‘I want a place where I can go anytime, a place of retreat. But it mustn’t be an empty place, a lonely place … I want a place full of people, but full of friends not strangers—a place where people are pleased to see me.
I need people who understand me—who know what it’s like out there. Who know what it is like when people reject you, insult you, kick you when you are down. So, I need people who won’t do that. I need a place where I can just be me.
But I also need to be with people who want the best for me—which means those who will help me change, and develop and grow. In short, I want a community—a community to be part of, to be loved in, to belong to.
And you know what? I’ve found it. And it has changed my life. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me!’
So much of what this man is looking for is what the church seeks to offer. However, he wasn’t writing about a church, but about moving to San Francisco and becoming a part of that city’s large gay culture.
A grace-filled church delights to restore the fallen (1)
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them gently. He has just spoken of the fruit of the Spirit, which includes gentleness.
He is not talking about someone who claims to be a Christian, but ignores God’s call to holy living. He has already warned such people that they will not inherit the kingdom (Galatians 5:21). He will later write to the church in Corinth about their need to discipline someone who says they are a Christian but will not repent of their sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). He also teaches that when such a person does repent, ‘you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow … to reaffirm you love for him’ (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
But what Paul is envisaging here is a fellow-Christian who is caught in a sin that they cannot defend or want to defend.
Someone has borrowed your computer and seen you online history. You lost your temper, and said what you really think. Your boss has noticed deceit in your expenses claim. You were gossiping, and were overheard. A few embarrassing pictures turned up on Facebook. Your closest friend has noticed your critical spirit. You know you are in the wrong. You want to change. You need the help of a gentle Christian who understands grace!
Supposing you are to be that gentle restoring friend, what should you attitude look like?
Your heart will go out to this person you love. You wish you could turn back in time and save them the pain that they have brought upon themselves. You will not look down on them, because you count yourself as among the chief of sinners. You have the attitude that says ‘there for the grace of God go I.’ ‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12). You watch yourself that you are not tempted to fall into the same sin. You also watch yourself that you don’t end up with a harsh, judgemental and loving attitude towards the fallen.
Somewhere in Ireland, a pastor and his assistant went to visit the home of someone in the church who had got into a terrible mess. On their way the pastor asked the assistant if he thought that he could ever see himself getting into the same sort of trouble. The assistant declared, ‘no, I don’t think so. In fact I am sure that I never would.’ ‘In that case, you had better go home, and I’ll go alone,’ the pastor replied.
A grace-filled church bears one another’s burdens (2-5)
Restoring those caught in sin is one means of bearing one another’s burdens. Grace-filled churched bear each other’s burdens. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ (2).
Jesus is the supreme burden-bearer. He gave himself up for our sins (1:4). He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (3:13). He commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves (5:14).
Some people won’t let other people bear their burdens. Perhaps that is because you are too proud to admit your need. But we all have burdens, and Christ has given us one another.
In this fallen world there is a sense in which we all come from broken homes, have marriages that are less perfect than we want people to think, wrestle with temptation and sin in more ways than we wish. We should be looking out for the lonely, the sick and hurting. We should have ready ears and a kind word. We should be lifting each other up to God in prayer.
The letters of Paul are full of ‘one another’ commands because he knows that Christ wants us to live in gracious community. ‘Be devoted to one another. Honour one another above yourselves’ (Rom. 12:10). ‘Accept one another … just as Christ accepted you’ (Rom. 15:7). ‘Greet one another’ (Rom. 16:16). ‘Encourage one another’ (2 Cor. 13:12). ‘Serve one another humbly in love’ (Gal. 5:13). ‘Bear with one another in love’ (Eph. 4:2). ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another’ (Eph. 4:32).
While some are too proud to reveal their burdens, others are too proud, and unloving, to be a burden bearer. ‘If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.’ We are all delighted to be seen to help, but we might consider the person beneath us and not worthy of our time. We don’t really care about them, and will only do what is seen. ‘Pay careful attention to your own works, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct’ (3-5, NLT)
A grace-filled church values been fed (6)
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. My primary job is to feed you. You give me a generous stipend so that I don’t have to spend time at other employment and can have the time to study and prepare. Indeed, you also are great at encouraging me. Thank you!
Philip Yancey grew up in the strict fundamentalism found in the southern states of America in the 50s and 60s. Strict dress-codes were enforced. Silly laws were in place (such as not being allowed to roller-skate). Most troublingly the church was blatantly racist—only admitting whites. ‘They talked about Grace but lived by law; they spoke of love but showed signs of hate.’
But Yancey did not give up on church. Indeed, he became a part of a wonderful church community in Chicago. This church made racial reconciliation a primary goal. It was situated between one of the richest and one of the poorest suburbs in the city, and aimed to bring people from both together. It had its fair share of unusual people.
‘I have seen glimpses of what can happen when community forms around what we hold in common. A family of God emerges, one in which unity does not mean uniformity and diversity does not mean division … Now, when I look for a church, I look around me at the people sitting in the pews or chairs. I have much to learn from the uninhibited worship styles of African-Americans and Pentecostals, from the stalwart faith of senior citizens, from the daily struggles of moms with preschool children. I deliberately seek a congregation composed of people not like me.’
Maybe you have been the person caught in sin. Maybe you have failed to gentle with those who have fallen. Maybe you have gossiped about they did. Have you been too proud to admit you need for help or not willing to help another? None of us have loved perfectly. So, remember grace—God does not treat you as your sins deserve but according to his loving-kindness. Walk in step with the Holy Spirit, who produces gentleness in us. Don’t simply look for a church filled with your sort of people, but delight in this community of fellow-strugglers that he has given us.