Elevators can be interesting places. Especially crowded ones. Have you ever found yourself packed into a sixty-square-foot box with a bunch of people you've never met, and don’t want to? Nobody talks to each other. Even when two people who had been talking step into an elevator, they suddenly stop talking. Nobody makes eye contact. You focus on the ceiling or you watch the floor number buttons light up. Nobody touches. Everyone tries to maintain those precious few inches of ‘personal space’. Strange things go on in elevators.
A few weeks ago when I was in Nashville for a conference, I checked into my hotel and then headed to the elevator to go up to my room. The doors opened and I stepped into that sixty-square-foot box which was already occupied by three other individuals, who like myself, were all toting suitcases and briefcases. We ascended one floor and took on two other passengers. At the third floor the doors parted to reveal a really large man ... probably my height, but with another one-hundred pounds on him. We all gave him that “hey-you-aren’t-gonna-try-to-get-in-here-are-you?” kind of looks. But he did get in. We all immediately lost that ‘personal space’ each of us had been trying to maintain. When he stepped aboard there wasn’t room enough for him to turn around. As the door slid shut behind him, he smiled big and said loudly, “You might have wondered why we called this meeting today!” The place broke up with laughter. It was the most amazing sight to watch. People actually began talking and relating to each other.
In many respects that elevator is a microcosm of our culture today: a large, impersonal society where anonymity, isolation, and independence are the rule of the day. That experience reminded me that people can be surrounded by other people in a crowded setting, and not experience community. And when we do experience community it’s usually on Facebook! The sad truth of today’s culture is that we can be part of a company, a club, or a church and not feel like we belong or are accepted. The sad truth of today’s culture is that we can share a car pool, an office, a school locker, and even a home and not have significant relationships.
That was not the case with Paul, the apostle. He was born in Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem, lived in Damascus, spent formative time in the desert, moved to Antioch, and that was only the beginning. After experiencing God’s calling, he ventured out from Antioch on three extensive missionary campaigns, traveling from city to city. Yet wherever he went he established a band of people who huddled together in supportive and encouraging community.
How was he able to create significant relationships? First Thessalonians, one of Paul’s most personal letters, identifies some of the key components for establishing and maintaining community.
I. CONCEDE YOUR NEED FOR OTHERS (v. 7)
- "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, ESV)
- just as a child needs a mother we need each other
- in another letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul identified this need to belong
- he compared the Church to the human body with its various members
- “ ... The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,” (1 Corinthians 12:20–22, ESV)
- God planned it that way
- all the way back in the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18)
- ILLUS. We are not rocks and we are not islands. Some of you baby-boomers who remember the music of Simon and Garfunkel will remember one of their more melancholy songs entitled I Am a Rock. Listen to the mournfully intones of the second and forth stanzas :
- 2) I've built walls, A fortress deep and mighty, That none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It's laughter and it's loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island.
- 4) I have my books And my poetry to protect me; I am shielded in my armor, Hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. He ends by saying: And a rock feels no pain; And an island never cries.
- a person can choose to build a fortress where he can be safe from attack, safe from pain, and hence never need shed any tears
- but hopefully the person will realize that a rock feels no joy either
- the room that is cozey as a womb becomes a tomb
- but alone in that room, the heart, given enough time, will become hard and incapable of any feeling
- ILLUS. Way back in 1943 Abraham Maslow, professor of psychology at Brandeis University, developed a theory of human developmental psychology, which focused on the stages of growth in humans. His conclusion was that each of us has various levels of need. As we satisfy one level, we then move up to the next level. There are six-tiers in this ‘hierarchy of needs’. Maslow's research revealed that one of these fundamental tiers of human development is to be a part of a group, affiliating with others, experiencing caring and sharing relationships.
