Caring for one another

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Christian care?

As many of you know, we recently sent out a survey to gain a sense of where people are at just over a year after COVID changed all our lives. Thanks to the 110 people who completed it – it’s given us some really helpful information.

For those who completed it, you might remember the first two questions ask generally how COVID has impacted you, and then specifically, if it’s had a negative impact, what have been the three biggest challenges?

And a clear picture emerged from this second question. The majority of us have felt socially isolated, cut off from family and disconnected from others at church. It’s not surprising. The new phrase for 2020 (aside from ‘unprecedented’!) was ‘social distance’. We have been encouraged to keep our distance from others, we have needed to; and so it’s not surprising that we’ve felt distant from people! Some of us haven’t minded being a little more socially isolated – those of us who are on the more introverted end of the spectrum. But either way, there can be a cumulative negative affect on us if we feel isolated and if we remain disconnected from others. It’s not just a matter of how we feel, it affects our walk, our faith, as Christians. We need to be connected with others; we need to care for each other and be cared for.

So partly in response to this clear picture of how COVID has affected us, and for a bunch of other reasons, we’re encouraging everyone to read and apply a helpful little book over the next two months called ‘Caring for One Another: 8 ways to cultivate meaningful relationships’. We’re going to be reading this book in our Discipleship Groups over the coming months and helping each other apply the principles. The chapters are so short you’ll actually be able to read the chapter in the meeting itself! But we’re encouraging everyone to get a copy of the book and read it, whether or not you’re in a Discipleship Group, and I’ll be offering to run a general reading group on Sundays for those keen to discuss it, but not yet in a DG. Our hope is that this practical little book will help us make concrete steps in connecting with each other meaningfully and deepening our care for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

And today, before we kick off a new topical series on different temptations we face in our culture – which will probably throw up lots of things we need to help each other with pastorally! Before we do that, I thought I’d provide a bit of an overview and introduction to this idea of caring for each other as Christians. I’m not going to summarise the book – just raise some related ideas to work through more.

 

And to start with, I want us to have a clear picture of what it really means to care for each other as Christians.

And to get that clear picture, I want us to compare different images from the medical world. I want to say that caring for each other as Christians is not like providing palliative care, but neither is it like administering treatment to cure someone. I want to suggest that Christian care is more like being a fellow patient in a treatment group. Sorry if the scenario is a painful one for you personally, but I think it fits quite well to imagine ourselves as fellow cancer patients, providing support and encouragement to each other to stick with a round of chemo treatment – to keep going and focus on the goal, to keep coming back for what we need as difficult as it can be at times.

 

Not Palliative Care

You see, sometimes we think of caring for people in a way that’s more like providing palliative care. We’re just trying to make each other comfortable, without trying to bring change or transformation. This happens when the church just becomes a social club. Christian fellowship becomes mere relational support. We hear each other out, we provide sympathetic noises, we reassure each other, we pat each other on the back, we make each other feel ok. Maybe we even help each other ‘get ahead’ in life, so life here and now is better. But there’s no spiritual challenge, no pushing each other to live differently. No difficult questions. It’s just friendship for the sake of friendship. There’s no vision, no goal, beyond helping each other feel happy and comfortable… while we head towards spiritual death.

That’s not what it means to care for each other as Christians. Don’t get me wrong, palliative care (actual palliative care!) for terminally ill patients is crucial and loving. It’s something our society is getting worse at, because our secular culture either wants to avoid death or just give up and choose to die. Providing palliative care is a profound expression of Christian love for others. But metaphorically speaking, it’s not the kind of care we want to provide for each other as Christians. We want to help each other get better! We want to fight for life.

 

Not administering treatment

But equally, I think it’s a mistake to approach caring for each other as if we are doctors administering a life saving treatment.

Have you ever had someone treat you like a problem to be solved? As if their interest in you was just to help you ‘get better’ and then move on to the next ‘patient’?

