4weeks think about the subject of Christian community; Church.
Here’s a radical conviction:
That it is inside the church that is found THE community that we were all made for and that we all long for. All people
Does church matter? Does church have a future?
it is inside the church that is found THE community that we were all made for and that we all long for. The church is where it’s at. It is the showhome of the New Creation!!! It is the trailer for the main event!!!
I’ve always been struck by a couple of little quotes about community
The first is a definition .. I don’t know who it’s attributed to: community is ‘the place where the person you least want to live with always lives’
The second is similar - from the RC novelist GK Chesterton:
‘the man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world, the reason is obvious in a large community we can chose our companions, in a small community our companions are chosen for us’
We live in a consumer culture where it’s all about choice and it’s all what i want and what serves me best. But could it be that True community that we were made for, that we deeply need is where the person you least want to live with lives, where your companions are chosen for you - less an interest group more a family ..
That is what the Christian church is .. It is God’s gift to us, through Christ for the sake of human flourishing .. for the sake of the world..
Let’s start at the beginning of community.
one of the great revelations of the Christian faith is that the eternal creator is not a lonely solitary being but a community of different persons united in love.
3 persons to be exact who find their identity in their relationship with the other - God the Father, God the Son in the unity of God the Holy Spirit. This, claims Scripture, is the true God - God as he is - 3 persons 1 God. Trinity.
We can see something of the depth of this loving tri-unity in the passage we had read for us. John 17. 3 times, as he prays, Jesus refers to his Father’s love for him. A love, v24, that predates the creation of the world.
In mysterious language Jesus speaks about how he and the father mutually indwell one another v21.. So close is their relationship!
In one sense the Trinity, of course, defies the dimensions of our human understanding, but what we can see and sense gives us deep insights into the nature of God.. That God is not some static lonely being; God is not even a person – he’s more personal than that … he is a dynamic, pulsating activity; he is a life, a drama. CS Lewis described God as a kind of dance. Because he saw in scripture that at the heart of God was this living relationship between the Father and the Son and so real was their bond of love that it too was a person - the Holy Spirit. ‘God is love’ says the Bible. The Trinity. 3 in one. A circle of glory, a dance of life..
A community of different persons united in love from all eternity..
Now move the story on and listen to what God says when he comes to create humanity. Genesis 1v26
God said .. Let us (notice the plurality of God) make humanity in our image in our likeness,
… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
God is in himself both many and one; a community of different persons united in love and it is in this likeness that human beings are made, NOT to be persons alone, persons who, as we are alone, reflect God’s likeness, but persons in community who as we are together reflect God’s likeness. This was our original human calling – to be in community with God our Creator and to be in community with one another.
But of course it is short lived.
Genesis 1 is closely followed by Genesis 3.
(they shun his command, they eat the fruit of the one tree God had withheld from them) Humanity breaks community with God and the immediate effect is the loss of community with one another. Humanity is shamed. Adam and Eve hide, they pass the blame. There is conflict. The community is broken. The image of God is marred. In Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel. Human society becomes fractured and fragmented. We have lost our true humanity.
One of my favourite films of a few years ago was a little film called
rampart. Woody Harleson plays a corrupt LA cop in the 1970s. Law unto himself - violent, drinker, womanizer - lives with his two ex-wives who live next door to each other and happen to be sisters - so that he can live near his children…
There is this tension in the film between rampant individualism and yet the longing for relationships..
See individualism says that the thing that defines personhood is my individuality, my independence, my difference from you. A person is a solitary rational individual “I think therefore I am”
But the Bible says the opposite. The Bible says that human personhood is realized in relationships. We find ourselves by relating rightly to others .. not distancing ourselves from each other. We find ourselves in giving and receiving
And when we act in a way to diminish relationships - we dehumanize ourselves.
When we become a law unto ourselves, when we boast of our self sufficiency and give ourselves up to individualism then it is that we begin to lose our true selves.
If we pursue fulfillment in our career to the detriment of relationships we don’t realize our individuality we dehumanize ourselves. If i choose to divorce because my marriage is not ‘fulfilling my needs’ I dehumanize myself. If a society organizes itself around individual consumer rights alone it impoverishes its members.
At the end of the film there’s this bitter scene where harleson’s character weeps over the loss of his children’s trust - he considers the choice between taking his own life or confessing to a crime he has committed - but it turns out that he simply loves himself far too much to do either.
What hope is there for us if our true humanity is found in relationships and yet we by our selfishness constantly retreat from and screw up community life?
The Bible’s remarkable answer is church!! Come to church!! Ha!
Because this is the gospel: Humanity has fallen from its calling to be a community of different persons united by love. But God the Trinity, in mercy and love stoops to draw people into his community that we might become the community that we were made to be.
Notice in our passage three times Jesus refers to his being sent by the Father into the world (v21, v23, v25)
God the Father sends God the Son into the world and crucially INTO OUR HUMANITY. Jesus becomes our human brother in order to pay for human rebellion in his death on the cross, to win US forgiveness and adoption into God’s family.
It’s wonderful and it’s remarkable. It is as though the trinity extends towards us, to encompass US! … we are invited in.. into the loving community that is God himself!
See it in the passage.. Praying for us Jesus prays to the Father v21 “Just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us..”!!!
