Romans 12:1-8 – Healthy Group Dynamics

Transformed

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will. 

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV) 

Every person is important. Everyone is needed. Each one, according to this New Testament lesson, is to offer their entire lives to God through worship and the exercise of their spiritual giftsPeople are designed to be active in building up one another. 

When I was growing up, we had a fine china set that my parents kept in a beautiful china cabinet.  The set and the cabinet are old and were a prominent part of our living room. However, we almost never used it. I can only remember once or twice that my Mom got the china out to use. God is not looking for fine china that sits unused. He is looking for rough-and-tumble clay pots—the kind that can be used every day. God wants ordinary table-wear that can be handled in a crash-and-bang world.  

Followers of Jesus Christ were never meant to be a china cabinet, where precious pieces are safely stowed out of harm’s way. Instead, humanity is to be like a working kitchen, where well-worn pots are filled again and again to dispense their life-giving contents to a thirsty world; and, where common plates and cups are used again and again to provide a hungry population with the Bread of Life. 

Cup and Plate

Within the ancient Roman Church were both Jews and Gentiles – two groups vastly different from each other.  They tended to keep to themselves and only operate within their familiar and comfortable circles of friends and relatives.  But the Apostle Paul wanted them to be united by exercising their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the entire congregation, and not just certain persons. 

We are strongly encouraged to give ourselves in service to one another because of God’s mercy in Christ.  Since God has saved us from sin, we are to gratefully respond to him in worship that is dedicated to serving everyone.  The word “worship” in today’s text is where we get the word “liturgy.”  That is, Paul’s vision for the church was to have a daily liturgical rhythm of spiritual worship, not just on Sunday when we might pull out the fine china and impress people. 

Paul’s appeal was not to guilt people into serving but is an exhortation for all Christians to appropriately respond to God’s grace by offering their lives in sacrificial service. This is a form of saying “thanks” to God. To be oriented in a sacred liturgy that is fit for the daily will of God, our minds must be renewed. Through saturation in Scripture we discern our spiritual gifts, know what God wants us to do with those gifts, and use them effectively in the church and the world.   

Grace has been given to every believer in Jesus, not just a select few. We all have different gifts and have been graced with abilities for the benefit of others. When everyone collectively uses these spiritual gifts, there is the ability to know the will of God in any situation for any group of people. All the pronouns used in today’s verses are plural. There is to be a group dynamic which seeks to give minds and bodies completely to God in worship, using our spiritual gifts for building up one another, and discovering the will of God together. 

All believers in Jesus must share and work together by utilizing God’s grace, instead of getting burned-out because others are not serving. Grumbling about what others are not doing begs the question of whether we are over-functioning, or not. It could be that we have succumbed to the danger the Apostle Paul warned us about: thinking so highly of ourselves that we believe our gifts are superior to others, so we need to maintain our control and hegemony in the group. This is a terribly misguided notion.   

Body of Christ

We belong to one another.  Therefore, one major way of giving to God is through offering ourselves to each other with equity and without favoritism.  We must not separate Christ from his church.  To say that we need God, but do not need the church is to really say that we do not need God because the two are inseparable. Nowhere in Holy Scripture do we find individual Christians doing their own thing, isolated from a committed group of people, the church.  

When Jesus called people to follow him in service to God and a world in need, some gave him excuses that they were busy and had other pressing matters to attend to before they could follow him. Jesus simply left them and told them they were not fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:57-62) 

When people were preoccupied with building wealth, or gaining power, or jockeying for influence, Jesus told them to stop it, exercise some faith, and seek first the kingdom of God.  Build your treasure in heaven, Jesus said, because it will be permanent; and, not on earth where it is temporary. (Matthew 6:19-34)  

We are graced by God with abilities which God fully expects us to use. “Cheap grace” is merely embracing Christ as a personal Savior but not welcoming him as the Lord in whom we must sacrificially give our lives to service in the church and the world. Spiritual health and vitality cannot exist apart from every person using God’s given grace to contribute to the functioning of the Body of Christ.   

spiritual gifts

The list of spiritual gifts Paul provided is not exhaustive but represents a combination of speaking and serving gifts necessary to bless humanity. Paul exhorted the church to not restrain people’s exercise of gifts but let them go at it, full bore:  