Caring for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ is not a matter of fixing each other. We’re not their doctor, we’re not their saviour. We don’t fit people into a schedule to ‘give them a dose of medicine’ and then move on. Again, setting the metaphor aside, it’s vital for people to be in these kind of ‘carer’ roles. But it’s not a good picture of what it means for us to care for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Fellow patients, supporting each other

I think a more helpful image is where we are fellow patients, supporting each other in our journey together to stick with a treatment plan. Caring for each other as Christians is relational and personal. It’s not treating each other like problems to be solved. But neither is it merely about the relationship. It’s focused on a goal, a common purpose, that lies at the heart of our relationship in the first place. It’s the reason we’ve been thrown together. We’re sick with sin and we’re receiving treatment with the gospel by Jesus, the great physician.

And we care for each other by supporting each other to trust the doctor and stick with the treatment. We get to know the particular issues our fellow patients struggle with, how and why we are most likely to need help to stay on track. We learn each other’s stories, and our hopes for the future. We journey together; sometimes I lean more on you, sometimes you lean more on me.

That’s the picture I want us to have that I think represents the biblical idea of caring for each other as fellow Christians. And now we’re going to reflect on a few different passages to ground that picture in the Bible and flesh out what it means for us a little more…

 

Humble concern for another’s welfare, in response to Jesus’ humble concern for us

And the place to begin I think is the call on all Christians to show humble, genuine and loving concern for other people’s welfare, in response to the humble, loving care that Jesus has shown each of us.

One year ago, pretty much exactly, we started preaching through the book of Philippians. At the beginning of chapter 2, Paul urges us, in view of the way that Jesus has humbly served our needs, at great cost to himself… in response to the way that Jesus has set aside all sense of self-importance and privilege out of concern for us and our situation… having been cared for ourselves so profoundly by Jesus, who gave himself up for our good… out of this experience of love and grace, we are to adopt the same mindset of Jesus in humbly loving others above ourselves.

Paul urges us to follow the example of Jesus deliberately, sacrificially looking to the interests of others. He explains…

3 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

 

Humble Concern for Others

Caring for each other begins with humility and love. Not valuing ourselves too highly, but rather having a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others. We need to genuinely desire the wellbeing of others – to value it as much as our own. This is what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Without this kind of humble, loving concern for others, we will just drift along in apathy towards others. To care for others, we actually have to care about others! If we’re going to be the kind of patient who is caring for the other patients, helping them to keep going, supporting them in their journey, we actually need to care about them in the first place.

I know that sounds blindly obvious, but it’s just a little bit too easy and natural to not care all that much about others…  As long as we’re getting what we want out of life, as long as things are going ok for us… why worry yourself with what’s happening to others?

Sounds harsh, but that’s the natural inclination of our selfish hearts. It’s rare to genuinely care about others. It requires real humility and God-given love, fuelled by a deep grasp of how kind and generous God has been with you. Later in the same chapter, Paul highlights how much he treasures his younger co-worker in the gospel, Timothy. He explains, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.” (Phil 2:20) It’s rare, it’s not natural or easy.

The foundation of real Christian care is a humble, genuine concern for other people’s welfare. We need to learn to look to the interests of others. We need to train ourselves, in response to God’s loving concern for us, to deliberately, proactively turn our attention away from ourselves and our circumstances and pay attention to other people – considering what’s happening for them and what their needs are.

 

Sacrificial Love

And as the example of Jesus suggests, embracing the call to humbly look to the interests of others will necessarily involve sacrifice. It’s hard to care for others in any meaningful way without putting ourselves out.

Some of us like the idea of caring for others and being helpful. But only if it doesn’t impact me and what I want to do too much. I struggle with this. Anna, my wife, is much more ready to offer help and put herself out to care for others. My instinct is to see the impact that will have on us and our family, and to say, are you sure you want to do that? Did you think about the consequences? And yes, she has, she’s just generally more willing to be put out!

We need to look to the example of Jesus, giving himself up for our good, and pray for God to cultivate that same humble, loving concern for the wellbeing of others in our own hearts and minds. That same willingness to actually do something for the good of others, even though it would be far easier to just do nothing.

