Walking in the Light: Care Groups at Immanuel [Part 1]

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. —Hebrews 10:24-25

Real Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project. It’s a group project. It’s community. How could it be otherwise? God himself is a community. The Triune God is a relational Being – Father, Son, Holy Spirit together as one. Loving relationships were here before the universe was here. Loving relationships are why we are here. And now, in this broken world too busy for one another, too selfish for one another, God is bringing down to us today loving relationships, so that we can show more people what God is really like. Community is how we put God on display. Community is what Jesus died to give us. Community is how he blesses us, but it doesn’t stop with us. Community is how the beauty of Jesus, the Friend of sinners, becomes real to our city through us. J. I. Packer wrote:

We should not think of our fellowship with other Christians as a spiritual luxury, an optional addition to private devotions…. The church will flourish and Christians will be strong only when there is fellowship.

The proof that Jesus is present here among us is a new kind of community. Very few people in our city care about our doctrine; they do pay attention to our love. If we love one another as Jesus loved us, it’s a foretaste of heaven. Do you know how the Bible describes heaven? It’s a big city – I hope you like big cities – it’s a huge organized community of about a gazillion people, and every single one of them will like you, because Jesus is there with his full-strength presence. But neither in heaven nor here on earth is there any such thing as isolated, self-centered Christianity. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

The conventional Christianity in our country today is, in some ways, unbiblical and cannot make an impact. That’s one reason why we can’t hold onto the patterns of our past. God has new blessing for us – and yet it’s as old as the Bible. But one thing that must change in our time is that, for too many people, their Christianity pretty much amounts to attending a worship service. They might even think that, if they show up every week, it’s a big deal. And faithful involvement in worship is important. Our worship service is the “big burner” generating heat at the center of this church. But we can’t grow by worship services only. Where does the Bible paint that picture? Where in the Bible do we see individualistic Christianity without community? What we see in the Bible is people coming together for worship and relationships. What we see in the Bible is people who can’t stay away from each other. When the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost, the revived church started getting together – a lot. They met and met and met, and they loved it. They met all together in the temple for worship, and they also met as small groups in homes. The power of the Holy Spirit did not create a spiritual elite standing aloof; the power of the Holy Spirit created a community drawing more and more people in. Here at Immanuel, we love to enter into worship here on Sundays at 10:30. We love to enter in intelligently and emotionally, and no one is passive, no one is just an onlooker, but we’re giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord together. And we love to press into deep and satisfying relationships with one another in closer community. That way, other people who love you can know what’s really going on in your heart and what you’re really facing and they’re praying for you. When we’re before the Lord in real worship and with one another in real community, that’s when the life flows!

Every one of us needs to be in a small group of believers. I’m asking you to make that commitment today. I’m asking you to make a decision today that you will get into a small group. At Immanuel we call them “care groups.” A care group is where we press the gospel into our hearts at a personal level. A care group is where we discuss our questions and confront our doubts, we confess our sins, we listen to others in an unhurried way, we are safe about our needs and weaknesses, and we pray for one another. Maybe you’ve heard it before, but Keith Miller said it well years ago:

The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give his church. It’s an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers. Christ wants his church to be a fellowship where people can come in and say, “I’m sunk!” “I’m beat!” “I’ve had it!”

Walking together in the light of who we really are as sinners and who Jesus really is as our Savior – care groups are how we experience that. It’s what Christ wants to give you. Will you receive it? It’s what Christ wants to give our city. Will we offer it?

I want to introduce our Immanuel care groups this morning. It’s a major new initiative here at Immanuel. This is not a new church program. It is not our own clever brainstorm. This is God’s ancient strategy to bless us and to bless our city. In the ways of God, gospel community leverages positive change. Daniel Cortez and Howard Varnedoe have been working hard to get this ready for us. The elders are all behind it. We have care group leaders ready. Today we’re inviting you in. We believe everyone in the universe should be in a care group. But today, for starters, all I want to do is answer one question: Why does it matter to every one of us to be in a care group?

Here is the answer. A care group is where we experience “walking in the light” most powerfully. A care group is the primary place where we experience the “one anothers” of the New Testament – those many verses that paint the picture of how great it can be as a church together. The Bible tells us to love one another, honor one another, welcome one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, challenge one another, comfort one another, instruct one another, bear one another’s burdens, fit in with one another, and so forth. The New Testament is peppered with these “one another” commands. Why? Because God is not only saving individuals; he is out to create a new community with active relationships back and forth with one another. A strong church is so much more than a preacher up front. A strong church is flowing and re-flowing, back and forth, with the life of Jesus in many forms.

Let’s look at this powerful “one another” here in Hebrew 10. It sums up so much of what will happen in an Immanuel care group. But before we go there, I want to point out one thing – the “one anothers” I can’t find in the New Testament. Have you noticed that the Bible doesn’t tell us to do many things that too often happen in churches? For example, in the Bible you’ll never find humble one another, embarrass one another, scrutinize one another, pressure one another, corner one another, interrupt one another, judge one another, run one another’s lives, confess one another’s sins, control one another, fix one another, not even sanctify one another. Let’s be careful how we treat one another. Let’s not think, “Well, I can’t see that the Bible forbids me from doing XYZ, so I’ll do it.” That’s bad thinking, and it creates trouble. Instead, let’s think, “I won’t do anything, I won’t move a muscle, unless the Bible clearly tells me to.” That’s how we start becoming truly biblical – when we discipline ourselves by the Bible. That’s how we stay under the blessing of Christ. We look to him and follow him.

Here then is a powerful “one another” from the New Testament, leading us into the light of Jesus. What does Hebrews 10:24-25 say to us?

