We heard from Pastor Len last week about how God speaks through the Bible, and that’s our ultimate authority, the standard by which everything else must be measured. But humans are not isolated under that authority, we are united under it. Today we’re looking at how God speaks through the church. His church. That’s all of us, and the rest of God’s people, in relationship with each other, at home, here in this building in Carthage, and throughout the world.
But I’ll begin with a little caveat, and this reminds me of the commercials for sugary cereal I used to drool over as a kid. They might still say this, I don’t know, but I remember them always putting in this quick disclaimer at the end of every commercial for Reese’s Puffs or Cinnamon Toast Crunch: This cereal is a delicious part of a complete breakfast. It’s delicious, and it might even be nutritious, but it’s not intended or designed to be sufficient on its own as a complete breakfast.
And in the same way, getting your spiritual nutrition from the church is just one part of the picture, which is why this sermon is just one in a series. If God speaking is breakfast, this is both a delicious AND nutritious part of that breakfast. It’s a vital part, but still only part. So I would encourage you to pay attention to each part and how they interact with each other to form the complete picture.
Let’s start off in Ephesians chapter 4. Go ahead and turn there, I’m going to skip around to a lot of other verses, but if you need a place to settle in and get comfortable, you can do that here. Ephesians 4.
There’s a whole lot in there, but here Paul has given us a concise and encouraging picture of what a healthy church body of connected believers looks like. And he uses that word again and again, the church is the body of Christ. We see that the body has leadership, unity, maturity, growth, and love.
Now I’m going to hop over to 1 Corinthians 12:18-19. Here Paul is talking to different people, but on the same topic, and it reads as if it could have been picking up right after the last verse we read in Ephesians.
Here he’s expanding on the idea of everyone being a different part of the body and every role being crucial to the overall functioning of the church. It’s functional unity, not uniformity, but a wide variety of people doing different things but with a unified purpose, that’s what a healthy body looks like.
Those two passages give you a picture of what I’m referring to as “The Church.” And pastor Len just recently did a whole series on what church is. What we’re going to focus on more today is what it means to be an active part of church. Let me take you to one more verse, which focuses more on individual responsibility we have within the larger picture:
We’ll come back to this idea, but I wanted to bring it up at the beginning, this mandate warning against neglect. It’s that personal responsibility to be involved that will be the vein running through the rest of my message.
Now, I’m not going to start picking apart these verses, or others, as much as I might want to. I really love exegesis, the critical examination and explanation of scripture. I love analyzing and studying every facet of scripture and its context. And coming up with lists and bullet points, which I guess is the Baptist in me. And some of you know from Sunday School that I like to try to cram way too much information into our time as possible.
Well, I’m probably still going to try to cram way too much in, but I’m going to take you through a few highlights from my own story, as an example, a testimony of God using people (his church) in my life.
Then of course I do have a list of suggestions at the end to help YOU experience God through the church.
The timeline for my story today starts 20 years ago, on a Wednesday night in May of 1998. I was 5 years old and attending the AWANA cubbies program at our family’s church at the time. It was that night I first decided to pray my 5-yr-old version of what some have called “the sinner’s prayer.” I knew I was a sinner but that Jesus died for my sin, and that I needed Jesus to come into my heart. So I put my head down and prayed all myself, telling God that I believed and wanted Him to be my Lord. I had heard people telling adults that it’s never too early or too late to respond to the gospel, and I figured “never too early” must apply to me!
I could spend all day talking about that night and its implications, but for now what I want you to take away is that phrase that was echoing in my head that night, “It’s never too early.”
Parents, it’s never too early to start teaching your kids about God and telling them the unified story of the Bible that leads to Jesus and salvation. Obviously comprehension scales with age, and baby Grace isn’t going to be explaining the hypostatic union to us any time soon……but it’s amazing what kids can comprehend even before they can even talk! The body of Christ is made up of many parts, many units, and the smallest unit other than an individual person is the immediate family. The spiritual health of individual families impacts the spiritual health of the whole church, and kids are a part of that! So never underestimate the value of training your children at any age. Don’t tire of it.
Of course I have to mention Proverbs 22:6: Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it. It’s not just me saying this, it’s a biblical mandate.