It probably won’t involve dying on a cross, but caring for each other in a meaningful way will necessarily involve deliberate, willing sacrifice. It won’t just happen without being intentional. And it certainly won’t happen if we’re not willing to be put out.

 

Love builds up

The general call to practical love

Now the general application of this call to show humble, loving concern for others is very broad. It means loving each other in all sorts of practical ways. The New Testament is filled with commands and encouragements to continue loving and serving each other. At the end of his letter to the Philippians Paul rejoices in the way they cared for him by sending a gift to provide for his needs in prison. Caring for each other means helping each other out. Providing meal rosters for parents of newborn babies. Helping someone move house. Simply being with someone to listen when they’re hurting and frustrated. Advocating for someone who’s struggling to speak up for themselves. Showing hospitality. Visiting each other or calling people up when they’re unwell. Simply spending time together.

As we saw in Romans 12 and 13, the Christian life involves a never-ending obligation to love one another deeply as brothers and sisters in all sorts of practical ways.

 

The particular focus of love – building up in Christ

But in the midst of that general call to practical, loving concern, the New Testament invites us to focus on a special responsibility. We are called to build one another up in Christ, towards mature faith and character in him.

You know the famous chapter on love in the Bible? The one that’s read out a lots of weddings? Love is patient, love is kind, love does no wrong… that chapter? It’s 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Now, unsurprisingly, chapter 13 comes in-between chapters 12 and 14. And guess what those chapters are all about? How we serve and behave as a church gathered for worship. The overarching point of those 3 chapters is that the priority to love each other as the greatest command means we should be seeking to serve each other in a way that builds others up in their faith. Paul sums up his point in chapter 14, verse 12: “So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:12) The call to love each other means first and foremost, seeking to build others up in Christ.

 

Building up to maturity means speaking the truth in love

And so now we finally get to the passage we read out earlier, from Ephesians chapter 4, which is focused on this big idea of building each other up in Christ. Here Paul highlights the goal for the church and the process to get there.

Paul explains that Christ has gifted the church with various people in particular roles to equip the whole body to serve and work together, towards what goal? “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13) Paul goes on to fill out this picture of maturity as a church community that is not unsettled and pulled here and there by every new fad and subtly corrupted form of theology. The aim of a loving, serving, well-functioning church community is one that is built up in mature faith and character.

Loving each other means building each other up towards this kind of maturity. This is God’s goal for us. We’re aiming to help each other stick with the treatment plan. We’re supporting each other to be cured – to reach, in the end, the ‘whole measure of fullness’, and not give up halfway or take half measures.

And how do we do that? Paul goes on to explain, by “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

We build each other up by each of us, every supporting ligament, ‘speaking the truth in love’. This is at the heart of what it means to care for each other in Christ. Not instead of practical help, but at the heart of that practical help. Each of us is called to build up the body in love, by speaking the truth in love.

 

Truth and love = Loving Truth

And what does that mean? I think truth and love shape each other in this sentence. Love motivates speaking the truth, and the truth is spoken in a loving manner. We are aiming to love people with the truth, and so it is spoken lovingly to them.

The truth is in contrast to the false teachings and human ideologies that threaten to disrupt our faith in Christ. It is God’s truth. The truth of his Word, revealed most fully in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So the idea is that we are speaking the truth of the gospel, revealed in the whole of the Bible, about who God is, who we are, what God has done for us, what he’s promised us, and the life he calls us to… we speaking all this truth into each other’s lives in a loving way, out of loving concern to see each other built up to maturity in Christ.

We helping each other, our fellow patients, take the medicine and stick with the plan. We’re caring for each other in the way that matters most.

 

Dimensions of speaking the truth in love

And as you read through the New Testament, you see lots of related but slightly different forms of what this looks like.

 

teaching

Firstly, although some of us bare particular responsibility to teach the word of God to the church as a whole, we are all called to teach and instruct one another in the truth. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul urges them to seek gifts that allow them to instruct one another intelligibly with God’s truth. In Colossians 3, Paul urges his readers: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” In our every-day conversations as friends and family, as we gather in small groups to study and discuss the Bible, in youth and kids programs, even as we sing (hopefully soon!), we are teaching each other the truths of the Bible. We’re aiming for the word of Christ to dwell amongst us richly.

