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A Big Vision for a Small Group

Date: September 26, 2021
Teacher: John McLeod
Scripture: Romans 12:1-18

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Outline

  1. The starting point and the goal (12:1-2)
  2. The framing work (12:3-8)
  3. The finish work (12:9-18)

Scripture Reading

Romans 12:9-18

  • (9) Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
  • (10) Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
  • (11) Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
  • (12) Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
  • (13) Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
  • (14) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • (15) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
  • (16) Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
  • (17) Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
  • (18) If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Introduction

How many of you have ever taken music lessons? Or how many of you have paid the parental tax of paying for and taking your child to music lessons?

I currently have three children in music lessons—two piano students and one violinist. At various points in my life, I have had weekly lessons for piano, organ, trumpet, bassoon, trombone, and voice.

I’ve also sung in choirs and played in bands or orchestras for many years. And in each of these, we had rehearsals, sometimes weekly, sometimes several times per week.

There is something quite effective about weekly lessons when learning an instrument. Private lessons and ensemble rehearsals do something that individual practice cannot accomplish.

It is necessary if you’re learning an instrument to do individual work. It may even take hours per day. But, lessons and rehearsals force you to do something that individual practice does not. They forces you to perform. Regularly. With your mistakes and everything. They show your progress (or lack of it), and this makes you a better musician.

And, occasionally you end up making beautiful music.

We often need someone else to tell us when we’re playing the wrong note or singing out of tune. Often when practicing alone musicians end up simply practicing the same mistakes over and over again.

In my experience, small groups function in a very similar way to these music lessons. They are occasions for us to put into practice what we’ve been working on individually, and for receiving help along the way to make better music together.

Please don’t feel left out if you’re not a musician. There are similar analogies for sports team or chess club, or lego league, or play practice.

Today, I’m going to attempt to make a case for what we are aiming at with our small groups at Cornerstone. We consider our Home Groups essential to the life of our church and participation is expected for our members.

In our Exploring Membership class and in our Member Handbook, we state our expectations for members.

  1. Regularly attend Sunday morning worship;
  2. Actively participate in our home group ministry;
  3. Serve on a ministry team;
  4. Support the church financially; and
  5. Submit to the leadership of the elders

This is the final sermon in our three-week series on “Relationships that Work.” The elders have a burden that we would start this church-year with a renewed zeal for living life together for God’s Glory.

From our text in Romans 12 today, we will see:

  • The starting point and the goal of small groups (12:1-2)
  • The framing work of small groups (12:3-8)
  • The finish work of small groups (12:9-18)

Pastoral Prayer

  • the ongoing effects of relational isolation in our culture due to COVID. May the church be a beacon of light and life and hope.
  • the introverts who work hard to stay engaged in group settings at church and at home groups
  • for those who feel relationally disconnected
  • for depth of genuine love to motivate our relationships
  • for courage to cast off pretense and performance and live honestly before one another

I. The starting point and the goal (12:1-2)

Romans 12:1–2 (ESV)

  • (1) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
  • (2) Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

I debated for a while whether to start here at verse 1 or just jump in at verse 9 at the practical commands. For the sake of grounding the commands in verses 9 and following in their context and purpose, we need to begin at verse 1. Remember, one of our goals is to see WHY we do small groups, not just what we should do in small group meetings.

I believe Paul is not simply giving random statements about the Christian life in Chapter 12. He is making an argument. After eleven chapters of carefully-communicated doctrine of the way of salvation, Paul turns the corner to answer “What Now?”

He gives us a reason, an aim, and a pathway.

I’m not sure about you, but when I’ve read Chapter 12 in the past, and most of the sermons I’ve heard on it separate vv. 1-2 from what follows.

We’ll look at that connection in the next point. But, I’ll spoil if for you—I think Paul intends for them to be connected.

We need to see these verses as both the starting point and the aim (or end) of everything else we’ll consider this morning.

The Starting Point

By starting point, I mean that the commands in verses 1-2 are prerequisites for a meaningful small group. Certainly not in the sense of living this out perfectly.

Based on God’s mercies toward us (which Paul enumerates in the first 11 chapters) he is calling us to a surrendered life. He lays claim to our whole being. God leaves no part of our lives out of his holy calling.

