Shaped in Community

Last weekend, Kathy and I spent time with a couple in whose home I attended a Bible study through which I became a Christian. It was  about forty-one years ago last week. We were together to celebrate the engagement of their youngest child. Their youngest son is getting married and will live in San Antonio, Texas. Many of the people who attended the party are young members of a church and small group in San Antonio. These young couples in their 20s are growing in Christ under the leadership of a young pastor—almost exactly like the small group we attended years ago.

Life has come full circle: Forty or so years ago, when Kathy and I were young Christians in our mid- to late twenties, our lives were shaped by a small group of people at First Presbyterian Church of Houston. Now this young man and his wife in their mid-to late 20s are being shaped by a similar group at First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio Texas.

I’ve had opportunities before to write about the role small groups played in our early Christian formation and in the formation of our marriage. It so happens, that is the theme today: Shaped in Community.  As Christians, we become deeper and more Christlike as we are shaped in relationships of love and discipleship with other Christians.
There is a graphic used to describe this process of Growing Upinto Christ, In to the Body of Christ, and Outinto the World. [1] If we are to be Great Commission Christians, we must grow deeper into a relationship with Christ and with other Christians and then into a deeper relationship with the world.

Shaped By the Word in Community

Today, we are looking at the final chapter of Romans:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.Greet Andronicus and Junia  my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles,and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brotherswho are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you(Romans 16:1-15).

Prayer: God of Community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we ask that you would be with us today and fill us with the desire and ability to share in our church fellowship some of the same love and partnership in the ministry that characterized the early church. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Jesus and Paul Shaped and Taught People in Community

For many years, I delayed preaching a series through Romans, waiting for the perfect time. Then, I retired and it was too late! (It still wasn’t the perfect time.) Today is not the perfect time to begin a series on Romans, but it is a perfect time to write a blog post on Romans 16. More than once over the past months I’ve mentioned texts that show how committed Jesus was to discipling people in community. Jesus called the disciples as a small group into whose lives he invested himself (See for example, Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-29; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-42). He taught them. He prayed with them. He ate and slept with them. He walked with them. He did miracles with them. They watched an experienced Jesus in a small group. [2] The first disciples were shaped in community.

Paul was no different! In Acts, we learned that a man named Barnabas was responsible for Paul becoming a leader in the early church. At a time when the church in Antioch was growing, and the people needed to be taught the truths of the Christian faith and shown how to live Christian lives, Barnabas went to Tarsus, where Paul was living at the time, and brought him to Antioch where he lived and taught the disciples there for a year (Acts 11:19-30). [3]

When the church at Antioch had been strengthened, Paul and Barnabas set off on the First Missionary Journey together as a team. When the Second Missionary Journey began, Barnabas and Paul separated, each taking someone with them (Acts 15:39-41). Paul took Silas. Barnabas took John Mark. On the Second Missionary Journey, Paul picked up a young man named Timothy, who became his son in the Lord (I Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2). Later, Paul picked up Luke, Titus and others (Acts 16: 1-5;17:13-15; 20:1-6). Paul always discipled others in community and was himself shaped by the little communities of disciples he formed..

I can’t go over every person mentioned in today’s text, but the passage reveals how important people and community were to Paul. [4] He mentions Phoebe, a woman that he had known in his ministry (Romans 1:1-2). He mentions Priscilla and Aquila, people who were important friends of Paul and in whose homes churches met (v. 3-4; Acts 18:2-30; I Cor 16:19). He mentions friends he has made along the journey of being an apostle, he mentions relatives, he mentions people that have made an impression on the early church. It’s clear that Paul was discipled in community (Acts 9:1-11; Galatians 1:11-23) and also discipled and shaped other people in a community that, though separated by time and space, continued to be a source of strength and support. [5]

We make Disciples in Community

This is important to contemporary Christians. The biblical way of making disciples is to make disciples in community. All of us need other people to grow in Christ. Our church (the church I am now serving temporarily as a coach and transitional pastor, Bay Presbyterian Church)  recently adopted a new mission statement, “Centered on Christ, Shaped in Community, Sent into the World.” After our Session approved the work of the various committees and adopted the mission statement for the congregation, we made a graphic to show how this works.

