Who’s in?

[Adapted and abridged from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Who’s In?” Click to listen to the podcast.]

COMMUNITY

Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Bear one another’s burdens—whether it’s a burden of temptation, of sin; or a burden of a difficult situation, a health problem, a loved one’s health problem. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ—that is, love one another.

But bearing one another’s burdens is easier said than done, isn’t it? I like to be the one helping but I don’t like to be the one being helped. We hate having to ask for help. We think it’s a sign of weakness, that it means we haven’t got things together. Or maybe we’d rather not impose on others—but really, that’s an excuse for keeping things in our control (at least, we may think they’re in our control!). We’d rather not be vulnerable; we’d rather not let people in; we’d rather manage on our own, but thanks for asking. America’s rugged individualism and sin’s inclination to isolate are in our bloodstream.

But one of the keys to healing, to restoration, to healthy living, is this: utterly honest relationships of humiliating vulnerability. Twelve-step groups know this truth even better than many churches do. And so Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens.” That means not only being the helper but being the one who needs help. It means not only helping to restore someone with gentleness but being honest about your own problems and struggles so that others can help restore you.

Community is one of the core values of our church, and we celebrate it. Welcoming those who are alone, including those who are isolated, reaching out to those who have been ignored—these actions are all close to my heart, and so I’m always excited and encouraged when people come to a Sunday gathering or get involved with a small group or come to an event and they comment on how welcoming we are.

L to R: Sheldon, Rachel, Heather, Amy, LaToya, and myself.

But community—if it is true—is also hard.

When I first moved to DC, I lived in intentional community with five other interns—we all worked at Sojourners, and we all lived in a house together. We did chores together, had a shared food budget and shopped for food together, cooked together, ate at least five meals a week together, and spent a lot of intentional time together. Now this is a group of people that I didn’t choose, each of whom is different from me. All of us had different interests and hobbies and passions and callings: photography, baking, soccer, running, art, deep conversations. All of us had different dietary preferences and requirements: beans and rice, no dairy, no soy, no meat, only meat. And all of us had a different way of looking at things, of dealing with problems, of communicating or not communicating, of expressing or not expressing frustration. Doing life together that year, spending almost every waking moment in each other’s company taught me what it meant to really love my neighbor, because even if we get to choose who we do life with—those are our closest friends—even then, if those relationships are to be healthy, there has to be honesty and vulnerability, trust and honor, encouragement and accountability, flexibility and graciousness.

Jesus’ twelve disciples are an interesting mix. You have Simon the Zealous, known for his fervor, his earnestness, his commitment to ethnic and religious purity; and you have Matthew the tax collector, a Jew who was working for the Romans to extort money from his own people—tax collectors and sinners were equated with one another all the time! Do you think they got along well from the outset? Do you think that was a walk in the park?

Then you have Peter, brash Peter: the entrepreneur, the activist, the go-getter, the one who walks on water just because Jesus says so, and who leaves his buddies behind to haul in the catch when he sees Jesus on the shore. And you have Thomas, doubting, careful Thomas: the naysayer, the cautious one, the one who keeps his cards close to his chest, who never agrees to do something unless he knows it’s going to be a success. How often do you think those two got on each other’s nerves?

But Jesus called them all, and they learned how to do life together in the presence of God. They came together, rough edges and all, and over time and by the power of the Spirit that came upon them at Pentecost, they were transformed to be more like Christ. And likewise, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells the church, “We are one body. Different parts, different functions, but one body. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

As believers, we are all part of the body of Christ, called to bear one another’s burdens, so when someone here gets married or has a kid or gets a promotion or graduates or completes a recovery program, we all celebrate together. And when someone here loses a loved one or falls into temptation—whatever that looks like—or struggles with being single (or being married or being a parent) or gets fired or is unemployed, we all suffer together.

True community is hard; I’m not going to pretend otherwise. It requires time and effort and sacrifice, give and take, forgiveness and reconciliation—that’s what it takes to live well, to live as we were meant to in the realities of a world as it is now, a world that has been blighted by sin but will be fully restored in due time.

SOWING & REAPING

In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul writes:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Your choices do matter–not as to how much God loves you, not as to how much he desires the best for you, not as to how much grace is available to you; but God has given us freedom, and freedom comes with responsibility. How you choose to live your life matters—whether you choose for yourself, “sowing to your own flesh,” as it says here; or in obedience to God and for the good of others, “sowing to the Spirit.”

