is not an ideal to be realized through pot-lucks and projects. It is an objective reality because of Jesus Christ. Because we have been cleansed by his blood and filled with his Spirit, we all are members of the same body. "In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom. 12:5). Because we belong to one another, we must find practical ways to live out our faith in ways that are mutually beneficial. Against our American individualism and the spirit of competition it tends to foster, we must learn to honor one another, pray for one another, and encourage one another.
One of the most interesting books I have read lately is Tuesdays with Morrie. It is the touching story of a sports writer who gets back in touch with one of his college professors of nearly twenty years earlier. The young man had lost track of his mentor until the final few months of his life. Both knew the old man was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrigís disease. It describes something very similar to what Iíve seen happen in different relationships that have grown out of our spiritual formation classes called "small-group Bible studies."
The last class of my old professorís life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaved. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience.
No grades were given, but there were oral exams each week. You were expected to respond to questions, and you were expected to pose questions of your own. You were also required to perform physical tasks now and then, such as lifting the professorís head to a comfortable spot on the pillow or placing his glasses on the bridge of his nose. Kissing him good-bye earned you extra credit.
No books were required, yet many topics were covered, including love, work, community, family, aging, forgiveness, and, finally, death. The last lecture was brief, only a few words.
A funeral was held in lieu of graduation.
Although no final exam was given, you were expected to produce a long paper on what was learned. That paper is presented here.
The last class of my old professorís life had only one student.
I was the student.4
Aristotle was onto something with his idea about character formation among like-minded souls committed to the same goal. And Jesus brought the idea to its zenith in training his earliest disciples and creating his church. Letís be sure we follow through with its implementation in our time and place. It will make us stronger in the Lord.
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Two weeks from today, we begin a study of the discipleship theme in the Gospel of Mark ó "Take Up Your Cross!" Weekly study notes that will aid your personal study of the biblical text will be distributed throughout the series, and you can develop a rich resource for understanding the book. If you are not already in a small group, we encourage you to pray and seek Godís guidance either to join or form in your own home a group of perhaps a dozen people who will join with you through April 2000 for this important study from the Word of God.
1Nichomachean Ethics. 8. 1.
2Russell Gough, Character Is Destiny (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998), p. xviii.
3I am not sure "friendship" is the best English term for Aristotleís meaning. While our word points to a relationship of warmth and affection, the "friend" of Aristotleís treatise was more nearly a fellow-student or teacher, apprentice or mentor, perhaps even a tutor and guide. In what follows about Christian fellowship, our word "friend" certainly would not be the term of choice. Some of our Christian "brothers" and "family" who do not merit respect or trust are nevertheless part of the fellowship we share in Christ. Such unappealing persons with undesirable traits are still part of the family of God and deserve patience, rebuke, and the opportunity to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. While not liking them or their behavior, we are taught to love them and treat them with the consideration befitting the image of God in them. We learn authentic spirituality in the process.
4Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (New York: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 1-2.
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