I recently returned from a deployment and when I was deployed, I had a couple opportunities to run some races. I was running a marathon on a looped course. At mile seventeen, we were turning to make the second loop. I was alone. When running in races, there are often “packs,” people who are running at the same pace. The next pack for me to catch up to wasn’t in sight. I found myself in no man’s land at mile 17—not a good place to be mentally.
I caught up to one man. He was a seasoned vet when it comes to marathon running. He was able to give a few tips here and there, which were helpful, but what I found most helpful was his presence.
Solo efforts in running are good, and at times necessary, but there is something about running with a pack, or even just another individual, that pulls you along. That’s part of the thrill of race day. This experience confirms what the writer of Ecclesiastes says: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (4:9-11).
This morning, I want us to look at what the Bible has to say about “the enduring community.” How does community foster endurance? That’s our question. What does it mean for us at River Community Church to be an enduring community?
If you’re like me, you just get tired of anything Covid related. But one of the reasons the social distancing was so mentally difficult and devastating was because humans are social creatures. We can’t stop being social; being social is what it means to be human.
I’m not talking about introversion versus extroversion here. An introvert is not any less social than extroverts. Humans are born into a web of social relationships. A child comes into the world and is dependent on her mother. There’s relationship from the very beginning.
And right now, it might seem strange to talk about the role of community in learning endurance when community looks so different than anything we’ve ever experienced before.
But that further highlights the necessity of community in living a flourishing and resilient life. Perhaps we know the value of something so much deeper when we experience its absence. And again, community at River hasn’t been totally absent—but it has been different.
We intuitively know the value of community. How often we hear the cliché “it takes a village.” If we intuitively know that we need others, it is strange that people can often choose to reject the very things we most need in times of hardship—we can stiff arm others when we’re in crisis or facing difficulty. Maybe it’s our individualistic culture, but it could also be pride and our desire to be impressive.
So, if we say we know we need others, but when things get tough and we are resistant or hesitant to reach out to others, then we have some deficiency in our knowledge.
We don’t really know the value of community. The person who stiff arms others when they are weak is missing opportunities to grow in knowledge of community, and more importantly, they are missing an opportunity for Christ to minister to them through that community. Paul speaks of the God of all comfort who comforts us in affliction so that we may comfort others with the comfort with which we ourselves were comforted by God (2 Cor 1:4).
The Christian life is not a solo effort. And yet, the community doesn’t erase the individual. As Paul says, we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27). Like running, when things get tough, others can help to pull us along. Because we are social creatures, God did not design us to learn endurance on our own. The community is vital to growing in endurance.
Now, God’s people have often been marked by endurance. This is true of God’s people as they move from enslavement to the period of testing in the wilderness after the events of the Exodus; from civil war, captivity and exile, all the way through the Acts of the Apostles, where the early Church remarkably grows as a persecuted people. From beginning to end, God is in their midst. Today, we have the continuation of God’s presence in the life of the Church through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
If we look at this history through worldly wisdom, we might think it strange thing that a marginalized people would display such courage and endurance, but God’s wisdom has turned the world upside down.
The power of God is manifest in the weakness of the enduring community.
In 2 Cor 13:3-4, Paul writes, “He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.”
Paul also speaks of how we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” This is what leads him to say that he is content with weaknesses (2 Cor 12:10), because it is in them that the power of God is made manifest and it is in them that he has “all sufficiency in all things at all times” (2 Cor 9:8).
Dallas Willard says our inadequacy reveals the adequacy of Christ.
Our passage this morning comes from the letter of Hebrews, where the author writes to a people enduring hardship. Let me read the passage,
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the ƒwill of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
If you want to talk about perseverance of the saints, this is it. Traditionally, when theologians talk about the “perseverance of the saints,” they are talking about a regenerated person being unable to reverse that condition: once saved, always saved. That’s a perfectly fine good doctrine… but this passage, at least in a very literal sense, describes saints (Christians) persevering through enormous pressure. This is the kind of endurance that does not shrink back but endures to the end.
There’s going to be an “other side” to this pandemic and life is going to resume to some level of normal. Though at this point we certainly don’t know just how different things will be. So it’s important for us to remember that there will be an end to this and we need to endure through it.
However, our need for endurance doesn’t end once we come through the “other side” of this. We don’t get to graduate from endurance training. There might be some more intense periods of training—but we don’t get to say “well, I did that once… check that box.”
No, the kind of endurance that endures to the end is in it for the long haul. Some of us are going to face (or currently facing) some greater challenges than what the Spring of 2020 has been… and the Spring of 2020 is going to pale in comparison.
We need to become people of grit. People of endurance.
Importantly, the endurance described in this passage is a communal effort. There are no isolated individuals at work here. Whenever “you” is mentioned in this passage, it is a plural you. Texans might read this passage and insert “yall” in place of all the “yous.” The important thing is that they experienced these hardships as a community. They were not going it alone. They had solidarity in this.
What this passage presupposes is a community that shares the whole of life together. (Sometimes you were partners with those so treated). They were a people who embodied Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15).
