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Three Forms of Christian Community


John 13:1-14  


No one in all of church history is as moved at Christmas as is Martin Luther. Every time Luther comes to write anything about Christmas he seems like a child, at least in some respects. He’s as excited as a five-year old who has counted the days for months.  He’s as eager as the child who has wanted something dear to her and now can’t wait to see if the gift she’s craved is finally hers.

Yet even though Luther is child-like around Christmas, he is never maudlin; never sentimental; never gushy.         Luther is always profound. Characteristically Luther is so very profound that every year, this year included, there are more books published about Luther than about any figure in history, Jesus included. Luther is so very deep that we can never get to the bottom of him, never exhaust him.  Yet as profound as Luther is, he’s customarily simple.         This shouldn’t surprise us, since the deepest matters in life are simple at the same time.

Whenever Luther speaks of Christmas, he speaks of the congregation. And therefore whenever he speaks of congregational life, he speaks with his characteristic simplicity and profundity.  In the season of Advent, 520 years after the birth of Luther, let’s listen to Luther on the three forms of church community.

I: —  Martin Luther maintained that the first level of Christian community, the first stage of our life together, is putting our time, talent and treasure at the disposal of everyone else in the congregation.  Eric McDonald fixes things, fixes anything a fixer-man can fix.  Pat McKinnon bakes shortbread.  Ralph Finch fiddles. There’s nothing extraordinary about this, because what Eric and Pat and Ralph contribute they can do with their eyes shut.         Furthermore, what any of us can do to help, we do without expecting extraordinary recognition for it.         All of us bring forward our natural gifts and abilities, as well as our money and our time, wanting only to be helpful in any way we can.         This “physical service,” as Luther called the first stage of Christian community, we offer readily and gladly.

It sounds so very ordinary, doesn’t it.  In fact it is ordinary. But 95% of life is ordinary; and therefore the ordinariness that we offer up on behalf of the community of Christ’s people is always vastly more important than many think.

When I was younger and occasionally mulled over what is meant by gifts and abilities and talents I tended to think of what we commonly call “talented people”. Their talents were dramatic, eye-catching, sensational, striking, even freakish. In my older age I esteem more and more the non-startling, non-sensational gifts that finally help us much more profoundly.

When I was in Frankfurt ( Germany ) and Stockholm ( Sweden ) with the World Council of Churches on behalf of Jewish-Christian relations I noted the gentle way and undramatic ability of Krister Stendahl, the chairman of our group.  A Swede by birth, Stendahl had taught at Harvard for twenty-five years, then had returned to Stockholm as Lutheran bishop of the city. At the WCC meetings the Americans spoke their mind (forcefully), as well as the British, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Africans.  As everyone continued to speak out it appeared that we were moving farther from consensus, closer to chaos, one step away from the fragmentation we seemed unable to avoid.         At such moments Stendahl would stare at the table in front of him while someone else generated more heat than light, say nothing for a minute or two, and then gently propose the idea or the statement or the motion that marvellously gathered up what we all wanted to say but didn’t have the wherewithal to formulate it and therefore could only push the meeting further towards collapse.   As Stendahl did this several times over we all forgot the pricks where we thought we had been jabbed and moved ahead together to accomplish what we had come from the four corners of the world to do.  Stendahl himself, in his genuine humility, made no more of this than he would have made of saying “hello”.   On the one occasion when Stendahl took three minutes on account of an especially thorny conundrum and someone became impatient, he dispelled even the whiff of animosity as he smiled good-naturedly and said, “You will have to excuse me; it’s been months since I thought in English” (English being his third language, after Swedish and German.)

I shall always be grateful for those whose gift is so undramatic as simply to help us see that our perspective on a matter is not the only perspective; and therefore those who disagree with us are neither incurably stupid nor wilfully vicious.  If you sit at ice-level on the side of a hockey rink, the ice-surface appears long from blue-line to goal-line, short from side to side across the ice. Actually, it’s only 60 feet from blue-line to goal-line but 85 feet across the ice. Yet at ice-level it seems 20 feet across the ice and 150 feet from blue-line to goal-line.  It’s no wonder that ice-level fans complain that the Maple Leafs skate leadenly when they bring the puck out of their own zone, while opponents look like hornets buzzing around inside the Leaf end.   As soon as we move to the end-zone seats our perspective on the game changes with the altered angle of vision.  If we move high up into the nose-bleed seats it’s a different game again.

Several people in this congregation whom the world would find undistinguished have spared me public humiliation (and worse) by gently sharing with me their capacity to see things from a different angle, all the while doing this without precipitating knee-jerk defensiveness in me.

Talents and gifts and abilities need not be the violin-playing of Pinchas Zukerman or the singing of Pavarotti or the writing of Alice Munro. The talent that most frequently assists the congregation most profoundly is much less dramatic than that. Whatever our talent, then, we must put it at the disposal of the congregation.

