|FAITH IN FELLOWSHIP
Series: Faith On Trial - Part Eleven
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
October 29, 2006
How many of you have seen The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy? How many of you have read the books by J.R.R. Tolkien? You get extra credit if you’ve read the books too.
The basic plot of the books and the movie is what? There’s this ring - the One Ring of Sauron - that’s given to Frodo - who is suppose to take this ring - which is the embodiment of evil - take this ring and destroy it by throwing it into this volcano - Mount Doom - in the dark and evil land of Mordor.
To help Frodo destroy the ring a group is assembled - The Fellowship Of The Ring. Which is an unlikely fellowship. Not in our wildest dreams would we ever think of putting these individuals together - 2 humans who really don’t trust each other - a dwarf - an elf - and three other half size hobbits.
This fellowship is guided by the white wizard Gandalf - who’s a Christ-like figure. He passes through death into life. Gandalf guides and preserves Frodo as he travels to destroy the One Ring.
A fellowship of eight individuals who each struggle with their own issues - have their own points of weakness - and yet will stand by each other - give their lives for each other - following the guidance of Gandalf - will sacrifice everything for their common purpose. Eight individuals to whom is entrusted the future of Middle Earth.
So here we are - a pretty unlikely collection of interesting people. Share that with the person next to you. “You’re an interesting person.”
We’re called together - by God - into fellowship - to be the Body of Christ - the Church. Called together - not to destroy evil - which Jesus has already done - through His death and resurrection. But to live in faith - trusting in God - standing firm in His victory - to share and live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that others will see Jesus in us - so that others will desire to join us in this fellowship by committing themselves to God through Jesus Christ.
In this letter of James that we’ve been looking at - James has been writing to Jewish believers scattered all over the Roman Empire - who are generally on the lower rung of society - outcasts in Roman society - outcasts even with their own people - Christian Jews who are persecuted - abused - struggling - given all that is happening around them and to them - struggling to live faithful in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
So James has been writing about faith. How to hang in there when our faith gets rocked by stuff that happens to us. When Satan pounds us with crud from this world. James has written about faith in action - thinking about how those who have faith in Jesus demonstrate that faith in the ways we serve each other and meet the real needs of our Christian siblings.
He’s written about when we mess up in our faith - fall short of trusting God. And what it means to be on both sides of that coin. Those who fall short and hurt others. And those who are hurt. Which is most of us. Hang around the church long enough and somebody will say something - or do something to us - that will hurt. That’s not an excuse to wimp out - or run someplace else. How do we respond when faith fails and live trusting God?
All of what James has be writing focuses on faith in fellowship. Regardless of our circumstances - how our faith in God is to remain firm - so that as His fellowship - as the church - we keep moving forward - uplifting - encouraging - supporting each other - moving forward together as God’s people - trusting God - God accomplishing His purposes for us in us and through us.
Thinking about where we are today as a congregation - what James writes is crucial for us. Our faith is being tested - collectively - individually. As we move forward building - praying about outreach - even doing outreach - examining our individual lives and the depth of our commitment to Jesus - as the heart of this congregation is growing closer to God - our Adversary is very active. Can anyone agree with me on that?
There are a number of people here who have been pounded by the Adversary. There are decisions we’re making about, should the building be here or 8 feet over - or where to meet next month - or little tacky points of irritation that come up in our relationship together - just because of the intensity of this building project - that our Adversary would love to use - to discourage us - to cause us to doubt - to challenge our faith in God and His purposes - to get us to turn against each other - or to just give up altogether. Amen?
Tying together what James been writing about for 4½ chapters - coming to 5:12 - James’ parting words focus on 3 essential characteristics of faith in fellowship. Because this is a great opportunity for us - this time in our lives. To kick Satan in the teeth - with all His work against us. To stand up together and in deeper and greater commitment move forward together in faith. What is essential for us to do that?
The first essential comes in verse 12 - INTEGRITY. Say that, “Integrity.”
Verse 12: But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth of with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.
Years ago - a lot of years ago - when I was as student at Biola - there was a girl I wanted to take out on a date. But the only way she would consent to go out with me was if she could bring her friend. Which meant that I had to find a date for this other girl. So, I promised her I’d find a date for her friend.
I asked every guy I knew. Everyone had something to do - most of it legitimate. The best I could find was some guys who were available early in the evening and some guys who could come later. Which I figured was good enough because I really wanted to go out with this girl and I’d promised I’d find a date for her friend.