It’s not all doom and gloom this morning… if we are going to talk about the enduring community that suffers under trial, we must also talk about the joyful community. People are not going to weep with each other unless they also laugh with each other.
In terms of the work environment, it’s been said that one of the signs of a healthy and functioning team is one who laughs together. I’ve been a part of some unhealthy teams where it felt like you couldn’t laugh freely amongst each other. The problem this creates is that when things get hard, you’re not going to lean on each other at the time when you most need it. At root is a lack of trust.
Another way of putting this is that you can’t expect people to cry with you unless they also know how to have fun with you. Unfortunately, this important aspect of ministry is often missed. Fun is not typically thought of as a theological category. People might quip back, “But ministry is serious business—we’re dealing with souls, here!” Well, I agree– ministry is the most serious business out there; it’s of eternal significance. However, often things of the most extraordinary significance seem insignificant and ordinary.
We cannot underestimate the value of a community that knows how to play. And I’m glad to say that I think we do this well. Fun, as it turns out, is an advanced theological category. It takes wisdom to know how to teach your kids how to worship and thank God while having fun.
We often talk about living a single-story life. A two-story house has religious stuff upstairs and everyday life downstairs. But our life must be a single-story where there isn’t a distinction. We can’t separate fun from God. We cannot merely gather to talk about theological concepts or to do “in-depth” Bible studies if we are not living a single-story life with each other.
What this passage in Hebrews displays is a community that shares in common life together—in all of its joys and sorrows. The community has solidarity with each other. What the community’s members offer one another is a ministry of presence. They are simply there.
A ministry of presence in the time of Covid takes some creativity… but it is still doable and necessary. We can forget the importance of embodied presence. This is what the community in Hebrews had as they endured these hardships together.
And then, after describing their current hardships, the author then recounts what is often called the “hall of faith” of Hebrews 11. The writer describes various figures in the Old Testament who had the kind of faith that endures. And then, in chapter 12:1-2, the author calls us to endurance: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Notice, this call to endurance happens in the context of community. Since we are surrounded by all of these witnesses, let us run with endurance. Even the running with endurance is done together; the whole community is engaged in this effort.
What’s our application this morning? It’s an easy one—I have one thing we can focus on. One of the practical ways the community grows in endurance is through encouragement.
Slide 3 In Hebrews 3:13, we are told to “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (NASB). A few chapters later, we are again told to “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” (10:24-25).
Now that verse can easily be taken out of context in a time like this. Really we shouldn’t be “proof texting” the Bible to tell people they should stay home or not stay home. Our ears can perk up when we hear a verse like that in a time like this and our current circumstance can distort what the passage is actually saying.
The passage is about encouragement. The root word translated as encourage in these verses is parakaleo, meaning to call close beside, or to call on for support. The same word is used to refer to the Holy Spirit.
In English, courage means that quality of mind that enables one to face difficulty or trial without fear. To encourage means to put courage within, or to pour courage into one’s heart.
People are like leaky buckets. We leak vision and perspective. We need each other to continually recast vision, to pour encouragement into our hearts when our perspective starts to leak. When facing difficulty, the confines of our own mind can dangerous.
We don’t see things accurately. We might be seeing things distortedly, or we might be looking at our situation through a soda straw in this incredibly narrow view. These passages illustrate how others are necessary to challenge our perspective. We need community so that we are not deceived by our own narrow perspective and deceitful heart.
When my deployment was extended, it would have been easy to grow hardened by cynicism and apathy. I watched it happen as people checked out mentally or grew increasingly on edge. Those feelings are not inconsequential private emotional states; they have second and third order effects. It’s not that I never felt cynical or apathetic, but I had friends who poured courage into my heart.
One of my friends and I would joke that the end of the deployment felt like that scene in Rocky 4 with the incline on the Russian’s treadmill— Life feels like that sometimes.
Hearing reminders from friends that “you will be home and you will be stronger for the rest of your life because of this”… hearing those things kept me from hardening my heart or growing resentful. As my heart was filled with encouragement, I was then able to pour courage into the hearts of others I was with.
Training in endurance is not easy. That’s the point—it is difficult. Within the difficulty, we can experience enduring happiness that transcends our circumstances. That is what joy is. We need community to encourage us that as we endure difficulties, God is doing a deep soul work within us.
Hebrews 12:11 tells us that at the moment “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” We need the Church if we are going to train in endurance.
In Deuteronomy 8:16, God told the Israelites that he led them through the wilderness and gave them manna that he might humble them and test them and to do them good in the end. The humility talked about in this passage is about a dependence on God’s provision. The opposite of dependence would be independence. God humbled them, that is, God made them dependent on him in order that they might know that man does not live on bread alone (8:3).
We must resist the idols of our own autonomy or self-sufficiency. Our efforts to grit our teeth or white knuckle it through trials on our own are unimpressive in the Lord’s eyes.
He’s given us a ministry of presence: himself and the embodied community. If we reject others or hold them off at a distance, we are rejecting a gift to experience God in deeper and more intimate ways.
Pray: Father thank you for your Word, Spirit and People that you’ve given us to hear from you. I pray that we would learn endurance as a community. That we would receive and give encouragement as we learn what it means to endure.