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iRelate - Making the Choice to Commit to Community - Week Two

Rod MacIlvaine 09/16/2012 (1238)

Foundational Skills for Community
John 1:14; 21:15-17


This week is week two in our fall spiritual growth experience.

We're currently in a five week series on biblical community called iRelate. And the whole point of this series is that being in Christian community is essential to spiritual growth.

Last week I gave you two reasons why this is essential.

FIRST, GOD IS A COMMUNAL BEING. He is a Triune God, and within the godhead there has been love relationship for all eternity. Since, you're made in the image of God you need community to experience your full humanity.

THE SECOND REASON I GAVE CAME FROM STUDIES ON PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH. For the past twenty-five years medical researchers have studied the connection between religion and wellness. People in community - especially Christian community - report higher levels of wellness.

So, the whole point of last week was to say that Christian community is essential for theological and practical reasons.

Now, this morning I want to talk about the skills necessary to "do" community well. The skills I am going to talk about today can be immediately applied to all relationships. These are foundational skills you can apply today.

Now, I'm sure you know that every sport has foundational skills.

• In football it's blocking and tackling; running and passing. Coaches all over the country have been re-teaching these basics in light of the season.

• It's the same in golf: In golf you've got to pay attention to your grip, stance and swing. You've got to work on your follow through.

• In sailing, you need to know the basics of wind direction and sail shape.

So, every sport has its foundational skills.

And if you pay attention to those skills, more than likely, you're going to grow in that sport.

The same holds true when it comes to Christian community. In my opinion there are two foundational skills for community. Learn these and community is going to be a powerful experience. If you neglect these, community will be frustrating.

Before I tell you what those skills are, I want to tell you the kind of skills they are.

Most relationship books today are rooted in principles psychology, derived by evidence-based research. And there are some fantastic books that can help us in relationships.

But the skills I'm going to talk about today are not primarily psychological; first and foremost, they're spiritual.

One of the reasons Christians get burned out on community is that they forget the spiritual component…they forget there's a supernatural side. And when they reduce Christian community to psychological experiences, they get disappointed.

Look, we can learn a lot about relationships through psychologists, but when it comes to Christian community, we start with the spiritual: Why? We are Jesus' body. Jesus is the head; we're the members. And since Jesus is the head, we have a spiritual connection that is supernatural. But that also means we have a connection with each other that is supernatural.

So the foundational skills we need, before anything else, are spiritual.

And that's what I want to talk about today. We'll look at the two foundational skills revealed by Jesus.

• We'll look at them first, in theory.

• Then we'll see how they work out, in practice.

• And then, we'll see how to weave them into our lives.

First…the theory.

1. THE THEORY - Authentic community is founded on the twin skills of grace and truth. John 1:14

A. Applying grace and truth is a skill that forms the foundation for all healthy community, and we see this in the prologue to the gospel of John.

JOHN'S INTRO TO HIS GOSPEL COMES IN THE FIRST 18 VERSES OF CHAPTER ONE. And the key thought in John chapter one is that Jesus is the perfect expression of the infinite God. No one has ever seen God in all his depth and beauty, but Jesus comes to explain God in human form. "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and word was God."

Now, just stop to think about that for a moment: You ask the question, "What is God like?" And the simplest answer is just one word: "Jesus." It's Jesus! When you look at the life of Jesus you get a picture of what God is really like.

So how does God "do" community? What does it look like when God in Christ interacts with humans?

John sums it up in verse 14: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."

There in a nutshell is the secret. God interacts with humans in a perfect blend of grace and truth.

NOW, BEFORE I TELL YOU WHAT GRACE AND TRUTH ARE, I WANT TO SHOW YOU THE RESULTS. When grace and truth are working in harmony, we experience a touch of the supernatural. I hope you caught that. "We have seen his glory? What is this glory? It's glory as of the only Son from the father." There's something supernatural here.

The Hebrew word glory refers to something that is heavy and weighty and therefore something important. The Greek word for glory means the outshining of something that is bright. And when you put those two concepts together, the idea of glory conveys what happens when you experience God. There is a weightiness about it…a brightness to it. You experience something awe-inspiring.