A. THE CHURCH IS THE COMMUNITY OF CHRIST
- “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—” (Ephesians 4:4, ESV)
- there is a unity and oneness that permeates the Godhead
- God is One, and yet we understand Him in three personalities–God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit
- the same unity should permeate the Christian community
- the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Church at Ephesus that there is one body
- that body is the Body of Christ–His Church
- the Apostle Paul also tells us that there is one Spirit
- that Spirit is God’s Holy Spirit who indwells all believers and unites us spiritually
- the Apostle Paul tells us lastly that there is one hope that belongs to your call
- that hope is the resurrection of believers in Christ at the end of the age
- these are the fundamentals of the faith that unite all believers regardless of their denominational label
- once we identify ourselves as followers of Christ, we must identify with His Church by becoming part of a local New Testament congregation of like-minded believers
- despite all the significant differences we may encounter among fellow believers, we must focus on what we have in common
- the enemy wants us to focus on our differences
- his aim is to distract believers from experiencing community
- the result is that people abandon the community of Christ and they become spiritual rocks and spiritual islands
- ILLUS. Woman in Lifeway Book store who confessed that she was a Christian, but church life had scared her and now she was un ‘unaffiliated Christian’.
- you may never feel any pain or experience any tears, but neither will you know the joy of life in a community of believers
II. CULTIVATE DEEP RELATIONSHIPS (v. 8)
- “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, ESV)
- do not take relationships lightly
- to survive in a cold and cruel world requires deep relationships
- but those relationship do not just happen, they require effort
- we have to do more than just reach out to others, we have to share our lives with others as well
- this truth was one of the secrets of Paul’s establishment of supportive relationships
- the Apostle tells the Thessalonians that he was affectionately desirous of you because they had become very dear to him
- here was a man that every time he wrote to a church, he would always call by name two, three, or four people that were very close to him
- he had developed significant relationships with these people
A. WORDS THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS
- the 1st is Care—“as a nursing mother nurtures her own children” (v. 7)
- people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care
- the 2nd is Share—“we were pleased to share with you . . . our own lives” (v. 8)
- the word picture of “sharing our lives” continues the mothering idea and paints a picture of a mother nursing her young
- a mother cannot nurse her children without sharing a part of her self with her child
- for us to share with others in deep relationship necessitates that we get up close and personal with another
- one cannot share at a distance
- the 3rd is Dear—“because you had become dear to us” (v. 8)
- Paul loved these people
- and when we love others we do not treat them as a means to an end, but rather as individuals of value
- to communicate our love with others we must dare to talk about our affections
- we must learn the gestures of love—a hug, a handshake, a smile, as well as acts of kindness
- may we never forget that love is something you do, not just something you say
- cultivate deep relationships
III. COMMIT TO AUTHENTICITY (v. 8)
- authenticity occurs when the masks come off, conversations get deep, hearts get vulnerable, lives are shared, accountability is invited, and tenderness flows
- believers in the body of Christ become brothers and sisters
- we will never develop deep and meaningful Christian relationship is we don’t participate in the lives of other believers
- the Apostle Paul described it this way: "We imparted our own lives" (1 Thes. 2:8)’
- Paul did not erect barriers
- He was not aloof
- He opened his life to others
- ILLUS. Reuben Gornitzke, long-time Pastor of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, once said, "We can't simply cheer people on and give them our best wishes. We have to make room for them in our lives."
- ILLUS. When Gene Stallings, former head football coach at Alabama, was an assistant under Bear Bryant a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter began. Stallings was the first assistant to attend the meetings. Bryant was somewhat bewildered. After Stallings had taken the head coaching position at Texas A&M, he received a call from Bryant, “Stallings, you know what is the worst thing that has happened to our football team? It’s the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Those players are doing nothing but hugging on one another, loving on one another, and they won’t hit anybody.” Bryant left Stallings to ponder those assorted Bear facts. After the season, which turned out to be one of the best that Bryant ever had, the Bear called Stallings again. “Stallings, you know what is the best thing that has happened to our football team? It’s the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It has brought such a oneness and closeness to our team. We were unified because of the influence it had on our squad.”
- what happened for the University of Alabama football team can happen anywhere
- people need each other
- we need to take off our masks, admit our need for each other, cultivate relationships, and strive for authenticity
Finally, it is worth noting Martin Buber’s words, "Sin is our failure to grant another his plea for community." May we never be guilty of committing that sin as we build authentic relationships.