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TRANSFORMED: Transformational Community     Elder Harvey Shepard  (1st Service)

{Scripture Gen. 3:6-19, Matt. 12:46-50)

Some of you may know that my wife Heidi and I used to live overseas for most of a decade.  The question we’re asked the most is “What do you miss about living overseas?”  It’s really easy to answer that because we miss the community.  Whenever you leave someplace you tend to idealize it, so I realize that could be part of it.  But we were, as a foreign community, several hundred in a city of several million, so you immediately had this island mentality—-we kind of have to take care of one another.  We had a shared purpose.  We were involved with different works, but almost all of us were there to encourage the local population in the name of Jesus; to help them in practical ways and do other works.  There was a sense of being known and needed.  As one of the docs in the community, I would often get phone calls….What do I do with these symptoms?  Where should I go? Do I need to leave?   Probably what I like the most more is that the communities were overlapping.  If I go to work, I don’t see the same people there that I see here on Sunday, and I certainly don’t see them in my neighborhood; they’re all very disjointed.  But there, I’d see a lot of the same people, whether I was at the clinic, or at International School, or at fellowship.  It was a sense of being known and being a part of things.

As I thought about that I realized that it wasn’t like that at the beginning.  I went overseas when I was in my early 40’s, so I had roles that I played, I had some titles .  Then all of a sudden I found myself living in a community where I couldn’t speak to most people around me, at the beginning, but even those people I could speak with didn’t know who I was.  It was very unsettling.  How about you?  Have you had a similar experience?  Maybe you’ve recently relocated, or maybe your life circumstances have changed in such a way that you suddenly feel like you’re not known.  That raises the question–Why do we get so much joy when we know we’re in good community?  Is community optional?  We’ve all got apps—NextDoor, South app; I have this great Peak Finder app to use while hiking.  Is community like an app that you can add on and it makes life better?  Or, is there something so important and fundamental to who we are that if we’re not in community, we miss out and the community we should be a part of misses out?

Scripture has some great things to teach us about community and as we continue in this series of “Transformed,” we’re going to look at three things:  Where transformational community was lost; where it was found; and what community for transformation looks like.  When I say that, I don’t just mean the community that’s out there changing the world, but besides that, a community within it that’s being transformed and it includes individuals going through the process of transformation.

Let’s first look at community lost.  If we’re going to ask when it was lost, we have to think when did it start?  It’s pretty old, because in the very first words of Scripture, we have community.  In the beginning was God….  Scott talked about this a couple of weeks ago.  But the Trinity, our three-in-one God, had perfect community from before time.  We don’t think on that very much, but can I encourage you to ponder for a minute what perfect community would be like.  Where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit know one another perfectly, therefore they’re known perfectly, they’re loved infinitely, they honor one another perfectly, they rejoice together.  And then they decide to create together….notice the plural—Let us make mankind in our image.  Creation was amazing as they did that.

There are some theologians and philosophers that have decided that this Trinity and the love that the Trinity has is really important.  I really wanted to use Larry’s brain here .  As a physician I was thinking, “This is really kind of funny.  There’s Larry up there, as a pastor, doing neuroscience, and I’m going to get up next week and talk philosophy and theology.”  But anyway….  One of our country’s earliest theologians and philosophers was Jonathan Edwards.  In fact, it was before we were a country in the colonial days.  I love reading biographies about these people.  Jonathan Edwards went to Yale when he was 13, having met the requirement of being functional in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  Using Larry’s brain, we’ve got the amygdala, we’ve got the pre-frontal cortex, and then you have to get a whole other fist in there to get a Jonathan Edwards brain.  He was a really bright guy.  He said that the very essence of reality was the intratrinitarian love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  That was the anchor to reality.  The only possible reason for such a perfect being to create the universe was to share and extend that love to other imperfect beings.  So 300 years ago or so in a congregation in New England, he wrote this: “There in heaven this fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacles to hinder access to it.  There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and river of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love.”  You can see the word that keeps repeating.  The reality in this universe is the Trinity and this amazing love.  At the beginning of creation, everything was perfect.  That love was extended to Adam and Eve and they enjoyed it.  And the last phrase in Genesis 2 is: The man and the woman were naked and not ashamed.  Everything was as it should be.