We begin our Christian journey by coming to Christ and being centered in Christ. We begin worshiping God in Christ. Week by week, we gather to worship God, and we want to bring our friends Christian or non-Christian who do not have a church home to our fellowship so that they may hear and grow in the Gospel. As people hear the word of God and experience worship, they grow.

However, there is more to becoming and growing as a Christian than just listening to teaching and memorizing Scripture. Discipleship is lived as much as it is learned. Most people do not come to Christ because of a sermon or an evangelistic crusade, they come to Christ because someone they respected or admired shared the Gospel with them in an informal setting. A lot of those informal settings are one-on-one. At staff meeting this week, one of our staff members shared a wonderful experience of this type. Eventually , however, we hope people will become a member of a small group where they can meet other Christians, learn, and watch and see how Christians behave. (Hopefully we will be well-behaved!) In a small group, we can grow and achieve our potential as a disciple of Christ.

Discipleship in Community

This week, we had a College of Elders meeting at Bay Presbyterian Church. This particular meeting was on mentoring the next generation of leaders. Mentoring is a process of helping someone grow and achieve their potential in some area of life. Discipleship training is really a kind of mentoring process. It requires a more experienced Christian to take another person under their care and mentorship. The goal is to grow in Christlikeness.

Barnabas was Paul’s mentor. He introduced Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem. He recognized Paul’s leadership abilities. He understood Paul and loved Paul, even when other people doubted him. He gave Paul his first chance to be a leader in the early church. As time went on, Paul would become an even greater teacher and mentor—but this might not have happened without Barnabas.

At my table during our College of Elders meeting, a young woman made a very important point: There are instances where mentoring and discipleship require a formal relationship or a formal activity, like a Bible study. But, most mentoring takes place informally by spending time with another person. Going to the grocery store. Having coffee. Going to the park with the children. Taking some time out to play golf. Going to a Cav’s game or a Browns game, or an Indians game. The list of various mentoring and discipling activities is endless. The important thing is to be connected in a caring, teaching relationship with another person.

The husband of the couple we visited with last weekend was one of my early Christian mentors. When he and his wife were having their second child and moving at the same time, a group of men spent time together painting his house at the last minute before the baby came. I was the last person to leave and we talked and became friends.  This person later hired me to be his attorney in connection with a business transaction. We worked together and ate together. He expressed his opinion about how Christians should behave in business. He showed me not only how to be a good lawyer and businessperson but also a wise and loving Christian at the same time. Neither of us was perfect, but we were learning together!

Over the years, I’ve been mentored by a lot of people. Sometimes I remember incidents that meant a lot to me at the time and mean a lot to me today. I’m sharing this because discipling relationships have been a great blessing, and I desire that blessing for each of you! I still am being mentored. Nevertheless, I’m at the age and level of experience were sometimes I have the opportunity to share what I have learned. That’s also a blessing.

This week, I had an opportunity to talk about two or three men who meant a lot to me in my Christian journey. They are now gone to be with the Lord. But, they won’t really die so long as I am alive, because their work and ministry will continue as long as I live. The ministry of the apostle Paul continues to this day—that’s why we are here! Guess what: Your ministry, your discipleship, your mentoring of other Christians, young  and old, will last beyond your life as well.

Opportunities for Discipleship in Community

Before we conclude, I want to share how Christians grow in community from another perspective. When we first come to Christ, we normally begin attending worship. Then, slowly but surely, begin reaching out for a deeper relationship with Christ. At our church, we have levels of activities for people with different levels of desire, time, and commitment. An easy way to become involved and grow is to become a part of the Men’s Ministry, or Women’s Ministry, or Older Adult Ministry, or Marriage Ministry, or Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), or a number of other larger groups. Frankly, in some ways, this is easier because you don’t have to immediately be in close relationship with a small group of people you don’t know well.

Nevertheless, we know that people grow and mature best in small groups. In addition, they will experience God’s love more frequently and more directly in a small group of Christians who love and care for one another. Therefore, we hope people will eventually join a small group. It could be a men’s group, a woman’s group, a couples’ group, a ministry group, a reunion group: it can be whatever group it needs to be for you so long as it’s a group of twelve to eighteen people meeting together and sharing their lives in a meaningful way as they study Scripture and live out the Christian life in the world. [6]

The graphic inserted in the paragraph above illustrates the process: people come into a Christian  fellowship in a variety of ways. But eventually, they end up in a local church. When they become involved, it is often a good thing for  them to being by joining  a larger group opportunity to grow. This is pretty non-threatening. Eventually, it is hoped that they will form or be part of a smaller, more intimate group led by a more mature Christian. [7]

But we don’t want the process to stop there! We hope people will then to go out into the world, that is out into wherever God takes them and share the love of Christ. This brings us back to the first graphic: The Goal of the Christian discipleship is not to make Bible scholars or worship groupies. The goal of our discipleship training  is to make self-replicating disciples who share God’s love in the world wherever they are and wherever they go.


