The Purpose Drive Life
3. Cultivating Community
1 Corinthians 5:1-13

In certain shops, especially at sale times, you will find a section of merchandise available at greatly reduced prices. The tip-off is a particular tag you’ll see on all the items in that area. Each tag carries the same words: “sold as seen” or “as is
This is a euphemistic way of saying: “These are damaged goods.” Sometimes they’re called slightly irregular. The store is issuing you fair warning: “You are in the department of Something’s-Gone-Wrong.” You’re going to find a flaw here: a stain that won’t come out; a zipper that won’t zip; button that won’t button—there will be a problem. These items are not normal. “But the catch is, we’re not going to tell you where the flaw is. You’ll have to look for it. But we know it’s there (because we would not have marked this item down unless someone had noticed it). So when you find it—and you will find it—don’t come whining and sniveling to us. Because there is a fundamental rule when dealing with merchandise in this corner of the store: No returns. No refunds. No exchanges. Without of course infringing your statutory rights…” They are saying in effect, “If you were looking for perfection, you just walked down the wrong aisle. You have received fair warning. If you do want this item, there is only one way to obtain it. You must take it as is.”

The fact is, if you haven’t found out already, you soon will, when we deal with human beings, we have also come to the “as-is” corner of the universe. Think for a moment about someone in your life. Maybe the person you know best, the person you love most. That person is slightly irregular.” Aren’t they? They come with a little tag: “There’s a flaw here. A streak of deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper. It is as if God were saying, “I’m not going to tell you where it is, but it’s there. So when you find it—and you will find it—don’t be surprised. If you want to enter a relationship with this person, there is only one way. “As is.” Now look in the mirror and look for the tag.

We are tempted to live under the illusion that somewhere out there - there are people who are normal just like us. In the film, As Good As it Gets, Helen Hunt is wracked by ambivalence toward Jack Nicholson. He is kind and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic, an obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive: if rudeness were measured in square miles, he’d be Yorkshire.
In desperation, Helen finally cries to her mother, “I just want a normal boy friend.” “Oh,” her mother responds in empathy. “Everybody wants one of those. There is no such thing dear.”[2] When we enter relationships with the illusion that we are normal and that other people are too, when the infatuation wears off, we enter an endless attempt to fix them, control them, or pretend that they are what they are not.
Its one of the reasons some people cannot maintain long term relationships. Why some Christians cannot stick for long in the same church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said we invariably enter relationships with our own particular ideals and dreams of what community should look like.

“But God’s grace quickly frustrate(s) all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community … The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both … Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial."[3]

And that is our subject today - how do we cultivate community when nobody is normal, when everyone comes “as is”? James gives us a taster of the answer we will find in 1 Corinthians. “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.” (James 3:18 Message)

Rick Warren insists, “Community requires commitment.” You cannot, by yourself, create the real fellowship that God desires without the Holy Spirit. But He cultivates it with the choices and commitments we make. Paul points out this dual responsibility when he says ‘You are joined together with peace through the Spirit, so make every effort to continue together in this way.’ (Ephesians 4:3) “It takes both God’s power and our effort to produce a loving Christian community … If you are tired of “fake” fellowship, and you would like to cultivate real fellowship… you’ll need to make some tough choices and take some risks. Lets turn to our Bible reading from 1 Corinthians 5 and observe 3 essentials, 3 non-negotiables, 3 prerequisites for cultivating genuine community.

1. Cultivating Community Requires Honesty (1 Cor. 5:1-5)
1I also received a report of scandalous sex within your church family, a kind that wouldn’t be tolerated even outside the church: One of your men is sleeping with his stepmother. 2And you’re so above it all that it doesn’t even faze you! Shouldn’t this break your hearts? Shouldn’t it bring you to your knees in tears? Shouldn’t this person and his conduct be confronted and dealt with? … I’m telling you that this is wrong. You must not simply look the other way and hope it goes away on its own. Bring it out in the open and deal with it in the authority of Jesus our Master.  better devastation and embarrassment than damnation. You want him on his feet and forgiven before the Master on the Day of Judgment. (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)

Strong language? Paul goes for the jugular because he realizes that if this behaviour is tolerated any longer it will destroy their credibility as Christ followers and tear the church apart. So Paul speaks plainly and instructs them to publicly discipline the man by denying him fellowship. He will be isolated, tormented by his guilt and, God-willing, may be brought to repentance.  Rick Warren says, “You … have to care enough to lovingly speak the truth, even when you would rather gloss over a problem or ignore an issue.