But then, of course, community was lost and relationship started to break, as we turn the page to Genesis 3. I want to drill down a little bit deeper on what Scott touched on.  Let’s read together the beginning of the Fall (Genesis 3:6-8) — When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

The first relationship that was broken in the Garden was the relationship that every other relationship depends on.  It’s our relationship with God.  When theologians look at this passage, they see that the Fall that occurred wasn’t just this relationship, but that there’s four relationships that are broken.  Those four relationships are what are required for there to be community that transformational.  We’re going to look at each of these one at a time.

First the relationship with God is broken, then—But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”  He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”  And he said, “Who told you that you were naked?”  (Gen. 3:9-11)   Something’s new in the story.  Something’s there that wasn’t there before.  Shame and fear.  Suddenly they realize something’s wrong, so they look around and start grabbing fig leaves to cover themselves.  That had to be a little odd; I’m sure they didn’t give that great of coverage.  The reality is that we do that as well, don’t we?  In everybody’s life we realize there’s something not right.  There’s a narrative we all have, that we somewhere picked up, that is the narrative we believe ought to be who we are.  So it’s a mask, it’s some fig leaves.  For some people are workaholics.  For some people it’s wealth.  For some people it’s pride.  Over-serving, people pleasing.  The question that might be worth answering is what are your fig leaves?  What is it?  What’s the false self that you feel you need to present to be okay?  How do you want others to perceive you?  This brokenness with ourselves has been captured in a lot of great quotes; one of my favorites is from Blaise Pascal.  A hundred years before Jonathan Edwards in France, this mathematician/child prodigy, who had a vivid Christian journey, said, “We would cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery.”  Is that not condemning?  But that’s the broken relationship with self.

It continues with the broken relationship with others.  And he said, “Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”   I find this verse fascinating.  Some people look at Scripture and say the Bible is so ethereal and it’s not true to real life.  But here, in the third chapter of Genesis, you’ve got Adam throwing Eve under the bus and blaming God for it, all at the same time.  This is so true to life, isn’t it?   It doesn’t say anything about what Eve was doing at this point, but I believe Eve was doing….what in our family is fondly called “the slusher look.”  The face narrows down and there are no words necessary, because it’s that look of “you may not be alive in the morning.”  It’s that look of “I don’t need to say anything, that was such a ridiculous thing to say.”  It’s important for me to point out that whenever my wife gives me the “slusher look,” it’s done in jest and always in love!  You don’t need to go any further than your experience in the last 48 hours to know that relationships with people are broken.

Last one—relationship with creation. (Genesis 3:17-19) To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit form the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”   This is all about the earth not being the way it’s suppose to be.  There’s disaster and diseases like viruses or other worst diseases like HIV, although with the current HIV tests prices is easy to get check for this condition.  There’s misuse and abuse of resources.  There’s poverty.  In the epistles, when Paul is unpacking what the Christian journey is about and helping the new churches understand it, he writes to the Romans (8) —- creation was subjected to frustration…and has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time….   Things simply are not the way they should be.  And so, perfect community was lost in the Garden when our relationships with God, self, others and creation were broken.

But of course, the good news is that the community was found.  Mary was there that day, Mary and her other children.  This passage is from the synoptic gospels; you see it in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  If you look at the Mark passage, you get this sense that at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, it was like this explosion of activity.  Something new was going on and people from all over were coming.  First, Jesus starts to cast out demons and show that he’s got power over the spiritual realm.  Then he’s healing people, he’s restoring hands.  Things are getting really crazy; the Pharisees in Jerusalem say he must be possessed by Beelzebub to pull this stuff off.  Even his family thought things were getting out of hand.  It says that vast numbers from all around were coming in and they came into a room so Jesus’s disciples didn’t even have time to eat.  It says (Mark 3) that Mary and his brothers and sisters thought he had lost his mind and they were going to go take charge of him.  So things are kind of wild, a lot of tension going on here, so they show up.