When Jesus was ministering on earth people felt the glory of God.

THIS IS THE HUNGER OF THE HUMAN HEART. There is a deep yearning inside each of us to experience the supernatural.

• This was the hunger that Moses expressed when he said, "Show me your glory" (Exo. 33:18).

• Solomon hoped he would see God's glory when he constructed the temple and prayed his prayer of dedication.

• If you look into all the world religions, you see the same thing. There is this hunger to experience something transcendent and supernatural.

• This is certainly something that American secular culture longs for. Think about all the movies that have come out in the past ten years, from Harry Potter, to films about the underworld, to Vampire movies. People hunger for the supernatural.

So, how did people experience the supernatural God in the presence of Jesus?

Yes it was, of course, connected miraculous…no doubt about that. (In fact, John makes a special point of this by showing seven miraculous signs that show forth the deity of Jesus.)

But there is another way people experienced the supernatural on a day to day basis. John 1:14 says people experienced God when Jesus manifested grace and truth in his style of relating to people.

SO THE FIRST THING THAT I WANT TO SAY ABOUT COMMUNITY IS THIS: Authentic community should always contain a sense of the supernatural. That sense is going to come through our grace/truth style of relationships. God is going to show up when we manifest tangible expressions of grace and truth in the body of Christ.

This can happen in marriages where Christ is at the center. It can happen in families. It can happen in small groups. It can happen in churches. When people treat you with a combination of grace and truth you are going to feel God.

When ordinary people doing ordinary things, but show grace and truth, and in the process, God's presence is going to show up.

So that's the vision. Now, how do we do it?

B. In the grace/truth paradigm grace comes first.

So what is grace?

Grace is God's unmerited favor toward us. Grace is God giving us something we don't deserve. Grace is God giving us something we could never earn. And God loves to pour out his grace not because we're good, but because he is infinitely good. He loves to show goodness to the undeserving.

So let's think about some ways that God shows his grace:

• God provides salvation to us as a gift through faith. It's totally apart from works. That's grace!

• He pours out grace by forgiving us once-for-all. That legal declaration of justification by faith comes legally at the moment of salvation. Then God also forgives us relationally each day. That's grace.

• God pours out his grace through his Spirit. The Spirit gives us power. And Jesus promised the Spirit would be with us forever. That's grace!

• God pours out his grace by giving us second changes when we've blown it…and third and fourth. Those second chances never end.

• God pours out his grace by granting us tangible physical blessings.

AND HERE'S THE COUNTERINTUITIVE THING ABOUT GRACE: If we ever catch ourselves saying, "Yep, God blessed me because I've been so good for so long," we've forgotten what grace really is. Grace is for the undeserving not for the deserving. It's unmerited favor. If you think you deserved what God did…you missed the notion of grace.

Most of us forget just how radical this really is.

• Think about it this way. Our sin does not cause God to withhold his grace in any way; if it did it wouldn't have been grace.

• Moreover, when we receive grace, it never creates an obligation back to him. Hopefully, we're going to prize and love God more. But you can never have a debt to grace, otherwise it wasn't grace.

SO THEN WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY? It means we deal with others in the same way that Jesus dealt with us. We deal with others on the basis of grace. As a general broad practice, we give to others what they don't deserve: kindness, patience, another chance, another opportunity. We give them unconditional regard and esteem.

And we don't just talk-the-talk; we actually walk-the-walk. I will tell you that in some ways, showing grace is quite trendy right now. For the past 2,000 years, secular culture has had a tendency to hijack biblical values, extract God from those values, and then re-package those values as secular values. And showing grace right now is trendy in our culture. At least, it's trendy to talk about.

But apparently it's not trendy to express in real life. In fact, studies have been done measuring who really shows grace. And it's not the secular talkers. It's the Christian walkers who do this.

But I'm challenging you to take this notion of grace and to apply this in your relationships in the body of Christ.

I'll give you one example. If you see a newcomer at GCC…show grace by introducing yourself. Show grace by engaging them in conversation. Ask how long they've been coming. Ask if they're in a small group. Ask if they have any children. Be proactive at reaching out to people you don't know. That's one simple form of grace that most people forget about.

