Christian Community as a World-Changing Social Experiment

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

Well if you’ve been around all in 2017, you know that we’ve been in a series on Sunday mornings on discipleship: how to be with Jesus, do what he did, and become like him — and in the last couple of weeks, we focused on two key essential ingredients for doing exactly: what does it take to become like Jesus? First of all, we have to know his message and his teachings, and then we have put that message and teaching into practice — because what we do with our lives, and the habits we form and practice determine where we end up and who we become.

What we do and the habits we form literally, actually changes our desires themselves, from what they naturally are, which is very self-serving, to what they could be, in the service of God and others.

And you can be sure that, if you go on this journey of doing the things the Jesus did, your life is going to look different from the rest of people’s lives in the society and culture us. It’s safe to say that we will actually be living a counter-cultural lifestyle if we’re imitating Jesus, and he has authority over what we do.

But there’s one aspect to this counter-cultural life that may actually be the most unnatural and counter-cultural of all in our present age. And it’s this: community.

The teachings and practices of Jesus can only be embodied and will have their intended effect if they take root in a community. Put more simply: The way of Jesus can only be applied sustainably in the context of community. Community is not optional for following Jesus. It’s essential. And it also may be asking more of us than we think.

The word community is kind of a buzz word in Christian circles that gets a lot of mileage but maybe not as much understanding. Well, I want to say it’s a little bit like a marriage, but with more people involved and without the romance, and not necessarily lifelong. But other than that it’s pretty similar!:

a group of individuals committed to living in close proximity, with real consequences, common concerns and responsibilities, practicing similar rituals — and whose lives intersect on a regular basis, for an extended period of time. — pastor and author John Mark Comer (paraphrased)

And like any discipline, community is hard work. Take physical exercise as an example: when you’re not regularly doing it, the prospect of it is kind of unappealing. But when you when you really get into a rhythm of practice of having it as part of your life, you feel like you can’t live without it.

I mean just think about raising kids by yourself, even if you’re not a single parent. Like, there’s no way! You always need help, even if it’s just calling a friend and asking them what they did when they were in your situation. I know this because we’re living it right now with our first child who is about 4 mo. old!

So community in this way, is not just a Christian idea. It’s a basic human need. We are relational animals, from the most extroverted to the most introverted among us.

Because I for one am on the introverted side. Sometimes that surprises people who mainly see me on Sundays. But actually, being a pastor, and getting up and speaking in front of people, can be one of the easiest ways to avoid community! And the way I prefer to deal with my issues is that I go to Mepkin Abbey, and I spend the day there. I do this about once a month, and I did it a couple weeks ago. I meet with one of the monks who’s spiritual director/mentor of sorts, and then I have some time of silence, solitude, prayer and reflection. Which is great!

But even more than quiet retreat — because I know myself — just put me outside with a journal, a book and surf board, and I wouldn’t need to see a human for like weeks — I need to be drawn back into community, because that’s where the most difficult struggles I’m going to face, are likely to be exposed, addressed, and overcome.

And there’s been many times when, through marriage or just friendship or working with people at church, when I’ve learned about my selfishness. One example for me is that, though I’m usually willing to admit if I’ve done something wrong, if I’ve been rude to Whitney, been short with her, or neglected a responsibility for my job, I’ll apologize, but I also really want to give you an explanation, you know, and make sure that I’m understood. And sometimes that just kinda negates the apology or repentance!

Now, I said a moment ago that community is maybe the most counter-cultural thing about the Christian life today. And again, most things about the Christian life are not going to be very popular, and I don’t think there was ever a time in history when Christian community was like perfect. But in the information age, and the digital age, as you know, we are quite possibly the most disconnected connected society, that has ever existed. We long to be known and to be connected, but we also want to keep our options open. Because if your my age or younger, you have FOMO.

And in our society, it’s never been easier to know what other people are up to, and yet also not really know what other people are up to. Or it’s never been easier to tell other people what’s going on in our lives without actually telling them what’s going on in our lives. We don’t have to do it face to face! We can do through an email, a text, a post, a picture.

And conversely, when things don’t go well, or we’re don’t want to see someone, we can avoid talking about it and dealing with it in a mature way. Like, seriously, if I get in a fight someone, and I don’t want to see them anymore, unless they live in my house, or I’m forced to be around them in a small group setting, I can just block unfollow them on instagram, unfriend them on facebook, block their number from my phone… right? And as long as I don’t see them in person, problem solved!

And I’m no technology, or social media hater! I take advantage like most of you, and I do think they are tools that can be leveraged for good and even for the advancement of God’s kingdom, but it’s much easier for these tools to inhibit us than it is for them to help us if we’re not very intentional.

And even going beyond social media and technology: It’s maybe never been more common than it is today to form loose relationships, that can easily be terminated with a new job offer, or a better opportunity, or a bigger house, or by finding a cooler church. And, again, because of when and where we live, if you’re fairly wealthy, you can afford to not really deal with people more than you have to, you know?

