Building Blocks

Romans 15:1-6 (NLT)

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. For even Christ didn’t live to please himself. As the Scriptures say, “The insults of those who insult you, O God, have fallen on me.” Such things were written in the Scriptures long ago to teach us. And the Scriptures give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If you heard last week’s sermon, you’ve probably realized that today’s text is a continuation of what we heard last week, with a few subtle shifts.

After having encouraged all of his audience to live with flexibility about lifestyle rules and show tolerance for each other, Paul now focuses especially on the “strong” believers, the ones who are more mature in their faith. He says the strong have a special burden, a specific calling, to “help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.”

As Methodists, we could apply one of our favorite 18th century words, “sanctification,” here. This is the idea that even after we are saved, God’s grace continues to shape us, growing us in spiritual maturity and our ability to love as Jesus loves. We see this as the primary work of the Holy Spirit in our lives once we have found salvation.

And while humans are completely dependent on God for grace, Paul is once again reminding us that Christians are invited to come alongside God and help with the great work being done, including the ongoing sanctification of believers.

So, how do we go about this work of building up others?

An Honest Look in the Mirror

Well, there’s an obvious first step. We have to assess whether we are really among the strong in faith. It is possible over time to fool ourselves. Time spent in church doesn’t necessarily translate into discipleship, although time in church certainly helps.

Some matters to consider as you make your assessment:

Do you get all the basic points in the Bible, particularly the stuff about the resurrection, and how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in what Jesus did through the cross? Do you know the important Bible stories well enough to tell them to others when appropriate?

Is your understanding of Christianity aligned with the core doctrines established by the larger church through the centuries?

Certainly we’ve made adjustments to doctrine over time. After all, this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Those adjustments, however, usually have involved a return to the early church’s understanding of Christianity. They are adjustments for drift, designed to get us back on a course set by Scripture.

If you find yourself out of alignment with these biblically based truths and doctrines, further study may be in order. It is unlikely you are the first person to properly understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance after nearly two millennia of the Spirit educating billions of Christians.

Does your life reflect these truths? As we’ve heard in Romans, there is thinking and there is doing. Are you aware of your weaknesses toward sin, and working with God to overcome them?

If you’re confident in your ability to answer “yes” to these sets of questions, then you may be called to help build up others, perhaps as a teacher or guide.

A Willingness to Intervene

The next step may sound a little odd, but I think it’s important. We have to overcome the idea that what is going on in other people’s lives is none of our business.

Certainly, we don’t want to be nosy, rude or intrusive, and we cannot help those who give us the old Heisman Trophy stiff arm in response to our overtures. But if we see people off the Christian path and don’t try to help them find their way to it, we are actually going against the grain of Christian theology. When we look away, we are no better than the supposedly holy Jews in the parable of the Good Samaritan who gave their injured fellow Jew a wide berth.

This responsibility to intervene is particularly true when we see our Christian brothers and sisters off the path. By calling themselves Christian and joining a particular church, they already have sought community and accountability so they can grow as disciples.

Training for Action

Once we’ve overcome our reluctance to interfere, we have to discern how we are going to help others build their lives for the better. The ways we do this vary depending our personalities, abilities, and education. I will say this: In one way or another, we all need mentors.

I needed mentors as a lay person who was beginning to teach and lead. I continued to need mentors as I became a clergy person. If I’m trying to learn some new aspect of ministry, or deepen my spirituality in some way, I still need mentors, even after 15 years of professional ministry.

Paul knew the importance of mentoring. Look at his two letters to a young pastor named Timothy. It simply is easier to go somewhere new if you go with someone who has been there before.

Hearing all of this, some of you may feel a stirring in your heart.

I hope all of you feel a desire to mature as Christians, to get to a place where you feel you can answer “yes” to the assessment questions I raised earlier.

Some of you may be feeling it is time to make a real difference in the lives of people around you. If so, I want to hear from you. I want to spend significant time with you.

Together, we’ll figure out what God is saying.


Leading from a Cross

Matthew 23:1-12

We use the word “leader” in both secular and Christian settings. Christianized leadership is so different, however, that the task almost needs a different word.

Jesus’ teachings about leadership are the basis for the stark contrast. We look in particular to the words he spoke as he denounced Jewish religious leaders in his day.

One of these confrontations, found in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, comes across as harsh, particularly when you consider that just a few breaths earlier Jesus had spoken of the need to root our actions in love. (I suppose there’s a side lesson here: Loving certain people can mean having the courage to point out where they go against God.)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach,” Jesus said.

He went on to point out the hypocrisy of these religious leaders, who were supposed to be working from sound understandings of Jewish scripture—writings filled with lessons about the importance of justice and mercy. Instead, he said, these leaders increased the burdens of the average Jew.

They also took great pleasure in the accouterments and honors that went with their positions. In a long diatribe, Jesus described them as legalistic nitpickers who had been entrusted with words of life but instead were better associated with death.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus said.

Our savior also practiced what he taught, becoming the great example of humble leadership. His trip to the cross brought him to the ultimate low point, death; his resurrection led to great exaltation.

The implications for Christian leadership are enormous. Followers of Christ are people who should turn the very idea of leading upside-down. In a Christian context, leadership becomes sacrifice rather than gain. A Christian leader lives in the mud surrounding the pedestal.

And yes, there is a serious dearth of true Christian leadership in the Christian community today. There are good leaders among both the clergy and the laity. But both the United Methodist Church and the larger, universal church desperately need more.

I’ve never heard anyone in a congregation complain, “We’ve got more good leaders than we know how to use.”

It would help, I am sure, if we who are already leading were better at explaining the basic role of a leader in a Christian community. That way, people could more clearly understand whether they are called to a leadership role.

Right now, we define “leader” mostly by describing a particular function in the church, usually defined as service on a board or a committee. A job description really doesn’t tell us how to lead, though. It just describes what specific task needs to be done.

In 1984, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder interacted very closely with the New Testament to describe the four basic types of leaders in a Christian community. If you feel you’re equipped to fill one or more of these roles, you’re probably called to lead in the church in some way.

Yoder said good Christian leaders act as:

  • Agents of Direction. These people keep the vision of the kingdom of God before the people. They function like prophets, reminding others of the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ, work that ultimately restores creation to its holy state. They make sure the church remembers that it exists to help usher in this kingdom.
  • Agents of Memory. These leaders help the church remember what is in Scripture and what the traditions have been regarding interpretation of God’s word, particularly where these reminders are relevant to a particular issue before the church. They do this largely without judgment.
  • Agents of Linguistic Self Consciousness. In other words, people who are sensitive to how words are used. Think of these people as the cooler heads in the crowd, the peacemakers who calmly untangle what others are saying.
  • Agents of Order and Due Process. People who ensure the unity of the group even in the midst of conflict, encouraging participation by all.

Some people may react to this list of “agents” by saying, “But those are the things the pastor is supposed to do.” And therein, I suspect, lies a significant part of our leadership crisis.

Certainly, a pastor should have a good sense of how to function in all four roles. But at the same time, the pastor should know this in order to equip others to fulfill these roles. We’ve become too reliant on church “professionals.”

A healthy church is full of people so committed to the spiritual disciplines that Jesus’ teachings have shaped their heads and hearts for leadership. Once leading, they simply have to ask themselves a few questions now and then.

Am I making others’ lives easier? Am I willing to do this without fame, title or even acknowledgment? Am I one who learns even while leading? Do I ensure justice, mercy and faith spread because of what I do?

A leader who can answer “yes” to these questions is exhibiting Jesus-style leadership.