Acts 2:42 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43 – Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
44 – All the believers were together and had everything in common.
45 – They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
46 – Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,
47 – praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 4:32 – All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
33 – With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all
34 – that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales,
35 – and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Back in 2000 Tom Hanks starred in a movie called: Castaway. I’m sure most of us have seen it—but for those who haven’t—and for those who’ve seen it but forgotten the plot—it’s the story of a FED EX executive named Chuck Noland whose plane crashes into the Pacific. Noland survives the crash but finds himself alone—stranded as a CASTAWAY on a deserted island. He is trapped there four long years until some wreckage that washes up on the beach makes it possible for him to build a raft.
A couple things stand out to me in my memory of the film. First there’s the scene toward the beginning of his island exile when Noland learns to make fire by rubbing sticks together. Hanks did such a good acting job that I remember sharing his joy at this accomplishment—and the roasted lobster and crab dinner he enjoyed that night because of it. But I also remember when—early on in his island isolation—loneliness set in and it led Noland to take a volleyball and turn it into a companion that he named “WILSON.” As the months and years on that island passed Noland talked to WILSON all the time and imagined WILSON talking back. They had arguments—and later reconciled. When Noland is finally able to build that raft and leave the island he went through a horrible storm and “WILSON” was washed overboard. At this point in the story Noland grieved as if a real human friend had died. He fell into deep despair over his loss.
I think the reason the film was so successful in the box office was that all people can identify with its main message: WE ALL NEED FRIENDS. This week I came across quotes from some celebrities—people who expressed this need. Here’s what they said. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway confessed, “The thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me.” Joss Whedon, director of the movie The Avengers, said, “Loneliness is about the scariest thing out there.” Scientist Albert Einstein wrote, “It is strange to be known so universally, and yet to be so lonely.” Writer Ernest Hemingway wrote, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” Marilyn Monroe said, “Sometimes I think the only people who stay with me and really listen are people I hire, people I pay.”
And, speaking of PAYING for friends, thanks to the Internet, you can actually do that these days. In fact, an article in Hemispheres magazine listed several sites that are dedicated to helping you find online “friends.” These companies will create fake users or even pay real account holders to follow and like you on various social media sites. For instance, on the site Socialyup.com you can buy 500 likes for $30 or 20,000 likes for $699. For a mere $10, FanMeNow will find you 1,000 Twitter followers and for $1,750 you can buy a million followers. If you need to beef up views for your YouTube video, for $150 you can buy 30,000 views from a site called 500views.com. For $3,100 they’ll make your video go “viral” by getting you a million views. The article concludes with the following advice: “No matter what social network you’re on, you can buy your way to popularity.” And sadly, people must be paying for these “fake cyber friendships.” Otherwise these “friend” purchasing sites wouldn’t be able to turn a profit.
Here’s another thing. It’s not just that we WANT friends—it turns out that we actually NEED them to survive. According to an article in SLATE MAGAZINE,
- Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those people WITHOUT adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die early.
- The increased mortality risk from loneliness is comparable to that of smoking and twice as dangerous as obesity.
- Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease.
We apparently have a “minimum daily requirement” of FRIENDSHIP.
All this goes to show that, as the Book our Creator gave us says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) God did not design us to live relationally-disconnected lives. NO—as Bill Hybles says, “God wired us with a desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, to serve and be served.”
Last week I told you that we were created to be in relationship with God. But we are ALSO designed to be in relationship with other people. We are designed for community—which brings us to a fourth implication of Christmas. You see, when Jesus came He founded a group of people who He specially-gifted to meet our inborn relational needs. The group I am referring to is THE CHURCH—specifically a church FAMILY like the one described in today’s text—a local group of Believers who acknowledge Jesus as head—people who relate to each other in a way that reflects Jesus’ sacrificial love for us all.
