How the Gospel Changes Relationships (Colossians 3:1-17)

For a couple of months now we've been looking at the subject of healthy relationships. We just have one week left.

One of the things that I worry about as a series comes to an end is what will change as a result of the series. It's been my prayer that we would change substantially in how we relate to each other as a result of spending time in God's Word looking at how our relationships change as a result of what God accomplished for us at the cross.

I know that after the service is over today, some of you are going to face the challenge, for instance, of forgiveness. I know that another group of us are going to have good reason to be ticked at someone. It's going to be very easy to badmouth them and to voice our displeasure to countless other people. There are going to be all kinds of relational challenges that all of us are going to face. What is going to sustain healthy relationships among us as a church?

Let me tell you what won't work. What won't work is simply trying harder. We know this already. In just a month we're facing a new year. Can you believe it? Someone the other day talked about 2011. I initially thought it sounded so far away that I don't even need to worry about it anymore. 2011 isn't that far away.

The reality is that there are going to be lots of people who make resolutions. Some of them are even going to keep some of them for more than a couple of weeks. We know that willpower and self-power aren't ever enough to bring lasting change. Most of us have tried this, and we've realized that we simply don't have what it takes.

This is especially the case when it comes to the biblical standard of relationships. The truth is that some people do have the willpower to lose weight. Some people do have the willpower to make and keep resolutions. Not many, but some. Nobody has the power to rise to the biblical standard of relationships through self-effort. No-one! We're going to need more than steely resolve if we are going to see our relationships change for the better.

If we're going to change, we have to be connected to a power that's beyond ourselves. The reason why many of us have not changed up until now is that we've been trying on our own power. Let me tell you right now: it simply won't work.

But there's an alternative. In the passage we have before us, Paul tells us how our relationships can change substantively. Paul says that the gospel creates new people and a new community, which makes a new kind of relationship possible. Let me say that again: The gospel creates new people and a new community, which makes a new kind of relationship possible.

Let's unpack that.

First: the gospel creates a new people.

We live in an old house, a wartime house built some sixty years ago. When we moved in the floors had been redone, sort of. They hadn't done a good job. Not only that but the floors had been redone so many times that it wasn't possible to refinish them one more time. We didn't need our floors refinished; we needed a brand new floor.

In the passage before us, Paul says that this is what we need as well. Some of us think that we need a bit of sanding, a bit of polishing, a fresh coat of finish. But look at what Paul says in verses 1-3:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Paul says that our old self - our lives apart from Christ - wasn't just refinished. This is so important. Our old selves would never have the power to pursue the biblical teaching on relationships. They were done. Our old selves were like the floor that couldn't be refinished; the car that couldn't be repaired; the house that couldn't be fixed; the sickness that couldn't be cured. If we attempt to obey out of our old selves, there would be no hope for us at all.

But Paul says that we died, and that we have been raised with Christ. God hasn't renovated us. He's remade us. He's given us new life. Look down at verses 9 and 10 with me:

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

You see what Paul is saying here? You haven't been refurbished. If you have something refurbished, it's been used. You don't know where it's been. But it's been turned in and cleaned up. It's not new; it's just made to look like new. It's like the kid who loves to play outside. His hair is always unkempt and he's always got dirt and bruises all over, because he loves to be out playing in the backyard. His mother calls him in and brushes his hair and puts him in a suit and takes him to a nice restaurant, but underneath he's still the same boy who can't wait to get home and get dirty again. He's been cleaned up but he hasn't been changed. That's not what we need, and it's not what Paul says has happened to us when we came to Christ.

We haven't been refurbished, Paul says. We've been made completely new. This is what gives us hope. We can change in our relationships. Our old selves have been removed and put to death. If you are in Christ then a new self has replaced it. This makes all the difference when it comes to how we can experience all that God has told us about how to have healthy relationships.

But that's not all. The gospel creates new people, but it gets even better.

The gospel also creates a new community.

Read verse 11 with me:

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

This is staggering. In this verse Paul lists different groups of people who would not normally associate together. The barriers between these groups would be huge. You're talking race, ancestral religion, class and caste. There would be all kinds of suspicion between these groups, which would lead to conflict and unhealthy relationships. You would never want to put a group of these people in the same room and lock the door. This group of people simply would not get along.

