Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Life Together: From Bitterness to Grace

How do we live with grace? We talk a lot about church community, but true community doesn’t just happen. There’s more to life together than just words. There are attitudes and actions. There’s a climate we create in the church. I don't know what your experience attending church has been like, but I do know this: life together can be hard. We are flawed people in whom God continues to work, but God wouldn’t have to do that if we had it all together. So let’s talk a little but more this morning about how to do life together.
THEREFORE, put away your lies and speak the truth to one another because we are all part of one another. When you are angry, don’t let it carry you into sin. Don’t let the sun set with anger in your heart or give the devil room to work. If you have been stealing, stop. Thieves must go to work like everyone else and work honestly with their hands so that they can share with anyone who has a need. Don’t let even one rotten word seep out of your mouths. Instead, offer only fresh words that build others up when they need it most. That way your good words will communicate grace to those who hear them.  
It’s time to stop bringing grief to God’s Holy Spirit; you have been sealed with the Spirit, marked as His own for the day of rescue. Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts—these are poison. Instead, become kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through Jesus, our Liberating King. (Ephesians 4:21-32, The Voice)
It’s interesting to me that stealing, lying and relentless anger * are all listed together. They seem unconnected, but I don't think they are. They all create distrust, anxiety and a lack of safety. They all make us want to retreat or withdraw rather than engage honestly and openly. They all undermine community. In a setting like this, you are never safe.

  • If we are a community of lies instead of truth, then we don’t know if people are being honest with us or not (about God, life, themselves or ourselves), so we are always guarded and increasingly cynical. I was talking with a friend who left the faith, and she noted a pivotal point when she was a teen. Her church said no one was supposed to see movies, but her parents told her, “Just don’t tell anybody we are going.” My friend said to me, “That’s when I learned about hypocrisy.”
  • If we are a community of out-of-control emotions, we don’t know if it is safe for us to even be honest and engaged. What if I offend someone and they just keep holding a grudge? What if someone is angry or hostile and doesn’t deal with it? So we are always guarded and increasingly withdrawn.
  • If we are a community that takes instead of gives, we don’t know if people are out to use us or help us. Don’t think just money here: think time, energy, relational burdens. We’ll just be sucked dry if we are the only one giving while everyone else is taking. Our friends always unload on us but never let us unload; we volunteer ourselves into the ground while others don’t find a way to plug in at all (the 80/20 rule). We always reach out to others and nobody reaches back, but just waits for us to reach.  It’s hard to flourish when we are surrounded by takers and not givers. If this happens, we are always drained and increasingly reluctant to give.
 Paul is calling us to be “givers” of three absolute necessities in life together as a church community:
  • Honest Speech.  People are meant to learn truth in a church community about God, life, and themselves. We want to be the kind of people that, when we talk, people listen, because they know we are doing our best to be honest and true.
  • Emotional Safety. People shouldn't be intimidated or bullied in a church. The reality of our emotions should be recognized, but they must be properly expressed. The Bible talks a lot about the importance of guarding our hearts, because what’s in it will overflow. In a church community, people guard their hearts so that they can guard their eyes, their attitudes, and their posture, and in so doing they guard the hearts of others.
  • Generosity. In genuine church community, people will share their resources with those who are in need. I don’t just mean the offering. It’s buying a copy of SpeakUp, getting a baby bottle and filling it up with change for PCC, supporting fundraisers, offering resources to friends in need, volunteering time and energy in the church and the community. It’s seeing a need and filling it if you are able to do so. 
As if that weren’t challenging enough, Paul continues:
Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts—these are poisonInstead, become kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through Jesus, our Liberating King.”
Bitterness in the New Testament carries the idea of poison - the bitter root that leads to bitter fruit. This is not a new concept. In fact, it pulls from the Old Testament.
"Beware lest there be among you… whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit…They will end up destroying everything in the country." (Deuteronomy 29:18) 
"See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no 'root of bitterness' springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." (Hebrew. 12:15.
Note the community language: many become defiled; a country is destroyed. No wonder this grieves the Holy Spirit. Then Paul gives a contrasting list things that will either build or undermine truth, safety, and generosity in a community. In the process, he paints a bleak picture of life outside of Godly community, and a beautiful picture of life inside godly community. First, the things that characterize life that ruins Christian community.
  • Rage -  panting with anger. People cringe around you. They want to get away from you because of what you will say or do.
  • Anger -  a fixed disposition.* A simmering animosity.
  • Brawling - clamorous outbursts, like shrieking. Everything escalates.
  • Slander - calling something or someone bad that is good.
  • Malice – an eagerness to do evil. A desire to spoil or destroy.
 Think of this whole process as a smoldering ember of bitterness that will eventually burst into flames of rage. It simmers as anger, it begins to consume everything around it in outbursts and general meanness, and it just burns through a community leaving a charred mess in its path. Armies have sometimes practiced total destruction when invading or retreating. Everywhere they go, the consume everything they can, then burn what’s left. That’s what Paul is describing here – people who just leaves devastation in their path. Has anyone ever had someone try to relate with you when they had these attitudes? Have you ever tried to approach someone else? It’s a recipe for disaster. 
  • If you are just mad at someone, that’s a bad time to speak into their lives. Reign it in. You will just blow things up otherwise.
  • When somebody gets a new job while you struggle, or they find someone who loves them while you are lonely, or it looks like God is transforming your friend’s life while you feel stagnant, it’s easy to say snide things out of frustration and jealousy. That’s an issue you, God, and some godly friends or counselors need to hash out. Don’t put that on your neighbor.
  • If someone has hurt you, and you just want to tell other people about it so you can take them down a notch because it’s about time other people saw how ugly they were just because you don’t like them – stop. If you are harboring the thought that you just really hope something bad or hard happens to someone else because you don’t like them…that’s got to be surrendered to Christ.
 And in that surrender, God works to bring out the godly replacements: kindness, compassion and forgiveness. They characterize life as it is intended to be lived inside Christian community. Notice that Paul writes “become” or “rather than simply “be.” Kindness, compassion and forgiveness are not states we simply luck into. We have to abandon one approach to life and embrace another. We must seek them out, and we must commit to cultivating these things even when we don’t feel like it.

