Have you ever hugged a stranger? I’m not talking about someone you kinda know through a friend, or a co- worker you don’t really talk to. I’m talking a “never seen them in my life” stranger. Maybe you haven’t, but it does happen! Pretty often at sporting events actually.
If you go to Lambeau for a Packers game this season, I guarantee that if Rodgers hits Jordy deep for the game winning TD, you’ll see some sweet little old lady in green and gold throw her arms around the burly, shirtless man with a G painted on his beer belly in the seat next to her. And they won’t be alone. Strangers in cheeseheads, suddenly BFFs. It’s kind of a weird relationship, right? People with little else in common, united by their connection to a group. Whether it’s Packers fans, Republicans, or “Beliebers” (That’s Justin Bieber fans, if you didn’t know), people find joyful relationships in a common connection.
Do you know where we don’t see this very often? In church. Has a pastor ever said “Amen,” and a little old lady jumps up and hugs the man, hopefully wearing a shirt, in the pew next to her? Yes, that’s an extreme example, and the atmosphere Sunday morning at Mount Olive is a little different than Sunday at Lambeau. But have we lost even the simplest elements of a joyful relationship? Have you ever gone to church and intentionally avoided talking to anyone? Have you come and been completely ignored by others? Do we fail to grasp the joyful relationships we can have with each other because of our common connection in Jesus?
The early Christian Church Luke describes in Acts 2 is an amazing model for Christian churches to emulate. This is the Christian church just after Pentecost. That day, Peter beautifully preached to the crowd that Jesus was the promised Savior of the world, and “about 3,000 were added to their (believers’) number that day.” Even after that miraculous number of conversions, there were still only about 3,100 Christians. That’s fewer people than Mount Olive and Immanuel, Greenville combined! The amazing thing about these early Christians wasn’t their numbers. It was the joyful relationship they had with each other!
First, notice Luke tells us “all the believers were together” and that “every day they would meet together.” Literally, they were “of one mind.” Their thoughts, desires, and purpose were the same! In Jesus’ day, the Jews were often divided, separated into religious sects like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, or Zealots; Jews vs. Gentiles; Jews vs. Samaritans…divided rather than united. So what changed to make these Christians “one- minded?”
Their common connection was their faith in Christ! No matter what their life story, they were united by faith in Christ! They’d seen proof with their own eyes, heard the message with their own ears that Jesus Christ is Lord!
Therefore, Jesus’ teachings and public worship were their top priorities. Luke says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.”
Sound familiar? They did what we’re doing right now! They were “devoted” to public worship. They “continued to meet” at the temple every single day! The same Greek word, meaning “to cling to” or to “be persistent” is used twice here. Literally, these Christians wrapped their arms around Jesus’ teaching, dug in their heels and wouldn’t let go! It was the most important priority in their lives, because as their faith in God was strengthened, their connections with each other grew stronger also.
Their faith changed their perspective. When they looked around, they didn’t see “some people who go to my church.” They saw dearly loved family, and loved and cared for each other accordingly. Luke says they were “having everything in common,” meaning they willingly shared anything they had with those who needed it, even “selling their possessions and goods” and donating the money to help their needy brothers and sisters. Their joyful relationship in Christ made these sacrifices for others not a burden, but a gospel-driven, natural act of love for their family!
A group so connected by faith and moved by Christ’s love that they loved each other like family, and acted accordingly. Sounds like an awesome church to belong to, right? And it was awesome! Luke tells us that this congregation’s sacrificial love was so attractive, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Now, treating others like family doesn’t bring people to faith. But when they see the loving, joyful relationships believers have with each other, they’re drawn to the church, because they want those relationships too. Then, as they hear the gospel proclaimed, the Holy Spirit works on their hearts to bring them to faith in Jesus. In a world growing more and more disconnected, more and more people crave connection, a place to belong. Our church family can offer that like no one else can, because God offers connection as part of Jesus’ family!
Look at that banner. A Family Growing in Christ. That’s our church’s goal, right? To be a family so moved by the gospel that we can’t help but love each other; to look like those Acts 2 Christians. Is that what our relationships really look like?