So here you have three groups of people, most of whom would be opposed to each other:

  • Gentle vs. Jew
  • circumcised vs. uncircumcised
  • slave vs. free

You may as well add oil vs. water. These three groups just would not get along. Then Paul adds to others to the list: barbarian and Scythian. A barbarian was a bit of a derogatory term. Greeks in that time viewed themselves as being culturally superior, and would mock the way that non-Greeks spoke which sounded to them like "bar bar bar..." So they mockingly called them barbarians. It wasn't a compliment.

And then you have Scythians, a people group from part of what we would today call the Ukraine. It gets even worse. A Scythian was simply an extreme example of a barbarian. They were thought to be the "epitome of unrefinement and savagery." They were a violent, uneducated, uncivilized people. The historian Josephus wrote of Scythians: "Now, as to the Scythians, they take a pleasure in killing men, and differ little from brute beasts."

Paul says that "here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." These groups that normally would have nothing to do with each other are now part of the new humanity that God is creating. God is creating a new humanity in which differences in background, nationality, color, language, and social standing are completely irrelevant to the question of love, honor, and respect that are to be shown.

When Paul says "Christ is all, and is in all," he means "Wherever one looks, one sees Christ" (N.T. Wright). Think about this. We used to look at others and see enemies. Now we look at others and see Christ.

So when Paul talks about a new people, he's not really talking about new individuals. God is creating a new humanity. The church is really a people who have experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ and who are being transformed into a new community of people. D.A. Carson put it best: "Christians are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus' sake."

The gospel creates a new people, and these new people become a new community.

The result is that a new kind of relationship is possible.

Verse 3 says, "You have died..." Verse 5-10 say:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

"You have died...so put to death." Do you see what Paul is saying? Our job is to act out of the reality of what has already happened in Christ. It's possible to be dead and not to put to death the things that characterized our old natures. This is why many of us haven't seen our relationships change. We'e still trying to live out of our own power. Paul says that we have to take what is true in reality, because of what Christ has done, and make it true in our experience as well.

Before you and I were saved, we were like radios that only had one station. Everything we heard was from the vantage point of the old us. When you come to Christ, a new station has been added to your life. But unless you tune in, you will never hear the music.

Many of us are still feeding from the old station and so we are living the old way even though God has given us a brand-new channel. Unless you tune in, however, you will never hear about the power that you have in Christ. What God has done is to give us a new channel once we come to Christ. He wants us to understand that we've been united with Him.

That's why Paul says in verse 10, "Put on the new self..." When you take a shower, you don't put on the same clothes that you had on before. If you did, you'd be canceling out the benefit of the shower. When you clean the inside, you want the outside to match it. Having a clean inside and a dirty outside cancels the point in being cleansed. When you came to Jesus Christ, God gave you a blood bath.

You were bathed in the blood of Jesus Christ. You were cleansed from all of your sins. So Paul says that we are to put on the new self.

The gospel creates new people and a new community, which makes a new kind of relationship possible. And Paul describes what this new kind of relationship looks like in verses 12 to 14:

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

These are the new clothes that Christ has called us to put on. If we just skip to verses 12 to 14 and try to live them out through sheer willpower we'll fail every time. But if we experience the power of the gospel, which creates new people and a new community, then our job is not to will ourselves into healthy relationships. Our job is simply to tune in to the gospel and make true in our experience what is already true in reality.

Our hope for lasting change in our relationships comes back to Jesus. John Perkins is a man who was beaten in a Mississippi jail, being repeatedly kicked and stomped on as he lay in a fetal position for protection. The beating went on and on as he writhed in a pool of his own blood while inebriated officers took turns, using their feet and blackjacks. At one point an officer took an unloaded pistol, put it to Perkins's head, and pulled the trigger. Then another bigger man beat him until he was unconscious. As the night wore on, it got worse. During a conscious period, one officer pushed a fork down his throat. It was barbarous torture, a great, substantive reason to hate. But this is what happened, as John Perkins tells it:

The Spirit of God worked on me as I lay in that bed. An image formed in my mind. The image of the cross--Christ on the cross. It blotted out everything else in my mind. This Jesus knew what I had suffered. He understood. And He cared. Because He had experienced it all Himself. This Jesus, this One who had brought good news directly from God in heaven, had lived what He preached. Yet He was arrested and falsely accused. Like me, He went through an unjust trial. He also faced a lynch mob and got beaten. But even more than that, He was nailed to rough wooden planks and killed. Killed like a common criminal. At the crucial moment, it seemed to Jesus that even God Himself had deserted Him. The suffering was so great, He cried out in agony. He was dying.

