How to have loving diversity in a church family

9 Oct
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  Sometimes church families are like any other family, and that means we can butt heads.  We don’t always see eye to eye.  With the exception of ethnic diversity, my congregational is quite a diverse.  Young and old.  Male and Female.  Rich and poor.  Conservative and Progressive.  Introvert and extrovert.  That diversity is a beautiful thing, but it means we often disagree.

In this post we continue through 1st Peter looking at chapter 4, verses 7-11, and Peter is talking about how church families can handle this kind of diversity.

Peter, in verse 7, starts by mentioning that “the end of all things is near.”  What end?  We’ve been having blood moons in recent years, and people talk about how blood moons signal that the end is near. 

When we think about end times, our minds jump to ideas like a rapture where Christians suddenly disappear, maybe a time of tribulation, or a great war called Armageddon, but did Peter think of “the end of all things” like that?  What images did he have in mind? 

Almost certainly Peter is referring to the return of Jesus.  We read in Acts 1, that right after Jesus returned to his father in heaven, angels appeared and told the disciples that Jesus would come back. But when?  Peter says “the end is near”?  Did Peter think that Jesus was going to return in his lifetime? Probably. The early church seemed to think this.  It is mentioned more than once in the NT writings.

Think about that, Peter said this 2000 years ago.  So does that mean Peter is misinformed or misguided?  I don’t think so. It is best to understand “near” in the sense of “it can happen anytime”.  As Jesus himself said to his disciples, “no one knows the time of his return, so be ready at all times.”  Jesus himself said that the Kingdom of Heaven in near.  “Near” is best understood as something that can happen at anytime, rather than something that will happen soon.  We don’t know when it will happen, but it could happen anytime.  So we must be ready.

Peter goes on to say that one way we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return is to be “sensible”.  In the NIV that word is translated as “clearminded” which is to have understanding about practical matters and thus able to act sensibly.

Peter also says that we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return by being “self-controlled”, and the word Peter uses means the opposite of getting drunk.  But he is not just talking about alcohol. One scholar defines this as “to behave with restraint and moderation, not permitting excess in general.” It is an attitude that affects action.  When we say that someone is sober-minded, we don’t mean that they are simply not getting drunk.  We mean that they have an attitude of self-control about their lives, and that attitude leads to self-controlled actions.  Peter is not just saying “don’t get drunk” or “don’t get high”.  He is saying something much larger or broad.  Be a self-controlled person. 

When Peter talks about self-control he is saying that we organize our lives in such a way to prioritize the mission of God’s Kingdom.  How do we do use self-control to focus our lives on the mission of God’s Kingdom?  Peter says that we pray. We make time in our lives for spiritual practices so we can know God more, depend on him, and make him the focus of our lives.  But Peter is not suggesting a legalistic, rigid approach.

I remember that when our two oldest were babies and toddlers; there were stretches where Michelle and I did not go to Sunday School because it was so difficult to get ready, and to place them in childcare for long stretches. Likewise, a friend recently told me the story about a phase in their lives where they had to get up really early for work, 5am.  She wanted to have time alone with God, maybe reading the Bible and praying. But given that work schedule, it wasn’t going to happen even earlier.  Every now and then I hear that we should sacrifice sleep in order to spend time with God.  I’ve come to believe that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is get good sleep.  So my friend said her devotional times were on her days off.  That’s okay.

What I’m saying is this: following the way of Jesus is not a legalistic thing.  There are phases in life where it will look different, but what should always remain is the self-control to put his ways, his principles, the fruit of the Spirit, first.  We won’t be perfect in that.  But, that is the goal.  To put his ways first.

Again, Peter says, “Because the end is near, be self-controlled, so that you can pray.”  I wouldn’t have expected that.  Why prayer?  If the end is near, shouldn’t Peter be telling people to get out on the streets to invite more people to follow Jesus?  I think Peter has something else in mind.  A memory.

Could Peter be transporting us once again back to the night Jesus was arrested in the Garden, the night before he was crucified?  We know that night was the most impactful and vivid of Peter’s life.  He had many incredible moments with Jesus, but that night was etched in Peter’s mind.  Remember what happened that night at the beginning of their time in the Garden?  Jesus brought his disciples to the Garden.  That alone was not unusual.  It was a walk outside the city and Luke tells us that in Jesus’ final week, he went out there every night to pray.

Then in Matthew we read that he asked Peter, James and John to break away from the group and go a little further into the Garden.  He said to them that he was overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death.  Jesus was really going through it, the anxiety was intense.  And specifically asks Peter, James and john to stay there and keep watch.   This is Matthew 26:38.  Jesus went a little farther from the disciples, fell with his face to the ground and prayed that famous prayer, “Father…not my will, but yours be done.”  We don’t know how long Jesus prayed.  If it was just the text Matthew gives us, it is a very short prayer.   I suspect it was a good bit longer, because Jesus mentions “one hour in the next verse.”  I also think it was a longer prayer because of what we learn next.