Most guests would say Mount Olive is a friendly, welcoming group. But I wonder, are we maximizing the joyful relationships we can have through Christ? Or like the rest of the digital world, have we grown disconnected from each other?
After most services, when I grab a cup of coffee in the Atrium, I experience “Atrium Groundhog Day.” That is, I see the same people, standing in the same places, talking to their same friends week after week. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having close friends. You connect better with some of your fellow Christians because you have similar interests or places in life. Even in a family, you have siblings or cousins that you’re closer with than others. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore the rest of the family! If we’re serious about being a Family Growing in Christ, we’ll want to know the people outside of our comfortable friend groups too.
Or there are the “early duck-out” people who sit as close as possible to the exit, and sprint out when the service ends to avoid talking to anyone. Whether we know only a select few, or whether we talk to no one, we’re missing out on joyful relationships within our family.
Now, some are thinking, “But Pastor, we have like 2,000 members! How can we possibly know everyone?” Or “It’s too awkward. I’m shy” or “I’ll miss out on talking to my friends!” I’m not expecting everyone to become best friends. But I think we can all admit that there are steps we can take to be less self-focused, and establish deeper relationships in Christian love with others!
First, we need to make worship and the Word our priority, because worship and God’s Word are all about strengthening our relationships: Our vertical relationship with God, and our horizontal relationship with fellow believers. As our faith is strengthened, our vision changes. It’s like we swap out a self-focused mirror for some Christ-tinted lenses.
That new vision helps us see everyone differently! As you look around the pews, you don’t see a bunch of strangers, mere faces in the crowd. We see our family! When we hear the gospel–something to rejoice in, we realize we’re surrounded by a family to rejoice with. That perspective naturally changes our relationships!
When we see ourselves as a family in Christ, instead of scowling at the person who asks to sit in the pew you’re sitting in, smile because your sibling is joining you. The baby crying in the back isn’t a noisy distraction, but our child or grandchild. The lady whose husband passed away, isn’t a stranger, she’s grandma. That’s our uncle who got fired from his job; our brother who can’t put down the bottle; our son who’s drifting away from God; our mom who’s lonely and needs someone to talk to; our sister who stands alone in the corner because she’s new and doesn’t know people yet. Not strangers, but family. And we care enough about our family to know them, to encourage and care for them in love.
That’s not just a catchy slogan. We really are family! Not by genetics or ancestry, but by blood. Jesus’ blood. We were orphans cast off from God’s family because of sin. And yet, in love Jesus looked at us who deserved to be strangers and said, “That’s my brother. That’s my sister. I need to bring them back.” When we focus on Jesus, we also see each other as he sees us—dear brothers and sisters.
That’s not always easy. It’s way easier to let the guy sitting alone two rows up stay unknown to us. But that guy just might need your love and care today. You might need his admonition, his encouragement from God’s grace. Yes, that requires sacrifice; our time, our comfort zone, our routine. But just like the early Christians, God’s grace leads us to naturally sacrifice in love for others, because they’re family.
How can we better get to know our fellow brothers and sisters? Here are some practical steps to consider. Come to Bible class. Interact with people who go to different services than you, while strengthening your vertical and horizontal relationships. Join a Life Group small group Bible study. At a church as big as ours, it’s important to find ways to make it smaller. Life Groups are a great way to connect personally with other believers while strengthening your faith! Attend a different church service, or sit in a different pew than normal. Stay after the service and chat with people instead of immediately going home. You already know that part of your family, get to know others! Get together with church members outside of church. You’ll notice, the Christians in Acts 2 “broke bread in their homes” as well as in church. Connect your church life and your social life, instead of having two separate identities!
Do whatever you can, because through Christ, these people are your family! I want to end with a challenge/encouragement. After worship, find someone you don’t know and introduce yourself. Find out their name, job, hobbies, and family. Then next week, meet someone new. And the next week. And the next. I also want you to challenge me! Come shake my hand, and force me to tell you your name. If I don’t know, remind me so I can remember for the future. So we know each other better. So I know my flock better. Why? Because we’re a family, growing in and connected by Christ! We can’t love each other, unless we know each other.