But when He looked at that mob who had lynched Him, He didn't hate them. He loved them. He forgave them. And He prayed God to forgive them. "Father, forgive these people, for they don't know what they are doing." His enemies hated. But Jesus forgave. I couldn't get away from that....

It's a profound, mysterious truth--Jesus' concept of love overpowering hate. I may not see its victory in my lifetime. But I know it's true. I know it's true, because it happened to me. On that bed, full of bruises and stitches--God made it true in me. He washed my hatred away and replaced it with a love for the white man in rural Mississippi.

Let's pray.

Father, as we deal with relationships, we realize that it isn't about just trying harder. It's about seeing what Christ has done. And today we see through Christ you have created new people and a new community, which has made a new kind of relationship possible.

So as we pray, do for us what you did for John Perkins. Allow us to see Jesus, and allow that to change the way we see others. Allow us to live out the reality of what you've accomplished through Jesus. We pray this in his name. Amen.

Extravagant Forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35)

We're coming to the end of a series on healthy relationships. We're just a few weeks away from finishing. We can't go through a series on relationships without talking about a subject that is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others. And that subject is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others. I love what Ruth Graham said: "A good marriage is made of two good forgivers." That's not just true of marriage. For a relationship to be healthy, it has to be characterized by forgiveness.

But forgiveness is hard. This past summer we sat around a dinner table with some friends. The food had been good. We were starting to feel at home with the others around the table.

Near the end of dinner the subject turned to forgiveness. The question that was posed was something like this: "How do you forgive others for all the ways they've hurt you?" We had talked enough with those around the table to know that there had been some pretty serious hurts that had taken place. I remember the heavy silence that hung over the table as we began to wrestle with what it means to forgive those who have sinned against us.

That's why I love what Darrin Patrick said: "If you think forgiveness is not painful, you have never forgiven someone who hurt you deeply."

Extravagant Forgiveness

But I don't want to simply talk about forgiveness this morning. I want to talk about extravagant forgiveness. It's one thing to forgive someone when they forget to show up at a meeting, or open their car door so that it dings yours. It's another thing to forgive someone for a serious offense, or to forgive someone who's hurt you repeatedly.

Pastor Fred Winters was shot and killed during a Sunday service on March 8, 2009, by a troubled young man. A week after the tragic event, his wife, Cindy Winters, said this about the alleged killer:

I do not have any hatred, or even hard feelings towards him. We have been praying for him. One of the first things that my daughter said to me after this happened was, "You know, I hope that he comes to learn to love Jesus through all of this." We are not angry at all, and we really firmly believe that he can find hope and forgiveness and peace through this, by coming to know Jesus. And we hope that that happens for him.

You hear stories like this and wonder: how in the world is forgiveness possible? A gunman opens fire in an Amish schoolhouse and kills five girls. Afterwards one of the members of the community says, "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts." Or, as Roy Comrie shared a few weeks ago, missionaries are lined up and killed. Before they die, they get on their knees and pray for the salvation of the killers, many of whom later come to know Christ. That's what you call extravagant forgiveness.

How is this kind of extravagant forgiveness even possible?

That's the question we have before us as we look at this passage. Notice what happened. Jesus has just been talking about real community among his followers, in which we go after and restore those who sin. Peter asks a legitimate question:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" (Matthew 18:21)

You can see why Peter would ask this question. Centuries ago someone said, "For Who deceives me once, God forgive him; if twice, God forgive him; but if thrice, God forgive him, but not me, because I could not beware." You have to admit that sounds a little reasonable. There comes a time when you want to say, "Enough is enough!" There are limits to how much most of us are willing to forgive.