Think about it—our church family is a VERY important to us. These people are a central part of our lives. We see each other several times a week. We laugh together. We cry together. Our closest possible friends tend to be found in our church family. Many times even our physical family springs from the church. I mean—where did you find your spouse? Many of you, like me, found her in a church family—probably the same one that eventually witnessed your marriage. Who gathered around you to pledge to work with you as you dedicated yourself to raise your children—so that they could come to understand and respond to God’s love in sending Jesus to earth? Right! It was your church family. When we grieve over the death of biological family members or spouses our church family members come along side and cry with us and help us. When the doctor tells us we have a disease that just may take our lives it is usually not a neighbor or some co-worker at the office who enters into that crisis and says, “I understand.”
No—it is most often someone from our church. In a church family that relates as Jesus intended, masks come off, conversations get deep, hearts get vulnerable, lives are shared, accountability is invited, and tenderness grows. In a church body where Jesus is honored as head, AGAPE, self-sacrificing love abounds—and when it does, in a very real sense, people become brothers and sisters.
This week in my study I learned that the word “brother” occurs 200 times in the New Testament—BEGINNING IN THE BOOK OF ACTS. When the church was founded on Pentecost Sunday terms like “brother” and “sister” began to be used to describe the members of churches like the one at Jerusalem because these two words were the best terms to describe the new deep relationships that now existed among believers. That’s still the way it is in a healthy church family. Now, of course no church family is perfect—but there really is nothing like the church family when it comes to satisfying this inner need we all have for deep relationships with other people.
Okay—what is it about the church that makes it that way? What qualities do you find in a church family that meets our need for true friendship?
(1) First, it’s a place where you tend to find UNCONDITIONAL love and acceptance.
And that’s rare these days. You see, in most secular people groups acceptance is based on what you do or don’t do. But in a church family acceptance is not based on what we do—or what we have. No, it is founded on who we are—priceless beings for whom Jesus Christ died. A healthy church is a place where you can find Romans 15:7 lived out because it’s a place where people, “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted THEM.”
And—how did our Lord do that? How did Jesus accept us? He did so UNCONDITIONALLY. He opened His arms to us and LOVED us even while we were UNLOVELY and church family members who truly make Christ Lord do the same for each other. This is wonderful because we all have this same inner longing to be accepted as we are—in spite of our character flaws, shortcomings, insecurities, and immaturity. We need to know that someone accepts us because they WANT to, not because they HAVE to. We REQUIRE unconditional love.
Understand—I’m not saying we need to ignore each other’s sinful actions, but we need to love sinners before we can help restore them and move them along to spiritual growth. David Smith defines friendship in this way, “A friend is one who knows you as you are, understands where you’ve been, accepts who you’ve become and STILL gently invites you to grow [in Christlikeness].”
The Bible teaches us that Jesus was scandalously generous in distributing this caliber of love. Wherever He went people sensed the unconditional love of God. And when Christians obey Jesus’ command it is the same in the church. This is because maturing believers realize that, as Patrick Morely says, “The height of our love for GOD will never exceed the depth of our love for ONE ANOTHER.”
One of the most popular shows on prime time these days is NBC’s Parenthood. Sue and I enjoy it because of two things. First, even though it’s not a Christian show—it accurately portrays the consequence of sin. A second reason we love it is because it shows the importance of a family. It gets “family” right. Parenthood is directed by Ron Howard and it’s the story of a LARGE extended family—the BRAVERMANS including the parents in their retirement years, their grown up children, and their children—the grandkids. In an episode earlier this year one of the couples in the second generation of this family: Joel and Julia Graham attempt to adopt a young Hispanic boy named Victor. After living with Joel and Julie and their daughter for a while, Victor starts to open his heart, but then he suddenly draws back again. He refuses to eat meals with the family, fights with his future sister, and expresses direct hatred to Julia, his future mother. His behavior gets so bad that Julia becomes afraid that Victor will never return her love and she begins to doubt the decision to finalize the adoption. At one point she tells her brother Crosby: “We’ve had all this time together, and it just doesn’t seem like we’re progressing. Victor just doesn’t like me. At this point, it’s so hard to know that that’s gonna change. Maybe I shouldn’t be Victor’s mom.” Later in the show Julia tells Victor, “We’re going to choose a date next week to finalize your adoption. You know what that means?” “Not really,” Victor replies. Julia says, “That means we’re gonna go to court, all of us together, and we’re gonna stand in front of a judge and we will promise to take care of you. And we’ll sign some papers and we’ll be your mom and dad from now on. Does that sound good to you?” Victor says “Sure” even though it’s clear he doesn’t understand what adoption means. But then in the next episode something happens that helps Victor finally grasp the significance of his adoption. As he’s racing through the house playing football, Victor accidentally smashes an expensive vase. When Julia runs into the room, Victor says, “I’m sorry. I’ll pay for it.” Julia says, “It’s okay, you don’t have to pay for it. Let’s just go back to the no-football-in-the-house rule.” Victor then asks, “So you’re not going to change your mind about adopting me?” Julia responds, “No. I’m never gonna change my mind.” Unable to wipe the smile off his face, Victor responds, “Okay.” And from then on Victor changes. He’s not perfect of course but his extreme behavior goes away. The knowledge of his adoption and of his parent’s unconditional love helps him to bond with his parents and his future sister. There’s a great scene at the end of the show where the entire Braverman clan: grandparents, children, and grandchildren all PACK into the judge’s chambers to witness and celebrate Victor’s adoption. It’s a real tear-jerker!