He calls us to be living sacrifices—to offer ourselves to him for his purposes, regularly putting our old, sinful man to death. We are not our own; we have been bought with a price. And this is all through the manifold mercies of God.

God is not merely saving us from Hell; he is calling us to be holy, set apart for him. He is calling us to be acceptable to him. Paul says this is our Spiritual Worship, or as the New American Standard says, our reasonable service. The word means “rational.” It makes sense that we would respond in this way based on what God has done for us in Christ. The only reasonable response is a life offered to him completely.

Our experience and the New Testament bear witness that this is a process, often difficult, and in need of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The beginning of verse 2 lays out how this will take place in the believer’s life.

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

  • (2) Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…

We are under constant pressure to be conformed to the world, to be shaped by the godless worldview and spirit of the age. Our own flesh, the culture, and the devil are seeking to shape us in ways that are not pleasing to the Lord.

We must NOT give in to this pressure. We must resist. We need transformation and renewal.

Paul is confirming to us that this is a process, and that it will take work. Meaningful participation in a church or small group must acknowledge these two realities. We are under constant pressure from the world NOT to please God, and that we need transformation and renewal.

The Aim (or end) of small groups

I stated that this text gives us the starting point for small groups, but it also gives us what we’re aiming at in the 2nd part of verse 2.

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

  • (2) …that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

God and Paul want us to experience (to prove) what is the will of God. This is not mere mental assent, but a call to experience God’s will in all its goodness and perfection.

If we present ourselves to God as a living offering, refuse to conform to the world, and are transformed by the renewal of our mind, we can experience what it is like to live according to God’s will.

How does all of this relate to small groups? I’m glad you asked?

But, before we get there, can we reflect on where we are with our commitment to vv. 1-2?

  • Have you believed the good news presented in the first 11 chapters? Have you admitted that you’re a sinner?

Romans 3:23 (ESV) — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Have you accepted the free gift of salvation in Christ?

Romans 6:23 (ESV) — For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Have you experienced peace with God through faith in Christ?

Romans 5:1 (ESV) — Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Have you confessed Jesus as Lord?

Romans 10:9–10 (ESV) — because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Have we acknowledged that God now expects total allegiance from us? We are no longer our own. We are to present ourselves (and keep presenting ourselves) to God as living sacrifices.

Now let’s see how this is connected to community life in the church.

II. The framing work (12:3-8)

We could easily read vv. 1-2 as a call to personal devotion, but that’s not where Paul goes in his argument. He immediately shows the importance of life in community as he is moving from the general to the specific.

If we were to answer Paul for vv. 1-2, “Okay Paul. We’re with you. How do we do that?” I think he would answer with the rest of chapter 12.

If I can use a building analogy, vv. 1-2 give us some blueprints and vv. 3-8 tell us what to do to get the framing or structure in place.

Romans 12:3–5 (ESV)

  • (3) For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
  • (4) For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function,
  • (5) so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Daniel preached two weeks ago from 1 Corinthians 12 about spiritual gifts, so we don’t need to cover all of that ground again. I simply want to show how vv. 3-8 connect our calling to offer ourselves as living sacrifices in vv. 1-2 to the plethora of commands in vv. 9-18.

The first thing to notice is who Paul is addressing in verse 3—“Everyone among you.” Not just the mature Christians. Not just the male Christians. Not just the “super-gifted” Christians. Everyone.

Now that we know Paul is talking to us

Paul is warning us against several errors. First, he is warning against pride, specifically, the kind of pride that says we don’t need others or that we are better than others. However, Paul doesn’t simply tell us to think less of ourselves and our gifts. His command is not to think “too highly” of ourselves. He wants us to think soberly—with sound judgment. This means acknowledging the gifts that God has bestowed to us. There are two dangers here. Pride is obvious, but false modesty or suppressing or ignoring God’s gifts is also displeasing to the Lord and harmful to the body of Christ.

Just to make sure we are all tracking together, Paul is speaking to all Christians, and he wants us to think soberly about our role in the church and how we need one another. Or, to put this in our “building/framing” language, God is saying that every Christian in your small group has a part to play in the success of the group.

We are accustomed to the truth that we are all members of the body of Christ. However, I appreciate that Paul makes it a little more personal in verse 5, saying, we are “individually members one of another.” It’s one thing to be a small part of something huge. Paul isn’t encouraging us to merely “do our small part” in this huge thing called the church. It’s way more personal than that. Paul is reminding us that we are actually members of one another. Once we are in Christ, we can no longer live just for ourselves because we actually ARE members of one another in the church—and by extension, of one another in our small group.