The thing with Peter is that he's being extraordinarily generous. Rabbinic tradition said: "If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not forgiven." Peter more than doubled this quota of forgivenesses. He's clearly learned something from Jesus. He understands now that retaliation is not the right path; forgiveness is to be pursued. You can picture the type of patience needed to forgive someone seven times.

But notice how Jesus answered in verse 22. "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." I can just picture somebody writing an iPhone app to keep track of the number of times you've forgiven someone. But that's not what Jesus meant. He wasn't saying we should keep track at all. Stop counting. For Jesus' followers, forgiveness is to be unlimited. It's to be a way of life, freely offered to all who sin against us.

This means, by the way, that if you're keeping track of how many times you've forgiven someone, you need to stop. Jesus' point was that we need to forgive an unlimited number of times.

You can see that this is a radical kind of forgiveness that goes far beyond what you'd expect. The question occurs to me: where am I going to get that kind of ability to forgive? Where am I going to find the resources to forgive someone to that level of extravagance? Jesus answers this question, and the answer comes in the form of a story.

The Unforgiving Servant

The story we have in verses 23-35 is a simple one. We need to enter into it if we're going to understand the point that Jesus is making. The story has three characters.

First: it has a king. A king in that day would have had many officials who handled money on his behalf in affairs of the state. You can picture what happened. It's audit time, and the accountant comes and points out that there's some irregularities in a particular department. The more they look, the worse it gets. This sounds very familiar, doesn't it?

This leads us to the second character. He's the official who has overseen this particular area. He owes the first character, the king, a vast amount of money. The amount of money is so vast that we have a hard time even understanding how much it is. A talent represented about twenty years worth of work for the average laborer. This man owes ten thousand talents, which works out to about 193,000 years' wages. We're talking in the neighborhood of billions of dollars here. Not millions, billions. Using today's wages, maybe 7 billion dollars or so. So look at what happens:

As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"At this the servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (Matthew 18:24-27)

That's it? A guy owes 7 billion dollars, and the king has pity on him and lets him go? I think you'll agree that's staggering. Unbelievable. Nobody could ever expect that level of compassion and grace. He could never hope to pay that amount back. If the king wasn't merciful, he wouldn't have stood a chance, and all would have been lost. It's an amazing story of extravagant forgiveness.

But what's really staggering is what happens next. Having been forgiven 7 billion dollars, he's on his way home and comes across someone who owes him a hundred days' worth of wages. Remember he's just been forgiven 7 billion dollars; he now goes after someone who owes him, say, a little less than 10 thousand dollars.

Now, it's a big deal if someone owes you 10 thousand dollars - unless you've just been forgiven 7 billion dollars. Then it's just a rounding error. Of course you're going to forgive someone such a small amount after you've been forgiven billions! But look what happens:

"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt." (Matthew 18:28-30)

Then, we read, the king hears about it. He can't believe his ears.

"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matthew 18:32-34)

You see, you can't be forgiven billions and then be unwilling to forgive peanuts. The problem was that this man didn't understand how extravagantly he had been forgiven, and as a result he wasn't wasn't able to forgive others. And then Jesus concludes with these haunting words:

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart." (Matthew 18:35)

How will he treat us? Jesus is saying that if we withhold forgiveness from others for what they do to us, then God will withhold forgiveness from us. This is staggering. Jesus is essentially saying that every time we refuse to forgive someone for what they've done for us, we're like the guy who's been forgiven 7 billion dollars who refuses to forgive a few thousand dollars.

The Key to Extravagant Forgiveness

Let's try to summarize here. Remember how this all began? Jesus is teaching about how to deal with people who sin against us. Peter asks the very good question about how many times we need to forgive others. And then Jesus says we're to forgive others freely without counting no matter how many times they sin against us.

How could we ever forgive like this? Jesus says: it'll only happen when you understand how much you've been forgiven. Whatever someone has done to offend you, it pales in comparison to what you've done to offend God. This isn't to minimize what people have done against you. Some of it, quite frankly, is awful. But it pales in comparison to what you and I have done to offend a holy God.