  • “Prophesying” is not foretelling the future but a word meaning “inspired speech” from God that addresses what God’s people are to do considering his Word.   
  • “Serving” is a generic word referring to all types of hands-on service.   
  • “Teaching” is needed to instruct the faithful in all the revealed will of God.   
  • “Encouraging” involves both speaking and serving, as the one gifted in encouragement comes alongside others and helps them to do something with both verbal coaching and tangible help.   
  • Giving” specifically refers to the person who lives a simple life to be able to give generously and contribute to the needs of others.   
  • “Leading” is the ability to get out in front and show the way in obtaining the will of God.   
  • “Mercy” is the much-needed ability to see down-and-out hurting people and be a conduit of God’s grace to them. 

Here is a simple observation: There is no one person who possesses all these gifts. That is why everyone must work together to have a spiritually healthy community.  A spiritually toxic community is the inevitable result of only a few people using their gifts. 

The Apostle Paul communicated some important truth about what faithful Christians must do to be transformed by a renewal of the mind: exercise godly sacrifice; commitment to worship; intentional unity; and, an awareness of our spiritual gifts. The following are some thoughts on becoming aware of our spiritual gifts:   

  1. Pay attention.  Every spiritual gift reflects God’s grace and character, and so, you will find joy and satisfaction in expressing it. Your spiritual gift will be a place of deep spiritual formation and growth in your life, as God uses it both to powerfully connect you to him and to expose areas of your soul that need his forgiveness and redemption.   
  2. Try.  Give it a whirl.  Take the step to connect with a service or ministry, or just try doing what you feel might be something God wants you to do.  Gifts are discovered more from others observing and affirming your gift and less than going through a research process.  The encouragers among us will be happy to affirm the gifts of others. 
  3. Develop.  All spiritual gifts must be cultivated and developed.  Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, to fan into flame the gift of God.  Put yourself in a position to be taught and mentored. 

We were designed by God for worship and service. We will find our greatest delight in life through engaging those two activities. The result is a spiritually healthy and thriving Christian community that loves God, loves one another, and loves the world. 

God of grace, I come before you today praying for your Holy Spirit to stir up the gifts already placed inside your people. God Almighty, I pray that whatever gifts your Holy Spirit has decided to give and put within me and those around me that those gifts be activated and used for your glory and the edification of others.  I pray for peace and joy in the community, that no one will be jealous or covetous about anyone else’s gifts. Lord God, I pray also as these gifts grow and develop that the fruit of the Spirit will be manifested, to ensure the gifts are ministered in love. May you receive all praise honor and glory from the gifts you give, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen. 

Ephesians 1:3-6 – Blessed to Belong

blessed to belong

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (NIV)

We tend to live up to how we view ourselves.  If we see ourselves as never getting ahead and needing to lie, cheat, and steal to obtain anything in this life, then we will view ourselves as common thieves.  If we think that the only way to have love and security in this life is to make ourselves as presentable as we possible can, then we will view ourselves as basically unlovely and search for love in all the wrong places by always trying to keep up appearances.  If we look at ourselves as stupid, then we will tend to make poor decisions even when it’s in our ability to make good choices because we see ourselves as unable to compete with those smarter than us.

The common theme in all these scenarios is that it is life lived apart from God.  Without him, we are like lost street children trying to just survive from day to day.  What we need, what we search for is to have a good blessed life in a loving home, a place to belong in a world of disconnection.

To be “blessed,” to have “blessing” in the Holy Scriptures is to have God’s stamp of approval on your life.  Let that reality sink-in for a moment….

The picture being painted at the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus was that they were like wayward children roaming the streets as orphans.  The Ephesians were ensconced in their idol worship of Artemis, the fertility cult goddess.  They were going about life without a whim about the true and living God of all.  In sheer grace God plucked them from their worthless condition and adopted them.  He placed his blessing upon them because of his love.

What’s more, the Ephesians were chosen and predestined for holiness and purity.  God set them apart for his blessing.  It’s as if he brought them into his kingly palace, provided lavishly for them, and let them have the run of the place.  They got to enjoy every blessing that came with being children of the king.

The focus and orientation of these verses is about how tremendously special the believer in Jesus really is.  And it has nothing to do with how presentable we are to a holy God.  Instead, out of the storehouse of his blessed grace, God chose and adopted.

