On the Community of Faith

Following is my sermon text from March 25, 2007.
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Ruth 1:16-17 Acts 2:44-47 Romans 8:5-17

On the Role of the Community of Faith

I. Introduction

In just a few minutes we will be participating in a special event, as we baptize Janna into the community of faith. Whatever your views about infant vs. believer baptism, or just what exactly happens when someone is baptized, it is important to understand 2 fundamental truths about this sacrament.

1) First, it is a passive work of grace. It is not something we do, but something that is done by God. We are active only in our obedience to humble ourselves. It is God who does a new work in us.

2) Second, like Holy Communion, it is not merely an individual work of grace. It is also a communal work. We do not take communion in isolation, nor are we baptized outside of a community of believers. It is through baptism that we announce to the faith community that we are committed to abiding with that community. In the case of a child, we are committing their life into the hands of the faith community.

Story:
A friend at the seminary recently celebrated the baptism of his fourth child. Upon witnessing this, his oldest child responded saying that he could not remember his own baptism. My friend later reflected on this dilemma with the following:

“[I] clearly believe [infant baptism] is the privilege of Christian believers. As children were circumcised on the 8th day and raised inside the Covenant Community of Israel, so should the children of real Christians bear the mark of the New Covenant and be raised inside the circle of faith.

Here’s the dilemma . . . How can you remember what you can’t remember? I do understand that re-baptism is not necessary. There is only one baptism. It is initial– the starting line– and need not be repeated. It’s like getting married. You can renew your vows, but you can only actually marry the same person once.

My complaint with baptizing babies is the way it can effectively rob people of a key experience that was intended to be a gift of grace– a living moment of revelation.”[1]
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I believe that the answer to this dilemma lies, not in a re-dedication ceremony, or in re-baptism, but rather in the role which the community of faith plays in the lives of those living in its midst – whether believers, or those children dedicated to be raised within it.

And so this morning, it seems appropriate to reflect for a few moments upon what it means to become a part of the community of faith, and the role the community of faith should play in the lives of those who reside within it.

II. Adoption and Inheritance (Romans 8)

According to the definition that Dr. Thobaben loves to give in his classes, family is a group of individuals who are genetically related, or behave as though they are (paraphrased). I would argue that Christian community should behave according to this definition of family. Now if a person is not genetically related to a group of people, how do they become incorporated into this group in such a way that the group behaves as though they are? In other words, once a community, whether genetically related or not, has been formed, how does one become a part of that family. The answer lies in the concept of adoption.

Adoption is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament. Hints of it can be found in the Gospel of Matthew, Hebrews, Ephesians, Peter, and several other places. Paul in particular emphasizes that we when live according to the Spirit we become adopted children of God. In our passage from Romans today, he says:

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs– heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Now there are two components to this adoption that jump out at us right away.

1) First, as adopted children of God we become heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. In Jewish culture, much like our culture today, when a child was adopted into a family, they were instantly considered to be an integral part of that family. They held all of the same responsibilities, liabilities, and rights of genetic offspring. This included the right to an inheritance. In a culture where wealth was essentially measured in land and flocks, this was of special importance. Without an inheritance, one would be left homeless and destitute if the patriarch of the family suddenly died.
But with an inheritance, a person was guaranteed to be able to take care of their family. They would receive a portion of the wealth, prestige, and authority of the patriarch.

Likewise, as adopted children and heirs of God, we are promised an inheritance from God. We are to share in his glory for all eternity. If this is true, then the community of faith can best be viewed as a family of siblings. Each new addition to the community is adopted into this family like their older siblings before them.

2) Second, as adopted children of God we also receive the responsibilities that go along with any inheritance. Though the last part of verse 17 is often left out of readings, it contains critical information about this inheritance. In fact, it lays out that there is a condition, or responsibility, of the inheritance. We are called to suffer with Christ.

Paul has a great deal to say about suffering in this life – more than we have time to look at right now. So what I want you to carry away from this passage is the truth that, though we are indeed adopted children of God and heirs to his Kingdom, this does not come without responsibility. One aspect of this responsibility, the one we are concerned with today, is a responsibility to those who share in this divine sonship – those sitting around you in the pews this morning. We will return to the topic of responsibility a bit later on. So far, we have briefly looked at how a person comes into a community of faith, but we also need to look at how this inclusion into the community changes our view of family.

III. Faith Ties vs. Genetic Ties (Ruth 1)

For this, let’s revisit the story of Ruth from our Old Testament reading this morning. Naomi was a Jewish woman from Bethlehem who moved to Moab with her husband and two sons. Some time after they moved, Naomi’s husband died, and her two sons married Moabite women.

Now, in Israelite culture, inheritance passed through the male side of the family – father to son, and so forth. So, when a woman became a widow, she was essentially left with nothing, and relied on any sons to take care of her. This would have been the case for Naomi as well, but scripture tells us that both of her sons died just ten years after her husband, leaving not only Naomi, but also her daughters-in-law, without anyone to care for their needs.

Naomi decides at this point to return home to Judah, in hopes that the Lord would provide for her there, but she sent her daughters-in-law back home to their families, in hopes that they could remarry. Now Orpah listened to Naomi and went back to her home, but Ruth had a different response.