 

exhorting / encouraging

Secondly, one of the main ways we speak the truth in love is the idea of encouraging or exhorting each other with God’s truth. It’s not that we don’t know the ideas, but we need to be encouraged with it – reminded of it and urged to continue in it. We are cheering each other on, urging each other to stick with Jesus. We’re encouraging each other to do what we know we should do, or to not do what we know we shouldn’t do. We’re reminding each other of important truths and the hope we have in Jesus which motivates us to live for him and his kingdom. After explaining the hope of the resurrection at the coming of Jesus to the Christians in Thessalonica, he finishes with the comment: “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18) We encourage each other with what we know to be true to motivate hope, faithfulness and perseverance.

 

comforting

A particular form of encouragement is comforting each other.

It may be in the face of external troubles we are struggling with – painful things that threaten to discourage and derail us. It may be struggling with our own sense of weakness and sinfulness. We are called to comfort and encourage each other with the gospel of God’s grace. We don’t want to trivialise the loss of a family member or losing out on a job we really needed. We’re not saying annoying things like ‘everything happens for a reason’. But we are sharing the burden, and encouraging each other with the truth of the gospel in the face of suffering and personal struggles.

 

warning

But we’re not just making each other feel better. We’re keeping each other on track. We’re warning each other not to go down certain paths. The next 3 concepts are all related but different. Warning someone doesn’t assume they’ve done anything wrong or even that they are about to. Like a warning sign near a cliff edge. It’s for everyone to heed, whether or not you were thinking of getting close. Just like in a group of people undergoing chemotherapy, you might warn each other of the temptation to push yourself too hard or give up on the process, we proactively warn each other of the dangers of ideas that undermine the gospel or behaviours that will lead us away from Christ. We warn each other of the dangers of prioritising work over fellowship with other Christians or getting caught up in certain hobbies or lifestyles.

 

admonishing

Admonishing goes further though. Perhaps we have noticed a tendency towards a certain direction, a direction we’ve been warned against, and we bring it to the attention, in a loving way, to our brother or sister. Admonishing is correcting. Pulling each other back on track – pulling someone back when they look like they’re ignoring the warning sign at the cliff. It’s saying, ‘no, you don’t want to do that. That’s not the life you embraced in Christ. That’s not going to end well.’

Admonishing is hard, because it’s starting to get personal. And it involves a level of confrontation, which most of us don’t like. And if you do like confrontation, perhaps you’re not the best person to admonish others! But, presuming we do it humbly and gently, admonishing each other is caring for each other. It’s protecting each other. It’s building each other up, much more than if we just pat each other on the back or turn a blind eye.

 

rebuking

And then finally rebuking is the pointy end. Things have really gone off track. Warnings and admonishing have been ignored, and a brother or sister is behaving in a way that doesn’t fit with the gospel and following Jesus. When we really need to, we care for each other by rebuking each other. We sit down together and talk through what’s happening and why following Jesus means repenting and living differently. It means challenging sin and ways of speaking and behaving that are unloving and damaging. Most of us will find this kind of care for each other really hard, but when it’s necessary and appropriate, it’s profoundly loving. Now, there needs to be trust and relational capital – you can’t just go around rebuking anyone and everyone. And of course, for this kind of care, you really need humility and love. If we rebuke in arrogance or without loving motivation, we’re just falling into sin ourselves and we’re not helping anyone. But a wise and loving rebuke is an act of loving care.

 

And just as a practical tip – in all of these forms of speaking the truth, but especially as we get more challenging and personal, questions can often be more helpful than ‘preaching’. Questions help us know others, and they help us understand how to help, but they’re also a powerful way of actually helping and caring. We want to ask each other the difficult questions that need to be asked and leave room for God’s Word and Spirit to speak.

 

Caring means Sharing (the gospel and our lives!)