From time to time a meeting in any congregation unfolds and appears to go nowhere. Whether the board members be few or many, they can’t seem to agree on anything. By meeting’s end, of course, there is one thing everyone is eager to agree on: adjournment. We shake our heads and go home mumbling to ourselves, “That wasn’t much of a meeting tonight. All we did was turn back motion after motion.”  I happen to think it was a wonderful meeting.  Think of what didn’t happen. Board members didn’t fall silent before something they secretly disagreed with, pass it out of politeness so as not to hurt the feelings of the person voicing it, only to realize that now everyone was stuck with a decision that very few wanted. Think too of what didhappen.   Those at the meeting had freedom to be honest with each other.  At the end of the meeting everyone could smile about it.  For everyone knew that everyone else in the meeting had been generous for years with time, talent and treasure, generous many times over in congregational life. Because of our common generosity there was common goodwill, even if this or that motion didn’t find support from other voters.

Luther insists that the simplest, humblest gift, put at the disposal of the congregation, is the first stage of Christian community.


II: — According to Luther the second stage of Christian community is more intentional, more deliberate, more pointed. The second stage has to do more specifically with the strengthening of faith. Here Luther lists three matters: instruction in faith (teaching), consolation, intercession.


(a)           Teaching is plainly essential.  The old saying, “Faith is caught, not taught”, simply isn’t true. Those who think the saying to be true never seem to have come to terms with the fact that Jesus taught every single day of his public ministry.  The apostles taught. In the Presbyterian tradition the minister is known as the “teaching elder.” The church has always known that apart from teaching, ignorance triumphs.  And with the triumph of ignorance concerning the gospel, human depravity swells. We have to be taught.

It’s plain to any and all here that the Schomberg pulpit places massive emphasis on teaching, on instruction in faith.  But what else should we expect?   Over and over scripture insists that mind and heart must be developed in equal measure. To be sure, if the Christian mind develops in isolation from the heart we are left with abstract theological head-trips that may amuse the pseudo-intellectuals among us but finally help no one.  On the other hand, to develop the believing heart in isolation from the knowing head would leave us only with sentimentality, nostalgia and superstition. The heart believes upon him whose truth the head has been taught.  Then teach we must.

Teaching occurs in many settings besides the pulpit.  Teaching occurs in the Sunday School, in our Wednesday evening adult study groups, at the occasional men’s breakfast.  (Please note that what is learned at the men’s breakfast won’t be learned anywhere else.).

The apostle Paul writes to the younger Timothy, “Be unfailing in patience and teaching.”   We must always be teaching inasmuch as the natural state of the mind is a darkened state (in the wake of the Fall); the mind has to be enlightened. Donald Coggan, former archbishop of Canterbury and former professor at the University of Toronto ; Coggan used to say, “People are saved from the dark, not in it.”   At the same time we must always be patient in our teaching inasmuch as a Christian mind isn’t acquired overnight.

Teaching is a major ingredient in stage two, the more intentional stage, of Christian community.


(b)         Yet teaching isn’t the only ingredient; consolation is as well.  Faith grows through the instruction of teachers; and the faith that grows through teaching takes a beating from life.  Just because we are always taking a beating we are always in need of consolation.

The unnamed prophet who sustained God’s people during their exile in Babylon cries, “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her….that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts.” The prophet is writing to people who are taking a beating in Babylon .  They are nowhere near the geographic Jerusalem .         The ” Jerusalem ” he calls them to rejoice in can’t be the city at the eastern end of the Mediterranean .  The Jerusalem whose breasts console them is the community of God’s people, the church of Israel .

The consolations of Jerusalem , the consolations of the church, are more profoundly consoling than anything else just because the consolations of the church are finally the consolations of God himself.

At the beginning of his second letter to Corinth Paul refers to but does not identify a clobbering he and others underwent in Asia .  “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death….”   The clobbering was indescribable.  Nonetheless at the beginning of his second letter to Corinth Paul writes as well, “…the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  Those most clobbered are most able to console, and most able to console because first most consoled by God himself.

At stage two of Christian community we are that Jerusalem whose breasts console those in our midst.  We are this just because there are always among us those who have tasted the consolation of God and therefore can now console others, even as these others will one day see the comfort given them as God’s own.


(c)         The third aspect of stage two community is intercession.  We are to pray for each other.

The precedent for praying for each other is as moving as it is authoritative. The precedent is our Lord himself. On the eve of his death Jesus poured out his heart before his Father on behalf of the twelve. “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one….Sanctify them in the truth….And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

All of us in the Schomberg fellowship are to consecrate ourselves for the sake of everyone else in the fellowship.         We are to do this in order that we all alike might be consecrated in truth, confirmed in truth, cemented into truth.

