the dream of Christian community

In thinking about Christian community and the barriers to experiencing it, a friend wrote to me:

I think most Christians share the desire for community you talk about, but, as you allude to, a conditional version. You mention these conditions as barriers to community. Either it is a community made up of a particular subset of people (i.e. those they are not repulsed by)… or it is something they work to create, not just participate in (i.e. a problem to be solved). In thinking about these things I was reminded of this quotation from Bonhoeffer, which I find difficult.

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

On one hand I know that Bonhoeffer is right, that our ideas can become barriers to that which we are trying to seek, but at the same time I don’t know how to pursue that community while at the same time laying aside that dream.

In response, I wrote the following…

Tentatively, I’d say that our approach or posture toward community will stem from our posture toward God.

I wonder if the family analogy might fit in well here. The (archetypal) family is defined by a certain inevitability: you’re inescapably bonded by blood. Your connection is fundamentally secure. In daily life, we might try to please our parents and our parents might try to please us, whether out of spontaneous love, obedience to principles, or the desire to be praised. The dynamics of actually trying to act like family to each other are what take up most of our conscious attention. But it’s all within the bounds of inevitability, and more particularly, the inevitable and undying love of parent for child. There’s a deep knowledge that at some level the parent’s love for the child is a one-way street, and that the main thing the child is doing is simply being loved. The anxiety of disappointing or losing the parent is thus relieved for the (again, archetypal) child. Within that context of receptive love arises all the “action” of family life.

If we experience that same sense of inevitability in our relationship with God — if our justification is by grace alone, if our fundamental posture is one of receptivity, if God is our Father in this way — that will be the context for the action happening in our spiritual lives. The dynamics of trying to please God (i.e. repentance) are real, but they’re grounded on security and inevitability (in contrast to, for example, the dynamics of trying to please a new boy/girlfriend, where the anxiety to prove oneself and the liberty to leave is dominant). Which is why the passive reception of the Eucharist has become so central in my spiritual life, because it “embodies” that posture so well.

Regarding Christian community, it seems that “active surrender” will happen in this same way. If our community is truly familial — if our terms of brother/sister are real — then the work of pleasing each other and forging bonds will happen and be dynamic, but it will happen on a foundation of inevitability.

So, then, the obvious question is how to create a community founded on family-style inevitability, or where to find such a thing. If only it were as easy as showing up at the nearest congregation and immediately living like family with everyone there.

On the other hand, maybe there is something to that. And I only say that, with reservation, because I’m thinking of an experience I had last week. Long story short, there was some serious awkwardness and mutual suspicion between me and a friend of mine from church. We were having coffee, only to talk about church “business,” when he eventually brought up the issues between us, in a direct and uncomfortable way. We talked it through for a long time and ended it by praying for each other. I walked away from that conversation thinking about how rare it is to have friendships like that, where because of shared commitments to a shared faith, and to shared values of forgiveness/patience/etc, and also shared commitments to the same small church, we were basically forced to work through our shit. All of those shared commitments put us in a position of familial inevitability. And that brought about a moment of tangible “community,” in the sense of that word that we all seem to be longing to use it.

Moments like that are rare. But I can’t think of any other contexts, besides family and friendships with Christians where there is a recognition of mutual responsibility, in which I’ve willingly stuck with someone it would be easier to drift away from, and in which actual resolution and redemption have come about as a result.

John M. Perkins

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17

Christian love engages the world around it. It takes up the real causes of real people and does things about them, in the name of Jesus.

Jesus is the great Rebel, and his revolution revolves around his cross. Cross-like love is always rebellious: selflessly abandoned, extraordinarily costly, loving enemies, turning the world’s tables.

Christian love is deeply involved in the community in which it finds itself. Hedging our bets and staying inside the established circles are not options for people who hold up the cross as their banner. Our churches exist to take the cross, with its million applications, deep into the lives of our communities. Where this is not being done, our churches exist to plant new churches that will do it, whether for Stone Age tribes or for our own suburbs. Complacency kills.