So this girl, her friend, and date #1 and I went out to the movies. Part way through the movie - date #1 and I excused ourselves and went to the restroom where date #2 - who looked like date #1 and was dressed identical to date #1 - was waiting for us.
We made the exchange - slipped back into the movie. Which worked out really good. The whole way through this friend of my date’s is talking with date #2 - never noticing that date #2 is not date #1. Worked great until after the movies - when we got out to the parking lot - and my date’s friend realized that date #2 wasn’t date #1. I did a lot of apologizing for that one.
The idea of swearing has the idea of putting a fence around something. Good fences make good what? neighbors. Someone would make a promise to do something. Like, “I promise to have those 50 anchovies and shrimp pizzas delivered by 6:00 tonight.” Or, “I promise to never do that again.” And then they’d put a fence around that promise by swearing. Protecting the promise within by taking an oath. “So help me God.”
People today understand this - in kind of a twisted way - the authority - the reputation - of God’s name. That’s historically why God’s name gets used in conversation so much. “God this and God that.” “Jesus H. this and Jesus H. that.” Giving emphasis to what were saying, “I swear to God.” Or as an exclamation: “Oh my God.”
“I’m going to add God’s name - His reputation - to my oath because my reputation ain’t so good.” Only, back in James’ day - because people actually had respect for God - the oath actually meant something. People - especially the Jews - were more aware that they were attaching the name of the Holy God to the promise they were making. As James says in verse 12 - God is going to judge whether or not we’re keeping our promises - the sincerity of our heart.
People figured out - back then - that if someone made a promise using God’s name - they had enough respect for God - especially as the holy Judge - they realized they needed to keep that promise.
So they twisted things a bit. Follow this: What people had been taught bent this truth to mean that only the promises which invoked God’s name were the ones they were responsible to fulfill. God’s name had became a formula. Use it and one was legally bound. Without the name of God the promise was non-binding.
That’s why James writes here in verse 12, “don’t swear by heaven or by earth.” People would swear by all kinds of stuff related to God - God’s heaven - God’s earth - God’s throne - Jerusalem, God’s city - which all sounded like that fence was being put up. But the bottom line was all that was a sham.
They had no intention of keeping their word. The endless fine print in contracts today is a sad reminder that people don’t trust each other. That one’s oath - one’s promise - is non-binding unless bound by reams of iron clad fine print legalese - which any lawyer - paid enough - can shred. Today, someone keeping their word is only as important as the benefit to them personally.
James writes, “Your yes is to be yes, and your no, no.” Say what you mean and mean what you - what? say.
Consciously or subconsciously we use God’s name - or swear by God’s stuff - to invoke God’s authority - His reputation and character - or people swear in general today - all kinds of colorful metaphors - four letter words - we hide behind gossip and innuendos about each other - knowing looks and side-bar conversations - that boost our egos and cover our own inadequacies - to make what we’re saying more seem credible - to make us seem more deserving of respect - or at least more than the other guy.
Hear this: Fellowship is destroyed when we try to cover our own inadequacies by deceiving each other through the words we say. When we have our eyes on our selves rather than having faith in God for our adequacy - our self-worth - and as those attitudes leak out Satan takes those words and uses them to drive wedges between us - to hurt and maim and wound others - to keep us back from each other in fear and mistrust.
James calls us to integrity in our words. He’s very proactive. Integrity in our words strengthens the bonds of fellowship. Enables us to go deeper in our fellowship. Makes us more able to stand together against Satan.
Imagine if we could trust the words we say to each other - about each other. If there was no “self” or selfish motives in our speech. Our “Yes” meaning “Yes” and our “No” meaning “No” - just telling it like it is. How would that effect our relationships here in the church - or at home - or school or work.
That’s a challenge for us. Share that with the person next to you, “That’s a challenge for us.”
When we really start thinking about it, how much of what we say is shaded by what’s in our hearts? Just about everything. Are our hearts 100% surrendered to God. No. Mine isn’t. So we have work to do.
The second essential characteristic of faith in fellowship is HONESTY. Say that together, “Honesty.”
Verse 13: Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.
Some days are better than - what? others. Whatever the circumstances - hard times - good times. Let the reality of what’s going on inside us come out. If that’s a need for prayer. Then pray. If its praise. Then praise God! Honesty.
Verse 14: Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
Notice three things.