If I had not accepted an invitation to be in a small group Bible study one Friday evening more than forty years ago, if those people have not loved me, if I had not been exposed to good Bible teaching, if I never been given a chance to teach the Bible, if my friend Danny and others had not befriended me, mentored me and shepherded me, if the church had not given me opportunities to grow and lead, I would not be here today.

All over America, indeed all over the world, there are those who need to be drawn into the sphere of Christ’s work and family, to experience unconditional love, forgiveness of sins, new life, and growth. We have to have the eyes to see them and the willingness to reach out with the care and compassion of Christ. They need to be loved, mentored, shepherded, and sent into that same world, which desperately needs both them and us.


Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  I want to give credit to Mike Breen and others for the “Up, In and Out” notion. See, Mike Breen, Building a Discipleship Culture 3rded. (Dallas, TX: 3DM Publishing, 2017).

[2] Lesslie Newbigin famously observed that Jesus, unlike Mohammad, did not write a book. He created a community. In so doing, Jesus established that Christian faith is not a set of infallible truths we accept uncritically, it is a personal relationship with God formed and sustained in communion with God and the community God personally created. See, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1989.  No one has been more important in my thinking about evangelism and discipleship than Newbigin.

[3]  This footnote ended up out of place.  Paul was mentored by Barnabas and was surrounded by Christian believers during his entire ministry, except when he went to be alone (Galatians 1:17). The list of people Paul lists in Romans 16 shows how committed he was to shaping other disciples and being shaped in  community.  Among others listed Priscilla and Aquila were tent makers, the same profession that Paul practiced. They accompanied  Paul on the part of his missionary journeys (Acts 18:18). In Ephesus, they met Apollos, whom they instructed and discipled. He became one of the great leaders of the early church and may be the author of Hebrews.

[4] For a scholarly discussion, see William Hendricksen, Romansin “New Testament Commentary” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980-81), 498ff).

[5] In Galatians, Paul is anxious to show that he is a true apostle, having received the revelation directly from Jesus his conversion. Nevertheless, his chronology shows that he spent time in other places. In addition, we know that Barnabas, his colleague and friend, this was the person who introduced him to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). In other words, while Paul received a direct revelation from God, he was in community with other people and was learning from them as well as by direct revelation.

[6] Small group experts believe that this is the best size, since if a group gets much larger people to not interact informally in the same way that permits the intimacy of smaller groups.

[7]  Bay Presbyterian Church has a number of these groups, the leaders of which of been trained and meet together periodically for mentoring in what we call “Huddles.” In different churches this is handled differently, but the key is continued training, support, and accountability for small group leaders.

Party Time: Jesus is Alive

Mark 16:1-8; April 1, 2018

There are times when we hope and pray for a personal Easter. There are times when life has been hard or unfair. Perhaps you are in that situation today. There are times when we are under a kind of judgment and/or time of suffering we wish would end. The message of Easter is simple: God’s Love and Grace will ultimately prevail. We have hope and because of our resurrection faith.

The Catholic church celebrates Monica,  the mother of Saint Augustine, as a  saint. Monica was born and raised as a Christian. Her husband, however, was an unbeliever.  Augustine grew up in a faith conflicted home. Early in his life, he joined what we would call a cult. He was also in a bad relationship. His life was chaotic. Saint Monica prayed for her son for many, many years, as many mothers pray for their wayward children. She urged Augustine to leave the Manichaean faith and his mistress. She witnessed to her faith in Christ. We can imagine that she often felt hopeless. Shortly before Monica’s death,  Augustine became a Christian. Monica was filled with joy and celebrated her son’s salvation. Her prayers were finally answered. [1]

The First Easter

 Last week, most Christians meditated on the cross and death of Jesus, which John tells us embodied God’s love for the world—a love so deep and so powerful that it endured the cross (I John 4:9-10). The cross represents God’s judgement on sin. The resurrection represents God’s validation of the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus, by which our sins are forgiven, through which we can have a new and eternal life (I Corinthians 5:17). Our text is from Mark 16:1-8:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:1-8).

