“So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8)
We spent all of 2013 journeying through the Book of Acts as a congregation, and what became readily apparent was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is front and center. Getting the message of the Gospel out to those near and far (Acts 1:8) was, and remains today, the charge of Christ’s Church. No one was more fervent in proclaiming the Gospel than Paul. He gave his life as a living sacrifice to make Christ known to a world that was, and still is, perishing without Him.
But Paul did not just sacrifice his life to proclaim the Gospel. He also gave it for the sake of others in the body of Christ. In reading Paul’s letters, we realize that giving his life for other Christians was just as sacrificial as proclaiming the Gospel to hostile unbelievers. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 provides a long list of the sufferings of Paul, which includes beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, hunger and thirst, sleeplessness and lack of clothing and shelter. It’s quite a list of Paul’s hardships as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul concludes the long list with this (v. 28), “and apart from all these things, what comes upon me daily; my deep concern for all the churches.” Paul’s ministry was somewhat itinerant in nature, and yet he could not separate that ministry from those who were unified with him in Christ. He sacrificed for and identified with his brothers and sisters on a daily basis. He lived a shared life. It was life on life.
The importance Paul placed on living a shared life is also apparent in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 (above). Not only was Paul always ready to share the Gospel, he was also ready to share of himself with the dear brothers and sisters at the church in Thessalonica. Paul’s concern was not merely to get the Gospel to new people and move on. He was deeply moved to share his life with other believers. A cursory look at Paul’s epistles reveals that he often wrote to clear up controversies and correct sinful behaviors. Living life on life with these folks was nothing but messy. It required a lot of love and devotion, and it had to be incredibly tiring. Yet, Paul said this is what he desired and loved to do. Why? Because he too was a sinner in need of grace, just as they were. Paul was the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), yet knew that life in the body is the place where God shapes sinners to be like Christ (Colossians 2:2). That happens in our worship, in our fellowships and during our Bible studies, along with any other time brothers and sisters come together.
It is only when we fail to acknowledge our need of Christ, and attempt to stand in our self-righteousness, that we fail to receive and give God’s grace in our shared life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, said “It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”
The fact is, as Bonhoeffer says, “we are sinners.” We cannot be helped and we cannot help others when we claim to be better than our neighbor. We will remain alone and certainly no closer to God. As Bonhoeffer says, “If my sinfulness appears to me in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.”
Sacrificially giving of ourselves for other Christians in our church will be messy, tiring and inconvenient and, at the same time, dear to both us and them. But only, if we recognize that we are all equally in need of God’s grace and considered part of Christ’s Church solely because of what Jesus has done for us. That is the beginning of grace, and radically alters, for the better, all Christian fellowship. It is the beginning of sharing life together in a meaningful and God exalting way.