Now hopefully you can see that this kind of loving care for each other, speaking the truth in love in these varied ways, requires significant involvement in each other’s lives. It’s hard to know how someone needs to be comforted, or even that they need to be comforted!, if we don’t spend time with them. It’s hard to know how someone is struggling to live faithfully as a Christian if we don’t get to know them and what their days and weeks look like. What are the temptations? What are the critical influences and responsibilities in their life? Speaking the truth in love in a meaningful way to each other requires forming meaningful relationships with particular people. Sharing the gospel with each other means sharing our lives as well.

In his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul recounts the way he shared his life with them and cared deeply about them as he shared the message of the gospel and encouraged them in it. Now there’s a particular context and background to what Paul says to them and why – he’s reassuring them that they can trust his message and his ministry amongst them in the face of people who are trying to undermine Paul’s influence. But what he says about the connection between life and message has ongoing relevance for all of us.

Paul writes,

7 Although we could have been a burden as Christ’s apostles, instead we were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children. 8 We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you remember our labour and hardship, brothers and sisters. Working night and day so that we would not burden any of you, we preached God’s gospel to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers. 11 As you know, like a father with his own children, 12we encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to live worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

Not only does Paul speak the truth in the context of caring for them practically, being careful not to burden them financially, but his manner of preaching is profoundly relational. Out of love and concern for them, he and his co-workers shared not only the gospel of God, but their very lives. And this wasn’t just for the sake of being friendly. It was part of how he nurtured and encouraged them in the truth of the gospel. Paul reminds them of his example – the way he lived out the gospel. Sharing his life was part of teaching and encouraging them. His care for them was like a mother nursing her children, and like a father, encouraging, comforting, imploring them to embrace and live out the good news of Jesus. To effectively care for each other, to speak the truth in love in a way that makes a difference in each other’s lives, we need to share our lives as well as the message.

 

But how can we??

Of course, we are not aiming to know every person in the church deeply. Some we will know very well, others reasonably well, and many more just a little. The depth of the relationship shapes the nature of our care for each other. And I know many of us are so busy with work and/or family responsibilities that this kind of involvement in each other’s lives seems impossible. But some kind of meaningful relationship is possible with some people for all of us. For most of us it’s a matter of priority than sheer impossibility. Either that or we’re trying to aim too high, and feeling overwhelmed.

And then there’s the elephant in the room – right now we’re not even allowed to spend time together! It’s hard to get to know each other and share our lives together when you’re locked down in the middle of a COVID outbreak. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m talking to a camera right now!

And on the one hand our present situation should highlight how necessary it is for us to be present normally. It’s vital to come to church in person and to gather physically and socially, whenever we can. We need to see our current form of connection and fellowship as a far cry from the ideal. If you’ve just been watching church online for the past year even when you didn’t have to, you’re missing out and you’re going to find it hard to care for others.

But on the other hand, we’ve all got a phone and most of us have become zoom experts. We know how to connect if we need to, and there’s a lot of value in catching up online or on the phone to chat about what’s happening and how you’re going, discuss what you’re reading in the Bible and pray together.

One of the reasons we shifted to the smaller, more flexible Discipleship Group structure at the start of this year is to help us remain connected no matter how restricted we are in our movements. Discipleship Groups are a key way that we realise this call to know and care for each other meaningfully. They’re not just for people who like to study the Bible. Small group structures like Discipleship Groups are a crucial aspect of belonging, growing, serving and speaking as part of a church community. The aim of these groups is to provide a context and opportunity for us to care for one another – to speak the truth in love to each other in the context of meaningful, deepening, caring relationships.

 

Embrace the call to care for each other

And so I hope as we launch into reading this little book (caring for one another) over the coming weeks, online to begin with unfortunately!, I hope and pray that we grow in our understanding and commitment and capability in caring for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let’s not fall into the trap of providing palliative care or just trying to fix each other, let’s embrace the call to support each other and help each other stick with the cure. Let’s build each other up out of loving concern for each other. Let’s be humble, deliberate, courageous and sacrificial in caring for each other, speaking the truth in love, so that together, we might grow up to maturity in Christ.