Ruth 1:16-17 says:

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

Ruth so fully identified herself with the community of which she was a part that no social, economic, religious, or even genetic bonds could pull her away from her responsibilities to that community.

In the same way Christians are to cling to the community of faith – even to the extent that in some situations, this communal bond supercedes a genetic bond. Now what do I mean by this? I am not suggesting that when a person becomes a member of the body of Christ, that he or she separate themselves from family. However, there are some special circumstances where the needs and responsibilities of the Christian community may overshadow the needs and responsibilities of a genetic family member.

I know that Dr. Thobaben has spoken about this issue in the past, but it is an important concept that is often very difficult for us to accept. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is with a practical example.

Illustration:
Our daughter Janna will be a year old on April 9th. Sarah and I both look forward to many long years watching her grow into a young woman. However, if the worst should happen, and we are both killed in a car crash following the service today, we would want the best possible care to be provided for her. The best possible care that I can think of can only be provided in a solid Christian home, where obedience to God is both modeled and taught.

Now we are blessed with families who have been faithful to God. But if our families were not believers, we would have to decide what is best for our child. In such a case, we would want to leave Janna’s care to someone in the Christian community – even someone outside of her genetic family. In this case, the needs and responsibilities of our genetic family have been superceded by those of the community of faith – the body of Christ. And in such cases we, as the community, must be willing to step in and accept responsibility for things that were unexpected, and perhaps uncomfortable for us.

IV. Life Together (Acts 2)

We have talked so far about how a person becomes a member of the faith community, and how this then reframes their concept of family. Now it is time to look at how this new family should live together. One of the earliest and best examples of the faith community living together can be found in Acts chapter 2:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 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, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

In this passage we are shown a community that is truly living into the definition of family. Though not all of them are genetically related, they are behaving as though they are. In a community such as this, all physical needs are met; each member learns and grows along side the others. They fellowship together in their homes. And they meet together as a community to worship the God who has adopted each and every one of them as his child.

I am not suggesting that we need to sell all of our possessions and live together in a Christian commune – although God has called some to do just that. What I am suggesting is that we reframe our picture of Christian community, picturing it as a great extended family, rather than a place where we get together once or twice a week to sing some hymns and hear a talented student preach J

It is a place where each member demands the rights of inheritance, but also accepts the responsibilities of kinship. And so at long last we get back to the topic of responsibility, as I promised.

V. Responsibility

Not all examples of communal responsibility are as dramatic as the example I gave concerning Janna. For some it may be as simple as taking the time to invest an afternoon into the life of another Christian. Taking someone a meal, asking them how they are developing spiritually, asking if you can baby sit wile they take a break (hint, hint). All of these are ways in which we are called to assume responsibility for our fellow Christians.

I am not suggesting that we are all capable of meeting every need within the community. But I am suggesting that each of us is capable of, and in fact gifted to, meet a need of someone else in the body of Christ. I would challenge you to stop and consider if God has placed someone on your heart this morning. Is there a need there that you are gifted to meet? If so, what is holding you back?

If each one of us is not in some way, every day, investing ourselves into the lives of other Christians, then we are failing to uphold our responsibilities to the community of faith.

Remember the boy who couldn’t remember his baptism? I told you that the solution to this dilemma lies in community. Now I am going to tell you how. If each of us invest ourselves into the lives of other Christians and members of the community of faith, we will be living in such a way that the memory of baptism doesn’t have to reside with one individual – it will instead reside within the collective memory of the Body of Christ. A child will not need to ask about his or her baptism, because he or she will be reminded daily of their adoption as children of God. This is what it means to be of one mind, one body.

Now as we prepare for baptism, I urge you to think seriously about how you, as the community of faith, are an integral part of the way in which God ministers through this means of Grace.

[1] http://farmstrong.blogspot.com/2006/10/baptism-dilemma_27.html

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Gospel Truth

Our seminary chapel service today is one which has been highly anticipated by many on and off campus for some time now. Our guest speaker, Friar Raniero Cantalamessa, is a man of small stature and humble appearance, yet with a position of great status in the Catholic church. You see, the friar has been serving for some years now as the preacher to the Papal household.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting today. On the one hand, it is exciting to see the budding relationship between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, as we strive to worship God as a fellowship of believers, rather than a segmented smattering of denominations. So, perhaps part of me expected a lecture on unity as a body of believers.

Fr. Cantalamesa is also a distinguished scholar, having written many books and holding two Doctoral degrees. So part of me hoped for a treatise expounding on some theological concept.

What I received instead was something both totally unexpected and profoundly significant. I received a call to repent and believe.

As Fr. Cantalamessa spoke in his slow, quiet, heavily accented voice, what I heard was a declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is simply this;

1) Grace is freely offered to all.

2) This grace enables us to have faith and believe that Christ is Lord.

3) Once embraced, this faithful acceptance of grace frees us from the bondage of sin and the pain of death, so that we might live abundantly and obediently.

As I sat in my pew and listened, I was amazed to discover that this godly man was challenging the entire seminary, full of men and women training for ministry, to repent and believe – and to take up our cross and follow Him, that is Christ.

He remembered the great commission. He remembered the Gospel. He reminded us of both, and shared the hope of the Kingdom Message with us. This is the essence of our call.

Praise be to God!