Well, all of us are like Victor in that we have this longing to be a part of a family where we are loved unconditionally—and the best place to find that kind of family love is in a healthy church.
(2) This leads to a second thing about the church that makes it uniquely able to meet our need for relationship. You see in a church family you find EMPATHY in ACTION.
I mean, one way people will believe you LOVE them unconditionally is if you HELP them unconditionally as you put your love for them into action. Look at Acts 4:34-35 again, “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” In a church family we find people like these Christians in Jerusalem—believers who obey Galatians 6:2 where it says, “…bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The truth is we were not meant to deal with the inevitable problems of life ALONE. This is one reason God gave us a spiritual family. He gave us Christian brothers and sisters to whom we can bring our struggles, knowing they will stop what they are doing to help us when we need it.
In his book, Rethinking Church, James White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC tells of how a small group in his church lived out this principle. One of the members of that small group owned a lawn maintenance company and had an accident while using his lawnmower. His hand got caught and he ended up severely injuring it. That was bad enough, but because of his injury he faced the possibility of losing a lot more. He couldn’t use his hand for several weeks and he couldn’t afford to hire extra help to perform his tasks. If the work didn’t get done, he’d lose contracts and income, and his whole business would go under.
Well, without even being asked the rest of the small group pitched in and took turns doing his work for him. They made his burden their own. Some men got off work and went to work on the lawn of one of his clients or they took a vacation day in order to go and work for him. They continued to do this until the man’s hand healed and he could return to work full time. Because of his group’s support, this man now leads a thriving business but more importantly he holds a deeper understanding of God’s design for the church. He learned firsthand that a church family is where you find people who lighten our load by bearing your burdens. He learned that a healthy church is where you find empathy in action. I’m so thankful to say that I’ve seen that same kind of thing repeatedly here at Redland over the years.
Now—why is this so? Why do you tend to find people at church who will sacrifice to meet your needs like the members of this small group did? It’s because each of us here have had our burdens lightened by the same Savior. Our sins have been washed away by the same blood. We all have the same Lord Who has laid down His life for us and this inspires us to do the same for each other. Since we have all experienced God’s grace, it makes it possible for us to experience true koinonia—true friendship and when we do it results in two special kinds of SHARING. First we share some THING with someone—something tangible—like those people who shared in the work that guy needed done to keep his business going. We help each other with concrete needs like the Christians in the early church did when they, “sold their possessions and gave to anyone as they had need.” But secondly we also share something WITH someone. When fellow Christians go through tough times, we hurt WITH them. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Philip Yancey writes, “The church is a place where we can bring our pain, for it was founded by One Whose body was broken for us, in order to give us life.”
Do you remember Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28? He said, “Come to Me all who are weary and over-burdened and I will give you rest.” Well a church is a place where people find this kind of rest because they share their life’s burdens with other Christians who love them in this Christlike manner. I mean, it’s not just a cliché. A church family really is a place where burdens are divided and joys multiplied.
(3) A third reason a healthy church is able to meet our relational needs is because it is a place where you find the perfect balance of ENCOURAGEMENT and ADMONISHMENT.
