Andy Stanley - Practicing What I Preach
If you've been at one of our churches or attended one of our churches for any length of time, you are familiar with these two phrases. Circles are better than rows and life is better connected. Hopefully you've bumped into these. But even if you've never heard those before in one of our church context, you already knew this. You knew this beginning in middle school, and then you felt this in high school. You remember in high school, you're sitting in class in rows, and then the bell rings and you'd go looking for your circle, right? You go looking for your people. That's just what we do. Because we just know intuitively that life is better connected.
This is what we gravitate toward. We gravitate toward relational connectedness. We actually gravitate toward acceptance and finding our people. We're relational creatures. And so, you may know this, you may not, but from day one, we started this organization about 28 years ago. From day one, we have always measured our success by how well we connect children, students and adults in circles or in groups. That's how we measure our success, not rows. And of course we love rows, but we really do think circles are better than rows. And we call these, when it comes to adults, we call these community groups. Not community like neighborhood groups, but community in terms of experiencing authentic community. We call it the ABCs of community.
Accountability, that somebody's there to hold you accountable to what you need to do. Belonging, if you don't show up, you're actually missed. And care, if you need something, someone's there to provide what you need. Accountability, belonging, and care. And we just feel like this is what makes life great, and we wanna facilitate this kind of authentic community. In fact, up until last year, the only numeric goal that our churches had ever set, the only numeric goal up in the last year was to connect a hundred thousand children, students and adults in community or in groups all at one time. And I don't mean a hundred thousand people, like over the course of time, I mean, at one point, at one time there would be a hundred thousand people connected.
And we got to just past about 85,000 people in our network of churches and then COVID came along, and we kind of had a setback. But we are still committed to that. That's how important this is to our organization. And now, again, if you've been around, you know that we launched small groups for adults twice a year in September and then in January. And so our group launch for this fall is gonna happen in a few weeks. And I'm gonna give you an opportunity to sign up, not for a group, but to sign up for a reminder to sign up for a group in a little bit, but for a few minutes, because we do this, we talk about this all the time, I wanna spend a few minutes just answering this question. Why? Why do we do this?
I mean, Sandra and I, she's here today on the front row. We have been in community group for longer than the church has even been around. This is one of those practice what I preach things that I have practiced consistently. But why, why is this a big deal? We don't need new friends. But I will tell you, we have met some of our dearest friends in community group. But at this season in our life, we don't need new friends, we don't need something else to do, so why do we do this? And more importantly and more to the point of today, why do we do this corporately, right? I mean, this is not profitable for the church. In fact, it's expensive. I mean, we don't take up an offering in small group, right? It's expensive. We have to hire additional staff in order to facilitate what we do with children and additional staff as it relates to what we do with adults when it comes to community groups.
And in fact, compared to other large churches, we spend way more money on staff for adult groups than any other church we know, but why? Why would we do this? It decentralizes us. I mean, you get people in homes talking about who knows what, so it's a little bit risky at times. But here's why this is a big deal and here's why we come back to it year after year after year. It's important to us, it's important to us, because we are convinced personally it is essential for you and it's essential for me. And this is essential for your children. And I say that because of something that Jesus said over and over and over and over that we're gonna look at today. In fact, what Jesus said in this regard really was the great differentiator. It's what differentiated Him from not only the religious leaders of His time, but really kind of differentiated Him from religion in general.
And perhaps, and I don't know 'cause I don't know your story, perhaps one of the reasons that church was never really a big deal for you or never made much of a difference for you, or maybe one of the reasons that church never a big deal for your father in particular, and didn't really make a difference for him. Maybe just maybe you or he, or they just attended. You just attended a church. And you never were actually challenged to follow your Savior. You attended church, but were never taught and held accountable to follow Jesus or follow the teaching of Jesus.