It’s legitimate that Mary and the siblings of Jesus would go and get him and pull him out of there, because family was a huge institution in that day.  We hear about it now in the news, right?  We’ll hear about the honor of family in the Middle East that led to something.  Back then it was almost everything.  Family indicated who you could marry, what your job would be, what your position was in culture, so it made sense that they’d march down there and kind of straighten Jesus out.  In Matthew 12:46-50, we read—While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.  Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  

We read that and go that’s a nice picture, but in THAT day, people would have been going, “WHAT?!? There’s no way!”  Would Mary have been maybe doing the slusher look?  What?? I come down here and you’re blowing me off?  I have the feeling she wasn’t.  There’s hints that Mary treasured things in her heart, that she understood things, and I think that Mary probably understood that Jesus was NOT saying that family wasn’t important, but there’s something new, more important.  It’s eternal and it’s redemptive that Jesus is doing.  Jesus was a teacher.  You can use dry, academic words like curriculum when you look at his work.  He had a curriculum and here he’s giving you an idea of what it looked like.  He’s saying, “I’m going to have an apprenticeship for people who follow me.”  People come and hang out with Jesus for two or three years and they do life together.  But He’s giving a picture for us so we know what it looks like.  That was really counter-cultural in Jesus’ day, where everything focused on their family.  It’s really counter-cultural for us these days as everything focuses on “me”—what do I want to do?  We’re called to be part of the family.

I would love for us to pay attention to that as Jesus is really busy establishing his kingdom work, he’s restoring all of the broken relationships from Genesis.  Think about it.  He’s healing the sick.  In Luke, he calms a storm right after this happens.  He addresses social injustice.  He’s renewing or restoring that broken relationship with creation.

How about the broken relationship with others?  I would love to have an inside look in the day in the life of the apostles.  He had just appointed them.  There was Andrew and Simon and James and John; they were fishermen.  I used to work in an ER in southern New Jersey.  It was on the shore and we had commercial fishing in that area.  They are a rough bunch.  If you look up “dangerous professions,” commercial fishing is way up there.  It is a crazy job.  I could often tell I had a fisherman in the ER, long before I laid eyes on him, right?  {Sniffs}  Jesus nicknames James and John the “Sons of Thunder.”  These are not gentle guys.  Then you’ve got Matthew, who wrote this.  Matthew had clean fingernails.  Matthew had nice clothes.  He had that because, as a tax collector, he would be joined by a couple of Roman soldiers and go to his fellow citizens and take tax money….and a little extra for himself if he wanted.  Yet somehow, these people who would never be together are together, in Jesus’s followers.

Paul again as he unpacks things for the early church, writes to the Colossians (3:11-14) — Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, {Think back to that Jonathan Edwards passage….what was the characteristic of the Trinity and what flowed out to people, but love.} clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.    Do you see the trend?  It’s coming from that greatest reality in the universe—the Trinity.  It’s love that comes into an individual and that is what allows them to get along with other people.

So Jesus is renewing and restoring the broken relationships with others, but he also addresses the broken relationships we have with ourselves.  This is one that I think the evangelical church often just plain misses. Remember that it was fear.  A Christian psychologist, contemporary, writes, “Jesus is the antidote to fear.  His love—not our believing certain things about him or trying to do as he commands {I think he wrote those two things because those are the things we are really good at.  If you think about the church—Well, I believe certain things about him and I do my best to do all I’m suppose to do.  Those are the two things that we’re really good at.} —is what holds the promise of releasing us from the bondage of our inner conflicts, guilt and terror.  Our gaze needs to go back and forth between divine love and our fears.  We gain courage to face our fears as we soak in love.”

