Church is a Group Activity (1): Common Citizenship: Common Family
I happened across a poem not long ago that I want to share with you this morning. It illustrates a truth and presents a challenge regarding the subject before us for the next couple of weeks. The poem goes like this.
I think that I shall never see
A Church that’s all it ought to be:
A Church whose members never stray
Beyond the Strait and Narrow Way:
A Church that has no empty pews,
Whose Pastor never has the blues,
A Church whose Deacons always deak,
And none is proud, and all are meek:
Where gossips never peddle lies,
Or make complaints or criticize;
Where all are always sweet and kind,
And all to other’s faults are blind.
Such perfect Churches there may be,
But none of them are known to me.
But still, we’ll work, and pray and plan,
To make our own the best we can.
Kind of cute, right? But don’t fail to catch the last two lines – “But still we’ll work and pray and plan, To make our own the best we can.” That’s our challenge folks. Nothing is clearer in Scripture than the fact that we were not saved to operate in isolation. That runs counter to the whole purpose of God in our salvation and in His ultimate purpose in the universe. Remember that purpose as expressed in Ephesians 1:9-10: 9) making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10) as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. What is God’s ultimate purpose? To unite all things in Christ. He’s about peace – about bringing people together. What is mind-boggling about the whole thing is that He plans to use the church, the body of Christ, to help accomplish that purpose.
God has saved us to be part of a group, to have corporate identity. He expects our membership in the church universal – that body of all believers, past, present and future, to be reflected in our participation and membership in a local body of believers.
Church is a group activity where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – where we have the high calling to reflect in our loving and caring relationships the character of our Triune God Himself. To help us understand more fully what the church is all about, Paul gives us three pictures, three images, three perspectives on the church. He has just driven home that point that these NT believers are neither Jew nor Gentile but a whole new entity – the body of Christ, the church. Having established that principle, he is now ready to further enlighten us on this new entity using three illustrations – a country, a family and a temple. Let’s begin our study of these examples.
I. The Church is a Country (We’re Equally Privileged)
First of all, the church is a country. Reading in Ephesians 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints. You can see right off the bat that those Gentile believers in Ephesus were not saved to stand alone, to be in isolation, to tough it out on their own. Rather, right away he reminds them that they are fellow citizens with all the saints – imagery that brings to mind a city or country. We are citizens together.
In fact, Paul’s point here really is that our new citizenship should take precedence over any former ethnic or national ties that existed. Much as they loved and took their identity from their country, their new citizenship was far more important because it was eternal. We have lost the emphasis on this in our day, but to be fellow citizens with the saints is a big deal.
Paul begins by stressing the unity that comes from being fellow-citizens of the same city. And to make the point more graphic he first reminds them where they are coming from. He says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens.” Implication – you certainly were strangers and aliens in the past, but no more. That’s all changed.
The word “stranger” refers to someone allowed in a country, but with no rights and privileges. In the ancient world, even more than now, strangers were regarded with suspicion and a stigma was attached to them. The question foremost in everyone’s mind was, “What is that foreigner doing in our city?” In large cities today you can enter as a stranger and no one even knows you’re there, but not then. A stranger arrived and everyone knew.
The word “alien” generally referred to a resident alien, someone who had established a bit more of a permanent residency, but still without citizenship and national rights. The first is like a tourist; the second is like someone staying in a country on a residence visa. Neither was especially welcome. I well remember the first time I traveled to Venezuela on business. We had an agent there who had offered to meet me at the airport, but I was coming in at a very late hour, and I assured him that I would be fine to take a cab to the hotel and we could meet the next morning. However the experience turned out to be a bit more challenging. First of all, I was in the middle of clearing customs when chaos broke loose. There were suddenly large, aggressive German Shepherd dogs with very huge teeth everywhere, sniffing everything, clearly trained to identify drugs, but who knew what else might trigger them. Men with automatic weapons were first milling through the crowd and then becoming quite animated and most of us were just looking for a way to be as inconspicuous as possible. It turned out that some colonel in the national police was leaving the country with a stash of illegal drugs; he didn’t quite make it, but it was unnerving to others watching.