When Yahaya Wahab's father passed away in Malaysia in January of 2006, Yahaya cancelled his father's phone line and paid the final bill of $23. Consequently, he was mildly surprised to receive another letter from Telekom Malaysia in April of 2006. He was completely and utterly shocked, however, after opening that letter. In fact, he said later that he almost fainted.

Inside was a bill for $218 trillion. Also inside was a threatening letter, informing Yahaya that he must pay the bill within 10 days or face prosecution. It wasn't initially clear whether the monstrous charge was a mistake, or if Yahaya's father's phone line had been used illegally after his death. What was immediately clear, however, was that the bill represented a debt that Yahaya would never be able to pay.

It's like that with God. The debt of our sin is so great that we could never repay it. But instead of prosecuting us, God sent his Son Jesus to pay that debt on our behalf. Because we've been forgiven so much, we'll be able to forgive others the relatively small amounts that they owe us.

We can never forgive more extravagantly than God. When we realize how much we've been forgiven, when we consider what Jesus did at the cross for us, we'll know what it means to forgive, and we'll then be ready to forgive others - even for the 78th time.

I love how Chris Brauns puts it:

If you are someone who says that you cannot or will not forgive, then you should fear for your soul. Saying, "I cannot or will not forgive," is essentially another way of saying, "I am thinking of going to hell."...Quacking doesn't make you a duck, but ducks do quack. Forgiving doesn't make you a Christian, but Christians do forgive.

It's only when a man understands how much he's been forgiven that he can go and visit his sister's murderer in prison, and offer forgiveness - both his and God's. Extravagant forgiveness is possible because of God has extravagantly forgiven us.

So I invite you to experience and revel in God's forgiveness of you this morning, made possible because of what Christ has done at the cross.

He does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:10-12)

And then I invite you, on the basis of that extravagant forgiveness, to extend forgiveness to others.

Genuine Community (Matthew 18:1-22)

The other day I pulled out the ice cream and chocolate syrup. At least I thought it was chocolate syrup until I read the label carefully. In big letters it sad, "Genuine." In smaller letters it said "Chocolate Taste." Do you get that? Not "Genuine Chocolate." That would be nice. "Genuine Chocolate Taste." I went online and dug around a bit and found this question:

What is a genuine chocolate FLAVORED syrup? How does it differ from a genuine chocolate syrup? Can something be genuine if it it does taste like something but not the real thing?

Webster definition on Genuine: "actually produced by or proceeding from the alleged source"

What I poured on my ice cream that night was not real chocolate. It was syrup that genuinely tastes like chocolate, but it's not the real thing. The real thing would be far too costly. We live in a world of fakes: artificial vanilla extract; genuine leather material; "pure" orange juice that has additives; genuine chocolate taste, not chocolate. Might I also add "genuine relationship taste" which is very different from "genuine relationship."

That's exactly what this passage before us is about: genuine community. We have a choice before us as a church. We can settle for genuine Christian community taste. The thing is, it almost tastes like the real thing. If you've never tasted the real thing, you may not even know the difference. But it's not the genuine thing at all.

So in this morning's passage, Jesus is going to show us the difference between genuine community taste, which falls far short of what we're supposed to enjoy, and the real thing.

So let's look first at what often passes for Christian community.

You could call this "genuine Christian community taste." But it's far from the real thing.

Let me give you a bit of context. The disciples were becoming increasingly aware that Jesus is the Messiah, which meant that the Messianic kingdom was right around the corner. They expected that Jesus was going to show himself in power and set up his kingdom - which also meant that the top jobs were up for grabs. If Jesus is King, and he's about to set up his Kingdom, then it's pretty nice to be a close friend of Jesus. You've got connections. You begin to wonder what job you're going to hold in the new administration.

So we read in verse 1, "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'"

This is one of those moments when we want to wag our fingers at the disciples. How dare they ask such a brazen and shameless question? The disciples understood that they were part of the community that Jesus was creating. It's easy to see how this happened. We have a new mayor in Toronto. He starts in just a couple of weeks. If you're a good friend of the new mayor, you may ask, "I'm just wondering. Who's going to be your chief of staff? Do you have an office manager yet?" It's a mindset that comes naturally to most of us. We want to leverage our connections and push ourselves forward based on our expertise, maturity, and qualifications so that we're recognized for who we think we really are.