While it is much easier to remain silent when others around us are harming themselves or others with a sinful pattern, it is not the loving thing to do. Most people have no one in their lives who loves them enough to tell them the truth (even when its painful), so they continue in self destructive ways.”

Paul loved this man and his step-mother too much to allow them and their church to glorify their permissive toleration of immorality. And neither must we. This week the Church press is debating what kind of Archbishop is needed in York to succeed David Hope. A strong lobby is calling for a liberal who will be sympathetic to the gay movement. There will be strong opposition to this but it will be caricatured as unloving and intolerant, and so many will be intimidated and remain silent. Often we know what needs to be said to someone, but our fears prevent us from saying anything.” Many churches have been sabotaged by fear. No one had the courage to speak up in the group while a member’s life fell apart.” In Proverbs God says, ‘An honest answer is a sign of true friendship.’ (Proverbs 24:26)

Sometimes, as in this example in 1 Corinthians 5, caring will involve confronting someone who is sinning or is tempted to sin. Much of church life remains superficial because people are afraid of conflict. So when an issue pops up that might cause tension, it is quickly glossed over or swept under the carpet, to preserve so called unity and peace. “Mr ‘Don’t Rock the boat’ jumps in and tries to smooth everyone’s ruffled feathers, the issue is never resolved, and everyone lives with an underlying frustration. Everyone knows about the problem, but no one talks about it openly.”

“Real fellowship, whether in a marriage, a friendship, or our church, depends on frankness. In fact, the tunnel of conflict is the passageway to intimacy in any relationship.” Until we care enough to confront and resolve underlying barriers, we will never grow close to one another. “When conflict is handled correctly, we grow closer to each other by facing, and resolving our differences. In Proverbs 28 God says, “In the end, people appreciate frankness more than flattery.” (Proverbs 28:23)

Now please remember that before you experiment over coffee and say all the things you have ever wanted to say, that “frankness is not a license to say anything you want, wherever and whenever you want.” Frankness is not the same as rudeness. “Thoughtless words leave lasting wounds. God tells us to speak to each other as loving family members.” Paul writes to Timothy,

Don’t be harsh or impatient with an older man. Talk to him as you would your own father, and to the younger men as your brothers. 2Reverently honour an older woman as you would your mother, and the younger women as sisters. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)

 John Ortberg says we need to be truth tellers. “Every one of us needs a few people to tell us the truth about our hearts and souls.  We all have weak spots and blind spots that we cannot navigate on our own.  We need someone to remind us of our deepest aspirations and values; we need someone to warn us when we may be getting off track.  We need someone to help us question our motives and examine our consciences.  We need someone to perform spiritual surgery on us when our hearts get hard and our vision gets dim.  We need a few Truth-Tellers.[4]

 “Sadly, thousands of fellowships have been destroyed by a lack of honesty” by the lack of truth tellers. In our reading, Paul has to rebuke the Corinthians church for their “passive code of silence in allowing immorality in their fellowship…” because none had the courage to confront it. So, first of all then, cultivating community requires courage and honesty.

2. Cultivating Community Requires Humility (1 Cor. 5:6-8)

6Your flip and callous arrogance in these things bothers me. You pass it off as a small thing, but it’s anything but that. Yeast, too, is a “small thing,” but it works its way through a whole batch of bread dough pretty fast. 7So get rid of this “yeast.” Our true identity is flat and plain, not puffed up with the wrong kind of ingredient. The Messiah, our Passover Lamb, has already been sacrificed for the Passover meal, and we are the Unraised Bread part of the Feast. 8So let’s live out our part in the Feast, not as raised bread swollen with the yeast of evil, but as flat bread—simple, genuine, unpretentious. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

The church had tolerated the man because they thought they were morally superior and could decide what was acceptable behaviour. Rick Warren observes, “Self-importance, smugness, and stubborn pride destroy fellowship faster than anything else. Pride builds walls between people; humility builds bridges. Humility is the oil that smoothes and soothes relationships. This is why God says “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Peter 5:5).