I pray for you people. I know that many of you pray for me. All of us need to be maintained in truth.  The alternative to being maintained in truth is to be found languishing in error, falsehood, delusion — and ultimately, in degradation. The alternative to being sanctified in truth is to fall victim to that one, the evil one, whom Jesus pronounced a liar and a killer.  Then it’s no wonder we are urged everywhere in scripture to pray for one another.

Pray for each other with the cavalier indifference of “Now I lay me down to sleep”? No.  We are to pray for each other with an exertion that rivals the exertion of the lumberjack or the athlete.   Paul tells the three men whose kingdom-work immerses them in danger (Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus Justus) that Epaphras “prays earnestly” for them. The English text says “earnestly”.   The Greek text uses a much stronger verb: AGONIZOMAI — (from which we derive the English word “agony”.)   Agony: this is the measure of the intensity and anguish of Epaphras when he prays for the three men in danger every day.  For that matter our Lord was scarcely the picture of “Now I lay me down to sleep” when he cried out for us on Thursday evening in Gethsemane , “Keep them from the evil one; sanctify them in truth.”

When we were children and we were learning scripture through such vehicles as bible quizzes we soon learned the answer to the question, “What is the shortest verse in the bible?”  (Answer: “Jesus wept”.  John 11)

Here is another quiz-question.  What is the second shortest verse in the bible?  It’s in 2 Thessalonians 5: “Brethren, pray for us.”   Oceans are concentrated in these four words.

Intercession is an aspect of the second stage of Christian community, the more deliberate, more intentional, more pointed stage.


III: — Luther maintains that the first level of community (giving up time, talent and treasure for each other) is relatively easy.  Somewhat more difficult is the second level of community: the effort and learning and patience needed for teaching, the heart-wrenching empathy required for consolation, and the anguish of ardent prayer.

Difficult as the second level is, says Luther, there is one level even more difficult: bearing the weakness and sin of our fellow-Christian, fellow-parishioner, brother or sister in faith.  Writes Luther,

Now it seems to be a great work of love when we let our possessions become the servants of someone else.         But the greatest of all is when I give up my own righteousness and allow my righteousness to serve my neighbour’s sin.



If “giving up my own righteousness and allowing my righteousness to serve my neighbour’s sin”; if this most effectively, most characteristically, forms and cements Christian community, then what most thoroughly, most characteristically, fragments and destroys it?  Luther says nothing breaks down community like using our sister’s weakness and sin to fuel our self-exaltation; nothing destroys our life together like using our brother’s misstep to feed our supposed superiority. If sin overtakes our brother and we feel good about it, feel good about it for any reason at all, then — says the Wittenberger — we are simply despicable.

Have you ever pondered what it is to be hated?  Luther says we can be hated when the person hating us has no feeling of hatred toward us at all. We are most hated when the following happens.  “When I am stuck in my sins, he [my brother] should weep bloody tears and come to my help; instead he [my brother] rejoices and says, ‘I am righteous in God’s sight’.”

Let’s come back to the statement of Luther that may have startled you. “The greatest of all is when I give up my own righteousness and allow it to serve my neighbour’s sin.” What does Luther mean by this? He directs us to 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake God made Jesus Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” By the Father’s appointment the sinless Son became the sin-bearing one in order that we, the sin-condemned, might be pardoned before God.  What our Lord has done no one else can duplicate.  At the same time, what our Lord has done must move us to do what we can do; what he has done must fire us with the same spirit and outlook. We are to support, cherish, uphold, and bless the brother in our fellowship whom sin has overtaken. We are never to turn up our nose at our sister and thank whoever might be listening that whatever else we might be at least we aren’t like her.

This is not to say that our fellow-Christian’s sin is to be indulged. It is never to be indulged, never to be approved, never to be winked at.  Our Lord forgave sinners, after all; he never excused them or indulged them or winked at them.  In his discussion of this point Luther refers us repeatedly to Philippians 2:5: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

As Luther returned to the theme of bearing our fellow-Christian’s sin in the congregation he returned as well to the gospel-incident of our Lord’s washing the feet of the disciples.  We too must be willing to wash the feet of those we judge (rightly) to have sinned atrociously.  And who is able to do this? Who is able to wash his brother’s feet?  Only those who cannot deny that they have had to have their feet washed by the master himself.


Luther’s childlike amazement at the birth of Christ is matched by his wisdom and profundity concerning the congregation, the community of Christ’s people.


                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                              

December 2003






                                  MARTIN LUTHER ON CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY


2 Timothy 2:4

Isaiah 66:11

2 Corinthians 2:4-9

John 17:15,17

Colossians 4:12

2 Corinthians 5:21

Philippians 2:5

John 13:3-14