I know a lot of relationships that function this very way. I remember sitting around a table the first time I met with a new group of people. We went around the table and began introducing ourselves. I have to confess that I didn't hear a word that anyone said who went before me. Why? I was thinking about what I was going to say. I also didn't hear the two or three people who went after me, because I was too busy thinking about how well I did. I was kicking myself for not saying the right thing. I was trying to see where I ranked in that group of people. I sure didn't want to end up at the bottom of the list. We were trying to build community in the group, but I was too busy trying to gain leverage and to get people to think well of me.

False community asks the questions, "What's in it for me?" and "How can I gain standing in this community?" I'm going to suggest that this is our default way of approaching relationships, including in the church. If you don't know any better, if you've never tasted the real thing, then you think that this is what relationships are supposed to be like.

One of the frustrations I've had as a pastor is that so many of us are disconnected. We come out Sundays. We maybe have some friends we talk to. We may even be part of some ministries, attend small groups. But nobody really knows us. We aren't really deep into each other's lives. I've wondered this week if the question the disciples ask is behind this. We're approaching the idea of relationships in the church by trying to figure out how the relationships can benefit us. As a result we're never able to enjoy genuine Christian community.

You see, when the disciples asked the question - and when we do too - it indicates that there's a big problem. William Barclay says, "The very fact that they asked this question shows that they had no idea what the Kingdom of Heaven was." Not only that, but Jesus said that we won't even enter his kingdom if we approach things this way:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:2-5)

Picture the scene. One one hand: important friends and associates of Jesus who are wondering where they're going to fit in. On the other hand, a small and insignificant child with an empty resume, no connections, no accomplishments, nothing by which to impress.

If you're entering Christian community with a focus on yourself, wondering what's in it for you, and how you can advance and get others to think well of you, then you haven't experienced genuine Christian community. In fact, Jesus says, you may not have entered the kingdom of heaven at all.

Let's ask the question, then: what is genuine Christian community?

Let's look at what genuine Christian community looks like.

Do you remember why my syrup was artificial? Because the real thing would cost too much. Do you want to know why artificial Christian community is so attractive? Not because it tastes good. The taste is awful. If you've tasted the real thing, there's no question which is better. No, it's because what we just talked about doesn't cost very much. In contrast, genuine Christian community is costly. It consists of three things.

First, it means a radical commitment to value others in our community, even at great cost to ourselves. This is pretty heavy duty. I want you to think of someone who is part of the church, somebody you don't particularly appreciate. It shouldn't take long. Now, don't look at them. Did you know that there's even a name for them? You can call them EGRs. I got this term from Gordon MacDonald. EGR stands for "extra grace required." It could be people who drain us, people who aren't very impressive to us, people we'd prefer weren't part of our lives.

Jesus says in verse 5 that we need to receive people like this. This is so important that he repeats it again in verse 10. Not only do we need to become like little children - no resume, nothing to impress - but we need to welcome people like this. It means we value people who aren't valuable to us, because they're immensely valuable to God. Not only that, but we need to ensure that our actions do not harm them negatively. In verses 7-9 Jesus calls us to take radical action so that we don't lead others into sin by our own actions. If we lead others into sin by our own actions, Jesus says, we're storing up a world of trouble for ourselves.

You can see how this is costly. It means valuing others we wouldn't otherwise value, because they're valuable to Jesus. It's a radical commitment to value others at great cost to ourselves.

Secondly, it means that we pursue others when they stray. In my library I have a book that was given to me for my birthday by a group of friends 25 years ago. It's signed by my friends. Many of those friends are still walking with God. Two of them are pastors. But there's one that bothers me. Let me read what she wrote and then I'll tell you why it bothers me.

Continue in your walk with our precious Savior, Darryl. May he lead you all the days of your life. God bless. Thanks for your fellowship in Christ. All my love, a daughter in Christ...

You know why that bothers me? Because she is no longer walking with Christ. Our normal way of handling something like this is to say, "Well, I guess it's their business. The last thing I want to do is to meddle in someone else's life." But that's not genuine Christian community. Jesus says, in verses 10 to 14 that this is not what we'll do when we're in genuine community with each other. If 1 goes off, we won't say, "Well, look at the bright side. We've still got 99." We'll go after that one with the goal of restoring them to God and to the community again.

