Exponential Fellowship: A caring community by L. Niemeyer

We have covered conviction and covenant in our look at exponential fellowship. A third topic is caring. For conviction, we learned that God is LIFE (1 John 1:1-4). For covenant we learned that God is light (1:5-2:2). For care we will learn that God is love (3:11-18). It is like a three-legged ladder. Yes, ladders need three legs to be useful. Two legs are not enough for stability. We would never climb a ladder that is not against a wall or some object. To try it would be precarious. So, conviction and covenant by themselves, don’t make for exponential fellowship. The third leg is the wall it stands against. The wall provides a firm basis. We need the third leg – caring.

It has been easy for me to talk about conviction and covenant because I am more rational than emotional. My heart can be a little lop-sided when a good balance of intellect, emotions and will is better. Caring touches on the emotions. I wondered how I could speak about caring. I wondered if God as LIFE and LIGHT appealed to me more than God as LOVE. But then God reminded me of the 13 months I walked with my wife through her spreading cancer – right to the last minute of her life. That was caring. The reminder helped. Then God reminded me of a lesson I learned 40 years ago from a book entitled, Love is not a Special Way of Feeling. The author pointed out that love is good-willing not just good feeling. It proceeds from the will – not just the emotions. My emotions during those 13 months were a mess but my love and care for my wife rose from the determination of my will. It was good-willing, not good-feeling. That was an extraordinary time of caring for me.

Exponential fellowship requires strong unshakeable convictions that are explosive. It requires covenant commitment that is exceptional. It also requires a caring community that is extraordinary.

Scripture

1 John 3:11-18 gives us three ways to look at fellowship as a caring community.

Where does such care begin? Verse 11 points to fellowship with a beginning – “This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” A right beginning is contrasted with a wrong beginning (vs.12). And the beginning is a commandment to be obeyed, not to be debated and discussed. Perhaps this is why Cain is mentioned. Could it be that in the years following Adam and Eve’s sin, the years in which Cain and Abel were born and raised, a command to love one another had become necessary to all of their broken lives of separation from God? The story in Genesis 4 shows Cain disobeying and killing instead.

So a caring community begins with a command and obedience is necessary. It doesn’t depend on what we know or what we feel, but how we respond to God. It begins with an act of the will to obey God, not just from something we know or feel. This may raise our hackles. It sounds legalistic, harsh. But the commands of God go far beyond legalism and harshness. They reveal his LIFE and his heart. Even Jesus responded to the father’s commands with obedience: John 6:38 – “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

The commandment which is our beginning is highlighted again in 1 John 2:7-8. “I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you” (2:8). The phrase: “true in him and in you” reveals that Jesus obeyed what he calls us to obey. The command is highlighted again in John 13:34 – “A new command I give you, love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” That last phrase of Jesus, “As I have loved you,” lifts the commandment out of legalism and harshness into the possibilities of living and loving by God’s divine LIFE and heart. God’s laws are based upon His LIFE.  The command was good for him and is good for us. One man said, “By all that God requires of me – I know what He Himself must be.”

So, caring for others begins as a command to obey. It begins at the basic authority of our lives – God’s command. It is about obedience. Unfortunately, fellowship is often present among us as a type of osmosis – a way of soaking up relationships, enjoyment, satisfaction, and a little food. We soak up the atmosphere. Fellowship needs to be present as an obedience.   Fellowship as a caring community begins at obedience.

An interesting beginning is found in the history of the church. It began as a caring fellowship (Acts 2: 42-45). For 300 years after Jesus, there were no church buildings. Christianity was illegal in those times of Roman rule and believers met in homes and secret places. Love and mutual concern unified them during those first three centuries. And, it was in those first three hundred years that the church had its period of greatest growth. Then, church became institutionalized. Christianity was legalized and it became possible for the church to own property, so Christians came out of their ‘home churches’ and started going to church instead of being churches. In the process they lost intimacy and fellowship.  The church was no longer a caring fellowship but an organization.

We need to fight back to the beginnings that lead to a caring fellowship of love.

Though difficult, we have the resources for being a caring fellowship. We often wonder what we need in order to show we care. We think it is money, methods and missions. I spent ten years training 145 men and women (about ten a year) in holistic discipleship – discipleship that affects the intellect, emotions and will. At the end of three years, I encouraged each graduate to go back to their churches and communities and put their training to work, to implement the principles they had learned, to love their neighbors.

