Finding Community In SufferingErwin W. Lutzer | January 20, 2002
Selected highlights from this sermon
The church can be spoken of as many things, from a flock to a bride, but one thing is common: diversity. There is interdependence among all of us.
Pastor Lutzer explains why we need to assemble together, not only to grow spiritually, but to be a caring, connected community that supports each other through the hardships of life.
How do we characterize the church? There are many ways to describe the Body of Christ. We can speak of it as an army assembled for battle, a flock that needs God’s protection in the world, a bride that expresses love to the bridegroom. We can talk about the family. We can also speak of it as a body that functions and that heals itself.
Larry Crabb, for 25 years, has been a Christian psychiatrist, and he’s come to a conclusion in a new book he’s written, in which he says that the problems that people face are not helped by psychiatry nearly as much as by an active body of believers. Listen to what he says: “If you look carefully beneath the hurt, you find disconnected souls, people whose attempts to live their lives on their own strength have left them isolated, detached and alone, and that it is through connectedness that we are made whole.”
Dr. Paul Brand has written a book (I believe it is a whole book, but I just saw an article) on the human body, and he likens it unto the Body of Christ. I’m going to quote just a bit of what he says. He says that, “it is the responsibility of the white blood cells to guard against invaders. If you watch them, they appear to be sluggish and ineffective in patrolling territory, much less at repelling an attack until the attack occurs. He says that as soon as the skin is punctured an alarm seems to sound. Muscle cells contract around the damaged capillary wall, damming up the loss of precious blood. Clogging agents halt the flow at the skin’s surface. But the most dramatic change involves these listless white cells as if they have a sense of smell. He says we still don’t know how they sense danger. These white cells abruptly halt their aimless wandering and, like beagles on the scent of a rabbit (It is a rabbit.) they hone in from all directions to the point of attack. Using their unique shape-changing qualities, they ooze between overlapping cells and hurry through tissue by the most direct route. When they arrive the battle begins.”
He says, “the cell lumbers toward a cluster of luminous green bacterial spheres. Like a blanket pulled over a corpse, the cell assumes their shape. Chemicals within the white cells detonate, destroying the invaders. Often the white cells die in the process. And there are white cells that are specifically targeted to one type of an invader. For example, some will fight a smallpox vaccination. Others will fight different kinds of intrusions into the skin. But each of these, coursing through the body, is waiting. They are scouting. Often they are never called upon to do battle, but when they are needed, they are ready.”
“Now,” he says, “what happens when a cell chooses to live for itself?” Are there those kinds of cells in the body? He says, “The white cell must be willing to sacrifice itself for the body. The larger the organism is, the more important is that organism than individual life.” Now listen to this: “Some of the cells do choose to live in the body, refusing to contribute to the body, but choosing to preserve their own life. These cells share the benefits of the body while maintaining complete independence. We call them cancer cells.”
What do we learn from the human body? Well, first of all, there’s diversity. You have all of these cells, working in ways that even modern scientists cannot understand. But secondly, do you notice the interdependence? One cell cannot say to the other cell, “I have no need of you,” because together they are working, functioning, and together they are healing.
One day I asked a young man who was supposedly a Christian (and I’m sure he was), “Where are you going to church?” He said, “I don’t go anywhere.” He said, “Me and Jesus have got this thing together.” Yeah, you and Jesus! You’ve got this little thing going, haven’t you? Do you know better than the Scripture that says, “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together?” And there are reasons why we need to assemble together, and there’s no such thing as a cell in the body that says, “Yeah, I’m disconnected from the body, but I’ve got this little thing going on the side.” You talk to a person like that and there are some things you may know about them immediately. And maybe at the end of this message it will become clear.
Now the Bible says (and our text today is taken from Romans 12) that we’re supposed to rejoice with those that rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. This is Romans 12:14 and 15. It says, “Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse.” And then we’re to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.
The first thing about this text we should notice is that it is much easier to mourn with those who mourn than to rejoice with those who rejoice. It’s so much easier, in fact, that just by nature we identify with those who are going through times of suffering. It’s very easy for us to mourn with those who mourn. We are touched by the feelings of the infirmities of others. But to rejoice in those who rejoice? That’s not very easy at all. In fact, shall I say that in our flesh it is totally impossible?
I was speaking to someone from Eastern Europe where American money is like gold so, you know, my wife and I give money to someone who is in touch with other believers that we know there, and we give them enough twenty dollar bills to help some people. But he says it’s very important that that money be given out very confidentially, that no one else knows. And the reason is because of this text. It is so difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice. People, being human, don’t say, “Oh, isn’t it exciting to know that Mr. So and So got twenty American dollars? That thrills me.” That’s tough to do.