That's grace. Now we come to truth.

C. And in the grace/truth paradigm truth comes second.

SO WHAT'S TRUTH? Well… that's the age old question, isn't it? Pilate asked this question of Jesus: "What is truth?" Philosophers have asked this question. Now, I'm going to get technical for just a second, so please bear with me.

Truth is a relationship of correspondence. Let me explain. If I say that I'm wearing white North Face mountaineering pants right now, you'd check the label, you'd check the color, and you'd shake your head, and say, "Not true." My words don't correspond to reality.

On the other hand, if I said that I've been married to Cindy for 33 years, you might do a quick check on the dates, but in the end you'd say, "Yes, that corresponds to reality."

So truth is a relationship of correspondence.

Jesus is truth, because Jesus' life and his claims correspond to his real identity.

• He claimed to fulfill prophecy, and he did.

• Jesus claimed to be God. And then he manifested the attributes of God.

• Jesus claimed to be able to tell the future as God. So he told some prophecies that would be fulfilled real soon to prove that his far off prophecies were true as well.

Anyone can make truth claims. Jesus backed up those claims with action. So when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life," he's saying, "my words my identity and my being correspond to what is real."

SO HOW DID JESUS BRING THIS TRUTH INTO COMMUNITY? Jesus would tell the truth to people about their morals, their ethics and their motives. He would tell the truth about whether their morals, ethics and motives corresponded to the reality of God's will as revealed in his word.

One day the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus caught in the act of adultery. They brought her right into the temple. She was probably clad only in a bed sheet. In a stunning display of grace and truth Jesus confronted the Pharisees with truth in one manner. And Jesus confronted the woman caught in the act with truth in another manner. There was a perfect blend of grace and truth.

One day Peter tried to get Jesus to avoid going to the cross. In Matthew 16 Peter rebukes Jesus for all this nasty talk about going to the cross. And what does Jesus says, "Get behind me Satan…you are not setting your mind of the things of God but the things of man." That is a massive dose of truth, but is there any grace there? Yes, sometimes a heavy dose of truth from someone who loves us is exactly what we need to change.

In Jesus, we see that truth can comfort, encourage, and heal. But sometimes truth can chasten and sting, forcing us to break out of our denial and move back into a place of reality.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY? We must be people who are willing to tell the truth about life in ways that are appropriate to each situation. Sometimes people are racked with emotional pain; they generally need kind expressions of truth. Sometimes people are encased in stony denial; they generally need hard-hitting and confrontive expressions of truth.

But in Christian community we are called to express truth in our actions and speak the truth with our lips.

Now I want you to notice that…

D. In the grace/truth paradigm there is always a dynamic interplay between the two.

BUT GRACE COMES FIRST. And why do you think this is? Grace comes first because grace always creates a context in which truth can be heard.

Look if I meet you for the first time, and I blast you with truth, what are you going to think about me? You're going to be offended. Even if the truth I give is right, and you know it's right, the absence of grace is going to make it very difficult for you to engage my arguments, or even to listen. Most likely, you're going to withdraw.

But let's say we're long-time friends, and I come to you with a matter of concern in an atmosphere of grace. And I talk about this thing I see in your life, and I'm doing this in a context of genuine concern, what's going to happen?

Well, it still might be hard to hear, but you're probably going to stick with me because there is an atmosphere of grace and there is a history in the relationship. And in that atmosphere of grace you're going to accept some truth, even hard truth.

NOW, HERE'S THE COOL THING ABOUT GRACE AND TRUTH WORKING TOGETHER. The whole grace/truth experience is more than the sum of the parts. I can be a gracious person. And I can speak true truth. And all that is good, and it might produce warm relationships.

But it would appear that God takes our grace/truth relational style, and he somehow energizes this with his Spirit, and he makes it more than just a mere human interaction.

Our grace/truth efforts become an occasion for his Spirit to show up to do something supernatural.