This is not based on feeling or friendship, which is so often how we evaluate our connectedness. Paul doesn’t go to “friendship” language to describe our relationships in the church, he goes to “membership” language. We of course desire to be friends and feel connected to others in our small group or in the church, but that’s not where our commitment to small groups begins; it begins with the conviction that God has made us members of one another in Christ.

At this point, Paul introduces the role of spiritual gifts.

Romans 12:6-8

  • (6) Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;
  • (7) if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;
  • (8) the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

As we have said before, the lists of Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament are not meant to be exhaustive. Paul is not limiting the gifts to the ones in these three verses. But, think for a minute about your small group. Doesn’t this list really fit the kinds of gifts that need to be exercised in your small group?

We organize and maintain our Group rosters in Church Center (you should download the App). However, in our group rosters, there are only two roles, Leader or Member. This doesn’t quite capture the Romans 12 picture does it?

Some of you host your group in your home. Some quietly and generously give to financial needs in your group. Others listen and show compassion and mercy. Some clean up the kitchen and others put away chairs. Others consistently and prayerfully speak into others’ lives at some point in the meeting with prophetic words.

Did you notice the actual command regarding spiritual gifts in verse 6? The command isn’t “get a spiritual gift.” He says we already “have gifts.” The command is to use them.

This really is the challenge for our church, or any church in our small group ministry. It’s just too easy at times to lower our expectations and have “leaders” and “members.” Leaders are to come prepared to make the meetings engaging, fruitful, enjoyable, and compelling. “Members” can merely show up and either enjoy the meeting or inwardly criticize the leader or others in the group for not making it worth their while.

Paul is calling all of us to something higher. An old booklet called “Why Small Groups” in the 90s reminds us to “Own your group.” Take responsibility for making it spiritually fruitful for others by investing in it yourself. We have gifts…let us use them.

This is the framework:

  • We must not think to highly of ourselves. We are not sufficient in ourselves to accomplish what vv. 1-2 are calling us toward.
  • We must acknowledge that each one of us has gifts from God for the good of the church (and your small group).
  • We are to use them for the good of others because we are members one of another.
  • This is not ultimately based on friendship or how we feel, but because of what is true about us in Christ.

III. The finish work (12:9-18)

Now comes the actual hard part. The framing is done. The stud walls are in place and the roof is on. We’re almost finished, right?

Not really. There is a LOT of detail work still ahead of us to make this a functional and beautiful building. Now we have to do the “Finish” work.

A couple of years ago, Harry Grube helped me transform my unfinished basement into a beautiful, finished apartment space for my young adult sons. Parts of the project went really fast. It’s amazing how quickly stud walls go up. But there were detailed parts of it that seemed to take forever. Trim here, door hardware there. Caulking. Insulation. Drywall. Flooring. Paint. Fixtures.

Paul gets into this level of detail next beginning in verse 9. These exhortations are applicable to the entire Christian life, but we should attempt to apply them this morning to our involvement in small groups.

Sometimes it can be helpful to focus in on obeying a specific command or focus on obeying that command in a particular sphere or environment.

Depending on how we count, we might find somewhere between 21-24 commands coming at us throughout the rest of the chapter. The ESV puts a heading over these of “Marks of the True Christian.” We are going to look at them under five different categories (again, considering small groups).

1. Love biblically and deeply - vv. 9-10, 15

  • (9) Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
  • (10) Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
  • (15) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

We know Christians are called to love.

1 John 4:7–8 (ESV) — Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Whenever we talk love, we easily err on one side or the other. Either we make it all about feelings, emotions, and intentions, or we make it all about actions (with our emotions not a part of the deal).

  • One parent might express “love” to her son by never making him eat something he doesn’t like or making him do something he doesn’t want to do.
  • Another parent might show tough love by making him eat what’s good for him and making him do his unpleasant chores, but without any sympathy or compassion.
  • both fail the genuine love test

Paul points out several aspects of true, deep, Christian, Agape, love that should challenge all of us.

Our love is not to be hypocritical; it is to be genuine. An obvious example would be Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. We are not to pretend to love a person while secretly despising or being indifferent to them.