Prayer: This Easter, O God, we ask that the power of the Risen Messiah, Jesus, the Christ, would come into our hearts and minds. Give us all a new outpouring of your Holy Spirit this day and each and every day. In His Name we pray, Amen.

God’s Preparation for Easter

There are celebrations that require a long time of preparation. Those who have had daughters get married know that there is often a long, expensive, often tedious time of preparation between the announcement of an engagement and the wedding! It always amazes me how much preparation there is for a  wedding. Counseling, showers, parties, trips to the dress-maker and to the flower shop, time with pastors and musicians, rehearsals, dinners, and receptions. Once I spent almost an entire summer getting ready for a wedding.  A big wedding takes time to prepare, but it’s worth it.

The last week of Jesus’ life was filled with growing opposition, gloom, disappointment, and gathering darkness. Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, a symbol of his continuity with Solomon and other “Sons of David” who sat on the throne of Israel, was the highpoint of his last week. Thereafter, all week long until his arrest, trial, conviction, crucifixion, and death, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Priests and the Teachers of the Law opposed and plotted against him. In the end, he was betrayed and deserted by everyone. Even Peter denied and deserted him. Finally, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. There was no appeal process. He was scourged and marched to Calvary, where he was crucified. Near dusk on Passover Friday, he died. Joseph of Arimathea quickly claimed the body and buried him in his personal tomb (Mark 15:42:46). It was a long, tedious, anxiety producing week of growing darkness. No one expected any joy or celebration to come from that last week of Jesus’s life.

The last week of Jesus is life was not the beginning of God’s preparation for the joy and celebration of the first Easter. When the human race first sinned, God revealed that, one day, Satan would be defeated by a descendant of Adam (Genesis 3:15). Eventually, God chose one family, the family of Abraham, through which He would bless the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3). Later, despite the sin of Israel, God raised up David and promised that it was through his heirs that God’s Kingdom would come (I Samuel 7:12-17). Isaiah foresaw that the Messiah would be a person of sorrow who would suffer for the sins of God’s people (Isaiah 53). After the last of the prophets, there was a long wait—hundreds of years of silence, suffering, and waiting. All that time, God quietly prepared for Easter Sunday and His defeat of sin and death.

Easter, like any great event, like any great party, like any great change for the better, took a lot of time, planning, waiting, work, and quite a bit of suffering. Sometimes in our lives it takes a bit of waiting before our Easter expectations and our prayers for a personal Easter are answered. Like God, we have to prepare and wait, sometimes for a long, long time.

Human Expectations

After Jesus’ death, his disciples were scattered, hiding in fear, afraid of the authorities and what might happen next. The events of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, and Good Friday (the crucifixion and death) depressed, demoralized and disillusioned them all. No one had any extraordinary expectations for that first Easter Sunday. The women planned to return on Sunday to anoint his body. They knew Jesus was dead, and they knew that dead people do not return to life. The expected life to go on as it had before they met Jesus.

All of us have a way we see the world. We observe things happening and not happening. We conclude that things that happen over and over again will keep happening. We conclude that things we do not see happening will not ever happen. Sometimes, we are glad we know these regularities. Sometimes we are not so glad. For example, when we suffer for a long time, we sometimes conclude that our suffering will never end. This was the condition of the followers of Jesus Friday and Saturday before the first Easter. The disciples had no expectation of his being resurrected.

Fortunately, this was one of those times when the expectations of the disciples, and of the human race in general, turned out to be wrong. [2]

A Surprise Announcement

All four gospels record that the women found the tomb empty that first Easter morning (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). They came expecting to finish embalming Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). They knew there was a large stone capping the tomb that would have to be rolled away (16:3). They were not sure that they were strong enough to roll away the stone and, because it was very early, wondered if anyone would be around to roll away the stone for them.

When they arrived to their surprise, the stone was rolled away (Mark 16:4). They were also faced with another amazing fact: There was an angel in the tomb waiting for them to arrive! This angel made the most famous announcement in human history:

“Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:6-7).

Upon hearing this, the women were completely amazed—flabbergasted!