Now, I suspect you’re like me, and we’ve got parts of us we simply do not like.  There’s things I think about and I cringe. There’s things we did that we shouldn’t have.  There’s things that were done to us that shouldn’t have happened.  There’s things we should have done that we didn’t do.  We wish there was a factory reset that you could just hit and then things go back to the factory install that never happened.  But that’s not how Jesus works.  Jesus takes those piece of us that are the worst, the ugliest, the most unpleasant, and instead of making them go away, He redeems them.  He makes them something that, in a sense, is beautiful.  That can encourage others and that can show His glory.  It’s not just about love, but it’s about who you really are.  Over 900 years ago or so, another great saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote, “I need both: truth, so that I cannot hide from him, and grace, so that I do not wish to hide.”  I love that quote.

Lastly, and most importantly, Jesus invites us to reconnect with God himself.  If you recall the story of Adam and Eve, the first thing that happened when their eyes were opened, they realized, “Uh oh! Something’s wrong,” and they covered themselves with fig leaves, right?  It’s interesting that when that happened it’s almost as if God was standing there and like a fashion consultant went, “Hmmm, that’s not going to work.  That’s just not right.”  The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Gen. 3:21)   God was the actor in this and saw their attempt, but it was pathetic, it was not going to do the trick.  This must have been shocking; it was the first shedding of blood.  But it’s a picture for exactly what Jesus does.  Jesus sees our attempts and he goes, “Uh, that’s not going to work.”  He comes over and goes, “Here, put this on instead.  It’s my righteousness.  This is what you need.  In fact, give me that other stuff, I’m going to redeem that for you.”  Theologians call this the “Great Exchange,” that….God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Cor. 5:21)    It’s interesting that there is a sense that the Good News has bad news imbedded in it.  There’s no one better than Tim Keller at vocalizing this:  “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”  You need both, right?  If you just have one it falls a little flat, especially if you just have the first part!  But those two together are the gospel.

As Jesus restores the broken relationships of the Garden, He creates a new family.  Which brings us to the final point of what community for transformation looks like.  It depends on where you’re standing, okay?  If you’re standing within that community, it should look like a family.  I think it’s wonderful that Jesus gave us that picture, because even though there’s a lot of dysfunction in most every family, it’s something we all understand.  It’s something we all relate to.  As you think about your Christian family, I want you to think about how it matches up with what we know about families.  There are some things we learn about families—some of these things you see very clearly in Scripture, others we learned through time.  Families are multigenerational relationships of various intimacy.  We’ve got moms and dads that have cared for us for years, that have prayed for us, that love us, that kind of know how we’re put together.  But we’ve also got brothers and sisters, who we’ve been through thick and thin with; we have fights with, we have fun with.  We have grandparents who share their wisdom.  As they have need, we come along and help them with things that are hard to do.  We’ve got cousins, and aunts, and uncles.  Some of them are a little quirky, but they’re still in our family.  We can’t really get away from them.  They’re still at the funerals, they’re still at the weddings, and we belong to them; we’re connected with them.  We work with them.

Families also have proximity.  As I wrote this point down, I thought that in this age of internet, there’s a lot of people that have community that’s spiritual.  I know that there’s legitimacy to that, especially if you can see the person on video while you’re talking.  But when you have proximity that means you’re near one another, you can share things, you can drop in.  I grew up in rural New England.  I lived in this house.  Next door was the house my mom grew up in, where Grandma and Grandpa lived.  Then there was a field and there was a trailer and that’s were Grammy lived.  When it snowed, there were not three snow blowers that came out.  There was just one.  We shared things because we lived near one another and we worked together.  There’s some inconvenience to that too, right?  People can just drop in.  But, there’s a priority on hospitality.  I’ve heard it said that if you want to be generous with your money, write a check.  If you want to be generous with your life, you’re hospitable.  When Heidi grew up, there was always room at the table for one more chair.  Food wasn’t going to be fancy, but it was like, yeah, come on, join in!  She had a close friend and it was always, “We’ve got to have you over sometime,” but she almost never was invited over because…..before someone could come over everything had to be….PERFECT!  Of course, that never happens.  You can see how this is tied back to embracing our brokenness a bit—we need to let people in to see the mess a bit.