But, we must not make the other mistake of thinking love is merely about actions and not our affections. Love is often and action word, but God wants our affections involved. “Love one another with brotherly affection.” (Now we’ve all seen some brotherly interactions that make us wonder about this analogy…love one another by wrestling each other to the ground…) Paul does NOT let us simplify love to “doing good to your neighbor.” It cannot remain as disengaged altruism.

We you surprised by the two clarifying statements in vs. 9 about genuine love? First step to genuine love: Really Hate Evil. Second Step: Cling to what is Good.

Genuine love cannot simply ignore sinful, sustained, unrepentant attitudes and actions, not matter how we feel about a person. But, neither does genuine love cast a person away because of his flaws, it clings to that which is good.

Verse 15 is a great test of genuine love:

  • (15) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Do you truly rejoice when someone else succeeds or is blessed? Or are you filled with envy or jealousy? This is perhaps even more difficult than weeping with those who weep. It is often easier to enter into someones trials than their successes.

We must push ourselves in our small groups to love genuinely; to be invested to the point in others’ lives that we rejoice with them and weep with them. We must love biblically and deeply.

Some of you do so well at this…

2. Stay engaged… for the right reasons - v. 11

  • (11) Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.

It’s Friday night. It’s been a long week. Work has been difficult. Kids’ sports took up several nights this week. Dinner is rushed. And… we have home group tonight.

Sure, you could tell me that I didn’t set up my priorities correctly throughout the week… but, this is often the scenario we find ourselves in.

Regardless, verse 11 is there, staring me in the face. Three commands to combat my flesh and lead me into being a living sacrifice.

  • (11) Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.

Do not be lazy with regard to zeal for God. Boil over with the Holy Spirit (I think reading Spirit as Holy Spirit is helpful here). Serve the Lord… not man.

This isn’t a legalism that says at the end of a difficult week, “you have to go to home group. That’s the rule.” It is a spiritual shot in the arm to help get things moving. After all, we don’t need these kinds of commands when doing the “right” thing is easy or convenient.

3. Stay grounded… in God’s Providence - v. 12

  • (12) Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

There is plenty in the text to acknowledge that life can be difficult. Why do we rejoice in HOPE? Because the current circumstances don’t appear hopeful. But, even then, we can rejoice that we have been given access to the glory of God through salvation in Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:8–9 (ESV) — We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

2 Corinthians 4:17 (ESV) — For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,

Because of this Hope for the future, we can be patient in tribulation. This is not simply passively waiting when life is hard, it is actively persevering in faithfulness when life is hard. How do we do that? By being constant in prayer.

We don’t have to wait until tribulation comes to rejoice in hope and be constant in prayer. Our small groups are great forums for this rejoicing and praying. Let’s be practicing these together.

4. Stay generous… with time and money - v. 13

  • (13) Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Small groups are such a great context for living out these commands.

Our church has a very healthy alms fund for helping members in financial need. Giving to that Alms fund is one way to obey this command. However, there are many financial needs which are known and handled through our home groups and relationships within the church. This could be as simple as a few meals surrounding the birth of a child, or helping fix a car for someone, or purchasing some groceries when money is tight.

This could be you giving to someone within your small group, but it could also be your small group pooling together resources to help some other need outside the group.

Verse 13, however, is not just about money. “Seek to show hospitality.”

It’s great to have your friends over for a nice meal. Get your boys to mow the yard and get the girls to clean up the living rooms — all for a nice 2 hour visit with some close friends. That is a huge blessing, and we should all do it, but it’s not really what is meant by biblical hospitality.

In biblical times, Christians were often excluded from access to goods and services in their culture. If they were traveling, it was vital for other Christians to take them and and offer them food and lodging to help them on their journey or their mission. This was hospitality.

There is a real spiritual good in opening your home to make others welcome. This may include a meal, or it may not. But, it certainly doesn’t have to be fancy.

Your small group is a great place to start in practicing hospitality. Set some goals for having some families (or singles) in your home.

Or, perhaps two families in your group want to work together to host a new family in the church in one of your homes.

There is something that happens when families spend time together in their homes that just doesn’t happen as naturally at a church building. This is one of the reasons we encourage our “small groups” to meet in homes, and why we call them “Home Groups.”