You say, “Oh, you know, we’d be different than that. We can rejoice with those who rejoice.” Oh yeah, what about yesterday? (laughter) I want you to know today that the Chicago Bears did something that no creature could ever do. They did something that no politician could ever do. They did something that no social program could every do. They brought rejoicing to the city of Philadelphia of about four or five million people, and Philadelphia rejoiced. Did you?
By the way, I assume the Bears lost. I turned it off before it was over. I just said to myself, “I don’t have to go through this.” (laughter) You know, I was sitting there thinking of this text and I was saying, “Now Lord, I’m supposed to rejoice for those in Philadelphia. I’m trying. It’s a stretch.”
Jonathan Edwards said, “When we get to heaven, if are those who are honored above us we will so rejoice in their honor as if their honor were our honor.” Wouldn’t it be marvelous to be that free of sin? Wow!
Now look at the text. The Bible says that we are to weep with those who weep, but there are some people who can’t weep. And there are many, many different reasons why they can’t weep, but some of them are disconnected from their emotions. They are disconnected because of what has happened in their lives because of their isolation. Because they refuse to identify with others, they are not in touch with other human beings, and so they live alone and they cannot weep even over their own problems, much less over the problems of others.
Some time ago I met a woman who was telling me that her daughter committed suicide in her bedroom with her husband’s shotgun. And she said to me, “He didn’t weep at the funeral. He has not shed a single tear, and it’s a story that pains me so deeply, but we cannot talk about it.” Now it would be interesting to meet that husband to find out why, but there are people, you know, whose emotions have just simply shut down.
So the question is, “How do we, in practice, really become united in suffering so that we can weep with those who weep, and in the process of their weeping, and us weeping with them, bring healing?” How does that happen? What I’d like us to do is to look at the text of Scripture, because I think that in the rest of Romans I’m going to comment on some verses that might shed some light on how we can help one another and how we can be healed.
Notice, first of all, that the text says that we should accept one another. Romans 14:1: “Accept him who in faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Look at chapter 15:7: “Accept one another just as Christ accepted you in order to bring praise to God.” We are to accept one another.
In Rome they were having a dispute about whether or not they could eat this meat that had been offered to idols. And some people said yes, and some said no. And Paul said, “Look, it’s a matter of conscience. If you think it’s sin, then don’t, because for you it’s sin. If you don’t think it’s sin, it’s fine because this is one of those matters that is neither right nor wrong as such.” But what Paul was saying is, “Accept one another.” And then he says, “Accept one another as Jesus accepts you.” What a challenge!
What does that involve? First of all, respect! We respect one another. There are parents who are listening to this message who love their children. I really do believe they love their children, but they do not respect their children, and it really shows. And the children grow up resenting the love because it’s not combined with respect.
Respect means that we are willing to validate people. You know, here at The Moody Church you can park in a parking lot, and generally you can go to the information desk and you can get it validated. If not, you’re paying for it. But you get that sticker that validates it and from now on it has value. You can go through and the attendant will accept it and you won’t have to pay. Value has been conferred upon it. That’s our responsibility as members of the Body of Jesus Christ – to confer value on one another, and to say that you are valuable to God and you are valuable to me. And you know that you are valuable to God because you are also valuable to the Body of Jesus Christ. Someone has said that the hurting heart needs someone who will honor its story and its pain.
When I come here Sunday morning very early I often look in my mailbox and I found a letter there today that I didn’t even have time to read yet, but it’s a story of abuse, and if I remember correctly the woman said, “I’m not expecting anything from you except please listen to my story.” She was saying, “Honor my story. Please understand what I’ve been through.” That’s part of the acceptance process. That’s part of honoring people and giving them validity and saying, “Yes, I understand your story and I care about your story.”
How do we begin to be people who can mourn with those who mourn, and in the process experience healing? First of all, we need to accept one another. Now listen carefully. There are some of you who can’t accept others because you are shut down emotionally because of grudges and anger in your heart. Could I say to you to just get rid of it and move on? I don’t know who has hurt you. Sometimes within the church it’s the pastor who hurts people. Sometimes it may be staff members. It may be elders. It may be a parent. It may be a relative. Somewhere someplace somebody has damaged your soul, and as a result of that, you say to yourself, “I can’t move on.” I plead with you today: Move on! Let it go and get on with the business of walking with God and accepting one another with all of our faults and with all of our limitations, accepting one another as Christ has accepted us. That’s the standard.