Matthew records that Jesus takes a break from praying, and goes back to check on Peter, James and John, and what does he find?  They are asleep. He wakes them, and Matthew mentions that Jesus specifically speaks to Peter, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?…Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.”  Then Jesus went back and prayed again, “Father…may your will be done.”  And again he checked on the disciples and again they were asleep. This time he didn’t wake them, instead returning to prayer, praying the same thing.  Finally Matthew says that he returned to the disciples a third time, waking them with, “Are you still sleeping and resting…Look, the hour is near.”  Just as he was saying those words, Judas, the betrayer, arrived with armed men to arrest Jesus.

I think Peter remembers that night quite well.  “The hour is near,” Jesus said.  The exact same words that Peter uses in 1 Peter 4.7!  “The end is near.”  Just as Jesus called Peter and the disciples to watch and pray, now Peter is calling Christians to be self-controlled and pray.

These are parallel situations.  Moments of intensity and ultimate destiny, and where Peter failed to be self-controlled and therefore did not pray, he wants something better for these Christians 30 years later. 

But again I ask, prayer?  Why prayer? Why then?

Because prayer roots us in the will and ways of God. Prayer says, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”  Prayer is a submission to God.  Prayer is act that shows that we depend on God.  In the middle of crisis, prayer is especially vital.  Normally in crisis, we want to take matters into our own hands and resolve it.  Prayer, however, hits the pause button and refocuses our lives on God, who is the true power.  But when we are freaked out it is hard to pray!  Maybe when we are so distracted, so anxious, our minds are out of control and we can’t pray.  I have definitely felt that in moments of high anxiety.

We can be so emotional that we just can’t settle our minds enough to prayer.  I believe this is where Peter is going with this. He remembered his own failure and wants these people to learn to depend on God during moments of crisis.

Or we become so distracted by the things of this world that we set prayer aside.  We are literally too busy to pray, we say.  But I know for myself that, while I can say that I am so busy, and I feel so busy, I sure have time to watch TV daily, check the news on my phone.  So let us make more space in our lives for prayer.

With this foundation of depending on God in prayers, Peter builds on that in verse 8, returning to a theme that we have seen multiple times in the letter: that the church family should love one another deeply.  He quotes an Old Testament verse, Proverbs 10:12, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

This also quoted by James, and there are echoes of it in the famous love chapter 1 Cor. 13.  What does it mean, that love covers over a multitude of sins?  If you love someone you have to accept their sinful choices and be okay with them?  This is very picturesque word. In Proverbs, it is the image of love as clothing that covers over sin.  Forgiveness is very much a related concept, and in fact the Hebrew word used in Proverbs 10:12 is in some circumstances translated “forgive”.

Love can overlook faults, it doesn’t seek revenge, forgives.  Love gives grace, and it doesn’t seek perfection.  You know how some personalities rub you the wrong way? Love says that we accept the people who are difficult for us. 

Remember that proverbs are not promises.  Proverbs are principles that are generally true.  They hold true in most cases, but not in all cases.  So when Peter quotes this proverb, he knows that.  He is not trying to say that love means we should somehow turn a blind eye to sin.  What he is saying is that in a church family, we need to be gracious and forgiving.

But how do we know when to cover over the sin?  I would submit that a big part of the answer to that question is how the sinning person responds.  If they are repentant and humble and seeking to change, then let love cover over their sin.

But if they are unrepentant, repeating their behavior, unwilling to submit to correction, then the most loving thing to do is hold them accountable and create boundaries for them.

This is hard.  We are not people who like boundaries.  We flee boundaries.  We want chances to start over, wipe the slate the clean, as if the past was gone. 

What, then, does repentance look like?  I want to bring up a word called penance.  We need to be people of penance.  Penance means that you work hard to show you are sorry, that you are repentant.  You are willing to do the hard work to heal a broken relationship, make real changes in your attitude, actions, and lifestyle choices.

Have any of you watched The Crown on Netflix?  The final episode of season 2 tells the story of John Profumo.  Ever heard of him?  Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War in the 1960s and he fell into a sexual scandal that led to his resignation. 

Politicians and sex scandals.  Sadly, we’ve heard that before many times, right?  I read an article by writer AJ Jacobs who tells the untold story of what happened next that the episode of The Crown didn’t tell.  And where political sex scandals are commonplace, the untold part of the Profumo story is unheard of.  Still today.  Though Profumo was well-connected and likely could have gotten a cushy job, he left public life and never fully returned.  You know what he did?  He began to volunteer at Toynbee Hall, a charity in London that seeks to alleviate poverty.  He started by doing menial work, and over the decades…decades!…he became a primary fundraiser for the charity.  He never sought office again.  For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.  He did this for fifty years.  That’s penance.  He knew he did wrong and made changes in his life that showed that.

Peter now goes on in verse 9 to say that our love for one another should demonstrate itself in being hospitable to one another without grumbling.

Look around your life: who needs hospitality?  What is hospitality?  The specific word that Peter uses is to be a friend to strangers, but notice how he also qualifies this word by adding “one another.”  Showing hospitality to strangers.  What strangers?