5. Expect Friction… but pursue peace - vv. 14, 16-18

Unfortunately, in our fallen world, any teaching dealing with relationships eventually has to deal with this topic. Even in Paul’s exhortations in chapter 12, he spends more time dealing with this issues than any of the other commands in vv. 9-25. I will grant that not all of this instruction needs to apply to relationships within the church; some of this is directly related to dealing with enemies proper.

Can we speak plainly for a few minutes? When taking relationships at all beyond the most surface level, we should expect some friction—and that could be putting it mildly. These are not what we advertise on our home group brochure:

  • join our group so we can share our lives together
  • … then my kid can hurt your kid’s feelings (or actually sin against your kid) and it can strain our relationship
  • … we can share vulnerable things about ourselves, and then someone may gossip about you
  • … you may feel judged by another family’s choices
  • … I may feel betrayed when someone close to me leaves the church
  • … someone may confront you outright for something you said or did, and they may do it clumsily
  • … or they may confront you for something you didn’t say or do. What then?
  • … this one is very hypothetical… some hot-button political topic may come up and you find that you are on opposite sides of an issue that is very emotionally charged

When living life together at all, we will experience friction. Some of the friction is due to opinions about debatable things; some will be about convictions regarding significant things. Some will be because of real, sinful, transgressions of one against another; other will be perceived offenses and hurt feelings. Some will be about theoretical topics; others very personal ones.

Let’s see what the Lord has to say to us:

  • (14) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
  • (16) Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
  • (17) Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
  • (18) If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Please don’t read these commands on the same level with your favorite advice column or social media celebrity. These are not part of a menu of options for what to do when you’re in a conflict. They are the very word of God.

When you find yourself in the midst of a relational conflict, these verses are an excellent mirror to help us fight against our flesh.

  • How to I speak about and to those who have offended me or are persecuting me? Bless AND do not curse them.
  • Do I always see myself as being in the right? Do not be haughty…Never be wise in your own sight.
  • Do I treat people badly in the same way they have treated me? Repay no one evil for evil. In fact, study hard to think of ways to show honor to them.
  • Am I erecting barriers that make reconciliation difficult or impossible? So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all

As usual, Paul is a realist. He does acknowledge that there are times when peace is not possible. Reconciliation does require both parties to work toward peace. And, sometimes, one person makes some demands that are just not just or biblically acceptable. However, the command still stands for us: “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Though we’re not covering the remainder of the chapter today, remember that there is a place for vengeance… God’s vengeance upon sin. But that vengeance is not ours to dispense.

  1. Love biblically and deeply - vv. 9-10, 15
  2. Stay engaged… for the right reasons - v. 11
  3. Stay grounded… in God’s Providence - v. 12
  4. Stay generous… with time and money - v. 13
  5. Expect friction… but pursue peace - vv. 14, 16-18

Well, let’s not end on this note of discord.

Conclusion / Application

As I was preparing, I must say I was excited when I saw the beginning of verse 16, “Live in Harmony with one another.” In fact, it gave me the idea for our music lesson analogy.

I was ready to make all kinds of application (being the music geek that I am) about harmony (singing different notes at the same time) and how that’s different from unison (singing all the same note together). But, alas, the ESV tricked me. It would be more accurate to translate vs. 16 as “be of one mind.”

But, I would like us to return to our music lessons from the beginning.

Small Groups are an important opportunity to practice and get better at obeying the commands of Romans 12, all in the service of helping one another obey the command in vv. 1-2 to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. And to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We do need to work on our individual practice of the spiritual disciplines, and the corporate practice of worship and sitting under the word of God together.

But I do challenge us this morning to form our convictions about our body life together around these commands in Romans 12. It is hard work, and sometimes we will do it clumsily, but that’s how practice goes sometimes. We must put ourselves out there and help one another toward the image of Christ.

What am I asking you to do?

  1. Commit to participation in a small group. Not based on if your friends are there or if you think you’ll enjoy it.
  2. Do more than merely show up. Pray and look for ways to use your gifts or contribute to the good of the group. Prophesy, serve, show mercy, exhort someone, show leadership in a discussion, be generous. Offer to host. Plan a get-together. Sing with zeal. Help clean up.
  3. Ask your Home Group leader ways that you could serve the group?
  4. Show hospitality by looking for ways to include new people in your group.
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