You know, the king of comics as far as I’m concerned, is still PEANUTS by Charles Schulz. Their Christmas special is still one of my favorites. But I love Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Pigpen, the Little Red-Haired Girl, and Charlie Brown because there’s a ring of reality to their relationships. One sequence in particular came to mind as I thought about this third aspect of the friendships we find in a healthy church family. It’s the one where Linus has just written a comic strip of his own, and he wants his big sister Lucy’s opinion. In the first frame, he tentatively hands Lucy his comic strip and says, “Lucy, would you read this and tell me if you think it is funny?” In the next frame, you see Lucy patting her foot, and a little bit of a grin comes across her face. She looks at Linus and says, “Well, Linus, who wrote this?” Linus with his chest heaved out and a great big grin says, “Lucy, I wrote that.” In the next frame, you see Lucy wadding it up, throwing it to the side and saying, “Well, then, I don’t think it’s very funny.” In the final frame, Linus picks up his now-wrinkled comic strip, throws his blanket over his shoulder, looks at Lucy and says, “Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life.” We chuckle—but we all know the pain of being on the receiving end of the Lucy’s of the world. We know how bad DISCOURAGEMENT feels. We’re very familiar with it. And the fact is, if we are to grow to our potential—we need a regular dose of the antidote for discouragement. We need a place—where we can find people who will ENCOURAGE us and the best place to find that is in a church.
This is because in a healthy church there are people who know the importance of obeying the command of Hebrews 10:24 where it says, “Let us think of one another and how we can ENCOURAGE one another to love and do good deeds.” In Greek the word for encouragement is “paraklesis.” It is used more than a hundred times in the New Testament, so it is an important word for us to understand. It literally means, “called alongside to help.” That’s what growing believers do for each other. They come along side and help—with encouraging words and actions.
Hundreds of years ago Gregory of Nyssa, one of the early church fathers, expressed it in this way: “At horse races the spectators intent on victory shout to their favorites in the contest. From the stands they participate in the race with their eyes, thinking to incite the charioteer to keener effort, at the same time urging the horses on, while leaning forward and flailing the air with their outstretched hands instead of a whip. I seem to be doing the same thing myself, most valued friend and brother. While you are competing admirably in the ‘divine race’ along the course of virtue I exhort, urge, and encourage you vigorously to increase your speed.” Gregory was saying that the Christians in a church family root for each other. They “spur each other on to love and good deeds” by encouraging them and he’s right. In a church we find people who are FOR us—people who believe in our God-given potential. You could say that Christians are “bleacher people” because they cheer each other on in life. They celebrate each other’s victories and mourn their setbacks.
But if we are to reach our God-given potential we need MORE than ENCOURAGEMENT. We also need ADMONISHMENT at times. There are times when we need a brother or sister to LOVINGLY CORRECT US when we sin and stray from that potential. Sometimes people think doing the “loving thing” means doing what the person I love would want me to do. This is of course, not love. No—being FOR someone is a deeper quality of friendship than just wanting to spare them pain. If I am really FOR a person, then I am willing to risk saying painful things, if pain is the only way to bring growth. True love is ready to warn, reprove, confront or admonish when it is needed. This is the kind of friends you find in a healthy church family—friends who keep you on the cutting edge of personal growth, by encouraging your progress AND by being willing to speak the truth to you in love even when it means a confrontation. As Romans 15:14 says, if we have real Christian character and experience we are, “…capable of keeping one another on the right road.” The truth is we need a community that loves like this. I’m thankful for the accountability triads that C. F. Thomas is setting up this year in our men’s ministry. These groups of three men will help keep each other on the right road. They’ll both ENCOURAGE and ADMONISH as needed.
You know, scientists have studied factories and found that when workers are aware they’re being watched, the quality and quantity of their output goes up. In a healthy church family we know we have friends who love us enough to watch like this—and to correct us when we need correcting. The fact is, we need others to help us become all that we can be for Jesus. We need the perspective that a loving church family gives.
So—to summarize—a church family meets our needs for friendship—relationship—because in a church family we find unconditional love, empathy in action, and the perfect balance of encouragement and admonishment.