Once I finally got through customs, I waited for an hour for my luggage. No luck. Never came. So now I was faced with trying to find out who to report to at the very late hour, how to communicate my loss given the very primitive condition of my Spanish and what to do about appropriate clothing for the next day. Long story short, I finally got myself to a hotel, but luggage didn’t show up until I was arriving back at the airport to leave the country three days later. Meantime, I had learned, it’s not much fun to be a foreigner in another country where you are not familiar with the customs, language and basically don’t know anyone.
Such had these Gentiles been in the past as strangers from the revelation of God coming through the nation of Israel. But all that had changed. Now, almost miraculously, they were fellow citizens with the saints. Fellow citizens. That is a changed condition. Citizenship was an even greater source of pride in the ancient world than it is today. In the Greco-Roman culture to which Paul was writing in Ephesus, citizenship was highly personal. One’s city, or polis, provided one’s identity. The city’s laws were a part of one’s being, its customs a source of pride. Its inhabitants were one’s lifelong friends. Now according to Paul’s testimony in Phil 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are all citizens together of heaven – it’s a citizenship we have now. That’s really an amazing statement. True believers have a figurative passport whose country of origin is marked “Heaven”. How about that? As proud as we are to be Americans, our heavenly citizenship should dwarf that in our minds. There is much that this means, but let’s look briefly at two benefits that come from this common citizenship.
A. We have Common Placement
The church is an entity whose home country is heaven, and as a member of this entity, we all have a place. We are not homeless or second-class citizens in someone else’s homeland. We have a place in the city of God. We are fellow-citizens with every other saint, and hopefully that is a cherished position.
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, but he immigrated with his family to Canada, then got a job teaching in the Boston School system. From that time forward his home remained in America though he vacationed in Nova Scotia often and died there in retirement in 1922. One his tombstone, this is the epitaph that he created for himself.
Alexander Graham Bell
March 3, 1847
A Citizen of the U. S. A.
One would have expected that Bell would have listed some of his numerous inventions and honors which included the telephone. All telephone service in the US was stopped for one minute at the time of his death in tribute to him. But that he was “a citizen of the U. S. A.” was his most cherished accomplishment; and it was his wish that such be engraved on his tombstone. He saw as of prime importance that which we take so much for granted. Are you a Christian today? Well, then, that is your most cherished possession.
There was a very telling incident in the life of Christ and his disciples. According to Luke 10, at one point in his ministry he sent out 72 disciples to go throughout the countryside to preach the gospel of the kingdom. When they returned there was a very interesting exchange with Jesus as recorded in Luke 10, beginning with verse 17: The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18) And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19) Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. (Impressive, wouldn’t you say?) 20) Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Just imagine if you will going out to minister for the Lord and finding that you have the power to heal people and to cast out demons almost at will. I’m sure we would be just as excited as were these folks. But where does Jesus refocus their priorities? He basically says, “Listen, don’t waste your time rejoicing over this miraculous ability that I have given you. It’s temporary at best. You want to rejoice? Rejoice over this, that your name is written in heaven. You have a place. You are a citizen of heaven. Now that is something to rejoice over.” That’s Jesus’ perspective on the subject.
Jesus says it this way in Matt 13:44, “44) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Do you rejoice in your salvation? Do you see that nothing you possess comes close to matching that wonderful gift of salvation – not money, lands, houses, country or even family? Nothing. If you have salvation, you are a citizen of heaven, no longer a stranger to God and you have the most wonderful gift ever imagined. We must treasure it, and we must make sure that no one who truly knows Christ ever feels like a stranger in our midst either. We are fellow citizens. It does not get any better than that.
B. We Have Common Privileges
The second thing we note about being fellow-citizens is that we have common privileges. Paul says we are fellow citizens with the saints. In the city of God, no one is better than anyone else; there is no elite, no bad side of the tracks, no favoritism. Jews do not become Gentiles and Gentiles do not become Jews. Everyone has become a citizen of heaven and part of the new creation that God has made.