And group or community is where we are challenged at a personal level to follow, or more specifically as we're gonna see to follow through, because it's in a circle that the teaching of Jesus begins or has the potential to intersect with our daily lives, with what's really going on in our lives as opposed to the things that maybe I talk about in general. It's where the teaching of Jesus intersects our lives. And honestly, it's the stuff that religion kind of skims over or skips altogether. In fact, and we've talked a little bit about this, and you know this, I think it's pretty intuitive. You know, you're smart, you've been around for a while.
Religion, both ancient and modern, not just modern religion. Religion, ancient and modern strives to keep things, it's my way of saying it in-house and vertical. I mean, the church historically has tried to, you know, let's keep it all in the box because if it's in the box, we have a little bit more control. And let's keep it vertical. Let's just keep it between you and God. Let's come up with some routine that makes you feel good about you and God. And as long as you feel good about you and God, and as long as you're coming to the church box in order to feel good about you and God, well, then that's enough. That was ancient religion, all religions, pagan and the religious system that Jesus stepped into in the first century in Jerusalem. But Jesus came to challenge that.
Not only did He come to challenge it, He came to reverse it. And here's what that sounded like. His most famous message, we call it the Sermon on the Mount. He preached this many, many, many, many, many, many, many times. I have a feeling the apostles could quote it. Many of us can quote it because we've read parts of it so often. And so many parts of the Sermon on the Mount are popular. They've been kind of extracted, phrases have been extracted, and you know some of this. But this message was so revolutionary because it stood religion on its head, it flipped it over. And He was introducing a completely different way, not of believing. He was introducing a different way of living. A way of living that is not intuitive and a way of living that in some ways is so contrary to our nature and contrary to how we're wired, that if somebody doesn't come along and help us and prod us and encourage us and hold us accountable, we're just not gonna do it.
So I'm gonna kind of hop, skip and jump through some of these things He said. And I wanna give you just heads up, okay? Some of this is disturbing, Some of this does not fit your Christian theology. And don't email me. I'm just quoting Jesus, okay? And here's the thing. If it's a little upsetting to you, that's kind of His point. It's like, wait, wake up. This is something I want you to do. This is how important this is to me. And something new has come. Here's how He starts off. He's the master communicator, so He leans in with something that would kind of give, you know, allow them to breathe the sigh of relief, and then He just drops a bomb on 'em. Here's how He starts. "Do not think that I have come to abolish," that is to do away with, "the Law or the Prophets".
Now this isn't familiar phraseology for us, the Law and the Prophets was essentially their Hebrew Bible. They didn't really have a Bible 'cause it was all scrolls. Nobody carried a Bible around. But this represented their sacred ancient texts. The Law and the Prophets are sometimes it was referred to as the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms. He says, now look, I know I've been saying some unusual things. "Don't think that I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets". They were starting to wonder, again because His teaching was so different. He says, but you are not wrong in sensing that something is a stir, that something is off. And then He drops this bomb. "I have not come to abolish them, but I have come to fulfill them".
And this is like, wait, what does that even mean? And this is what He meant. I have come to bring everything you have been taught to completion to a designed and designated and pre-ordained end. The time was up, the time had run out. That the law was a placeholder until the King arrived. And now the King is here. If the law was an airplane, I'm landing it. If it was a homework assignment, I'm finishing it, I'm completing it. This isn't that I'm doing away or abolishing it. I have come to, ready? I have come to illustrate it in such a way that you'll know exactly how to, and this is His phrase, practice your righteousness. And this was so confusing and offensive to them until after the resurrection. His point is simply this, I've come to show you how to live.
I've come to show you how to live this out. I've come to show you how to live out the principles of the kingdom of God here and now that will impact everyone, not just those who believe, but even those who don't believe. And here's the good news. You can practice it in the comfort of your own home. In fact, you need to begin practicing it in the comfort of your own home. And then instead of going vertical, like, here's how to please God and keep God happy, He immediately goes horizontal. He dives directly into what was practical, relational, personal, He gets all up in their business. And He's about to get all up in ours. "Anyone who is angry," He said, just angry. Haven't done anything, just angry. "Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment". We're like, "Whoa, whoa. Just for being angry". Yeah. "Anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court".