(4) But, the characteristic of a church family that makes it most ideal for satisfying our inner loneliness is the fact that it is a place where we find COMMONALITY.
In a church we find people with whom we have important things in common. That’s the way friendship works. I mean, the main thing on which any friendship is founded is something known as AFFINITY—which is just another word for “common ground.” Chemists use the term “affinity” to describe the attraction that causes atoms to bond with each other. In friendships, affinity at its most basic level is an attraction between two people. It refers to those things that attract us to each other so that a friendship can grow. Think of “affinity” as “friendship seeds.”
Perhaps the “friendship seeds” that led to your relationship with another person was your mutual love of golf or Consignment Shops or camping or Bernard Cornwell novels. And—our lives are full of people with whom we have this kind of surface level affinity. But, as I alluded to earlier, we have a need for a DEEPER level of affinity—because these surface level friendships don’t hold up under the stresses of life. This is what King Solomon was getting at in Proverbs 18:24 when he wrote, “A man of many COMPANIONS may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” This “friend who sticks closer than a brother” is someone with whom we share a deep-level affinity. We don’t just find common GROUND—but common VALUES. We share a consensus concerning our core beliefs. We don’t’ just talk about a task we’re doing together; we share emotions and personal experiences. In the Old Testament David and Jonathan had this quality of affinity. Their souls were intertwined because they both based their lives on a deeply held love for God. This was the foundation of their famous friendship. Gary Inrig addresses this principle when he writes, “The quality of a friendship is nearly always determined by the quality of that which unites us.”
Our need for deep relationships is met best by the church family, because, as I said earlier, it is there that we find people who, like us, have experienced the grace of God. We find other people who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and because of that, this is where we find soul-mates in the truest sense of the word. As it says in our text, the members of the church in Jerusalem, “…had everything in common…they were ONE in HEART and MIND.”
You should remember my telling you about Laberhoff—the young man who served as our guide the day we visited Bethlehem during my sabbatical this fall. Of course I had never met Laberhoff before. We live many thousands of miles apart but as soon as he introduced himself and began to talk, I sensed this commonality I’ve been talking about. First as he shared I learned that we had common beliefs. Like me, Laberhoff believes Jesus Christ is God’s only Son and that He died on a Roman cross for sinners like him and me. I also learned that Laberhoff had put his faith in Jesus—as I did many years ago. He follows Him as Savior and Lord, as I strive to do. But there’s more Laberhoff’s sharing that day showed me that he has obviously taken seriously fulfilling the same mission. Like me Laberhoff has a passion to complete the Great Commission—to share his faith and make God known — to make disciples of all people. But there was still more, I sensed something or rather Someone in Laberhoff. I could tell he has the Holy Spirit in Him—just as I do—just as all Christians do. He too enjoys the implication of Christmas we talked about last week. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is with Him always—just as He is with me. That day in the bus as I listened to this young man speak I felt we could have become FAST FRIENDS—DEEP FRIENDS— if we lived a bit closer—because of all this COMMONALITY.
I’ve experienced the same thing all over the world. There was a young man named David that worked with us in Nairobi. There’s Pastor Carlos in the D. R. There is a long list of deep COMMONALITY-SHARING friends from our days in seminary and in the churches where we’ve served. It makes sending Christmas cards very expensive!
I’m saying the COMMONALITY we share with Christians gives us the best friends—friends who really do stick closer than a brother. You find this caliber of friendships in the church because in a church family we are indeed part of the same “ONE body” serving the same “ONE Lord” children of the same “ONE Father.” (Ephesians 4:4-5)
If you are not a member of our church family—then ask yourself: is God calling me to join this body of Christ? Is He leading me to join Redland? This church is not perfect—no church is—but I can tell you from experience that my best friends in all the world are in this family. And I know I speak for them when I say we would love to welcome you to our “home.”
If you are not a Christian then hear this. John’s gospel says, Jesus is the “Friend of sinners! Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.” That is just what Jesus Christ has done for you. Won’t you respond by committing your life to Him as Lord and Savior?
Any decision you have to make public, we invite you to do so now as we stand and sing.