On top of all that, God did it simply because he was pleased to do it.  God does not choose, predestine, and adopt with a begrudging attitude, but because it brings him great pleasure to do so.  My friend, do you see how God views you?  Do you know how special you really are?  Have you an understanding of the incredible position you have in Jesus Christ, as his follower?

As a child of the king, you live up to the position you know you possess.  Freedom from worry and anxiety don’t come from willpower, but from the understanding that our Father owns all things and we will never be in need.  Deliverance from the power of darkness doesn’t come by trying to do better, but through the knowledge that God has redeemed us and chosen us to live in his gracious realm forever.

The believer has every spiritual blessing in Christ.  God has your back.  You belong to him.  And to belong to Jesus Christ is to be blessed.  It makes all the difference in the world.

Gracious God, your loving activity has snatched me from the barren streets of sin and brought me into a realm of incredible blessing.  Thank you for blessing me and giving me a place to belong forever; through Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign forever and ever in a celebration of redeeming love.  Amen.

Fitting In vs. Belonging

 
 
            My family and I lived in an urban area of Michigan for fifteen years.  Then, we moved back to our roots in Iowa, cornfields and, well, more cornfields.  One of the first things my girls asked me after living in Iowa for a few days was, “Dad, where are all the Black people?”  They were simply struck with all the homogeneity – lots of white people… and corn.  Maybe you, like me, have strolled into a church on a Sunday morning and are immediately aware of how much the people are all alike, whether it is race or something else.  Typically, in any given church on any given occasion, the people talk pretty much the same; wear pretty much the same clothes; and, act pretty much the same.
 
            Too often we focus on fitting in rather than belonging.  We know how to talk, what to wear, and how to make the people around us happy.  We know what not to mention, what subjects to avoid, and how to be nice even though we fought like cats and dogs on the way to church.  After all, we want to fit in by appearing to have it all together, right?  Researcher and author Brene Brown does as good as job as anyone in making the critical distinction between fitting in versus belonging.  She says, “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted.  Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
 
            We all need a secure sense of belonging.  We do not all need to fit in.  Likely the reason for the presence of a Christian and/or Evangelical subculture lies in this tendency to want to fit in.  So, we learn how to wear gaudy t-shirts, place provocative bumper stickers on our cars, and be generally obnoxious to those who disagree with us because we want to fit in with our group of whatever-we-call-ourselves.  It is important to note, however, that we are not hardwired by God to fit in, but we are specially wired by him to be loved and to belong.
 
            Even within local churches, there can be cliques which focus more on a special issue or interest rather than Christ.  It was into such a situation that Paul said to the Roman church, “For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone.  If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”  He went on to make this conclusion: “You, then, why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you look down on your brother?  For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:8-12).
 
            It is not our job as Christians or church leaders to force people into fitting in.  Rather, it is our responsibility before God to give people a proper sense of belonging in Christ.  We all have a desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  As Christians, we long to see God’s kingdom come on earth and to see his will done here as it is in heaven.  We want to be a part of God’s grand work of spreading the good news of Jesus.  Fitting in to whatever is chic and seeking cheap approval are hollow imitations of the real deal.  True authentic belonging will only happen when we are real and open about ourselves to the people and the church to which we are committed.
 
            If we constantly fear what others think of us; measure our words in order to be accepted; or, swear at ourselves under our breath when we screw up; then, we have a problem with trying to fit in.  It is much better to be who we are and simply invite the Holy Spirit of God to do any kind of work in us that needs to be done, rather than being someone we are not in the false notion that people will reject us if they knew who we really are.  What is more, when others let us in and open ever so slightly their real selves, there needs to be unconditional love and empathy.  To sit and stare at another person like they are from Mars will not only shut down authenticity, it will push truth to the margins of the church.  If the truth will set us free, then we can only expect bondage when genuine sharing is not met with love.
 

 

            Practicing belonging instead of fitting in can be looked at as a spiritual discipline.  That is, honing-in on belonging to Christ and to one another are to be daily decisions of faith and commitment.  The church needs more Christians who belong, and less mindless conformity to cultural standards of fitting in.  We all need to give and receive love each and every day – the kind of love that Jesus displayed and practiced.  We do not need the second hand smoke of ornery believers who press others to be like them.  This is a conversation worth having with any small group or leadership team so that we foster a solid sense of godly belonging.  So, go for it and resist the temptation to be quiet and fit in.