This last weekend was the Fourth of July. It was a beautiful weekend full of cookouts, family, fireworks and freedom. I hope that your weekend was safe and enjoyable, and that you found time to reflect on our freedoms; both in this country as well as in Christ. I think that it was a remarkable coincidence that the sermon series at Mercy Hill Church was focused on freedom this last Sunday. The passage that we studied began with the words:
Gal 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free...”
If you haven’t listened to the messages yet, I encourage you to find some time to listen to and reflect upon this statement. (mercyhill.org/media) The concepts of this statement, if truly grasped, are life changing and eternity-driven.
However, my purpose for writing this week is not to reflect upon the sermon from last Sunday, but to share an observation and lesson that I learned on the 4th of July.
The neighborhood that I live in has a tradition on Independance day that has been running for the last 48 years. Each year on the 4th the whole neighborhood gathers together at the local park for a small breakfast followed by a parade. In the parade children ride bikes, adults wave flags and the procession ends with singing patriotic songs at the local assisted-living community. This year was the first year that I have been able to attend. While I was excited to attend and participate, it turned into a frustrating experience that I was tempted to simply walk away from. Why you ask?
Simply, I felt isolated and alone. My wife and daughter were with me and as we milled around in the middle of 60+ people (all our neighbors) only 4 people that we already knew approached and talked to us the entire time (about 5 minutes each). Now, I must admit that we have only lived in the area for the last 2 years, and do not know many of the neighbors yet. Also, I must admit that some of that is on us not stepping forward and making connections. However, on that morning I looked for connections to make. But as I looked around all I saw were small groups of people already established in conversation. I felt that it would be rude, as a stranger, to insert myself into the middle of a family group or a group of close friends. As Angie and I looked around it seemed that everyone was already engaged in conversation with the people that they knew and were comfortable with. The morning ended up with us hanging out as a 3 person family group with little interaction with others. As I stated before, I was nearly tempted to just go home.
What struck me that morning was that this often is the experience of visitors to our church. They may come not knowing many people and have the same feelings that I had this last weekend. If we as a church are too busy or too engaged with our friends to notice visitors and connect with them, they may simply leave and never return. Sometimes our natural response to this is that they need to take initiative and connect. There is a small weight of truth to that. However, if our posture is in small closed groups of people that we are comfortable with we will seem closed to the people that are outside of that group, unapproachable, unfriendly or unloving. This may not truly be the case (or it may be) but it is their perception and experience, and they will react to this.
As a church, we are called to be the body of Jesus Christ here on earth, reflecting the Gospel to those that are in need. Yes, we are called to edify and uplift one another within the church, but we need to serve all with love and sacrifice, even if we are uncomfortable approaching those that we do not know. In the passage from the sermon this last Sunday there was a verse that addresses this quite well:
"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Galatians 5:13-14 ESV
Are we free to engage in conversation with our friends at church? Yes.
Are we free to be ministered to by others in the church? Yes.
However, we are not to use the freedom that we have to selfishly consider only our needs, wants, desires and friendships. We are to serve others through love. The perfect example we have of this is Jesus himself:
"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Philippians 2:3-8 ESV
As imitators and ambassadors of Christ we are called to set aside our desires and needs to serve others. We are called to step out of our conversations and comfort on Sunday mornings to greet and engage with visitors and those that we do not know. To reflect Christ to them, to love and serve them, to edify them. To do this, we need to get to know them, do life with them and learn of their struggles and needs, praying with them and helping whenever possible.
Is this easy? No. Is it what we are called to do? Yes. And because we are called to do this we are empowered to do this by the Holy Spirit through faith and love. And if we do this we will be used of God to grow his church, his body. And as we do this, we ourselves will benefit and grow as we come to a deeper understanding of God’s love for us as we sacrificially serve and love as Jesus did.