One time one of our adult children came to me and said, "All right Dad, I have a great idea. This is what I'm going to do, and I'm pretty excited about it." Honestly, when I heard it, I winced inside. This didn't seem like a good idea to me at all: the timing was wrong, the idea was sketchy. But bit my lip and listened. Grace! (After all, this is an adult child.) And after listening, it still didn't sound good. So I had to have a grace/truth interaction. In grace, I listened. I was kind. I was patient. And I didn't freak out…like we parents can sometimes do.

And then in truth I calmly expressed my concerns, and expressed what I thought the outcome would be. I wanted my adult child to feel heard, affirmed and valued, but I also wanted this one to know I didn't think this was wise.

All I can say is that, from my perspective, God energized that interaction in a very positive way. And I don't think it was because I said everything right, and had magic words with Dr. Phil wisdom.

I think this was a spiritual thing. Through the Spirit-filled, grace/truth interaction, God energized the process. And this child made a different decision, and that decision has resulted in manifold blessings that have rippled through several dozen lives.

God often energizes grace/truth interactions, so that they are far beyond what could ever have been done at the human level. Now, we have to start with the human, but we trust that God will energize the process so that the effects are multiplied.

When we become skilled at applying grace and truth…together…God energizes our relationships. A spirituality is injected into those relationships that can come in no other way.

So that's the theory. Now, let's take a look at how it works in real life.

2. IN REAL LIFE…community is always going to be tested. And the testing is messy, so we must aggressively apply the grace/truth paradigm.

To see this, I want you to turn to Luke 22:24-30; 31-34.

A. The disciples sense of community got tested in big time at the last supper.

YOU'LL REMEMBER THAT AT THE LAST SUPPER, JESUS HAS VITAL THINGS TO SAY TO HIS DISCIPLES. This is their last real equipping time before he goes to the cross, and there are some key things they haven't grasped. But Jesus' teaching comes to a grinding halt due to an argument over who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom.

The disciples realized they were living in an historic situation. They were going to be famous. They'd hit the big time. And so Luke 22:24 says, "A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest."

This was shockingly bad timing, and if Jesus were merely a human leader, this might've proved profoundly discouraging. It would be like your kids fighting over the inheritance that you're going to give them, while you're right there in the hospital bed dying. This was incredibly insensitive. But it happened. Community was fractured.

BUT WE'VE GOT ANOTHER PROBLEM: Immediately after this, Jesus indicated that spiritual warfare is going to cause an even larger fracturing of community. In Luke 22:31 Jesus says, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers."

This doesn't sound good. Jesus is using Peter's pre-Christian name. In other words, Peter is acting like an unbeliever. He's acting with no reference to the supernatural power of Jesus.

Moreover, the word "you" in these verses is plural. In other words, Satan wants to sift the entire set of disciples, beginning with Peter. And the way he wants to sift them is by scattering them. Satan is going to destroy community, just like wheat is sifted at threshing time and the kernel is separated from the chaff.

Now, on what basis could Satan demand that he sift Jesus' disciples? It's an important question. Is there some legal right that Satan might have? The disciples have lusted for power. They've each longed to be first and gain control. Could the disciples have granted a legal right to Satan through this repeated sin? Yes! This is precisely what's going on.

Peter still doesn't get it. He's still powering up in human strength. In Matthew's version he says, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." Peter is still comparing himself to the rest. He's saying, "Look Jesus, these guys - these losers - might fall away; in fact, they probably will. But I won't. I swear it!"

So what happens next?

B. The disciples do fall away. Peter does deny Jesus (Mark 14:66-72).

The night Jesus was betrayed, he and the disciples traverse the Kidron Valley for prayer. But the anxiety-ridden disciples are tired. They can't stay awake for more than about 10 minutes as Jesus prays.

And you know the rest of the story.

A posse of thugs, hired by the authorities and led by Judas, comes seeking Jesus. With a kiss Judas identifies Jesus. The disciples freak out, and insane fear seizes them. They bolt, running as fast as they can, wherever they can, to escape arrest themselves.