That means that we accept one another regardless of their color, regardless of their ethnic or racial background. We accept one another regardless of their size, regardless of their limitations or their disabilities. We accept one another regardless of their shape. And you know some people are very sensitive about their shape, because people do come in different sizes and shapes. But what we say to one another is, “You are valuable as a person.”
When we come to church, the first thing that we should be thinking about is worshipping God. But as part of that worship what we need to do is to develop an atmosphere in which people have the sense of acceptance, and they have been touched meaningfully by someone who cares about them, and they know that there’s that ability to connect.
People say, “What is your vision for Moody Church?” Well, there are many visions that I have. Today I am speaking on a vision internally. Next week I’m going to speak about a vision beyond our walls. But today it’s the internal vision. It is to be a caring, connected community. And the text says, “Accept one another as Christ accepted you.” Whether we’ve always shown it or not, I want to say to you today, “You are valuable to God, and you are valuable to us as members of the Body.” Let no one leave here today without sensing that very deeply.
Second, the Apostle Paul says in chapter 15, verse 1, “Bear with one another. Ye who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak.” Now we begin to talk more about what it means to mourn with those who mourn. We begin to bear with one another. That means that we need to listen to one another. I know that that’s difficult. No doubt I’ve often failed in that. You know we’ve all had the experience of asking someone what time it is, and he gives us a lecture on the history of clock making in Europe. And we say to ourselves, “You know, this story is getting too long.” But people need to tell their stories.
And eye contact is very important. I know that people can say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, you can talk to me and I can continue to work on my Palm Pilot, because I can do two things at once.” And there are people who can do two or three things at once. I personally cannot pace the floor and chew gum simultaneously. But there are some people who can do all those things. And yet it diminishes us, doesn’t it, if a person doesn’t make that personal connection and say, “I’m listening to you?”
Now notice what it says: “We who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” That means sacrifice with people who sometimes seem to be so weak, and so needy.
There’s a woman whose name I believe is Liz Curtis. I think she’s the author of that book Bad Women in the Bible. My wife and I were at a conference and we heard her speak. And she talked about what it was like to be in the pit. Now what’s it like in the pit? That’s the pit of drugs and sex and drink. She was in that pit, and she talked about different kinds of Christians she met when we was in the pit. And she didn’t give them names, but I’m going to give them names, and I’m only paraphrasing because I’m doing it by memory.
First of all, she said there was the judgmentalist. The judgmentalist looked over the rim of the pit and said, “Well, you know we all make our own choices, and you know, you made these choices and you have to take responsibility for them, and if this is the kind of life you want to live, then go ahead and live it. I’m sure that at some point, you know, you had a high school teacher who told you not to get into drugs, so what did you do it for? Life is tough.” That’s the judgmentalist!
Then we have the moralist. The moralist says, “Huh, you’re in the pit? Oh, you can get out. Really! I have confidence in you. Take a step – one step at a time. You can get out of that pit. Oh, I notice you are trying to take a step, and each time you do you sink a little deeper. But I think that you can do it. I just want you to know that if you keep working you’ll be able to be like me. Really!”
And then there’s the real spiritual superficialist. That’s my word. They say, “Oh, you’re in the pit? Oh Jesus delivers people out of the pit. Oh yeah, Jesus! You know there are many stories of Jesus delivering people out of a pit. I’ll pray for you. ‘Dear Jesus, please deliver So-and –so out of the pit, Amen.’ Now, I wonder what time my bowling game is anyway?” (laughter)
The Bible says you bear the infirmities of the weak. What that means is we tell the people who are in the pit that Jesus came into the pit to rescue them. And then we say, “What we’re going to do is we are going to give you a hand, and we’re going to be the hand of Jesus to help you out.” And those who bear burdens have to be very, very careful at this point because there is that balance between helping people and withdrawing from people, because there are some people who, if you take one step in their direction, will suck the very life out of you. They will demand so much it will be impossible for you to live up to their expectations. And then they’ll turn around and be disappointed and say, “You see, you’re just like all the other Christians; you don’t really love.” So there’s that balance that we have to have, but the Bible says that we have to bear the infirmities, the weaknesses of those who are weak. And when any one of us is weak (And there are times when I am weak, and there are times when you are weak.) we need those around us to support us with prayer and with connections, and with the ability to be able to respond to where our need is, so that in the process we feel that we are being carried along.