John M. Perkins, a sharecropper’s son from Mississippi who fled poverty and his brother’s murder at age 17, only to return to his home state once Jesus grabbed his heart in 1960, was and is a civil rights activist whose life shows what it means for cross-like love to encounter a world of injustice, oppression, and repetitive, destructive cycles. Imitating Jesus, Perkins loved from the bottom of society up. Currently, his foundation serves and preaches good news to the poor of West Jackson, Mississippi – especially single moms. Check it out.

“The Sound” by Switchfoot is bringing Perkins and his message to worldwide attention.

In a world of chaos and idolatry, the church needs a different set of heroes from the world’s heroes, who are of a different type and caliber, who do not preach themselves, but who preach Jesus as Lord. And him crucified.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

[Jesus said,] “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27

meditations on exile (3): community is crucial

And [an angel] called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons… For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…” Revelation 18:2-4

Babylon. John, the author of Revelation, used it as a code word for Rome, the superpower of his time. In today’s world, “we” – the United States – are the superpower of the world, the economic, cultural, and political giant among the nations. Drunkenness? Sexual immorality? Luxury? Sound familiar?

The command to “come out of her” is an explicit sexual reference intended to make us blush. “Quit fornicating with the ways of the world,” God says. Without a euphemism.

We must ask, therefore: how do we, as citizens of God’s heaven and disciples of Jesus, live as we sojourn in Babylon? How is it that we “come out of” the ways of the world? The ways of America?

As always, it is helpful to look to biblical history for guidance. The actual city of Babylon was once the superpower of its age, promulgating paganism, trade, and tyranny across its empire. The prophets tell us that it was because of divine decree that the Babylonian empire included Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, ordered in the sixth century B.C. that all but the poor of Judea be exiled to Babylon.

That meant: God’s people, in Babylon, in the heart of the empire. The question the Jews were asking themselves at that time is the same kind of question we must ask ourselves today. For them, it was, “How do we practice the Torah, God’s law for us, in a pagan city, away from the promised land and the temple?”

The book of Daniel deals with this question, especially in chapters 1, 3, and 6.

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank… Daniel 1:8

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego… said to the king… “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18

When Daniel knew that the document [banning for a month the worship of any god besides the king of Babylon] had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10

In each case, faithful Jews took their lives in their hands by maintaining the practice of their Israelite identity under the watchful eye of a dictatorial, pagan regime. And amazingly, in each case, the pagan king ended up baffled and in awe of the true God.

And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of [Daniel and his friends], he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. Daniel 1:20

Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28

Then King Darius wrote… “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever…” Daniel 6:26-27

We make a difference when we stand out, not when we blend in.

For exiled Jews wishing to the live the Torah, from the sixth century B.C. to the present day, the necessity of living together in groups has been obvious. The laws of the Torah assume a context of community. A kosher diet alone requires a kosher farmer, a kosher butcher, and a kosher vendor. One cannot practice Orthodox Judaism in isolation.

Likewise, the commands of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament assume a context of community as the setting for the practice of the Christian life. By my pastor’s count, there are 49 “one another” commands in the New Testament: be at peace with one another, submit to one another, encourage one another, pray for each other, etc. And that doesn’t include the 10 repetitions of the command to “love one another” in John’s writings alone.

Exiled Jews needed each other to maintain their ritual purity and their commitment to monotheism. Sojourning Christians need each other to exhort one another in the gospel and to be the body of Christ to the world.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27

By the Holy Spirit of Jesus in us, the church is Christ to the world. You may be an eye, I may be a hand, but either way, we cannot function without each other. Close-knit, interdependent, mutually submissive, mutually confessional, mutually accountable community is crucial.

The biblical mindset is not “us against the world,” but us, in the world, different from the world, and therefore helpful to the world. Jesus said,

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

As it was for the Jewish exiles 2,600 years ago, it is our differences from the world around us that make us attractive and amazing to outsiders. Why be impressed at more of the same? More pettiness, more egoism, more infighting, more ignorance. We cannot be light by imitating darkness. We cannot be Jerusalem by participating in Babylon.

And Jerusalem is what we are: God’s city, God’s house, God’s children.

Your sister church here in Babylon sends you greetings… 1 Peter 5:13 (NLT)

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35