Interestingly enough, pride in position was a problem in the early church, even for one as great as Peter. Turn with me to Acts 10. Remember how God gave Peter a vision of a great sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds on it. Let’s take up with verse 13 of Acts 10: And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14) But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15) And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16) This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. You may recall that as Peter was contemplating what this all meant, he received a delegation asking him to come and visit a Godly Gentile, a Roman centurion of all things, named Cornelius.
Peter went with the group to Cornelius’ house, but he made plain his feelings in 10:27: 27) And as he (Peter) talked with him (Cornelius), he went in and found many persons gathered. 28) And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29) So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” Cornelius then gave him the opportunity to preach the gospel which he did and which God blessed with the outward sign of tongues, thus authenticating the experience for Peter. Peter followed up by reporting back to the church leaders in Jerusalem who did not for one moment understand his going to the Gentiles, but when Peter explained, to their credit, they accepted this new development. Peter said in Acts 11:17: 17) If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18) When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Isn’t it amazing that the prejudice of these basically very good people was so deep that they were astounded that God would grant repentance to Gentiles. Could hardly believe it, but now they saw that it was so. So far, so good, right? How much more clear could it be?
But we are all human, are we not? And Peter was about as human as anyone could be, so we have this remarkable passage of Scripture in Galatians 2 describing an event that occurred some time after Peter had seen Cornelius. Let’s let Paul describe what happened in Galatians 2: But when Cephas (another name for Peter) came to Antioch (where Paul first ministered after being saved), I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12) For before certain men came from James (leader of the church back in Jerusalem), he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party (Peter was reverting to his tendency to become fearful when the chips were down). 13) And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas (faithful Barnabas was not about to take on Peter – rather he followed him) was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14) But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul had to call Peter out for his callous disregard for the equality of person that existed under God in the church. To the credit of both, the issue was resolved peacefully.
Peter had forgotten that in Christ, we have common privileges as citizens of heaven. It was abominable that Peter would rejoin his Jewish friends in shunning the Gentiles, just because of their race. Paul had to deal with the same problem in I Corinthians 11, only there it wasn’t a race issue, but a financial or class issue. In Corinth, the rich people were celebrating the Lord’s Supper with a feast of their own making while leaving their poorer brothers without. Paul condemns the practice in no uncertain terms indicating that some were sickly and some even dead among them because of this gross abuse of the Lord’s Table.
I think the application here is crystal clear. When it comes to fellowship the church is to be absolutely blind to issues of race, culture, color, class, finances, gender or any other differentiation that someone might invent.
Most of you probably know about the old Yankee ballplayer, Yogi Berra. Yogi is very famous for his unique comments on life. He once visited Pope John XXIII. Yogi told of this meeting in a now-famous interview:
Yogi: You know, he must read the papers a lot, because he said, "Hello, Yogi."
Reporter: "And what did you say?"
Yogi: "I said, ’Hello, Pope.’"
I don’t imagine most people would do that, but I’ll tell you this. It’s good theology. It illustrates that while there are leaders in the church, no one is favored above anyone else. No one is more important than anyone else. I am deeply, deeply honored to be your pastor and teacher, but that doesn’t make more of me than anyone else. That’s why I’m happy to be called Dave. Now some of you have children and want to teach them respect for the office and use Pastor Dave, that’s fine. Or some of you are more comfortable or used to the term Pastor, that fine. It’s an honored term. I’m always reminded of Henry Kissinger when he became Secretary of State. The media asked, “Dr. Kissinger, what shall we call you now?” He replied, “Well, I don’t stand on protocol on these things. Your Excellency will work just fine.” So, Excellency will work – or Pope will also work! Or Bishop. But so does Dave. See, we’re all fellow-citizens together – no one more important than anyone else in the church seen as a country of fellow citizens. Any pride should simply be in the fact that we are citizens at all – that our names are written there. That was Jesus’ perspective.