Families have traditions.  When we lived overseas, there was one family we always got together with on Thanksgiving, because he had a birthday, then we’d celebrate Thanksgiving.  On Christmas Eve, the doctors from the clinic and their families would all go to one apartment and celebrate together.  When our kids had birthdays, we had the surrogate aunts and uncles celebrate, because we were building these traditions, without realizing that’s what they are.  That’s what church does too.  We do things traditionally.

Again, how many of these do you have in your Christian family?  I bet you have this—difficulties!  Being in family is tough.  You’re close to people.  You’re dropping in on people.  You’re stepping on people’s toes.  Family is the place where there’s the death of ego.  One writer, Jean Vanier, wrote a book called “From Brokenness to Community.”  He writes:  “We will only stay in community if we have gone through the passage from choosing community to knowing that we have been chosen for community.”  It’s Jesus calling for us.  It’s the way we’re to live.  That’s why he said we don’t forgive seven times, we forgive seventy times seven.

What does community look like if you’re on the outside and you’re just observing it?  Hopefully, it looks like Jesus.  After all, isn’t the church referred to as the “Body of Christ?”  Didn’t he say — Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things.  (John 14:12)   There’s just this organic thing that happens.  I’ve got an interest in refugee work and you find other people that have an interest in refugee work and you come together.  We see that happening again and again here and it’s so encouraging.  But our default, culturally, is to think about…what am I doing?  Jesus said, “I will make you fishers of men.”  I think of when I was a kid and I would get on my bike and I’d be holding my fishing pole and my bag would be on my shoulder and I ride down the road and go to the stream.  I can remember fishing and even praying that a fish would bite my hook, but it’s ME, right?  But when Jesus said, “I will make all y’all fishers of men…”  When they fished, they fished as a group.  They had a big net.  It wasn’t this one guy by himself.  The more we do as people, it invites others to join.  So we’re doing that here — the Food Bank, Family Promise, Celebrate Recovery, and on and on.

The church should look like no other group, because there are people hanging out with other people that would never normally be together.  When people run into those individuals, they should be amazed because it seems like something that, maybe at one point, they were ashamed of or wasn’t right or wrong about them, suddenly blesses other people.  The way that we take care of one another…..just that caring for one another is a huge witness.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35) 

But it seems hard, doesn’t it?  As we close, I want us to think about how do we do this?  There’s some difficulty here.  There’s difficulty getting along with other people and there’s a lot of hard work to be done.  There’s difficulty, especially I think, in embracing our brokenness.

Let me bring you back to the beginning.  Let me bring you back to that perfect community.  Stretch your mind’s eye to think about what that would be like…..that perfect being known, and celebrating, and loving one another, rejoicing in one another, lifting up one another.  But there was one time that that fellowship was broken, wasn’t it?  And the words were cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   That’s the key.  That was done so that we could enjoy that fellowship and have access to it.  That was done so that we could be healed.  He did that so that together we could, as a family, go outside of these walls and continue the work he did.  He does that for our joy.  He does that for our glory, so let’s thank him for that together.

Father, it’s amazing to think about the way you work in and through us, and the fact that there was something eternal and beautiful that you invite us into.  Father, you want that to heal us and you want it to heal us with one another.  You’ve said to us that we’re to be you’re family.  I pray that, even today, as we celebrate forty years as a church that we would be reminded that you’re doing great things.  We pray that the offerings we make in our service would be multiplied like the fish and the loaves and bring great joy to you and honor to you.  I pray this in Jesus’s name.  Amen.