First: The elders - the male spiritual leadership of the church - as representatives of the Church body as a whole - the elders are to set the example of coming together and praying for the needs of others. They take oil - which is symbolic of the Holy Spirit - pour oil on the sick person in a visual - tangible - acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit’s power which can heal a person. Then they pray in faith. Not that they somehow have extra special faith that is going to heal this person. But, they are men of faith. The point is the condition of their heart before God. Who they’re trusting in for the healing.
Second - notice the cause of the illness - sin. In the last part of verse 15 James writes, “if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” In the Greek it’s a conditional clause - meaning a probable condition. His sickness is most probably caused by some kind of sin.
Not all sickness is a direct result of sin. We’re part of a fallen race of sinners. Sickness - in general - is a result of sin. But, every time we get a cold or the flu or a hang nail it isn’t because we’re living a life of horrid sin.
But some sickness is a result of sin. Persistent sin can lead to emotional or physical illness. May even cause death. That kind of sin and sickness is what James is writing about here.
Third - notice who asks for prayer. Who does the asking? It’s the one who’s sick. “He must call for the elder.” - the representatives of the church - to engage in prayer - invoking the work of the Holy Spirit.
Verse 16: Therefore - ask.. “Wherefore the therefore” Glad you asked. Therefore - because we need to be honest about what’s going on in our lives - even if we need prayer for some sickness - even if it is because of some sin in our lives - and especially because we need healing - Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
We all are to pray for one another. Prayer is a privilege that God gives to all of us to come together and praise Him - to give thanks - and to bring our concerns and needs to God.
The part where we get tripped up on - which causes our hearts to seize up - is James’ instruction, “confess your sins to one another.” Intellectually we know this. If we don’t confess our sins we can’t pray for each other. If we don’t open up to each other healing that we need - physical - emotional - spiritual - healing won’t take place. But, we accommodate sin - acquiesce to unholy behavior - put up what is self-destructive and harmful to the body - because we cannot get ourselves to the point of honesty required by those six little words: “Confess your sins to one another.” Are we together on this?
James must have understood that. Must have been the same in his day. Because he goes on with an example - verse 17: Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.
After King Solomon died the Kingdom of Israel was divided and many evil kings ruled over Israel and Judah. Probably the most evil was Ahab and his wife Jezebel. In fact, the Bible says that Ahab did more to anger God than any other of the kings of Israel before him. (1 Kings 16:33) Ahab and Jezebel worshipped Baal and led the people into tremendous sin. It was an absolutely evil time in the history of Israel. Elijah was a prophet of God during those days.
As Elijah is in prayer before God - God gives him a message for King Ahab - a message of judgment. So Elijah goes to King Ahab and says that there isn’t going to be any rain - or even dew on the ground - until I say there will be. Then Elijah goes and hides from Ahab because - of course - Ahab is not too happy about this. For 3 plus years it doesn’t rain. There’s a famine - no rain - no crops - no food - dying cattle - and lot of hungry people.
Finally - again while Elijah is praying - God gives Elijah another message for Ahab - “Go show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain.” (1 Kings 18:1)
There’s a story about when Pope John Paul II visited LA. He convinced the driver of the limousine to let him drive. The Pope said, “I always have to sit in the back. I’ve never been able to drive one of these limousines. And to drive on the freeways here in LA would really be exciting. Why don’t you get in the back and I’ll drive you around.”
So the Pope is driving this limousine when he gets pulled over by one of those helpful LAPD motorcycle officers. Can you imagine the officer walking up to the side of the car. The driver’s window slides down. And here’s the Pope. What do you do? He gave him the ticket - for speeding - for driving without a license - and promised to go to confession.
Back at the station some of the officers were comparing all the important people they’d given tickets to that day. This is LA? Movie stars. Famous singers. Till this one officer says, “I don’t know who was in the back seat. But he was so important he had the Pope as his chauffer.”
What does James mean, Elijah was a man with a nature like ours? How can that be? This is God’s man. Elijah the prophet. Elijah prays and things happened. Kingdoms are brought to their knees. Drought happens. God used him powerfully. End of comparison.
The point is that when Elijah put on his toga he put it on one sleeve at a time - just like us. Elijah was created out of the dust of the earth - just like us. Elijah struggled in life - just like us. Elijah had his failures while trying to live trusting God - just like us. And hear this: Elijah had a sin nature - just like - us. And yet God used Him - just as God desires to use us. Maybe not as visibly - but certainly - and in prayer for each other - perhaps with even greater effectiveness than Elijah’s.
When James writes, “the prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” He’s not writing about a standard of holiness that we common people can never reach. It’s a reminder that righteousness is something that’s produced in us by God. Just as with Elijah - our ability to have a relationship with God - to live rightly before Him - to be a part of this fellowship is because of God’s grace - not our merit.