So when we are debating what we should or should not wear in church, remember the only non-negotiable is a humble attitude. The verse goes on to give another reason why cultivating community requires humility. “because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5) This is the other reason why we need humility - because “pride blocks God’s grace in our lives.” If God opposes the proud, it is foolish and self destructive to try and get away with it. We can develop humility in a variety of ways.

“By admitting our weaknesses, by being patient with other’s weaknesses, by being open to correction, and by pointing the spotlight on others.”  This is how Paul put it in a similar letter to the church in Rome.  “
Live in harmony with each other. Don’t try to act important, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!” (Romans 12:16).

Rick Warren says,
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others. Humble people are so focused on serving others, they don’t think of themselves.” Cultivating community requires honesty and requires humility.

3. Cultivating Community Requires Holiness (1 Cor 5:9-13)

9I wrote you in my earlier letter that you shouldn’t make yourselves at home among the sexually promiscuous. 10I didn’t mean that you should have nothing at all to do with outsiders of that sort … You’d have to leave the world entirely to do that! 11But I am saying that you shouldn’t act as if everything is just fine when one of your Christian companions is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory. You can’t just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behaviour. 12I’m not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? 13God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

To be holy is to be dedicated - set apart for the Lord’s use. To be holy is about becoming more and more like Jesus. Distinctly different but close enough to others to have an influence.   But it must be the right kind of influence. In Corinth they thought they should separate from those outside the church and tolerate anything inside. Paul shows the opposite is true. If we are aware of sin in our own lives or in someone in our church fellowship, with honesty and with humility and holy fear we need to take responsibility and deal with the sin personally. The temptation instead is just to talk about it - to other people.   But talking to others about someone else’s faults is about as destructive as pouring sulphuric acid on your arm. Eventually it will drop off. God hates gossip. That is why he says in Proverbs 16, “Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendship.” (Proverbs 16:28)

Rick Warren says, “Gossip always causes hurt and divisions, and it destroys fellowship, and God is very clear that we are to confront those who cause division among Christians. They may get mad and leave but the fellowship of the church is more important than any individual.” Paul’s solution for promoting holy living was straightforward.
no more lies, no more pretence. Tell your neighbour the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.” (Ephesians 4:25)

Cultivating community requires honesty, it requires humility and it requires holiness. So what was the impact of Paul’s letter? Deep and profound for the church in Corinth and also for this individual as well.

4. Cultivating Community Results in Healing (2 Cor. 2:4-9)

I didn’t write it to cause pain; I wrote it so you would know how much I care—oh, more than care—love you! 5Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you. So I don’t want to come down too hard. 6What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. 7Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. 8My counsel now is to pour on the love. 9The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. (2 Cor. 2:4-9)

The church leaders in Corinth had taken Paul seriously. They had disciplined the person and put him out of the fellowship. He had repented. Now Paul instructs them to forgive him, love him, reaffirm him, restore him. Cultivating community requires honesty, humility and holiness and by God’s grace it will result in healing.

“Community is not built on convenience…” the idea that we’ll get together when we feel like it. Community is built on the conviction that we need to meet together for our spiritual health. So if we want to cultivate real fellowship, it will mean meeting together even when we don’t feel like it, because we feel its important. If you accept that cultivating community requires honesty, humility and holiness then I invite you to make a covenant to help cultivate community at Christ Church, in our small groups, through our serving teams, with our leaders, as singles, couples and families, together.

Here are nine characteristics of biblical fellowship:

As we near the season of Advent and think on the return of our Lord, lets covenant together to cultivate our community around these principles. As you examine these characteristics of a biblically functioning community, you realise how awesome community can be, yet at the same time why genuine community is rare. Because “it means giving up our self-centeredness and independence in order to be come interdependent. Yet with the dawning realisation that this is the way God intends us to live, because the benefits of sharing our lives together far outweighs the costs, and  prepares us for heaven.”
Lets pray.


[1] Illustration taken from John Ortberg’s Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003), pp13-15. This brilliant book is about how imperfect people like you and me can pursue community with other imperfect people. This is a book about how porcupines learn to dance. So you will have to start with the actual porcupines right there in your life.

[2]  Quotations taken from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002), pp. 145-151.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Translated by Daniel Bloesch and James Burtness, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996), p.9.

[4] John Ortberg,  Everybody’s Normal., p.3.