Lay Reader = Luke 10:38-42
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
We are still in our series looking at the key ministries of Jesus and asking how we can pattern our church and our lives on him. Last week we heard about Jesus’ worship, that we should expect to leave Sunday worship with fire and water – fire to seek and do God’s will, and peaceful water to simply be who God made us to be and enjoy God’s love.
This week we are looking at small groups. In our first text today we heard how Jesus gathered with people in their homes, and he did some of his teaching there. In fact, Jesus said that Martha was too distracted and Mary, who was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him, had chosen the better use of her time. There is something deeply important to these smaller gatherings. Let’s see how the early church in Acts followed this key ministry of Jesus.
27When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time.35Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” They were convinced by him, 40and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
It was a strange meeting. Yes, a very strange meeting indeed. You see, it had started innocently enough, but by the end I had become a full-blown coach on how to lie convincingly. And did I mention this was a pastors-only meeting? As I said, it was a strange meeting.
My previous church had a partnership with some missionaries in China, and our mission pastor was about to lead a “tourist” trip. And this “tourist” trip just so happened to be led by a pastor and they just so happened to have an entire briefcase full of Bibles. And since that would be very frowned upon by the customs agents in China, the mission pastor was a bit nervous.
Now you also have to understand something about this mission pastor. The head pastor was always telling him with a sly look on his face, “You should come over for a poker night!” Because the mission pastor wore all of his emotions out there on his sleeve. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was feeling. So he was realistically nervous about giving away their real purpose.
Enter Cody, bluffing coach. I asked him what his title was. “Pastor.” “No,” I said, “your formal title in the denomination.” “Teaching Elder.” “That’s right – so when they ask you your job, you are a teacher. And you’re not lying, you are a teacher – it says so right there in your formal title. If you convince yourself of the truth of that statement, you won’t have panic emanating from your pores.”
Sure enough, they sailed through customs without a problem. Some think it was Jesus’ provision, but I just know it was my coaching. My coaching is made even more effective by my humility.
China is an interesting place for Christianity. There are two kinds of churches – registered and unregistered. The registered churches can be about as public as any church in America, and in fact the government often pays for the building and helps pay for the pastor’s education. Sweet gig, right? All you have to do is register your church with the Three Self Patriotic Movement and abide by the government’s policies and be an instrument of the Chinese government. Would you take that deal?
About a third of Chinese Christians attend registered churches, and the other two-thirds risk persecution to attend unregistered churches. Why? Why take the risk? What’s so important? In fact, if you don’t want to attend a state-sanctioned church, why gather at all? Why not just have your own private faith?
Think about it this way – if our government banned religious gatherings, if we were ordered to close the doors here…what would you do? Would you just keep your faith to yourself, or would you keep trying to meet with some of the people here?
Peter and the other Apostles faced that question in our text today. In fact, the stakes were even higher. Peter spends the first several verses reminding the Jewish leaders that they had crucified Jesus not too long ago. They probably hadn’t actually forgotten, so I think Peter was making a statement: “We know that you could crucify us, too, but our faith is more important than our physical wellbeing. You can’t intimidate us.”
For Peter and the Apostles, and for so many of the Chinese Christians, their faith is important enough to take risks. Their faith is important enough to suffer costs – physical, financial, and social. In v41 they even say, “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” They had proven their mettle.
Are we made of such stern stuff? Do we have that kind of iron in our backbone? Do we have that kind of conviction and passion for Christ? Is it that important to us?
The gathering was essential to these early Christians. Just as Jesus gathered in the Temple and in homes like Mary and Martha’s, the early Christians did the same. V42 says, “every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” It doesn’t say, “every Sabbath for one hour in the morning – not too early nor too late so that it doesn’t mess up the rest of the day.” Doesn’t say that. It says, EVERY DAY in the Temple AND AT HOME. They were bought in, and it wasn’t just a Sunday morning church service. That’s the Temple for them. But they also gathered at home.
This isn’t the only place in Acts, either. In fact, the very day that the church started, on Pentecost, we see in Acts 2 what they did. And part of it says, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” In the temple AND at home – day by day, not just an hour on Sunday. Together, not just alone.
I’ve shared this before, but it’s worth reminding. One of the items on my lifetime bucket list was to see a tree big enough to drive a car through. And the California Redwoods did the trick. And these organic skyscrapers seem absolutely impregnable from the outside. But a few of them had ropes around them with signs that said, “Do not walk.” After some asking around I learned that Redwoods have very shallow roots, and the ones that are off on their own can actually fall down from a weakened root system if enough people walk around their base. But when they congregate together and interlock their roots – even the strongest wind can’t touch them.
We may look like impregnable Redwoods from the outside, but unless our roots are intertwined with another part of the forest, we’re liable to come crashing down. But when we’re together, life may attack, the winds may blow, the rain may fall, but the trees stand strong together.
So are you off on your own, hoping your own roots are strong enough to weather life? Or do you have some other spiritual Redwoods you’re intertwined with? Are you just worshiping in the Temple, or are you gathering to listen to Jesus at home – in a small group – as well? Who’s a part of your local forest of faith?