But remember, Peter is still operating in human strength. Peter thinks, "I've made a commitment. I'm going to follow from a distance to prove that I can follow through. That's what I promised at dinner; that's what I'm going to pull off."

But Peter can't sustain his human commitment.

There he is out in front of the High Priest's courtyard warming himself in front of the fire, and people start to recognize him in the flickering firelight. One says, "Hey, weren't you with Jesus?" Another notices his accent. "Hey, you sound like a Galilean. I bet you're one of them."

And all the while, Peter is denying this.

His human strength is splintering and breaking apart.

And finally, according to the gospel accounts, a relative of the high priest's slave confronts him. "You're not one of them, are you?" he says. Peter denies Jesus a third time. But just as he does, Jesus exits the door with his guard. Jesus turns, and steals a glance backward at Peter. And they make eye contact.

"I don't know him!" Peter says, with profanity. And the dam bursts. Peter is gutted with pain…and he weeps uncontrollably.

The disciples were supposed to be a community, but spiritual warfare powered up. And they were jackhammered into division.

AND THIS TELLS US SOMETHING ABOUT COMMUNITY. Community is fragile. It's fragile because we're human. It's fragile because of spiritual warfare.

And this applies to all forms of Christian community.

• It applies to local churches.
• It applies to small groups.
• It applies to Christian families.
• It applies to Christian friends.
• It applies to Christian business partners.

Our sense of commitment in community may seem rock solid. But humans are humans, and we sometimes fail.

And when you add spiritual warfare to the mix, you have the potential for the painful fracturing of relationships. The evil one does not want you to enjoy strong friendships. He knows there's supernatural power in Christian community. He knows that a passionate devoted community of Christ-followers is going to push back the darkness and advance God's kingdom.

So what happens?

Peter and the disciples rebuild a very uneasy…very tenuous…unity after the resurrection and before the ascension.

• On the one hand, things are hugely exciting because Jesus is risen!

• On the other hand, there is disunity and distraction.

Thomas is in major doubting mode. Sometimes he's not even with the disciples. And Peter wonders if he'll ever be able to lead again. So this is a somewhat tense and edgy unity.

The disciples are in the same position that friends get in, or couples get in when a major rift has taken place. Yes, they might still be committed to the relationship, but they haven't really addressed and resolved the problem yet. Emotions are on edge.

Then, the resurrected Jesus addressed the problem in a way that models beautifully our grace/truth paradigm.

C. Jesus shows up on the beach near Capernaum (John 21:15-17).

The disciples have been out all night fishing, and they've come up empty. Not even a nibble! And Jesus calls out, "Hey children, you don't have any fish do you?" It's a bit of a rebuke on Jesus' part.

Peter knows it's Jesus. And Peter says to himself, "All right. That does it! I'm dealing with this think right here…right now!" Peter dives into the water, and with Michael Phelps strokes, he powers his way to the beach to be with Jesus. He wants this thing resolved." And after a calm breakfast of grilled fish, Jesus sets a grace/truth resolution.

John 21:15 - "When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." He said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."

Now, I want you to notice that Jesus has just set up a scenario that is the total reverse of Peter's denial scenario in the high priest's courtyard.

• In the old scenario, Peter denied Christ three times.

• In this new scenario, Peter is going to affirm Jesus three times.

The truth part is that Peter did fail. And he failed in his three denials. And Jesus is going to get Peter to make a three-fold affirmation.

The grace-part is that he's going to be forgiven, and he's going to get a second chance to lead the disciples.

Let's first get an overview of how this worked [screens].

Peter's denials take place… Peter's affirmations take place…

At night
In front of a fire
Before enemies
In an atmosphere of fear
Causing weeping after failure
In the high priest's courtyard

In the morning
In front of a fire
Before friends
In an atmosphere of safety
Causing confidence after forgiveness
In the presence of the ultimate high priest

Now let's check out the most important detail.

Peter has grown in humility. You'll remember that on the night of the last supper he pounded his fist on the table and said, "I don't care if they all fall away. I will not." Well…he did.

So Jesus starts out, "Peter do you really love me more than these?" That was an invitation for Peter to express his newfound humility after failure.

