Did you ever wonder why so many Christians get spiritually stuck? The Bible’s very, very clear. It says, “If any man, if any woman is in Christ, the old things pass away; behold, all things become new.” And yet, you meet people–sincere, good, I don’t mean slackers–I mean people that really love God. They’ve seen transformation in some very significant areas, and they’re even in the Bible on a regular basis, and they really want to grow, and yet they hit a ceiling or they stall.
There are just some area that just seems to…the temper just never seems to get under the Spirit’s control, or how they say certain things or the way they judge people, or there’s a little private eating disorder over here, an addiction maybe, even on the Internet. And then they feel terrible and they promise God and they recommit their life about 25 times. And then they just feel stuck.
Part of the answer is that the greatest seed in the greatest soil cannot grow in the wrong environment. You might write “Luke chapter 8” or “Mark chapter 4,” parallel passages, and Jesus is talking about calling Himself, He’s the sower, and what He sows is the seed, and the seed is God’s Word, and the soil is the human hearts, the various receptions that the Word of God receives.
And if you know the story, some is on the path and some on the rocky soil. And it’s just the condition of different people’s hearts. And some, where it’s thorny and others is good soil, good and honest hearts, people who are really honest and really want to grow.
But here’s what I want you to get: The greatest seed, God’s Word, in the greatest soil, a good and honest heart, cannot grow in the wrong environment. There are certain things in your life and in my life, in every believer’s life, transformation won’t occur, no matter how much you’re in the Bible, no matter how honest and desiring your heart is, apart from you being in this environment where it can occur.
There is a specific ecosystem or environment that God has that brings about transformation when the seed of God’s Word in your heart and mine is there. And if it’s not there, certain things... you’ll just get stuck.
Notice in your notes, a little Biblical background here, the command of Jesus requires a very specific ecosystem or environment. The very last night on the earth, He’d washed their feet, and then He turned to them and He looked them eye to eye, and He said, “I want you” –this is the new commandment– “to love each other in the same way I’ve loved you.” Sacrificially, authentically, lay down your life for one another. But it requires an environment.
The second is the example of Jesus requires a very specific environment. When He wanted to change the world, He started by teaching. And He went and there was multitudes and thousands and thousands of people, and He did miracles. But then when He wanted to get the team together that would change the world, He stayed up all night, He prayed all night, and He chose twelve to be, the text says, “with Him.”
The multitudes heard the truth. The twelve learned to live the life. There was an environment that they needed to be in for all that truth to get down in their soul and their lives and their relationships.
The practice of the early church and its impact argue for the same environment. You know the story. They were committed in Acts 2...the apostles teaching, and to the fellowship of gathering together, and to the breaking of bread, and to the Lord’s supper.
It says, then, they gathered how? In the temple courts, and Peter or John or someone would preach and teach all these brand new Christians. And then where? From house to house.
Finally, the Church history–past and present–confirms this specific environment for spiritual growth and transformation. And whether I could take you back to the Moravians or the Wesleys or the Welsh revival, and they would get these little societies together, or I could take you to Korea that was completely non-Christian, five, six decades ago, and the cell movement or the small group movement now spanning the earth.
Here’s what I want you to get: The specific environment or ecosystem in which the seed of God’s Word in your heart that’s honest and good and wants to grow is authentic community. It’s authentic community. Notice the form that it takes is a small group. The group could be three people, four people, ten people, but that’s just the form, that’s the container.
Never, ever confuse just being in a small group with authentic community. I’ve been in small groups that there’s no authentic community, haven’t you? Have you ever gone to a small group and someone opens the Bible and reads a little bit, you know, or maybe you watched a little part of the DVD, and someone says, “Well, what did you get for question four? What did you get for question seven? Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice.”
And then some deep question is asked and the answer is, “Oh, maybe I should... I should probably not work so much.” “Oh, okay, thank you for sharing so deeply. Are there any prayer requests?” “Yeah, my hip really hurts, it really hurts,” you know? And then you kind of get over with that, then you get up and the ladies are over here, “Did you hear about that Nordstrom sale or Macy’s? Do you know what’s going on there?”
And the guys are over here going, “Man, those Giants are doing it now. The 49ers, I’ll tell you what, that linebacker.” And then you eat a few more little treats and you get in your car and say, “Wasn’t that great?” Well, it was, but just don’t call it authentic community. It’s a good start. It’s a connection. At least you know some people.