II. The Church is a Family (We are equally accepted)
Now, second, we see that the church is a family. Isn’t this a wonderful concept? We’re a family – and hopefully not a dysfunctional one. Look again at verse 19: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Literally this reads, we’re God’s housemates. Isn’t that something?
Now, what is Paul’s point in reminding the Ephesians that they are members of the household of God? Being members of a household can mean a lot of positive things, but in this context, where he has been talking about diverse groups being molded into one new creation of God, the emphasis must be on the common acceptance that we all find in the household of God. If the picture of the city shows us that we have equal privileges, with no rank and no hierarchy, the picture of the family shows that we are all equally accepted, all equally wanted. This is a place where we belong.
Robert Frost wrote a poem called “The Death of the Hired Man”. Part of it went like this:
Home is the place where,
when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.
Home is the place where you can be yourself. As members of God’s household we are in satisfying, tender relationship with one another. Paul tells Timothy that in the church we are to relate to older men as fathers and says in I Timothy 5:1-2: 1) Do not rebuke an older man (and I want to remind you all – I am now an older man!) but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2) older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. That’s what it means to be part of the household of God. It is to treat each other as family in the best sense of the word. It is to think of each other as family – to engage, to encourage, to care.
The horizontal relational implications of our being God’s family are beautiful. Family is the place where you can be yourself and be assured you are accepted – where we have brothers and sisters and parents and children in Christ – where they are not perfect, but neither are we.
Above anything else we should be a place where people feel that they belong without worrying about credentials, achievements, beauty, position or any other outward trapping. Listen, we live in a world that says it’s all about having fun, getting all you can. Here’s the heritage of that kind of thinking.
On December 5, 1988, People magazine reported the death of Christina Onassis. The daughter of Aristotle Onassis, she was one of the richest women in the world who could buy anything her heart desired. Yet she died at age 38 of a pulmonary edema caused by excessive drug use. She was rich – and yet she was impoverished. As her stepsister Henrietta Gelber commented: "She lacked a sense of achievement, what she was striving for was just to be a normal human being with normal family relationships, which was virtually impossible in her situation. She had houses all over the world, but she never really had a home."
Contrast that with a simple man, a farmer turned construction worker, who died about three years ago. He left behind a modest home, a few tools and not much else of physical things. He was a good man, but not perfect. But here is the legacy he left.
First, his family knows exactly where he is today because his faith in Jesus Christ was unambiguous. Everyone who knew my dad knew he loved Jesus and that he had trusted him as Savior and Lord.
Second, during the last six years of his life, he showed that while this world cannot deliver – while a mere leakage of blood in the brain can leave you without half your body and with diminished mental capacity, without the ability to speak an intelligible word, yet you can love as he showed by his eyes and by the hugs that he distributed with his big left arm. And then that had would point straight up and he would look up because unlike Christina Onassis, who tragically left billions but never had a home – he always, from age 23 on, had a place, a citizenship, a home and he was ready to go. And he always pointed other people to that home as well. He always knew it wasn’t about this life.
Now, it’s Father’s Day so let me talk to the men for just a moment. Men, here’s the thing. We all leave a heritage. All of us. What will yours be? Will your family remember you as a nice guy who left a few thousand but whose life was about getting – pleasure, possessions, position. Or will they remember a man who pointed them to his heavenly Father – always looking to eternal and not temporal things – and who at his death most certainly arrived at his home in heaven.
Do you even have a heavenly Father? You say, “I thought everyone had a heavenly Father. Isn’t God the Father of us all?” Sadly, no He isn’t. The Bible says it this way in John 1:12, “But as many as received Him, as believed in His name, to them He gave the power to become children of God.” You become a child of God when you confess your sins and accept His gift of salvation. It takes an act of your will. He doesn’t force Himself on anyone.
If you don’t know Him, what better day to receive Him? If you do, what better time to live for Him?