They graduated and I suddenly I found myself smothered by requests for programs and projects even though I had taught principles of holistic discipleship that reached out in care for neighbors and community. I had taught them how to make holistic plans but the plans they started giving me were monetary budgets – requests for money. One man wanted to design a project of caring for orphans in his community. He asked for KSsh 1,000,000. I asked why he needed that much money to care for orphans. He explained his dream to buy land and build an office in his community from which he and a secretary would care for the orphans.  Another man was a leader in an area with five churches. He also wanted to care for 125 orphans. I asked how he would do that. He said, “I want to build an orphanage.” I told him I would not help him build an institution but I would help him lead those five churches in caring for orphans. How? By having each church identify families who would care for 1 to 3 orphans. He did that. Now, about 20 churches care for 305 orphans in their communities. They have also undertaken the care of about 100 widows – helping them in small enterprises, providing better houses, and occasionally giving out food and clothing.

In my training I contrasted caring as projects and programs with caring as principles to live by. The contrast is glaring. Let’s read these in a responsive way:

Caring as Projects and Programs Caring as Principles to Live By
Depends on money transactions Depends on transformed people
Professional manpower is sought – experts Community manpower is sought – local skills
Becomes institutional in nature Becomes relational in nature – like a church
Aim:  products and things Aim: people transformed
Responsibility is delegated to officers and committees. Responsibility is assumed by the community as a whole
A few people are targeted The community as a whole is targeted
Result: dependency on outside funds Result: independency from outside funds

I had taught the right side but they were still thinking the left side. But caring is not a project or a program. It is a collection of principles by which to live. Look at 1 John 2:3-6, especially verse 6: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” Jesus created no projects or programs. Yet, he cared.  He demonstrated care. How? Jesus lived by inward principles, not by an outward program. A blind man tried to stop him on his final trip to Jerusalem. The crowd shooed him away.  Jesus stopped and healed him (Luke 18). A woman had bled for 12 years. She just wanted to touch his robe. Jesus felt the power go out of him. He stopped and sought her out (Luke 8). A disciple like John saw how Jesus lived in these small ways. The Holy Spirit gave a name to it. “John you are looking at a totally new resource for caring.” As we will see, that new resource was LOVE.

 

We have the same resources as Jesus for being a caring fellowship. That resource is God’s LOVE that comes with his LIFE.

Now, love as we know it has various meanings. It is universal and popular everywhere. Everyone gives it a unique place in their lives. The topic never becomes exhausted, worn out or irrelevant. Love is still the most talked about and the most dreamed of experience of everyone. Definitions leave much to be desired. Love can’t be taught For some, love is soft lights, sweet music, sentimentality and romanticism. “Love is a warm puppy” – that’s cute. “Love is an itch someone else scratches” – that’s humorous. “Love is never having to say you’re sorry” – that’s challenging. But what is this love?

In 1978, while lying in my bed with malaria in Zambia, the truth about love finally hit me.  Love is a brand new quality of life a Christian receives upon being born again from above. It is not something learned, improved, or willed.  It is something that purely IS – the way God IS!! It is just something lived. Having recognized that, a lot of things began to fall in place. For instance, we missionaries working together had an unfortunate way of thinking sometimes that different ones of us were not showing enough love. By beginning with the assumption that we had all been blessed with God’s LIFE and its LOVE, then our outlook on others and ourselves could change immensely.

That LOVE of God’s LIFE is one of John’s themes. It occurs 43 times in his gospel and 42 times in the three letters. But this LOVE is not something we work up and bring to our caring ways. This LOVE is given to us. It is God’s LOVE that comes with his LIFE in our lives when we are born again. When our love gives out, God’s LOVE kicks in and keeps us going.

Consider the passage before us – 1 John 3:14-16.  We need to reverse the order and look at verse 16 first. The care of Christ for us was not done to soft lights and sweet music. His love was not a warm puppy, a love scratching an itch.  It happened on the cross while people jeered and cursed. It’s final breath was, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” When we grasp the significance of that kind of care, then we can go back to vs.14-15: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love each other.”

Here is LOVE that is as different from ours as is death from LIFE. This resource is an out of this world kind of love. It is called agape. The word was in use during the days of Jesus, but it had a much lesser meaning then than it has now. After the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit put the word ‘agape’ into our vocabulary as it was in the Lord’s. Our human words and meanings for love cannot convey what agape stands for.  That is true of English and of all our vernacular languages. A good example of the contrasts is the Lord’s conversation with Peter in John 21:15-19. This account in John shows two words for love. Jesus asked twice: “John, do you agape me?” Each time, Peter answered, “Lord, you know that I phileo you.” Now phileo is a friendship kind of love.  It was odd that Peter used it. It was as if he ignored the Lord’s word. The third question from Jesus was different: “John, do you phileo me?” You see, Peter never got to agape. Another interesting part of this conversation was what Jesus told John to do: “Feed my lambs . . . Take care of my sheep . . . Feed my sheep.” In other words – care for my people – begin with agape not just phileo.

Agape is different from all human expressions of love. It’s roots are in God’s LIFE not ours.