You're gonna be held accountable. This was a statement. It was just a put down. It was basically making fun of somebody because they're ignorant or an idiot or stupid. That's what you know when you call someone stupid or a dumb blank person. He's like, that's... He says, you're gonna be held accountable. And they're like, "Wait, wait, wait a minute. Nobody's ever told us this before". And then, are you ready for this? "And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell". They're like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait".
Now first century Jewish hell was different than the way we view hell. Okay, that's another sermon for another day. But it was still terrifying. And they had been taught you go to hell or gehenna, if you displease God. That's your sister-in-law, like what? This was uncomfortably new. He said, you've heard it said, and we've talked about this before. He said, you've heard it said that you can be right with God and out of sorts with your brother or your sister or your wife or your father, or your mother or your neighbor. But I say to you, that's not the case. If you pull up in the parking lot and you realize that there's a relational conflict, an unresolved relational conflict with somebody in the car, you just sit in the parking lot until you figure that out and work that out before you come to church in order to praise and worship and try to be pleasing to your heavenly Father.
If you pull up at church and realize there's someone you haven't forgiven, you need to forgive him. If there's, you pull up at church and you realize there's somebody to whom I need to make restitution, then you just leave and go make restitution. The way He said it to that group, He says, if you get to the temple and it took you hours to get here and you've got your pigeon or you've got your grain offering, or if you're wealthier, you actually have a goat or a lamb, and you've stood in that hot sun waiting in line for your time to make your sacrifice. And you realize you have conflict with someone, you just leave your gift there. They just moan, nobody was gonna do this. You just leave your gift there and first, first, go and be reconciled to them.
And they're like, "Wait a minute, wait. You're telling us it's more important to reconcile to other people than to reconcile with God and then come offer your gift"? And they're thinking, "Wait a minute, that is the complete opposite of how we were told it works". To which Jesus has say, well, that was then, this is now, the King has arrived. You heard it said, you've heard it said, "You shall not commit adultery". They're like, "Yeah, so it's okay to commit. Wait, what"? And He's like, "No, no, no, no, no. It's not okay to commit adultery. Your heavenly Father doesn't only want you to be faithful to your husband or wife physically. Your heavenly Father wants you to be faithful to your husband or wife with your mind and with your thought and with your heart and with your eyes". And they're like, "This is so extreme". And Jesus is like, "It's more extreme than you think".
Speaking of your eyes, "If you are right, eye offends you, causes you to stumble, gouge it out with a spoon". I added the spoon part, that's not in there. But I don't know what you use to gouge out an eye, but then this is what, here's what He actually said, "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out with whatever you can find and throw your eye away. It is better for you to lose one part of your physical body than for your whole body," here it is again, "to be thrown into hell". They're like, "What are you talking about"? I mean, God cares what we think about. God cares what we look at. God cares what our minds are filled with. He's like, "Yes, because your unmonitored thoughts can lead to harmful behavior".
Your unmonitored thoughts is where the harm that comes to other people comes from. In fact, in another time when He was teaching, He said, every single evil thing that has come from anybody began on the inside, so of course your heavenly Father wants you to monitor what you think about, what you dwell on and what you look at. And then he just eliminates all the excuses men were using in that day and age to divorce and abandon their wives. He just eliminates all those excuses. And the women are like, "Well, finally, somebody is standing up for the girls". I mean, this is why I say all the time, and I know this is probably offensive to somebody.
But every woman in the world should be a follower of Jesus and at least celebrate Jesus. Jesus did more for women earlier than anyone who has ever lived. He raised their dignity and He raised their status constantly. And the men were like, "Wait a minute, women". And Jesus says, yes, it's a new day. It's a new kingdom, it's a new world order. I am successfully landing the plane of the old and I'm introducing something new. I'm not abolishing it, I'm fulfilling it. I am a walking, talking, living fulfillment of what God wants for the world. You wanna know what God wants for people in the world. Jesus would say, look at me, emulate me, follow me. And when you mess up, you confess, you make restitution, you ask for forgiveness. He says, if anyone insults you, you don't insult them back. If someone insults you, you don't insult them back. Not only do you not insult them back, you don't insult them behind their back. No more an eye for an eye.