Human community is being redeemed. Made Divine. We, sinners!, are drawn in by the Holy Spirit into the very relationship that God the Father shares with Jesus the Son. God becomes OUR Father.. And of course that brings all Christians into a radically close relationship with one another. We are children of the same heavenly Father - we are brothers and sisters.. we are united in Christ.
A unity that we are to live out!
v21 ‘I pray that all of THEM may be one Father .. just as you are in me and I am in you.’ End of v22 ‘that they may be one as we are one.’ V23 ‘May they be brought to complete unity…'
This is extraordinary stuff. You don;t realise how closely related you are to the people you are sitting next to. Closer than your biological families!
Here’s the point:
The church is not a human invention, it’s not a somewhat embarrassing outdated institution that’s probably going to die out sometime soon. No the church is a community of different persons united by love. The church is God’s new humanity being renewed in the image of its creator for the sake of the world..
Let me say that again. The church is God’s New humanity.
Which is being renewed in the image of its creator for the sake of the world..
BEING renewed. It’s a process …going on. Jesus prays that the church may be brought to complete unity.. Unity in diversity is not easy … love is something that the church works at by God’s grace in order to become in practice what it is in fact.
God pushes us into relationships with people we wouldn’t normally hang out with, people we find difficult, companions we wouldn’t choose and God says love one another. Be united. Because in God’s eyes relationships are not functional - for what i can get out of them.. They are formational - they challenge and change me.
Unity in diversity is not easy … love is something that the church works at by God’s grace in order to become in practice what it is in fact.
So here’s what God says to us in his church
love one another
be kind to one another..
be concerned for one another
be devoted to one another…
serve one another…
do good to one another
confess your sins to one another…
be at peace with ..
instruct and teach..
agree with …
be humble and gentle with ..
live in harmony with ..
stir one another up
spur each other on
do not judge one another….
Do not lie to one another ..
Do not grumble with one another..
Notice we Do this because of the gospel! Christians don’t love and forgive and accept because we are inherently morally better people than other people (often times we are worse.)
Christians forgive because we have experienced forgiveness
bear with one another because God bears with us
We love because he first loved us.
So these actions towards one another arise out of an ongoing experience of God’s grace in the gospel. The dynamic for community, (the love that we need) is given to us.
Notice also how many of these exhortations are about persevering through relational difference and difficulty. -
We tend to think that conflict is bad, a sign of relational dysfuntion, to be avoided at all costs. But conflict is both inevitable and necessary if we are to mature and grow as human beings! See when you’re experiencing conflict it’s not just ‘the other’ you’re butting up against .. isn’t it more the case that the conflict originates within? you’re encountering yourself - your issues.. your sin.. ! Difficulties in relationships send you back to Jesus. Back to the gospel. They deepen your dependence on grace and open up the possibility for personal and communal healing, forgiveness and growth!
The church is the new humanity being renewed in the image of its creator.
What we’re talking about requires a paradigm shift in the way that we are used to thinking about out lives. The prevailing view of life today is that of an individual standing on his or her own, heroically ‘juggling’ various responsibilities: family, friendships, career, leisure, chores, decisions and money. We could also add social responsibilities like political activity, campaigning organisations, residents groups, and school associations. From time to time of course the pressures overwhelm us and we are forced to drop one or more of the balls. All to often church becomes one of the balls. We juggle our responsibilities for church - measured predominantly by attendance at meetings - just as we juggle work or other social involvement.
Well. Here’s an alternative, more biblical model: To view our various activities and responsibities as spokes of a wheel. And at the centre of life, the hub of the wheel is not me as an indivdual but us as members of the Christian community. Church is not another ball for me to juggle, but that which defines who I am and gives Christlike shape to my life.
when pressure comes church is not one of the things that might need to be dropped, church is the thing that sustains my life.
Think about this in terms of one area: decision making.
Where am i gonna live? Where am i going to work? Who am i going to marry? How will i spend my money? Because of individualism it is deeply rooted in us that we are masters of our own lives. ‘It’s my money, my life, my future’ we say, ‘so it’s my decision’ or ‘ours’ if we’re a couple or a family.
But what if God has drawn us into a totally different kind of life to the life of the individual. ‘In Christ’ writes the apostle Paul in Romans 12:5. ‘we who are many form one body and…each member belongs to all the others.’
When something valuable belongs to you - a car, a home - you’re repsonsible for it .. you make decisions about it. Paul says in the church we belong to one another and so we are responsible for one another and therefore presumably make decisions together..
I know of one church who covenant with one another. ‘we expect one another to make decisions with regard to their implications for the church and to make signifcant decisions in consultation with the church..’
We are right to be wary of any hint of cult-like manipulative tendencies in human communities. But this is not ‘heavy shepherding’. The church does not make decisions for people. Rather WE are all called to make decisions with regard to the community to which we belong.
‘In Christ we who are many form one body and each member belongs to all the others.’
The church is the new humanity being renewed in the image of its creator.
And being renewed, for the sake of the world
Look with me for the last time at what Jesus prays to His Father :
V21 May [the church] be in us so that the world may believe you have sent me.
V23 May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
As the world sees the Christian community it believes in the divine community.
This community of different people united by love points to God the ultimate community of different people united by love
The church loving one another is the new humanity - the image of God being renewed on earth.
we’ll talk about this more in coming weeks and how we relate to one another, how we cause one another to grow. But i leave us with that image of OUR community - SBD - at the hub of our lives. How do we do that?