Kindness is giving what is suitable and useful or beneficial. It’s making life appropriately pleasant to other people.

The word used here is Xrestus ("useful, kindly"). It was a common slave-name at the time, a spelling variant for the unfamiliar Christus (Xristos). In Greek the two words were pronounced alike." (F. F. Bruce, The Books of Acts, 368).) Kindness brings us back to the loving service that Christ displayed, the idea of a self-sacrificial commitment for the good of others. You don’t have to like people, but you have to be kind. Hold your tongue if you are inclined to insult or gossip. Channel your emotions constructively. Guard your heart so you can protect their heart.

There’s something to be said for being nice in a culture that is increasingly just mean. What if Christians would be known for loving service, whether through acts of kindness such as gifts, time and energy, money, friendship, employment, etc. Considering how Christians are viewed today, I think that might be shocking in a really good way. 

Compassion is tender-hearted, gut level sympathy. It implies that we genuinely feel for those in pain or in sin.  This is the most emotive word in the list Paul uses.
  • Is your response to people around you who are sinning to grieve the impact sin is having in their life and those around them?
  • Does it break your heart that a fallen world breaks people?
  • Have you prayed for Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner?
  • When you see someone post something obnoxious about Christianity or applaud sin, do you explode and attack or does your heart break as you carefully engage?
  • Have you prayed for whatever your spouse or kids (or parents or siblings) are going through that is making them so hard to live with, and then tried to engage and understand?
I have a feeling many of us will need to do some serious praying for the miraculous addition of “gut level sympathy.”  It’s more than just a purposeful decision to be kind. It’s asking God to align our heart with His.

Forgiveness: sacrificial, underserved favor. We have a Christ who willingly suffered to reconcile us to God. Are we willing to suffer to reconcile with others? And by suffer, I mean put our indignation, anger, bitterness and rightness on the altar and say to someone, “I forgive you,” even when it costs us a great deal.

And it will. All forgiveness is costly. It cost Christ a crucifixion to forgive me; why should I expect that when I am called to forgiveness that I will not be called to die to something in myself? There may be someone in this room who has wronged you. I hope that they are convicted to repent and seek forgiveness. Meanwhile, if you have been wronged, are you able to put your anger and bitterness on the altar? Are you willing to forgive as one who has been forgiven?

It is only when we die to ourselves that we can rise in Christ. It was after his death that Jesus rose in the glory of Risen Savior. It is after we lay down our life – first to Christ and then with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness for others - that we can rise into the light of the glory of this Risen Savior.

 And that is also when as a community we experience the beauty of life together in Christ.
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* Note: this is a reference to unreasonable anger.  Paul wrote that when you are angry, don’t sin. Jesus was clearly angry at times; God is described as angry at times in the Bible. There is a righteous anger that sees sin and it’s destructiveness and is angry at the things that break the world. 
Proverbs 6:16-19, NIV There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
It is possible to have the heart of God and be angry. But what may start out as a righteous indignation can become a way in which we give the devil room to work. That’s when we become that inferno, and we are in danger of becoming the inferno that consumes and destroys everything. 

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