But authentic community is deeper. Authentic community is this environment where people lay down their lives for one another. Authentic community is where you take a group of people and they say, “You know what, we’re going to change the world,” and they were around Jesus. Authentic community is living under persecution and hearing God’s Word and going from house to house to support one another to live it out.
In fact, it raises two very important questions. Question number one is: What is authentic community? And then question number two is: How do you get it? And the answer to both those questions is in Romans chapter 12, verses 9 to 13. And in verse 1, we learn that what God really wants from all of us is what? He wants us to surrender to Him, all we are, all that we have. In verse 2, we said there’s an enemy of our soul. There’s a world system that’s trying to woo and seduce our heart away from our Savior. And we’re “not to be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,” to be separate from the world’s values.
In our last session, we looked at verses 3 through 8, and we learned that we’re not to think too high or too low, but to have a sober self-assessment, to know where we fit in the body. And now what he’s going to talk about is serving in love. He’s going to talk about what kind of relationships are we to have as fellow believers. In verse 9, you’re going to see that authentic community is the “real you” showing up. Verse 10 is going to say that the “real you” needs to meet real needs. And then in verse 11, he’s going to say the “real you” needs to meet real needs but for the right reason. And in verses 12 and 13, the “real you” needs to meet real needs for the right reason and do it in the right way.
For some of you, you love God, you have a good heart, you’re taking in God’s Word, but you’re stuck. There’s a ceiling. You have these outbursts of anger and you feel terrible about it. You have issues in your life that you know you don’t want and you’ve told God “I’m sorry” and you want to change and you’ve tried hard to change, but you still don’t see any radical transformation.
I’m telling you, this moment on this day may be God’s answer to the environment in which some of those things you’ve struggled with so long He can change. But it doesn’t happen alone. So let’s look together, what is authentic community, and maybe more importantly, how do you get it?
First, from verse 9, authentic community is the “real you,” not a projection of yourself. Last week, we talked about a sober self-assessment and how so many of us... you know, right? Those holograms that we give out to people, that image-casting that we do that we want people to kind of think this of us.
See, you can’t have authentic community unless the “real you” shows up. Authentic community, he says, “Let love be sincere. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good.” The two characteristics of the “real you” showing up is, one, authenticity, and two, it’s purity.
Paul is borrowing from the Greek of his day, and in the Greek theater of that day, they were all male actors. And they dressed up in different costumes, and then there would be a mask that you would wear. So you would throw your voice.
And Paul takes that word for the mask, and that’s this word. He says, “Let love be without a mask, without hypocrisy.” Let the “real you” show up. Yes, you got to be discerning and you got to be careful of who you share the “real you” with, but he’s saying that authentic community isn’t just getting in a small group. It’s when the “real you” is showing up and you let people see who you are, progressively, wisely, discerningly.
In fact, jot in your notes, if you would, “Acts chapter 5.” This is important. This is beyond important. Some people never experience this their entire Christian life, and they can never figure out why they don’t experience the transformation power that God has promised us in Scripture.
Now, I didn’t grow up as a Christian. And so my first trip through the New Testament was like, “Oh, wow.” Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. I didn’t even know the names of stuff. And then I got to Acts and I figured out, okay, this is the early Church history. And it’s pretty exciting stuff.
And then you get to chapter 5, and the Church is exploding, and so there are all these needs. I mean, tens of thousands of people are now in the Church in a very short amount of time. And about 80% of them are slaves, and a very small percentage are pretty affluent people, some in Herod’s household and others.
And they did this–in this time of emergency–they did this sort of unusual thing where they all came together and they said, “We need to help each other. We need to be devoted to one another.”
And so in chapter 4, it gives an example of this very wealthy man who had a piece of property in Cypress on this island, which is the equivalent of downtown San Francisco or Manhattan, in that day. And so he sells it and he takes the money, and he says, “Look, you take this to meet the needs of the people in the church. They’re really hurting.”
It was so sacrificial, it was so generous. And people were like, “Boy, I guess this is what it means to love one another.” And his name was Barnabas. And I think Barnabas got this reputation because they started calling him the “son of encouragement.”
And the story goes on in Acts chapter 5. Jot that down because before your head hits the pillow, you ought to read it. It’s not very long. It’s very interesting. Ananias and Sapphira. They kind of look around and they think, wow, everyone’s talking about Barnabas. We wish people would talk about us like that. We sure wish people would think we’re that generous and loving and kind.”
