I’ve been listening to a bunch of sermons on unity in the church and they have been reminding me of a topic that Ashlee and I discussed recently. We were talking about the need to be in community in order to experience grace. If you’re a Christian, you believe that you have received the grace of God. You believe that His grace has some power in your life, and maybe you even feel at peace in your soul. This is good, and I need to be careful not to diminish the true experience of the grace of God.
But I am not writing this blog post to just affirm our supernatural experience of grace. I am writing to call us to live courageously in community. It is in the community of the Church, among those who have received the eternal grace of Jesus Christ, that you can experience grace here on earth.
There is a movement of people my age that believe that they can be Christ followers on their own. While I will agree that it is possible, I also argue that it is not normative. It is not how God wants His people to live. He has called us into a very chaotic mess that we call the Church. I know, the Church is messy and more often than not, she’s just plain ugly. And yet somehow, we are supposed to live in this body of believers that God has constructed on the chief cornerstone of Jesus Christ (Eph 2:20-22).
Our natural tendency is self protection, self preservation. But if have been hidden in Christ, if we have been crucified and it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, we have freedom to love deeply and self sacrificially (Gal 2:20). We read in Ephesians 4 that we are supposed to grow up in Him, putting on our new selves, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. And this whole process of growing up isn’t just so we can benefit alone. The verses that immediately follow the command to grow up in Christ, tell us how to live in community. We are supposed to be little christs to each other. We are supposed to speak the truth in love. To forsake bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander (vs.31). In other words, to extend grace to each other. We have been forgiven much, so we can forgive. Remember the story of the servants who had been forgiven by the king? And one of them, who had been forgiven a huge debt, then went and demanded a small debt from his fellow servant. When the fellow servant couldn’t pay it, he was thrown into jail. When the king found out, he took the greedy servant and condemned him. We have received mercy for much, so we should extend mercy.
You might say, ok, sure, I can extend mercy. But what I have learned over the past year is that while we often think we are ready to extend mercy and grace to each other, we rarely put ourselves in situations that demand this of us. We might have one or two relationships that are close enough that demand grace on a regular basis. Family, spouses, maybe a best friend. But we keep this to a limited number so our need to exercise the spiritual disciple of grace extending is rare.
But back to the Church. Jesus calls us into community. A really messy community filled with sinners. Heck, I’m one of the worst. And you know what happens in a community of sinners? People sin against each other. A lot. When we think of sin, we usually think of “big” ones like murder and adultery. But the closer you get to someone, the more you realize that those “little” sins can really hurt too. When people cheat, lie, or steal. Sure, we know that kind of stuff can hurt. But I don’t do those really obvious sins too often (or do I?) What about selfishness and pride? Philippians 2:3-5 says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interest, but also for the interests of others. Have this same attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus”. We don’t realize how big these “little” sins are until they are being done against us.
Last year, at my church in Seoul, our community was really tight. We were a few dozen people, living life together. And we sinned against each other a lot. I can’t even tell you how many times I put myself before others, how many times I considered myself better than others. And they did it to me too. We put our own needs before the needs of others. We were unloving, unkind, and self centered. But one of the beautiful outcomes of this situation was that we were constantly needing to extend grace to each other. Sometimes it was easier than others. But extending grace to someone who has sinned against you is usually just hard. It forces you to look back at the gospel, to the cross, to see the display of God’s grace to you. It’s only then that you can truly and freely give grace to your brother.
And so there is deep blessing in community. It’s there, in a cross centered community, that you actually experience grace here on earth. Not some abstract grace that you know is there, but you can’t see. The grace that comes from living in community is a tangible and poignant grace. It hits you like a wave. It’s hard to give, and incredible to receive. But this is the Gospel. By the blood of Jesus on the cross, we get to taste the reality of heaven now. Things like forgiveness and restoration aren’t just for some distant future. They are part of our lives today. They aren’t easy to get, living in community is hard work. It can be frustrating and discouraging. But we live in the reality that we are hidden in Jesus and that in Him we have all things.