This is how the world works at the most fundamental level. People naturally desire independence. Politically, economically, culturally. They want to do their own thing. If you try to stop us, eventually, we’ll even go to war with each other. Just to be able to do what we want. History is basically one long saga of this. We move away from community — by trying to dominate or at least avoid each other.

The word itself shows up for the first time in Acts 2:42:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

In this case, it gets translated as “fellowship.” It’s the Greek word koinonia, which, depending on the context, also gets translated as community, sharing, participation and even contribution. It connotes a sense of intimacy and generosity. It later on acquired a meaning of an almost economic nature in which to have koinonia was to own a share of something, as in a business deal or stock.

And keep in mind that, up to this point in the Bible, the Jewish people had been together by God’s covenant relationship with them and the Law, yes, but also their nationality and ethnicity. But in the book of Acts, those two things go away for the first time. So much so that, writing to the Galatians, which is one of the communities Paul visits in Acts, Paul has this well-known line:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26–29

Race/ethnicity, class, gender. These are three very big categories are being sidelined a little bit. Not erased, they still matter, but they’re no longer defining in the light of Christ! They don’t go away, but they no longer divide us.

Scot McKnight, who’s an Anglican biblical scholar and theologian, says this:

The church is God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God’s show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family [But] the reality is that each of our churches has created a Christian culture and Christian life for likes and sames and similarities and identicals. Instead of powering God’s grand social experiment, we’ve cut up God’s plan into segregated groups… — Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents

When it comes to unity in churches, there are two main ways this usually works.

  1. Worship with people who are like you.
  2. Or, Worship with people who are maybe a little different from you, but just don’t talk about anything that’s controversial or actually spend enough time together for confrontation to surface.

But we know that God’s will is for us to be more than either of these two options.

In our membership class last week, this is one of the things we invited some newer folks to consider. And this is good for all of us to revisit, probably, if you’re a member here:

“With God’s help, I will protect the peace and unity of Saint Peter’s Church by committing to a standard of love and truth in my relationships with others.”

So for one thing, it takes a willingness to learn how to do confrontation well. Conflict is not a bad thing! It’s actually an inevitability in any family or organization, and it can be handled with honesty, humility and grace — toward reconciliation! if Christ and God’s Spirit are our common denominator.

It’s what Jesus says in the gospel reading for this morning. If there’s a conflict, deal with it. If you stay angry, you bring judgment upon yourself!

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar & there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go & be reconciled to them; then come & offer your gift. — Matthew 5:23–24

Obviously, though, this is much easier said than done. We can talk about how we’re committed to this, but it’s another thing to do. And that’s why even though I’m up here trying to lay out some principles for it, ultimately, it isn’t something that’s taught so much as demonstrated and modeled. It has to be created.

And the main way to create it is to bring different kinds of people together with different gifts, around some unifying principle, in relationships of vulnerability, mutuality and solidarity. Carrying each other’s burdens, letting people in a little closer than we’d like. Accountability and encouragement!

You look at Jesus’s own life, and this is what he did. There was actually quite a range of folks in that first group of 12, even though they were probably all young Jewish men. He had people in that group from totally opposite ends of the political spectrum. I know we have people in this church on both sides of the political aisle, and I’m quite happy about that. I’m grateful to God for that.

Another requirement for community: it takes a long-term commitment to the same people and place. St. Benedict defines community as:

“the commitment and spiritual skill of staying put long enough to get somewhere.”

If we did that, it really might be a world-changing social experiment.

And listen, this isn’t a pitch for Saint Peter’s as a the perfect church or something. For some of you, we’re probably not even ideal. But I’m telling you, neither is any other church, and as long as you come to church with a consumer mindset, you’re going to be disappointed.

And I’m not saying that all of your community, and all of your real, honest, long-term relationships are going to happen through your church. That would be nice, but it’s not realistic, and so I recognize it can be difficult to balance. It’s more like we have a few different circles that intersect — family, church, work, neighborhood, recreation, lifelong friends. I have one friend for whom stepping into greater community just means potluck dinners every Friday night that he can with his neighbors.

Community is also just the people with whom you celebrate the good things and mourn the bad things. We see that play out all the time in the life of our church — there’s some incredible stories we can share, and they are stories about you. Taking care of each other in times of crisis, and tremendous need or sadness. And enjoying the beautiful gifts of life together as well.

But we can still do better. The gospel itself demands that we do, because it’s what finally gives shape to our community as Christians. God pursues community with us as his children, even though we’ve run from community with God. And he pursues us all the way to the cross. To the point of Christ denying himself for our sake. And what was the cross if not our rejection of God’s offer of community? But you might say the good news is, God doesn’t accept our rejection.

And that kind of love is stronger than all the things that divide a community. That kind of love is what actually lays the foundation of community, for God’s world-changing social experiment.

So that’s the invitation. Will you commit to developing the spiritual skill of staying in one place with one people, long enough to get somewhere — to let God make us like Christ? Let’s pray.


Originally published at William A. Walker III.