Did somebody ask you to do something? They want you to do one thing, you do two things. If they want two things, you do three things. You surprise them with your availability, your compassion and your service. you've heard it said, we all know this one, we can memorize it. We've memorized this one accidentally. You didn't memorize it on purpose. You've just heard it so many times, you memorized it. You've heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies. I mean, Jesus is like, "Everybody does that". But I tell you, I love that phrase. But I tell you, in other words, the King has come, the new authority has come. Moses was your guy, now I'm your guy. "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you".
To which we say, we pray about the people who persecute us. We don't pray for them. And Jesus said, but now you're gonna pray for them because I'm calling you to a different standard, a different way to practice your righteousness, to live out this new kingdom ethic. To which they're thinking what some of us are thinking, "Wait, wait, it's, that's just too much. Can't we just love God and be done with it"? And Jesus would say, this is how you love God, by loving the people that your heavenly Father loves. And He loves your enemy, and He loves those who persecute you. And I want you to love them. And before you push back, wait till the end of my own story. Because some of them would be there that day.
Again, we can't imagine this. Some of them would be there that day when Jesus hanging from a cross looks down at the people who crucified Him and whispers, "Father, forgive them. Forgive the ones who put me here". This was so different. This is stuff, come on, we don't do or don't do well or don't do consistently. But imagine if that changed. The worst day maybe, not the worst day, but one of the worst days of Peter's life. Peter, the apostle of Jesus, famous one, probably the worst day, one of the worst days of his life is when Jesus invited Matthew to become part of their small group. 'Cause they're walking along and Peter and Andrew and James and John, you know, they're business owners, small business owners, we got this thing going on and they stop at this tax collector's booth.
Jesus says to this, Levi, you know, Hey, Levi, Matthew, I want you to come be a part of my small group. And they're like, "I don't know. We don't even talk to him. We don't even look at people like him. We are not gonna associate with him He can't go with us". And Jesus said, oh yeah, he's going with us. And Jesus invites him. This was because it's like Matthew was like the IRS and Peter was like a business owner. And it's like, no, we don't mix. And Jesus smiles and goes, now, this is why I came, to reconcile you to God and to reconcile you to each other and to reconcile you to each other as an expression of your reconciliation to God, the Father who loves the people who persecute you and love the people that you perceive as an enemy. Forgive regardless, He would say, forgive regardless. And they're like, "Regardless. I mean, Jesus is that important"? Jesus is like, "Yeah, it's important. Here's how important it is".
Okay, this is theologically disturbing. This is Jesus. Here's how important it is. He says: "For if you forgive other people, when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father isn't gonna forgive you of your sins". Well, and here's what they thought, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking what I'm thinking, here's what they thought, but what do you mean He won't forgive us? We're the child, we're the children of God. We're Israel, we're related to Abraham. We are Abraham's offspring. What do you mean God won't forgive us? And Jesus said, I just explained it to you. Why?
If you won't forgive others, God won't forgive you. And one of the reasons God won't forgive you for not forgiving others is refusing to forgive others, is a sin. And refusing to forgive others is committing a sin that God would then have to forgive, and round and round and round it goes. And God and Jesus is saying, I just want you to be like me. I want you to forgive regardless. Then He says, don't hoard your wealth, don't assume that it's all yours to consume. Don't assume that everything that comes your way is yours. And they're like, "Is this how we please God? I mean you're... Is this is how we please God, that's so strange 'cause you've barely even mentioned God, this is all about us and the people around us".
Jesus is like, "Exactly". And then this might be new for you, then Jesus, this is so brilliant, He puts a new twist on something that many of them had heard their entire lives. Before Jesus came along, this is what many of them had been taught. And this is gonna remind you of something Jesus said. But what made this so amazing is what you didn't know that Jesus didn't say that they'd heard most of their lives. They'd heard this: "Don't do to another what you don't want done to you". "Don't do to another what you don't want done to you". In other words, don't bother them if you don't want them to bother you. It's pretty much what parents tell their kids about yellow jackets, right? And wasp, right? Don't bother them and they won't bother you. But this requires no compassion, this requires no love.