How does this work? Jesus describes a process in verses 15 to 17, a process that imitates the love of a shepherd who is doing everything possible to rescue a beloved lamb who has strayed from the fold.

Step 1: Correct privately

Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over" (Matthew 18:15).

Please note that this passage is for all of us. It's not reserved for church leaders or special people. We're all supposed to look out for each other. It's also not an excuse for busybodies. There's a time to cover over offenses (Proverbs 19:11). But if an offense is too serious to overlook, love will compel us to go and seek to show a brother or sister where he or she may be straying from the safety of God's path.

Be prepared for the fact that the world will constantly try to convince you that offering correction is inevitably unloving and judgmental. It will help to remember that in God's eyes it is often the most loving thing we can do for each other. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, "Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin." Discipline is God's gift and blessing to the church!

Step 2: Take one or two others along

But what if the other person doesn't listen to you? What if he or she keeps on doing something you believe is wrong?

The world says, "Tell anyone and everyone about it!" Jesus says, "But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). They don't have to be witnesses to the sin; they're there to witness the response.

It's not easy to go to someone who is caught in sin, even if you take others along. Nor will you always see immediate repentance. But if you are obedient, you are certainly more likely to see a brother or sister return to the Lord than if you do nothing but sit in silence or spread gossip about them.

Step 3: Tell it to the church

But what if one or two people get involved, and the person still won't change his ways? The world, and even many people in the church, will say, "We've done all we can and this is taking much too much time, so let's just drop it." But what should we do? "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17).

In most situations, the matter should first be brought only to the church leaders, who might still be able to resolve the problem by bringing their God-given ecclesiastical authority to bear on the situation. If that does not settle the matter, then the leaders may selectively inform others in the church who might be able to influence the person who is caught in sin. If even that does not work, then the leaders may need to inform anyone in the church who might be harmed by the person's ongoing sin.

Step 4: Treat him as a pagan or a tax collector

But what if the person still won't repent, even after others in the church do all they can to persuade him to repent?

The world would say, "Judge not lest ye be judged," misquoting Scripture to mean that the church has no right to judge and respond to a person's wrong conduct.

What does God say we should do when a brother or sister hardens his or her heart against the loving discipline of his church? "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew18:17).

You can see why people like "genuine Christian community taste" rather than "genuine Christian community." This is costly. I think Mark Dever gets it right when he states:

Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and simple confession that we need help. We cannot live the Christian life alone. Our purpose in church discipline is positive for the individual disciplined, for other Christians as they see the real danger of sin, for the health of the church as a whole, and for the corporate witness of the church to those outside. Most of all, our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride's sake but for God's name's sake. Biblical church discipline is a mark of a healthy church.

Genuine community means we value others, even those who aren't valuable to us. It also means we go after those who stray. We don't just wash our hands and shrug. We pursue them out of love and do our best to restore them.

Finally, it also means that we pursue reconciliation and forgiveness. Peter, probably reacting to what Jesus had just taught, asked Jesus how many times we need to forgive others. The Jewish tradition said that three times was plenty. Peter more than doubled that number and asked Jesus if that was enough. Jesus replied, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:22). Jesus is not saying to stop forgiving the 78th time. He's telling us that, for Jesus' followers, forgiveness should be unlimited and extravagant. Why? If you read the rest of the passage, it's because Jesus' forgiveness of us has been extravagant.

In fact, if you look at this whole passage, you see that the love we have for each other is a reflection of the love that Jesus has shown to us. He has valued us in our lowliness, when we were unlovable, at infinite cost to himself. He pursues us when we stray, and restores us. And he forgives us not just 78 times, thank God. He extends extravagant grace and forgiveness to us as sinners.

We dare not settle for fake stuff. Let's pursue the costly and genuine type of community that Jesus describes in this passage.

I grew up on day-old donuts. It was all we could afford, and I didn't know the difference. I'll never forget the day that someone bought me a fresh donut. There was no going back. I pray it's going to be the same in our community. Genuine community involves selfless care for and reconciliation with other Christians. It costs - but you'll never go back once you've tasted the real thing.