There are strangers around us.  Refugees, tourists, and people in our neighborhoods and schools who we don’t know.  I have been particularly convicted lately about the lack of ethnic diversity in my life.  That concerns me because my local school district reports that it is 1/3 comprised of people of color.

Do we have eyes and hearts open to practice hospitality to strangers?  We Christians should be leading the way in that!  We should be known for that!

But remember Peter’s qualifier, “one another”.  He is primarily talking about how these Christians practiced hospitality or friendship with one another. The reality is that some people in our church family are strangers to you, or some feel very different from you.

In Peter’s day, these Christians were very counter-culture.  They were following a religion that was very new and considered a cult.  As we saw last week in verse 4, these Christians were facing abuse because they were following Jesus. 

So they had to break down the norms.  They had to create family where there was none before.  One author I read said this, “In certain cultures that are strongly family-oriented, the bringing of strangers into a house may be somewhat shocking.  Yet Christians overcome these conventions because God’s love has made them into a single great family.”

There is nothing wrong with spending a lot of time with people you find enjoyable and are close with.  But it is also important to reach out to those who you are different than you, even people you butt heads with, and you still reach out to them anyway and Peter says to do so without grumbling. 

That’s family isn’t it?  There are those within our natural families that are easier for us to connect with than others.  There are those within natural families that we want to be with more than others.  But, still we are family, and still those who are feeling alone, and those who are not, need to try to reach out to each other.

Then offer your friendship and hospitality, and this is the kicker!, without grumbling. I get it, helping people can be a great joy, but it can also get to a point where it can be tough. It can go on a long time, and over time the hospitality wears us down and we can grumble. Some people are easier to offer hospitality to than others.

But Christians are people who are self-controlled and loving and thus go beyond the difficulty and awkwardness!  We are people who serve, and we serve some more, and we sacrifice.  We get this strength to press on in love for the strangers among us by making time in prayer and by making the way of Jesus our priority.

That’s exactly where Peter goes next in verse 10. He says that you have each received a gift, and you are to use it to serve one another as a good steward of the manifold grace of God. What gifts?  They are received gifts.  Received from who?  God.  God has blessed each one us with a gift. And how are we to use these gifts?  To serve others.

When the NIV says “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” Peter is using the word “steward”.  We are stewards of God’s grace.  Stewards are not owners.  We have been given a gift, but that doesn’t mean it is now our possession to do with what we want!  God is just giving it to us as a privilege and honor, and we are to use our gifts the way he would want them to be use. They are gifts of God’s grace, Peter says, gifts that are graciously given to us, and in various forms.

So in verse 11 Peter talks about the two main categories of gracious gifts that God gives us to steward.  Speaking gifts and serving gifts. Notice what kinds of gifts that Peter is not talking about.  Not the miraculous.  Not healing, not speaking in tongues, not prophesying. The gifts he is talking about are gifts that minister in a church family: speaking and serving

First of all the Speaking gifts.  What speaking?  Teaching, preaching. 

When we use the gift of teaching and preaching and speaking into someone’s life, Peter says, it is like an oracle of God.  Or speaking the very words of God.  Wow.  Does that mean if I speak, I am guaranteed to be speaking the words of God.  No.  But Peter is saying “do it AS one speaking,” meaning that we should see the weight and responsibility of it. The impact should be to glorify God, to encourage people in God’s direction.

Next are gifts of Serving. 

Who are you choosing to serve in our church family?  Who are you reaching out to?  Each of us should be ready and able to answer this.  Who are you serving?  Peter says, serve with the strength God provides, so that God may be praised through Christ.

Note that the focus on this is clearly God, for the use of both categories of gifts.  Peter wants the focus on God.   Not on ourselves.  Not on our comfort.  God and his ways are to be our priority.   As a pastor, I have the distinct blessing of being able to see so many ways that many in my church are reaching out, are serving, are sacrificial to others within this church family.  I am so grateful for that.  Keep at it.

So whether the person next to you in church is old or young, Democrat or Republican, male or female, and any other category, let us sacrificially love one another to keep our focus not on ourselves, but on God.

I want to end with this quote that my wife found in a Beth Moore study she’s doing.  In it she is speaking about discipleship, but I think you will see the connection.

“Discipleship involves a constant volleying between being apart and being a part. To pursue deeply satisfying intimacy with Christ, learning how to be apart from everyone else and alone with Him is a necessity. But discipleship also places a high premium on community and fellowship, on camaraderie and co-working. To know only how to be apart with Jesus but not a part of a holy partnership of believers leaves more than a deficit of human company…it also subtracts from our knowledge of Christ. Similarly, we are vastly less equipped in our effectiveness if we’re perpetual spiritual shut-ins. Isolation is not His way….One common cause of loneliness is the natural human tendency to limit our search for comrades to people who look or seem very much like us. We will miss what would have surely been some of our favorite people on earth if we don’t look beyond our mirror image in age, marital status, background, and personality.”

So we need to be working on our priority relationship with Jesus.  Time with him in prayer and time growing ourselves in HIS ways is so important.  From that foundation, then, we take those things we are learning, and we work them out with each other in our church family. So let’s be somber-minded and self-controlled as we focus on making his ways our priority.

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