But here's the twist. Jesus uses the word agape for love. (Do you agape-love me?) But Peter responds with the word phileo for love. (Yes Lord, I'm quite fond of you.)

Agape is the highest form of love; it's unconditional love. But Phileo is the lower form of love; it's brotherly love.

So round one goes like this:

• "Peter do you agape-love me?"

• "Yes Lord, I phileo-love you."

Round two goes like this:

• "Peter do you agape-love me?"

• "Yes Jesus, I phileo-love you."

Now comes the twist. The third time Jesus asks his question a different way.

• "Peter do you phileo-love me?" And Peter is worried. Maybe Jesus is peering into his heart, and Jesus is seeing that Peter doesn't really phileo-love him.

• At this point, I think Peter did a quick search of his heart, and he realized that he really did have a phileo love and he says so. "Lord you know all things. You know I phileo-love you." And Jesus says, "Feed my sheep."

Jesus is so amazing.

Not only does Jesus elevate Peter back into position as the lead apostle. But Jesus brings out Peter's newfound spiritual growth…his humility.

But more than that, Jesus gets Peter to feel deeply his forgiven state at an experiential level.

This is a brilliant example of grace and truth in action.

Now, let's move toward some applications.

3. GRACE/TRUTH RELATIONSHIPS IN THE BODY OF CHRIST ARE A DISCIPLINE. And this discipline requires commitment and growth.

A. Application #1: You are called into community throughout your Christian life no matter where you are.

When you came to Christ, you were called into Jesus' universal body that consists of all Christ-followers from all around the world for all time. C.S. Lewis is a member of the body of Christ, and even though he's been deceased for 50 years, he still ministers through his books.

No matter where you go, you are part of the body of Christ. And the grace/truth skill is something that is totally trans-cultural. It will go with you wherever you go.

But at the same time, each of us are called to affiliate with a local body of believers. It could be a local church. It could be a para-church group. It could be a small group. All of us need authentic expressions of community, in a local body of Christ, where we can encourage and be encouraged by the rest of the body.

When you step into a new local body of believers what's your first response? You must consciously enter with this grace/truth paradigm. This is your map and compass. This is your GPS unit. This is your basic foundational skill. You move in with a grace/truth mindset. ‘

And here's the rule of thumb: The farther people are from Christ, the more you have to major on grace before truth. And when you do express truth, you must be wise.

So that's application one: you're called to community. Move in with grace and truth.

B. Application #2: Remember that all communities are imperfect.

If you want perfect community, forget it! Never happen!

People fail you. People are quirky. They make mistakes. They're insensitive.

If you say, "Been there…done that…won't get fooled again," you're not thinking about it right. Part of being in community is learning to rely and trust in God, even in the midst of imperfection.

Now of course, if an expression of community is abusive, or dysfunctional, you should make a change.

But I want to encourage you to accept the imperfect nature of Christian communities and allow that imperfection to spur you on to growth.

I have grown tremendously in my relationship with Christ, because Cindy and I have learned grace and truth within the context of marital imperfection. I love where we are right now, but where we are a founded on reality. We have a measure of grace and truth in the context of imperfection.

C. Application number three: The payoff of serving skillfully in the body of Christ is that you earn the right to be heard.

If you excel at grace and truth in the body of Christ, over time, you will win the right to be heard. You will be regarded as a spiritual leader. Your serving is an expression of grace, and people will seek you out wanting you to speak truth into their lives.

That's a good place to be in. But you get there by consistently investing in some expression of the body of Christ.


When I was a kid and just learning to sail, my father bought me a game called Regatta. I still have the game. We played that game over and over when I was a kid. Then we moved to Chicago, and there was a little league program for sailing. On Wednesdays we'd have our practice races, and on Saturday we'd have the real thing.

One of the things I discovered is that playing the game gave me the mental strategy to do the real thing in very chilly Lake Michigan.

I learned the foundational skills in theory, and it helped me to naturally put them into practice.

These are simple skills to say. They take commitment to put into practice.

But here's the amazing thing: When you live out a grace/truth approach to relationships, people see the presence of God.

Let's pray.

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