That’s a challenge for us. Share that with the person next to you, “That’s a challenge for us.”
There’s no room for pretense and pride and self-focus in the kind of prayer James is writing about. It’s the prayer of people of like nature - being mutually honest about their relationship with God. That honesty - especially as it comes out in our prayer together - strengthens the bonds of fellowship. Enables us to go deeper together in Jesus. Makes us more able to stand together against Satan
Third essential. First: Integrity. Second: Honesty. Third - ACCOUNTABILITY. Together, “Accountability.”
Verse 19: My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
A few years ago I was on the Island of Kauai - laying out on the beach - enjoying just being away from everything. When I noticed that there were hundreds of little sand crabs all over the beach.
When the water would go back out - they would pop out of their holes and go running around looking for food - each one doing its best to avoid making any contact with the other one. Then when the next wave came back in they would rush back into their holes and wait for the water to go out again.
So often what we call fellowship can seem like that. Individuals rushing around trying to get their needs met - avoiding unnecessary contact - trying to endure the circumstances of life - waves crashing over us.
Often - in churches - when our comfort zone gets challenged - maybe a building program - or the music isn’t exactly what we like - or there are ministries that need to be made more effective and that would require us actually getting involved not just offering sage advice from the sidelines - or the pastor looses it and starts preaching about sacrifice and following after Jesus with all that we are and all that God’s blessed us with - stewardship gets talked about in a way that’s going to rearrange our priorities - way too often people when our comfort zone gets challenged we move on or at least check out.
Would you agree that that’s a reasonable picture of the church in America today?
Think with me. If we’re all rushing around trying to avoid any real contact with each other - if we move from church to church to church when our comfort zone gets challenged - how is God ever suppose to use us to help each other to grow - to change - to be accountable to each other for the things He desires to produce in us and through us? It ain’t gonna happen. If we’re accountable only to ourselves we’ll never grow up to be who He desires us to be.
Paul writes - Galatians 6 - starting at verse 1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual - not the more spiritually mature - or you who think you’re better than anyone else - but you - the brethren - each saved by grace and so - by God’s work - made spiritually alive - you - restore such a one - who’s struggling - not with arrogance or condescension - but - in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, to that you too will not be tempted - realizing that at some point you too may be the one in need of restoration - Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” - thereby live in obedience to Jesus.
Accountability is a privilege. To have people actually care enough about us - to even know enough about us - to help us keep following Jesus - living in His truth. What a privilege to help each other through issues that have life changing implications and eternal consequences.
That kind of accountability strengthens the bonds of fellowship. Enables us to go deeper in our fellowship. Makes us more able to stand together against Satan.
Say these with me: “Integrity. Honesty. Accountability.”
Last point. How can we - by faith - how can we be where God is going to build these three essentials into our fellowship here? One thought.
Do you remember the scene when Moses came down off of Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments? For 40 days God’s people have been camped at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting for Moses to come down off the mountain.
When Moses finally comes down he’s holding God’s law - written on tablets of stone - by the very hand of the almighty God. And he’s got this shinning thing going on on his face. This glow that declares the presence of God. Moses has been going one-on-one with God.
Remember how this went? When Moses finished speaking to the people he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses spoke to the people he would take off the veil - and the people would see the face of Moses and that the skin of his face was shining with the glory of God. The shining of his face would remind the people of Moses’ special position before God. (Exodus 34:29-35)
Paul writes, in 2 Corinthians 3:13 - We’re not to be “....like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away.” When the glow faded Moses kept the veil on. Moses - who had a nature like us - kept the veil on - because he was afraid of what the people would think of him. We all wear veils - coverings of who we’d like people to think we are. We live afraid that people will see beneath our veils. We fear exposure.
Paul writes - 2 Corinthians 3:16,17 “But whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now where the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” - freedom from fear.
When we’re most afraid of exposure - of people seeing us as the sinners we really are - its because we’ve taken our eyes off of Jesus and put them on to ourselves. The more we focus on Jesus the less concerned we are about what others see. The more we realize His power in our lives - His sufficiency. The greater our freedom to live with integrity - honesty - accountability.
Whatever the circumstances. Whatever the needs. Whatever the challenges. God has given us each other. We’re moving together to where God is taking us. It’s a hang-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seat adventure with all kinds of awesome possibilities. The bottom line question is this - as we go there together - will we have faith in ourselves or will we have faith in God?
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.