In fact, this doesn't require anything of anybody except just mind your own business. And Jesus leverages the rhetoric of this statement. And He says, in my kingdom, in my world, if you're gonna follow me, here's what this looks like. In everything, in everything, every circumstance, every relationship at home, at work, at school, in the mall, at the mall, on the street, and everything, do to others. I want you as my followers to take the initiative. I want you to look for opportunities. I don't want you to turn and not look, I don't want you to pretend you didn't see, I want you to do to others what you would have them do or how you would have them respond to you if you were in their same circumstances. And then this is so brilliant. "For this one idea sums up the Law and the Prophets that I have come to fulfill". Don't just be entertained by my little parable of the good Samaritan, I want you to be the Samaritan. And I'm serious. How serious? You would say this serious. Everyone.
Now this is one of those we know. In fact, some of you grew up singing a song about this one. "Everyone who hears these words of mind and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock". Everyone who listens and does something with what they've heard, their life is like a life or gonna be built on a rock. It's gonna take longer, a lot more effort. People won't understand but it's a life that will last. "And everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn't put them into practice is like somebody who just built their house on sand". But yah, I was in church every week and I went to mass every. No, no, no, "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like someone who builds their house, their life on sand".
That's why I tell you all the time, follow Jesus through the gospels. When He finishes this message, He walks down the mountain and begins practicing what He preached. He touches a leper. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. I'm not gonna mind my own business, I'm gonna get involved in his business. And then He does a favor for a Roman centurion. And Peter just rolls his eyes. Like, what have we gotten ourselves involved in? What they didn't know, what they couldn't know, what I wish we knew more about is that following the resurrection, there would be a generation of Jesus followers who would take the teaching of Jesus, this extreme impractical teaching of Jesus seriously. And they would live that way. And they would give that way. And they would forgive that way. They would one another that way because this was His way.
This was the way. This was the way of the kingdom. And it would shake an empire. And the day would come. They could not imagine this in the first century under Tiberius and then eventually Nero. They couldn't imagine that one day Roman emperors would worship the crucified day laborer from Nazareth, Jesus of Nazareth. Not because of what those first and second and third century Christians simply believed, but because of how they lived their lives. But unfortunately, eventually the church and church leaders in particular started cramming it all back into the box, into the church building, dressed up with new imperial type traditions. Show up, listen to a homily, recite a few things, confess a few things, and then just go on about your life. The church recreated the very thing.
In some ways, Jesus came to dismantle, vertical, individual, vertical, individual, detached religion. As long as I'm okay with God, it doesn't matter how I am with everybody else. But here's where you come into play. Here's where we come into play. Regardless of where you live or where you're watching from, there's always been a remnant. There's always been a group of people that say, no, we are going to be doers, not just hearers. And I want us to be a part of that group. And I want you to be a part of that group. So here's the question that maybe Jesus would ask at this point in the message. I don't know. This is just me imagining. He may look at us at this point and say, you wanna be a part of that group? Yeah. You wanna be a part of my kingdom on earth rolling out for the whole world? Yeah. Then He may ask us, well, then how's your doing? How's your doing doing? Are you doing or just mooing? You know what I mean by that?
Hmm, that's good pastor. Hmm hmm hmm. Hmm, that's convicting. You gonna do any of this, honey? Hmm hmm. Hmm hmm me neither. Hmm hmm. Sure is good, I never heard that before. That's amazing. I'm gonna share that tomorrow in my Bible study. Are you gonna do any of that? No, it's just impractical. I'm not gonna do that. This is why you need a circle. Because that doesn't matter how clear I am and how compelling I am or interesting I am, it doesn't matter. If you don't do it, if I don't do it, we don't make a difference. We're playing a game, we're not following Jesus. And this is why you need a circle. You need people to ensure that you're doers and not just hearers and appreciators and Jesus fans. He doesn't need any more fans. Gimme a J, gimme, like, I don't want fans, I want followers. And we need people around us to ensure that our faith has feet.