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works

The original text is strong language where it says “stir up.” We get our English word “paroxysm” from this Greek word, as in “He flew into a paroxysm of rage.” Our English word refers to an outburst of strong emotion or even a violent disease. This word was used in the Classical Greek literature for an irritation, an exasperation, a sharply negative experience. But here in our passage it’s used in a positive sense – for an experience that stimulates us powerfully for good. This biblical language is not describing a mild experience with no impact. Listen to how other English versions translate this: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on,” “Let us consider how to provoke one another,” “Let us think of ways to motivate one another.” God wants our experience of community to be intense. He wants us to create a stirring social environment. Jesus said, “I came to cast fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49). When the Holy Spirit came down on the early church, fire rested on every believer. It’s why Elton Trueblood entitled his famous book The Incendiary Fellowship. We have not come together because we kinda sorta prefer Jesus because he might make our lives more pleasant. He has brought us together to ignite us, so that we can burn for him, as the Bible says, “with glad and generous hearts” together (Acts 2:46). Our city has a lot of religion, but not enough of that. And just intensifying our individualistic Christianity is no remedy. We don’t need more do-your-own-thing Christians, however fervent they may be. We need more gospel community, because it’s community that fires us up for Jesus the way he wants us fired up. Trueblood wrote:

It was the incendiary character of the early Christian fellowship which was amazing to the contemporary Romans, and it was amazing precisely because there was nothing in their experience remotely similar to it. . . . Much of the uniqueness of Christianity, in its original emergence, consisted of the fact that simple people could be amazingly powerful when they were members one of another.

Here we are, just simple people. But when we walk together in the light of Jesus, with honesty about ourselves and toward him, every single one of us sharing that together, he walks among us, he makes us powerful. It was when John Wesley went to a small group that his heart was “strangely warmed.” And a new, high-impact John Wesley left that gathering. Mild Christianity is worthless, however big the attendance. Stirring Christianity is our need, and God meets our need through small groups.

“And let us consider [that is, think about, pay attention to] how to stir up one another . . . .” God is telling us to keep on eye on each other and think about how we can encourage one another. No one drifts into a life of beauty and impact. We get there by one another’s thoughtful help. In a care group, as you get to know each other, you will grow to understand the people around you with tender sympathy. You understand more and more what helps them and what falls flat. And almost always, what stimulates us to deeper love and bolder good works is not criticism but encouragement, as verse 25 shows. The dying love of Jesus for the undeserving – that’s what this church is all about. That’s the light we’re walking in. But the point of verse 24 is the stirring power of experiencing his love together. Back in the turbulent sixties, Jean Paul Sartre summed it up: “Revolution is seeing each other a lot.” Do you wear down and lose motivation when you’re alone by yourself? We all do. Let’s get into care groups. Just being with others will stir you up for Christ, because he will be there among you.

…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some

What has God himself promised us? Later in this book of Hebrews God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). How could we do to one another what God has promised he will never do to us? His total commitment means so much to us, because we all know, community costs. Community is not easy. Back in the days of these early Christians, they could get into trouble if they were seen together. That’s why these words are here in verse 25. But community is always inconvenient and humbling. Maybe that’s why some neglect it today. They know it will change them. They float from church to church, or they don’t go to any church at all, because they don’t want their private, self-centered, “Christian” world to be challenged, they don’t want to submit to anyone, they don’t want to change. But when we’re off in our own self-created designer lives, it’s easy to fall mindlessly into traps of self-deception, especially if we think we’re above that. But when we get into community and walk together in the light of the gospel, something else happens to us. We grow. Our experience doesn’t contract; it expands. Thomas Kelly described it:

It is as if the boundaries of our self were enlarged, as if we were within [those around us] and as if they were within us. Their strength, given to them by God, becomes our strength, and our joy, given to us by God, becomes their joy.

Your future can narrow down and become more selfish and disappointing, or your future can open up and become more expansive and satisfying. It depends on whether you’re willing to enter into the lives of others, for Jesus’ sake. Here’s what waiting for you there:

…but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near

It could also be translated, “comforting one another.” Again, who is God? The Bible says he is “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). The God of the Bible is not a petty god of oppressive man-made rules. A Catholic priest I was reading about entered a strict monastic order with the details of everyday life regulated for him. It fit in with his concept of God. But then, “One day I received a very special grace that completely changed my attitude toward God. I realized that if as a child I had put my hand in the cookie jar, and if it had been between meals, and if God had really been watching me, he would have said, ‘Son, why don’t you take another one?’” That is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. That is the God who is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. That is the God we believe in. And that is the only vision of God that can melt our hearts and move us to love and obey him more.

Encouragement is a great power for true holiness. God is calling us here to encourage and comfort one another. By definition, that cannot happen at a distance. And this encouragement is not one-way, because it says here “encouraging one another.” It’s not as though the care group leader is the one person spreading the encouragement. No, all are entering in, with the encouraging pingbacks going back and forth! Have you ever been too encouraged? Encouragement is the high octane fuel of real Christianity.

Finally, “. . . and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” That means the day of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment soon to break upon this whole world. A Day is coming, and with its dawn there will be no further opportunity to change. The final and eternal judgment upon every human being will be pronounced by Christ. Right now is our only opportunity to enter into his grace and repent and be forgiven and start changing. The Bible says, “In the last days there will come times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1). If it’s hard to be a Christian now, it’s not going to get any easier. And if we think we can stand alone, if we think we’re made of spiritual titanium, we will drop like flies. But if you’re weak like me, you need a care group. And the longer you live, the more you’ll need it.

The Bible makes gospel community a matter of joyful urgency for every one of us. Will you make the commitment today?