If you don’t have an answer to that, your roots are exposed. Connect your roots with others, or you’re probably going to come crashing down someday. That’s how important it is to gather – not just for worship – but for other spiritual relationships as well.
At my previous church, I was the person charged with expanding and deepening the small group ministry of the church. The church had been in the small groups business since the 1960’s, so they had around 400 people in groups already – that’s like a third of their Sunday attendance. For reference, the most we have ever reached in a given week is about 65, when we had the Sunday morning Bible study, the two Monday men’s Bible studies, the women’s Shabby Sheep group, and Carol and I were leading special classes. That’s about 40% of our Sunday attendance.
That means that even at our BEST, 60% of the people who came on Sunday spent their week as solitary Redwoods. After about four years in Bethlehem we got over a 1000 people connected in small groups, about 80-90% of the weekly attendance. That was a forest of interconnected spiritual Redwoods.
And that has its benefits. There was the group that had a member in the hospital, so they decided to move their next gathering to the hospital room. That’s how much they cared about each other.
There was another group that saw not one but TWO young adults in their twenties discover that they weren’t the center of the universe. They went from being extraordinarily selfish to selfless almost as if a switch had been flipped. That’s how much these groups impacted their lives.
We had a class here on Sunday mornings taught by Dave Blackburn, and he just had to move out of state. But the group DEEPLY wanted to keep going – that’s how important it was to them to keep studying the Bible together, not just alone. So I’m going to keep teaching it this semester and we’re going to try to figure out something moving forward.
Think about that – can you imagine studying the Bible or discussing your faith in such a way and in such a group that you miss it when it’s gone? That you want to go to? It’s not a discipline but something enjoyable? Can you imagine that? Do you want that? That’s what it looks like to be part of a forest of spiritual Redwoods.
Different Kinds of Groups
Now I will admit that I learned something in Bethlehem – not everyone experiences spiritual growth in the same kind of group. For instance, I grow more out of LEADING a group than participating. And I grow more out of a 1-on-1 or group of 3 where we can go very deep. That’s not for everyone.
I’ve shared before that the primary way I grow spiritually is through the Life Journal – a Bible reading plan and a method where you do Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer – SOAP. In fact, the pastor who came up with the Life Journal – Wayne Cordeiro – started groups in his church that all they do is gather in the same place – maybe a Panera or Starbucks – and they spend 20 minutes reading Scripture, 20 minutes doing the SOAP method of journaling, and then 20 minutes sharing what they wrote in their journals with each other. 40 minutes of their gathering time is silent and on your own. I’ve long wanted to try starting some of those groups – no one has to be the teacher, it’s super simple, and it gets people reading and reflecting on Scripture. But if you’re a person who loves to talk, that’s probably not the group for you, right? You’d go crazy in the first 40 minutes! But the introverts among us are probably wondering why you’d have to have as much as 20 minutes of talking. Can anyone really have that much to say?
Other people are really starving for simple friendships. I believe this church used to have hiking and biking groups. In my previous church we had a motorcycle group. And all I asked was that they pray before each ride – it reminds people that this is a motorcycle group associated with a church.
Here we still have book clubs, crafters and quilters. This church used to have a family game night. I’ve thought about doing something like my friend’s church where they get groups to rotate hosting dinner. Then after everyone has hosted once, the whole church re-mixes the groups so you’re constantly meeting new people. You might take a couple people with you from the last time, but you’re getting this persistent, low-risk chance to get to know people more deeply. That’s kind of a forest of spiritual Redwoods thing, isn’t it? Might we do something like that here?
For those who want to engage their brains, we have the Sunday morning group between services, we have the Monday men’s AM and Monday men’s PM groups, and we have the women’s Shabby Sheep. We have special classes like the Hot Button Theology. We’ll probably have one on spiritual gifts next year.
I share all of these just to make the point – there is no one size fits all approach. But everyone needs to be connected with other Redwoods. Maybe you need 1 or 2 others. Maybe you can find your fit in one of our existing groups. Maybe you need something like a hiking or biking group. Maybe you would be better served by a devotion group with a lot of personal time. Maybe you’d love to be a part of a dinner group.
40% of our church being connected isn’t going to cut it. We can’t survive with 60% of our church being isolated trees. The wind will come. We have to be strong enough TOGETHER to weather it.
But here’s the catch – I can’t lead all of these groups. I can’t launch all of these on my own. In fact, I don’t even know which ones would fly here and which ones would be duds. So here’s your challenge – if you aren’t connected with other spiritual Redwoods, and one of the options I threw out there sounded interesting to you, let me know. Let’s see what we should get rolling. Some of them aren’t hard at all. Some of them take a little more work. Let me know how you would LIKE to connect if we’re not already offering it, and maybe there are enough people to make it happen.
Sisters and brothers, we MUST be connected with other spiritual Redwoods, or we’re vulnerable. We’re likely to crash out there on our own. But when we gather together, when we spend time not just in the Temple but in homes as well, not just in worship on Sunday, but in Bible studies or small groups or discussion groups or activity groups or devotional groups or dinner groups – that’s when we become a church like Jesus. The question is whether it matters as much to us as it does to our Chinese brothers and sisters. Amen.