Kids, listen up for a second! a lot of the stuff we talk about in church is aimed at adults, but the good news of Jesus is for everybody, which means you too! I know you know you don’t always do the right thing! None of us do, and that’s why we need Jesus. But you don’t need to be an adult to decide to trust in Jesus and what He did for you. If you’re not really sure what that means for you yet, that’s ok, but never think that being too young is a reason not to follow Jesus. Ok, you can go back to coloring now ?
Now, I stress the importance of parental teaching and guidance, because that was definitely the most important factor for me at an early age, but remember I wasn’t even at home when I prayed that prayer, I was at AWANA, which was a church program for kids. I was also involved in Sunday school, and church services, and overall surrounded by the church family that my parents were a part of. All of that factored into my decision that night. So, just remember that being immersed in the church is a good thing and important at any age.
Speaking of immersion, it was a few years later that I was baptized (by immersion). I was 8 years old, so there was a time gap there before I made that decision, but by then I came to realize that baptism was simply a step of obedience in my faith that I had to take.
If you haven’t been baptized, but you’re a follower of Christ, you should get baptized! Even if it didn’t happen right away, you can still choose to act in obedience to scripture. Now, I mention scripture, but I’m not even going to give you any references on baptism right now. I could take you through the whole Bible talking about baptism, and it’s an important topic. But that’s a whole other sermon. In fact, it’s a whole other sermon that you can hear in a few weeks after this series. So stay tuned, this is just a teaser! To be continued!
What I will say is that declaring your belief publicly and to the church is the beginning of experiencing God together. To be a part of a family, you have to admit that you’re one of them in the first place, right?
Alright, I’m going to move on another couple years down the timeline to when I was about 10 years old. At this point I had been baptized, I knew I was a Christian, I knew I was saved, but I felt like there was a step I was still missing. I just didn’t know what it was. It’s not that I needed to become “more Christian” or “more saved” but I wanted to know how to practically follow God beyond just reading the Bible and praying.
I remember explaining that whole thought process to my mom, and she helped me understand the concept of really submitting your whole life and purpose to God’s will, and that I might consider asking God to take full control of my life. I considered it, and the concept was a little scary, I didn’t take it lightly, but the next night I prayed and told God I trusted him completely to shape me into who He wanted me to be.
So again it’s an example of how parental guidance is key to kids’ spiritual growth. And even today I greatly respect my parents and am blessed to have them as a source of wisdom in my life. But even if you didn’t grow up with parents like mine, it is important to seek and follow the guidance of your spiritual “elders” in the faith. In 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, Paul refers to himself as a spiritual father to those he was teaching. And in that sense, we can be seeking “parental guidance” at any age! Whether it is from church leaders, or simply someone who has known God for longer than you, they can help you or direct you to someone who can.
As I got older, into adolescence, I started putting down roots of my own. I started figuring out not just what I believed, but why, other than because my parents had said so. And during that time of exploration I learned a lot from other people in the church, and not just my family’s church, but a ton of different people that are a part of the larger church, that God put in my life. It was a time of sharpening and testing, and I’m so thankful for that, because those types of questions, generally, are not answered in isolation! They are answered by being connected to other believers through whom God speaks in your life.
Proverbs 27:17 gives us a great analogy: As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. We are not sharpened in isolation.
By the time I got to college, a couple years in, I was getting tired of the effort that it takes sometimes to be a Christian. It’s not always the easiest way to go through life! I didn’t reject my beliefs in any way but I was at a low point spiritually, and in my relationship with God. What’s not at all surprising, though, is that time corresponds directly to a period where I really wasn’t involved in any church or gathering of believers of any kind. I was at a Christian college! Surrounded by thousands of Christians, and attending mandatory chapels, but I wasn’t really committed or connected to any group of believers on a regular basis It just goes to show that disconnect causes stagnation, and also that simply being around Christians and going to church doesn’t mean you’re an active PART of the church.
My parents had moved around quite a lot by the way, so we had been a part of several different churches along the way. In fact, they had moved while I was at college, so I came home to a new place and a new church, which they really liked and were pretty involved in. My parents knew about some of the struggles I was going through and suggested I meet up with one of the pastors there to talk through some things and maybe get some guidance from him.
So I did! We got together several times and talked things over, and I found we actually saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things and really found our time together encouraging. During one of those meetings in particular, I remember him saying something that really helped spark a rekindling of my desire to follow God, not just believe in Him. As I got to know the pastor better later on, I now realize that particular conversation was actually rather uncharacteristic of him, but that God was using him to speak in my life. And I’m so thankful that Pastor Len was open to God’s leading in that moment and willing to let God speak through him. It’s a testament to how God users leaders in the church to communicate to people. Going back to Ephesians 4:11, they are described as a God’s gift to the church!
