Faith and Community
The fifth in our series on faith in real life bring us to the role of community in the Christian life. This topic has a bit of memory for me; the very first talk I did, at a youth camp where I was a young leader, was on this very topic, and on words taken from our reading today from the letter to the Hebrews: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another”. We’ll come to those words later.
In a sense, though, the starting point for talking about faith and community should perhaps be the words that we read four weeks ago, when we looked at faith and family: words from the creation poem of Genesis, when God declares “it is not good that one should be alone”. While those words are, in that context, about the joining together of two people in lifelong partnership, they come from a much broader truth: no-one can live a full and fulfilling life on their own. Even the most profoundly introverted of us needs others to live, to grow, to flourish. “No man,” as John Donne wrote, “is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.
And while there are ways of talking about the Christian faith that place a great emphasis on our personal salvation, our personal faith in Jesus, our personal relationship with God, it’s really very hard to read the scriptures and come away with the message that that sort of individualism is the faith that Jesus calls us to, or the faith that the people of God through the Biblical story experienced. Not to say that our individual response to the gospel isn’t important – of course it is, if only because in the end it is the only thing that we ultimately have control over – but that the response that we are called, as individuals, to, is always into community, and in particular, into the community of faith. It’s often noted that the word translated as ‘saint’ in the New Testament, hagios, (which refers to all believers, not just a special subset) occurs 68 times – of which 67 are the plural “saints”. And the only time it gets used in the singular is “greet every saint”.
There is simply no concept in the Bible of the solo believer. The word images for the people of faith are all images of community: The kingdom of God, the body of Christ, built together as a holy temple, a people belonging to God, a royal priesthood – in every case, the image is that of individuals drawn together to create something greater than themselves, something through which God is made known to the world.
It is not good for us to be alone; all people are created to be with others, in community.
But there’s a problem.
I think, in fact, that there are two basic problems with community, with the theoretically wonderful concept of living with, alongside, amongst other people.
The problem with living in community with other people is… other people.
And the second problem is ourselves.
And probably not in that order.
The truth is, however much we know that community is good for us, that it is what we need, what we most deeply want, the reality of human nature is that when we are with others, sooner or later, we clash. We hurt one another. By accident or quite deliberately, we make decisions in our own interests and thoughtless of the needs of others. We take advantage, we gossip, we manipulate.
Not all the time; not even most of the time, perhaps.
But enough that we need more than just a group of people to make community.
Christian community, therefore, is something more. For we do not gather together in and of ourselves; we gather through the invitation, and the grace, and the sacrifice of Jesus.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews put it like this:
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Now I need to just take a moment here to talk about something really important about the way we read the Bible. Because this passage is written to the Hebrew Church – that is, to early Jewish believers in Jesus. And so the language in that letter imagery which is deeply rooted in the Hebrew traditions – priests, and washing, and the shedding of blood. And there’s a danger that we focus on that language, in particular, the sacrificial language, as if it were the main point.
But when you look at the different writing of the New Testament what you find is the same basic ideas expressed in very different ways. So the letter to the Roman Church uses the language of law and order; Paul in Athens describes the work of Jesus using the images of Greek poetry; Jesus speaks of shepherds and fishermen.
So I’d encourage you, generally speaking, to avoid getting hung up on the images, and focus on the point, the argument. Which here seems to me to be this:
Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection, has open up for us a way into the presence of God, where we can enter with confidence, knowing we have been set free from the failings of our past, and the Jesus himself is there with us.
And that has huge importance for our sense of what it means to be a Christian community.
That our gathering together is not instigated by us, but by the calling of God and the work of Jesus.
And that as we gather, we do so as forgiven people, with God’s power at work in us to set us free from baggage of our pasts; of what we have done, and of what has been done to us.
And that in that sense we gather always as equals; for all of us enter the presence of God on the same basis: the invitation of God and the grace of Jesus. There is no room here for superiority; instead we have absolute confidence in our right to be there, and we extend that same confidence to others.
And having entered into Christian community on this basis; by the grace of God and the love and welcome of Jesus, the writer goes on to challenge us: to tell us that the Christian community is not an end in itself; that we gather together for a purpose.
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We gather (among other reasons) to provoke one another to love and good deeds. The word in Greek, paroxuno, literally means to jab someone, to poke them. To bug one another into doing what is good.
I wonder what that might look like for us, here in Roseville?
I wonder how we provoke one another into living lives of love and good deeds?
How we challenge our brothers and sisters, and how we allow them to challenge us, to lift of our game, to set our sights higher, to live lives that reflect to grace, the love and welcome of Jesus?
Christian community – when it’s working – holds these two poles in tension.
That it is a place of safety, of security, of acceptance; a place where those who have been damaged by the world (or even by the Church) can know that they belong, as they are, as welcome as any one of us; a place where those who are finding life tough know that they will find encouragement and support; a place where those who are seeking deeper meaning know they will find food for their souls.
And at the same time, it will be a place of challenge; a place in which each one of us will be invited to be more than the have been – more loving, more active, more faithful, more Godly. A place where safety and security is not an invitation to passivity, but a platform for growth.
Radical hospitality and risk taking mission and service, you might even say.
How true to those two descriptions are we here? And how might we be more so?