Here at The Moody Church I hope that if your life comes apart, we as a church will help you to stay together, and to put your life back together. The Body has the strength to do that. The pastoral staff can’t do it all. The elders can’t do it all. We do some of it, and we’re all doing our part, but there are people who are sitting in the balconies today, and some of you who are sitting here who can tremendously touch the lives of others by bearing the infirmities of the weak, and accepting one another.
Notice third, the Apostle Paul speaks about prayer, and I’ll not comment too much on this. We’ll give you an opportunity to know how to pray, but notice in verse 30 of chapter 15 he says, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” Other translations say, and I like them better, that we should strive together in our prayers. Paul says, “Strive together with me in prayer.” That’s what we’re called to do. We’re called as a caring community to pray for one another. We know one another’s needs. We know the lay of the land. We know what they are going through. We experience some of the hurt that they are experiencing. Because they are hurt, we grieve. We weep with them because they are weeping, and in the process, we are lifting our hearts to God. And God keeps unifying us, and God keeps bringing us together. It’s the power of community.
Pastor Milco was sharing with some of us that in the refugee camp there are students that get to go out of the refugee camp to the city and go to the university where their conditions are so much better. They have a place to stay there and they are not starving. And yet they’ll come back to the camp because of community. That’s where their relatives are. That’s where their friends are. It’s the power of this connectedness that brings people together. And in the case of believers they strive together in prayer, and God begins to meet them at these deep levels. And for some of us who haven’t cried for a long time, or shown emotions for a long time, in the process, you see, of accepting and bearing and praying, God begins to open us up and we begin to give our lives to others so that they too may be blessed and helped.
You know, one of the problems with people who want to give comfort is that if they do not do it with feeling, if it is superficial, it can hurt so much, because there’s been no praying and no bearing and no accepting. Many years ago you remember we lost a granddaughter who was stillborn. And I asked my daughter, “What comments were made by people that hurt the most deeply?” Some of you widows know about comments made at funerals that hurt deeply. She said, “One person said to them, “Oh, you’ll get over it. God will give you another child.” Well, thanks a lot! I really do appreciate that. Another one said, “Well, you know, she is better off. She’s in heaven. Now, mind you, you aren’t going to be able to hold her or comb her hair, but she is better off.” And then how do you like this one? “Well, why do want a girl anyway?” somebody said to them.
You see, we could go on and I could list what other people have told me, but the bottom line, with all of those comments, is this: They are said without feeling. They are said superficially. Listen, when you are going through a trial, when you are going through a loss, when your husband dies, or your wife dies, or a child dies, it is much more important to you what people feel than what they know or what they say. That’s why the text says we should weep with those who weep because God knew that that connectedness is the means of healing. It isn’t some profound statement, or much less some superficial silly statement as people sometimes make.
Now, as we begin to think about what this means to us as a church, how do we bring this down? First of all, number one, I think we should be more concerned about the health of the Body than the size of the Body, because if we take care of the health, the Body will grow. I’m convinced of that. And the way in which this happens, you see, is through connections. What happens when a person walks away from God? He’s a believer, but he’s not walking with God. He’s maybe into immorality or into some sin. Maybe he is siphoning funds from the company. Immediately he drops out of church. We look around and we say that he hasn’t been coming to church for a month or two, and we say, “Well, why isn’t he coming to church?” Is it because he couldn’t? Is it because his schedule does not allow it? No, it has nothing to do with that. I’ll tell you why. It is because, you see, in the process of gathering with other believers, they become a mirror by which we see ourselves, and if we don’t want to see who we are, we don’t stand in front of the mirror. But that’s how we function as the Body of Christ.
When I come here to minister, and when I am ministering with believers, I always try to make sure that all of my sins are confessed, because if they aren’t, as I look into the eyes of some of my prayer partners or some of the staff, my sins come before me, and I remember what they are, and I say, “I have to go to the closet and get this confessed because I can’t live a lie in the presence of other believers who are open and who are accepting and believe in me.” And that’s why disconnectedness from the Body is so serious.
There’s a man by the name of David Brenner who wrote a book on pastoral counseling. He said, “The heart must tell its own story, and it needs the mirror of someone’s understanding to find its way to feel again.” Some of you are too hurt to feel. Even today you are too hurt to feel. You have to find a way to feel again. He says, “In the mirror of someone’s presence, the lost and wounded heart may find its way through emotions once silenced. Those emotions find their way to heal.” And you see, that’s how the Body heals itself. It’s through our ability to accept, our ability to care, our ability to be connected, to be interrelated and to say that what happens in your life matters to me. And hopefully what happens in my life matters to you because we can’t do this alone. We have a vision and we have a mission, but most assuredly as a church we have to be healthy. And we have the potential in this congregation to be incredibly healthy.