Over the years, Kathy has given a lot of great parties. One of the most memorable was a surprise party on our 30th Anniversary. She arranged for people from all over the country to come to Memphis and celebrate. I did not have a clue what was going to happen.  We had friends we had known all of our lives and some new friends that we had made in Tennessee. There is a picture of the look on my face when I walked into the party. It’s a look of complete shock and amazement!

That was the way the women felt that first Easter morning. They were in shock. They didn’t know what to say or do. Something completely outside of their expectations had occurred! In the case of my surprise party, the world came back to normal in a couple of minutes. But in the case of God’s Easter Surprise Party, nothing would or will ever be the same again—not just for the women, but for the disciples and for us as well. Life on this side of Easter is never the same. With God, all things are possible.

What this Means for Us.

There is hope for us in the words of the angel that first Easter Sunday morning:

  • First, at Easter God vindicated Jesus who died for our sins on the cross.
  • Second, by the resurrection, God’s judgment against sin and provision for our reconciliation was and is complete. We need only accept God’s gracious gift.
  • Third, God is not finished with the disciples nor is he finished with us. By the power of the resurrection, God draws us into His future.

By the resurrection, Jesus was restored to his disciples. The fellowship they had during his earthy ministry would continue, not just for a time, a few weeks while he walked the earth in his resurrected body, but forever. God said and is saying to the world (and to us) that Jesus is alive and we can have confidence because life is more powerful than death, not the reverse. Jesus is alive and with us today by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, Jesus rose from the dead is a sign of God’s power to forgive sin,  create new life and to make us new creations in Christ (I Corinthians 5:17). This is not something we experience once, when we come to believe in God, but something we can always experience. His forgiving love is always there for us when we fall short and fail. His cleansing power is always there to cleanse us from guilt and shame. His power to overcome the past and bring new life is always there for his people.

Third, God is not ever finished with us. One of my favorite lines in Mark’s story is when the angel tells the women to go tell the disciples and Peter that he is risen (Mark 16:7). When someone betrays another person, a relationship is broken. By his denial, Peter removed himself from being a disciple of Jesus. With his simple request to go tell the disciples and Peter, Jesus offers to restore him. He makes the same offer to us as well. We can never drift so far way from God that he is not there to redeem and restore us.

A Strange Ending and New Beginning

 The hardest part of every Easter sermon is how to end it. Mark, I think, had the same problem. Mark’s gospel ends with the women afraid to tell anyone about the empty tomb, perhaps from fear that people would think them crazy. Their fear is often our fear. We are often afraid to share our faith and the Easter promise with others.

The women overcame their fear and tell the disciples and Peter. We know this because the other Gospels (Matthew 28:8-16; Luke 24:9; John 20:1-3) tell us they eventually told the disciples! We know because the disciples went from being cowards in hiding to being apostles who carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth. [3] We know because generations of Christians have shared their faith with others and continue to share their faith today.

Just like the women, we must overcome our fears. We too must go and proclaim to our own generation the Good News that sin and death do not have the final victory. In the end, God’s amazing grace wins. In the end, God’s wisdom and love are more powerful than armies. In the end, our sins can be forgiven, and we can have a new and eternal life. This is a message we and our dying and violent world desperately need to hear again and again. [4] In the end, Divine, Resurrection Life was,  is, and  will be victorious, and for this reason we can party today!


Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The conversion of Augustine  from Manichaeism to Christianity, brought  joy to Monica. She was present at his baptism. In 387, on her way to Africa with Augustine she died unexpectedly. See, Saint Monica (Downloaded March 31, 2018).

[2] Scientists speak of “singularities.” Singularities by definition happen but once. The creation of the world is such an event. It can’t be observed. It was a one-time only event. Often in our lives, at our conversion and at times when God does a miracle, we Christians experience such singularities: Times that are unique, important, unrepeatable,  and which leave us changed forever.

[3] One of the often mentioned proofs of the resurrection is the change the behavior of the disciples. Generally speaking, when a famous person dies, his disciples scatter overtime. Precisely the reverse happened with Jesus. After the resurrection, the disciples, who had scattered, came back together and boldly proclaim the resurrection even to their own death. This is a powerful indication of the truth of their proclamation.

[4] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), 99. In writing this, I am also indebted to Thomas Torrance, Space, Time, and Resurrection (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1976 and John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).