So lemme ask you this is what He did, does your faith have feet? Are we living this way, doing this? Now, when we first started the church 28 years ago, in fact, today's kind of an anniversary, but actually it's two anniversaries. It's, I wasn't gonna say this, but it's actually our wedding anniversary today, yes. Thank you. 35. 35 years. It's a big one. Okay. It's also another anniversary, I'll tell you about another time. But anyway, the point is, when we started the church, I just come out of, we'd just come out of the most tumultuous, emotionally taxing season of our lives. And it had to do with my dad and me. And we were just at odds. I mean like way at odds. I've written about this with his permission, you know, 'cause we eventually worked that out and reconciled. But I mean, at the time it was bad.
And of course I was right and I could not convince him he was wrong. I do not understand this. I mean, I'm a pretty, you know, and he was right and I was wrong. And you know how it is with the people you disagree with. Aren't you right? Of course you are, of course you aren't, right? I mean, that's just human nature, right? So I mean, I was angry and I was hurt and I was blaming and I was complaining. And the problem was, of course I know all about forgiveness. I know I can't, you know, especially hold something against my dad. How ridiculous is that? I know all about, you know, take, reclaiming my slice of the blame pie. You know what I mean? I've taught all that stuff. I get all that. I know the sermons, you know what I needed, you know what we needed? I needed somebody to prod me to practice what I actually preach.
And Sandra would tell you, we would tell you in that season of our lives, do you know who came to the rescue? Our small group. We were in a group and they listened. They got, I'm telling you, they got us through. When I say they listened, they listened and listened and listened and listened and listened, and then they listened to the same stuff over and over and over and over and over 'cause we just had one story to tell, you know? And they loved us and they pushed us and they held us together and they held us accountable. And maybe so much of what I'm doing now, we're doing now is because of their love for us in that difficult, difficult season.
So, here's my point. If you're gonna live this out, not if you're gonna believe it or be interested in it, if you're gonna live this out, walk this out, figure this out, work this out in your world, you're gonna need some people around you. You're gonna need some people who can help you figure it out. And here's why. Because as I say all the time, life is complicated. I mean, your situation, your circumstances are complicated. I make it sound easy. Just follow Jesus. See you next week. I mean that's, you know, every week you feel like I'm preaching the same sermon. Just follow. "I know, Andy, you say that all the time". Follow Jesus. I'll see you next week.
And you leave thinking, "Andy, that's easier for you to say. You don't understand my parents, you don't understand my marriage, you don't understand my business, my finances. You don't understand what I'm coming into, just walked out of. You don't understand my industry that I'm in and how we're struggling. You don't get it". And you're right. How could I? I live in a closet at the church, so of course I could never help you figure out how to walk through and walk out the the teaching of Jesus in your personal life because I don't walk in your shoes. But you're not the first person, you're not the first Christian. And there are people who've been where you are. And there are people who are where you are. And you need, we need each other. This isn't extra credit. This is essential to walking and talking and following Jesus.
Again, people who can help you figure it out, sort it out. I chatted with a group about two months ago, I just ran into 'em. This is a group of married couples and they're all in blended families. And when they found each other, do you know how they felt? It was like, ah, finally someone who understands what it's like to parent in a blended family. When they found each other, it was so powerful. There's no way I could speak into that intelligently. They need each other. And when they found each other, it was like a breath of fresh air. And now they're figuring out how do you sort this out and walk this out in these particular unique circumstances.
So yes, you have some difficult circumstances. And yes, I make it sound easy. But no, that's not an excuse not to engage and follow Jesus. And not only other people who are where you are who have been where you are. You are where you are. And one day you will have been where you are and God will use you in the life of other people. But not because you get to wear a microphone, but because you find a circle of people and you can say, I understand. So as much as I like talking to rows, this can't be as far as it goes. If you're going to practice what Jesus preached, you need, I need, we all need a circle.