  • Our loves are acquisitive we long to get something; ‘agape’ is sacrificial love – it longs to give whether it receives or not.
  • Our human loves seek what it can get out of love. We turn everything – even God – into means to gain its own ends. Our loves are given for what can be given back to us. If there is no return, then human love ceases. But with ‘agape’, the case is different.  God is agape – He is self-giving love – eternal.
  • Our loves are characterized by the will to possess- to get; ‘agape’ is the will to distribute and dispense – to give.
  • Our loves are human-centered loves, a form of self-assertion; ‘agape’ is unselfish love, and seeks nothing for itself.
  • Our loves seek to gain human life; ‘agape’ seeks to give God’s LIFE, and therefore dares to give it out.
  • Our loves are conditioned by the quality, beauty and worth of its object; ‘agape’ creates value in its object by the act of loving. Agape doesn’t love somebody because they’re worthy; it makes them worthy by the strength and power of its love. Agape doesn’t love somebody because they’re beautiful: it loves in such a way that it makes them beautiful (Rob Bell, Sex/God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality, Zondervan, 2007:120).
  • Our loves fail – and they fail often for at the center of those loves are the seeds of their own failure – they are self-seeking loves. Agape never fails. Why? Because it is eternal.

Do you see how clearly agape contrasts with human loves? In caring for others, we must ask how much of our love is human and how much is divine. Do we have the necessary resources for caring? Our resource for being a fellowship of caring community is God’s LOVE rising from his LIFE within.

We have a new standard for caring. When it comes to love in our fellowship, we might think of certain people and their personality types – their standards. One way to look at personality is in terms of four types. The conscientious thinkers may show perseverance as evidence of love. The steady, loyal types may show patience. The social and relational types may show it by conversation. The action oriented may show it by passion. Generally, if a person is reserved and not overly expressive (like me), people often assume he is not loving; that he doesn’t care. On the other hand, the ‘huggers’ and expressive personalities are often considered to be loving and concerned. These qualities may be very powerful forces in our lives and through them we can achieve many things.  But, our ‘love’ may be lost in fleshly moments and our caring cancelled. Personalities do not establish the standards. Don’t consider others less loving just because of their personality.

Instead, consider Jesus. Jesus cared. Consider the small deeds he did such as those for the blind man on the side of a road and for the bleeding woman in a large crowd. These small deeds were leading to the big deed on the cross. Our passage brings us to a small deed – vs. 17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the LOVE of God be in that person?” When we look at this verse after all the previous verses, we find that John does not lay down any dramatic application of LOVE’s principle. We would expect him to state some kind of martyrdom and costly enterprise, but what John tells us sounds like an anticlimax – from martyrdom to material goods. But this is true in the LIFE-in-life ways of Jesus: ideas and principles take flesh. They take shoes and walk.  The Word becomes flesh.  LOVE becomes flesh. There need be no drama and impressive activity. Even for Jesus, ‘becoming flesh’– his divine LIFE in the body of a human life – was undramatic – a baby in a manger, a carpenter at a bench, sleeping on the hillsides, and so on.  The outer shell of Christ’s human life was ordinary, but God put an extraordinary LIFE and LOVE into that outer shell.

The same is true of us: We don’t always need to look for a big demonstration of our care by dramatic means and methods. We can demonstrate God’s big LOVE by little acts of kindness – meeting your brother’s need, sharing your material goods (vs.17). Many Christians refuse to do anything because they can’t do everything.  Because they can’t set the world on fire, they refuse to light a candle.  LOVE is doing the little thing at hand. I like the great commandment where it says – “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is singular – neighbor, not plural, neighbors. Caring in an exponential way doesn’t have to set the world on fire, it can simply light a candle. Don’t underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring. All have the potential to turn a life around.  Caring for others is God’s LOVE in shoes. Be there to walk into someone’s life when others have walked out.

 Conclusion

So, we have considered the starting point of a caring fellowship – it begins at our obedience. We have considered the fact that we have all the resources we need for caring – God’s LOVE in our lives because of God’s LIFE in our lives. Thirdly, we have considered Jesus as the standard of caring we can rise to.

Let’s live our lives in such a way that when we get out of bed in the morning, the devil says, “Oh no! They’re up again!” Let’s aim at exponential fellowship that is explosive with strong unshakable convictions, that is exceptional in covenant commitment, and that is extraordinary as a caring community.

Here are some inspiring thoughts about extraordinary:

  1. Sometimes the most ordinary things can become extraordinary simply by doing them for others.
  2. The simple things are the most extraordinary things.
  3. Life doesn’t have to be perfect for LOVE to be extraordinary.
  4. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is just that little ‘extra’ – LOVE
  5. That little “extra” in extraordinary is the LOVE and LIFE of God has added to our ordinary lives.

 

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