Here at The District Church, we often focus on what life with God means in the here-and-now—Christ invites us into a full life now. Forgiveness and restoration are available now. What matters is what happens now. And that’s all true, but part of the reason we emphasize this is because we’re surrounded by a cultural Christianity that does the opposite—that focuses purely on what’ll happen when Jesus comes again, that promises life after death but says nothing about life before death, that treats the here-and-now as something purely to be endured.

But both are a part of the gospel life: both the here-and-now and what is yet to come. We live in the time in-between, between Jesus’s first and second comings, so on the one hand, Jesus has sent his Spirit to enable us to live out our callings in the here-and-now, but on the other hand, the day has not yet come when there is no sorrow or death and there are no tears. And so we pray, “Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” even as we long for and work toward the full restoration of creation, even as we fight against the powers of darkness that still hold sway in our world and show themselves in violence and human trafficking and extreme poverty and domestic abuse and racism and sexism.

I say this to remind us that, while there is more to be lived for in the here-and-now than perhaps we’ve been told or than we think, there’s even more to come that we long for. We like to see results that come instantly. We want to see the fruit of our labor or our effort or our sacrifice right now. We’re not very good at delayed gratification, particularly if we may not see it in our lifetime.

Abraham didn’t see his descendants number like the stars before he died. Moses didn’t enter the Promised Land before he died. By the world’s standards, they failed; but in the eternal perspective—from God’s perspective, they were faithful; and that, more than the world’s standards of success, is what matters.

Even if you don’t see the end of extreme poverty in your lifetime, even if you don’t see peace in the Middle East in your lifetime, even if you don’t see the end of violent conflict or human trafficking, even if you never fully reconcile with your parents, even if you end up unable to salvage a friendship or a marriage, even if you never get promoted to that position you thought would be the pinnacle of your life, even if you never get married or have kids …

Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (vv.9-10)

Now I don’t know what this harvest will look like. There’s a lot we don’t know about the world to come, and I think it’s often unhelpful to spend our time in conjecture or fancy. But I do know this: it involves knowing fully and being known fully, loving fully and being loved fully, living fully in the presence of God. And if the joy and the peace and the love and the grace that we experience so fleetingly in this life here—in the midst of struggle and sorrow and temptation and turmoil and loss—if those are as wonderful as they are even here, I can’t wait for what’s to come.

GRACE

Paul closes—as do I—in verse 18, by returning to grace:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ; this is the good news that the Bible proclaims: that there is grace.  There is grace. There is grace. Man, if only truth could be communicated by repetition alone …

Grace sets us free from a life of nervous anxiety—did I do good enough? What happens now that I’ve messed up? What is wrong with me? And grace sets us free to live into the calling that God has placed on every one of our lives.

Jesus invites all to participate by the power and presence of his Spirit in the full life now and to celebrate an even fuller life in the age to come. Jesus died for all so that all might live. And those who live for him will live differently. This is an invitation to a life that is true: a life that recognizes and acknowledges the awful realities of sin and brokenness, but also recognizes and acknowledges and points to the God who works in the midst of it, who desires relationship, who promises presence and peace. The God who, in the right time, will restore fully, but in the meantime, holds us up, envelopes us, embraces us, and surrounds us with his amazing love.

And so I want us to respond by answering the question that this series poses—not in the way that Paul’s opponents were using it, that is, to ask who was included in God’s grace; but rather in the way that Paul used it, as a challenge and an invitation to the church: “Here is grace. Here is the gospel. Here is God. Here is the Spirit-filled life. Here is freedom—true freedom. Here is life and life to the full! Who’s in?”

Who’s in? I’m in.

With what I know and with what I don’t know, God, I’m in.

With the words I choose to say and not to say, God, I’m in.

With the thoughts I choose to think and not to think, God, I’m in.

With the actions I choose to take and not to take, God, I’m in.

With the time you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the education you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the resources—financial and otherwise—you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the influence you’ve given me, God, I’m in.

With the relationships you’ve blessed me with, God, I’m in.

With the people it’s challenging to be around, God, I’m in.

In choosing to live a life of worship and community and justice, God, I’m in.

In seeking to love you and to love my neighbor, God, I’m in.

In deciding to be humble and vulnerable and honest and gracious, God, I’m in.

With the life I have, God, I’m in.

By the power and presence of your Spirit living in me, God, I’m in.

By the grace—and through the sacrifice—of your Son, Jesus Christ, God, I’m in.

And to share this grace and good news with all I encounter, God, I’m in.

Amen.

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC

Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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