And so they hatched this plan. And the plan is, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to sell this piece of property, and we’ll get the money, and we’ll tell people that we sold it for this much money and, we gave it all away, but we’ll really keep back the money for us, so we’ll kind of have our cake and eat it, too. We’ll appear generous and loving and sacrificial, but we’ll still have the major part of the money.
And so, he comes and talks to Peter, and God reveals to Peter what’s going on. And Peter says, “Ananias, why have you lied to the Holy Spirit? Before it was sold, it was yours. After it was sold, it was yours. You aren’t compelled to give a little or a lot.” The issue is integrity. And then right there, bam, he dies. I mean, literally drops dead. For what? His hypocrisy. The very first sin in the Church is hypocrisy, and the judgment is death.
His wife comes a few hours later. And I’m thinking Peter’s going, “I sure hope she’s not in on this.” And so he says, “Sapphira, it’s good to see you. How are things going?” “Oh, pretty good.” “How are the kids?” I’m adding just a little. And she said... he says to her, “So did you sell this piece of land for such and such a price?” “Oh, yes. You know, Ananias, when you’re married to such a generous, loving, kind, amazing husband like I have, and we sacrificially have given it all away…” I’m again reading between the lines.
And Peter looks at her and, I think, just with sadness in his heart, and he said, “The young men’s feet who took away your husband shall take you away as well.” Bam, she dies on the spot. And it says a great fear came among the church. Yeah, are you kidding?
Now, you got to understand...can you imagine if you’ve never read the Bible before and this is your first time through the New Testament and you’re a brand new Christian, you’re thinking, so this is what happens to hypocrites? I’m in trouble. I mean, literally it was like, whoa. In fact, if God was acting in this way, I think He was going to make a point. See, if hypocrisy gets in the mix, it’s like leaven and bread. It spreads. And when people aren’t authentic, the message of Jesus would have been wiped out within a few years.
And so God wanted to demonstrate how important this was. I often thought later when I was a pastor, if God did that for 24 hours in the church all across America, all of us would have to turn in our pastors’ badges and become morticians. Probably a lot of us pastors would need other pastors who are doing better than us to bury us.
But do you get it? Do you really get that church, quote, was never, ever intended to be a group of people that come to an event and feel like in some way they’re doing something morally positive because they come to an event, and listen to someone talk about God, and even sing a few worship songs to Him, and then file out, and live life their own way, and not be absolutely connected to one another, and have a safe environment where the “real you” shows up? And you know why the “real you” doesn’t show up? The same reason the “real you” doesn’t show up in me. He says, “Let love be without hypocrisy,” and then it says, “Cling to what is good, hate what is evil.” Literally the word is “abhor what is evil.”
It’s that picture... I remember doing a word study on this, and it’s a picture of being on vacation for like three or four weeks, whoever gets that much time, but that’s really hypothetical. But you’ve been out of town for a while, and there’s a carton of milk or some fruit, and you open the carton of milk to smell it to see, and oh. Have you ever done that? And the smell is so bad you want to throw up. That’s this word. It says, “abhor evil.” Most of us are spending this...I wonder if this is wrong, how close can I get to sin without falling in.
So people in counseling will ask me questions like, “Well, is this rating, this rating, or this rating in this movie, do you think it’s okay if I can do this?” Or, “You know, we’re dating right now and we’re doing this, this, this, and this. Is that really sexual sin or can we...” Or “We have so much money and I want to know is it the gross or is it the net or is... Could I take a percentage...?” Instead of, what’s it say... “Cling to what is good.” Those are completely the wrong question.
The issue isn’t how close can I get to sin, quote, without sinning. It’s how close can I get to God. How pure can I live? Because when you’re pure, not perfect, pure, the “real you” can show up because you can be honest.
And, one of the most powerful and significant experiences you will ever have in your life is being in a small group of people that’s really safe, that really love you and you really love them, and the “real you” shows up, the “real you” that’s making great progress, the “real you” with the frustrations and hurts and struggles, the “real you” with the real problems. And as you bring your struggles, you’re not judged. You’re loved. And the “real you” that needs help gets support and the “real you” that needs accountability, and as we all do, an occasional rebuke. And, you know, what were you thinking? You kind of violated our trust by that.
See, that’s a fundamental part of authentic community, and a lot of people never have that. And so enormous amounts of energy…what we end up doing, instead of allowing God to transform us, the energy is… we have to do sin management. And so we’re spending all this energy trying to either hide or deal with our guilt or deal with our shape or drown it out with food or work or money or shopping or speed.