Now, as many of you know, my parents moved yet again but I came back to this area and have stayed involved with NCF ever since. And that consistent connection to the church has been a lifeline and a catalyst for growth.
And it’s that consistent connection that’s my first point of practical application for you. I told you I have a list. Here it is:
The last two are really just expressions of the first one. Everything starts with relationship. That’s my message boiled down to a sentence: be connected to other believers.
But as much as that needs to be a priority, I know it can be much easier said than done at times.
First of all, take some initiative. Your church leaders are always going to be trying to find ways to facilitate connections and equip others to do so. However, only you know the best way for you to connect with people! The easiest way to start is to just pick something you’re good at or enjoy doing, and invite others to join you. It could be fishing, or hunting. It could be riding motorcycles, or bicycles, it could be making pasta in your kitchen! It doesn’t have to be an extravagant event to be meaningful Of course, this approach means you’ll end up hanging out with other people who like the same things as you. But that’s a start! Having friends in the church who you like to hang out with is a good thing!
But we should be willing to make the not-so-easy connections too. The thing is, everyone eats. Sharing meals is a really basic, and ancient way of forming relationships. Have each other over for lunch or dinner. Eat together.
Whatever it is you do together, carve out a specific time of the week and make it a habit, something you don’t think twice about because it’s a part of your week, like coming to church on Sunday morning.
Also, whenever you get together, have God-focused conversations! Share what God is doing in your life! And pray for each other. Pay attention to what God is doing in other people’s lives, and what they are learning. Pay attention to what God is doing in your life, and don’t let it be a secret! Those type of conversations are like a different language for believers, the language of the gospel. We should be fluent in that language and practicing it constantly.
As good as it is to gather just for the sake of relationship, we also need to gather to grow and learn together.
Being a part of educational groups and discussions sets you up for more effective conversations at home, at work, and elsewhere.
If you have kids, bring your kids to church and let them be a part of gospel conversations. We have family services for a reason, and during the school year, bring yourself and your kids to Sunday School.
Our goal should be to have people in our lives who are discipling us, lifting us up, and to also be pouring out into other people, lifting them up. We might sometimes feel for a season that we need to cling with both hands to be lifted out of a low place, but that should not be your permanent position. You need to be letting that energy flow through you, and when everyone is doing that, everyone is being lifted up together. Now, don’t picture a corporate, linear structure like a barrel of monkeys. It’s a network of people all connected to the top, to Christ, and all connected to each other through Him. And we’re called to lift each other up.
Finally, in our relationship and discipleship, it’s vital that we have communication. And that’s a wide open topic, but specifically I’d like to encourage that we ask questions.
A big part of my personality as a kid was my inquisitiveness. I guess it still is. But I was that kid who was always asking his parents “Why? Why? Why?” And what I love about them is they welcomed that. And if I “why?’ed” them into a corner they’d say “hey, you know what, I’m not sure, but I’ll bet we can find out if you REALLY want to know!” and at that point I’d either drop it because I was just trying to cause trouble, or I’d be curious enough to put that topic on the list to look up at the library.
The same concept should apply in our church family. If you have questions about the church, theology, the Bible, Christianity in general, ask someone! And if someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say “I don’t know” and better yet, say “I don’t know, but now I want to know, let’s find the answer together.” Eventually you’ll keep asking the next person and the next until you have a little mob of people knocking on Pastor Mike’s door saying “help us with this question please!” More likely you’ll come after me because I’m telling you to do this. But that’s fine! The point is nobody is an island here, and you should never be afraid to ask questions
God WANTS to speak to us. He wants to speak to ME and to YOU. And He does!
That’s what this whole “God Speaks” series is all about. So far, we’ve seen how He speaks through the Bible and through the Church. But in both cases, for us to know what God is saying, requires that we spend time being immersed in those things.
We are not islands. God has designed us to experience Him in the context of a community, a family. Do not ignore or neglect this wonderful gift that God has given us.
So I ask you, my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s ALL commit to being connected, growing, and serving God together as the unified body of Christ, from our immediate families, to the NCF family, to the whole family of God across the world, that is what we are called to be.