When I think of the potential, when I think of the hearts that are listening to this message, God may do something so mighty among us that the sense of love and caring and connectedness could transcend anything that could be spoken from this pulpit. And people would say, “Behold, how they love one another.” The health of the Body, I think, is more important than its size.
Secondly, we must be willing to die together that we might live together. Don’t misunderstand and think that all that we need is to be together, because togetherness can be very superficial. I’m thinking of a Christian man who was out golfing with some other Christian friends one morning, and he did not tell them that the very next day he was contemplating suicide and tried to do it, because he was going through such depression and so many problems in his life. And you say, “Well, I don’t understand this. Here are Christians. They are on the golf course, and what are talking about? Their golf scores?”
Here are hurting people, but unless there’s that sense of openness and connection, people retain within themselves their pain and their hurt because they don’t feel secure enough so that they can share it, and consequently, even though they are with others, they still are, to use a phrase, alone in the crowd. So we must die together with invulnerability in openness that others would say, “You know, it’s okay for me to connect to this person. Even though I am imperfect, though I am going through this struggle, it’s okay.”
You see, what I long for are real people broken by God at the foot of the cross. And if we are broken by God at the foot of the cross, people are attracted to us because they know that we are not the judgmentalists, the moralists or the superficialists! We are people who really do care about the Body.
Many years ago I was in the California Redwoods. A friend of mine gave me a message that was actually based on that, that someone gave about the redwood trees, and using it as a long extended sermon illustration. One of the things that this man said is that redwoods actually do have very shallow roots. But the reason that they don’t blow over (You remember they grow hundreds of feet into the sky. They are just gorgeous to look at.) is because their shallow root system is interconnected. They connect with one another. In fact, they share nutrition with one another. If one tree is beside some water, that tree will actually give some of its water, through the root system, to other trees, so that they can be strong too. That’s the Body of Jesus Christ operating, so that when you come apart they hold you together.
So when our shallow roots want to give in, there are other roots that interconnect with us. That’s why it is so wrong-headed – so terribly wrong-headed – to think as that one book seemed to indicate, that the day will come when people won’t go to church. They’ll just sit by their computers and listen to a sermon. I mean, it’s missing the whole point of the Body of Christ. It isn’t just a matter of knowledge. It’s a matter of connectedness with other human beings who hurt and who have pains and who have joys and who have sorrows. And we rejoice in those joys, and we sorrow in those sorrows.
So first of all, the redwoods have shallow roots, but they are strengthened because of their interconnectedness. In fact, I didn’t know this, but for a hundred years the park service tried to keep fire from harming the redwoods. Now they actually begin fires among them because they discovered that the fire purifies the underbrush. The fire causes the redwood seeds to activate. It does a lot of devastation but when they regrow, they are more magnificent than before.
Isn’t it interesting that we accept Christ as Savior, and then after we are saved we think that everything is going to go fine? And Jesus comes along with a matchbox and says, “You know, I’m going to start some fires. I’m going to do a little bit of damage here. There’s too much underbrush. There’s too much glorification in things that don’t belong to me.” And so He begins those fires.
There’s something else I noticed about the redwoods when I personally observed them, and that is if one is cut down and lying down, out of that dead felled tree other trees will grow straight into the sky. And they will use the dead tree as again part of their root system. They are indeed amazing.
Jesus said, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone.” As long as we refuse to fall into the ground and die, we will live individual lives. We will say, “I need the Body when I need something, but I can have this little thing going on between Jesus and me. I don’t need other Christians. I don’t need to commit myself to a congregation. I can be on the sidelines. I can enjoy the singing, and maybe at times, even the preaching, but apart from that I don’t really need Body life.” Well, my dear friend, you need it and I need it. We can’t exist without it, and through it God revitalizes the church, and out of our own death, life comes.
Vision for Moody! Community, caring, connected community! That’s what God wants to do in my life. That’s what He wants to do in your life. And don’t leave here today or any day unless you’ve connected with the Body.
And our Father, we do ask in the name of Jesus that You will grant to us a new kind of life. We know that we come from diverse areas. We are a regional church. We have suburbanites. We have those who live in the city. There are those who live close. There are those who live far. We pray that You will help us, Lord, to connect, and in that connection find hope, and in that connection find growth, and in our personal death to self that life might spring up. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.