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What Do We Mean by “Community”?


1st Thessalonians 3:10      

   Joshua 7:1; 22-26           Psalm 133:1Romans 15:7        Ephesians 2:14         2nd John 12


I: — It’s a startling paradox, isn’t it: the more closely people live together, the more isolated they become. Those who live in rural areas or villages are aware that everybody knows everyone else. The larger a city becomes, however; that is, the more densely people are concentrated, the more anonymous they are. If people don’t even know one another, they certainly won’t be able to support one another. As villages fill up, as big-city sprawl expands (even to King Township ,) loneliness is intensified.

II: — I’m not suggesting for a minute that such loneliness points to a psychological deficiency or immaturity of some sort. No doubt there are people with a psychological deficiency that they try to counterbalance by becoming groupies. Groupies are people who can’t stand their own company, can’t endure being by themselves. They have no identity apart from the group, no peace of mind, and likely no opinions apart from the group. When the human heart cries out for community, however, it isn’t crying out for “groupiness” or anything else born of emotional deficiency. It’s crying to have met a normal human need, a non-pathological need. To crave community is a sign of health, not the sign of a deficit. Everyone longs for community just because everyone is meant to long for it.

III: — Then what is it? Simply, community is where we are cherished. Every last one of us needs affirmation and affection. To say we need affirmation and affection isn’t to say that we need to be flattered. Flattery is always insincere; it’s a lie. We recognize flattery to be insincere. Flattery is merely a polite way of manipulating others, of exploiting someone who is useful. Flattery never cherishes someone who is valuable. All of us have a normal, non-pathological need for affirmation and affection. We need to be cherished.

IV: — The Hebrew mind implicitly acknowledges our need of community. I say “implicitly” in that we don’t find in scripture six chapters of Book Such-and-Such dealing explicitly with community. But the fact that scripture doesn’t expound the topic of community shouldn’t be read as scripture’s indifference to community. On the contrary, scripture everywhere presupposes community. In the same way scripture nowhere advances an argument for the existence of God. It doesn’t see any point to such an argument. God, for Israelite men and women, is the reality with whom they collide; God is the reality who can never be escaped. God is as dense as concrete, as resilient as spring steel, as weighty as lead, towering like a mountain and omnipresent like air. Speaking of air; the Israelite people would have felt as silly arguing for God as you or I would feel arguing that there’s air in this room and we are now breathing it. Anyone who disputes that there’s air here and we’re breathing it; any such person we don’t reason with or argue with; we merely phone 9-1-1 and wait for the ambulance, since someone is manifestly psychotic. Israel insisted that there’s a spiritual psychosis too: the God who is inescapable can no more be doubted by the spiritually sane than is air to be doubted by the mentally sane. (We should note in passing that for this reason there is no word for doubt in biblical Hebrew.) My point is this: just as the presence and truth and significance of God is part of Israel ’s consciousness, so is the presence and truth and significance of community. Community isn’t argued for in the Hebrew bible for the same reason that God isn’t argued for: only the spiritually psychotic would want to argue about it.

How significant community was for our Hebrew foreparents in faith is indicated by how seriously they regarded any threat to their community. Centuries ago a man named Achan looted slain enemies and hoarded the gold he had plundered. He did wrong. You see, it was recognized that even if armed resistance was sometimes necessary to protect the community, war itself wasn’t good and would never be good. Because war was never good, no one was to profit from war. No one was to become rich through killing. Achan saw the chance to profit, become rich, and he took it. Knowing he had violated the community in profiting through war, he lied about it. When he was discovered he was put to death. After all, what would happen to the community if Achan’s acquisitiveness and selfishness and duplicity became contagious? What would happen to the community if everyone maximized opportunity for private gain, especially those opportunities that resulted from bloodshed? In no time everyone would be shedding blood; everyone would be killing everyone else in order to get rich. In short, when Israel perceived a threat to the community, it dealt with that threat on the spot. Plainly it had to protect the community at all costs.

V: — Community always means meeting people to face. We crave the physical presence, the bodily presence, of others. There is never any substitute for physical proximity. The people whom we phone, even whom we phone frequently, we still want to see – but not “see” in the sense of “look at from afar.” Oddly – but in truth it isn’t odd at all – the people we telephone most frequently are the very people we want be with bodily. There’s never any substitute for bodily presence.

Paul writes a letter to the church in Rome . He’s never visited the church there and he sends a letter on ahead so that the Christians in Rome will know how he thinks and what his convictions are and how sound in the faith he is and even how their faith might be strengthened through what he’s written. But a letter isn’t enough for the apostle. He tells them in his letter that he wants to see them. He doesn’t mean he wants to look at them; he means he wants to meet them, linger among them, embrace them. Why? He writes that he wants to see them so that he might impart some spiritual gift to them while they and he encourage one another. Can’t he impart his spiritual gift, can’t they and he encourage one another, by means of correspondence? Not to the extent they can through meeting. They have to be bodily present with each other; they have to be able to touch one another (how many people did Jesus touch physically in the course of his earthly ministry?) if maximal helpfulness is to occur.

Unlike the apostle Paul, the apostle John was an old man when he wrote his much briefer letters. John concludes his second and third epistles with “Though I have much to write you, I would rather not use paper and ink; I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

VI: — Yet as much as we need to see each other, and as much as we need to be cherished, our need isn’t the basis of Christian community. There’s one basis to Christian community and one basis only: Jesus Christ, and our common fellowship with him. We must be sure to understand this.

It’s different everywhere else. The basis of the community found in a service club is the service the club is designed to render. The basis of the community found in a quilting circle is the activity of quilting. The basis of the community found in a fishing club is the enjoyment the members get from fishing. But the basis of Christian community is never an inclination we have or an activity we enjoy or a service we wish to render. The basis is always and only our common fellowship with our Lord.

In the Christian community we are individuals individually united to our Lord (after all, each of us has to exercise her own faith and obedience.) At the same time, because we are individually united to Jesus Christ, we are corporately united by him. Be sure to note the order. United to him individually, we are corporately united by him.

The apostles indicate they knew how tense the tensions can be whenever people of assorted backgrounds and temperaments and understandings are brought together. For this reason Paul is careful to remind the congregation at Ephesus , “Christ is our peace.” In other words, Christ is our community. Our piety isn’t the basis of our community; our faith, while essential to our community, still isn’t the basis of it. After all, even the strongest faith is still weak. If Jesus frequently addressed the disciples of old, albeit with a twinkle in his eye, “O you little-faiths,” then our faith, however mighty it may seem to us on occasion, is really very slight. If Christian community were sustained by the quality of our faith then our community would last about four days.

But Jesus Christ is our peace. He has broken down every wall that divides us, says the apostle. Then we must keep our gaze riveted upon him, for in seeing him we shall see each other as someone he has given us. If we our gaze drifts away from him and we no longer see each other in him, we are left looking at each other immediately – i.e., unmediated. Now we look at (it’s beginning to resemble “stare at”) apart from Christ the mediator of you to me and the mediator of me to you.  Once we are looking at each other apart from our Lord we are quickly going to see only a rag-tag bunch of quirks, irks, oddities, eccentricities, neuroticisms – in short, a bunch of people we have difficulty abiding. Instead we must see each other through the lens of our Lord himself.

Remember, if I look at my sister unmediated I see someone whose faults scream at me. (My faults scream at her, of course, but where my faults scream I happen to be hard of hearing.) Jesus Christ is our peace.

VII: — In all of this we mustn’t think that Christian community is primarily something we build (or try to build) in the face of much difficulty. Christian community is primarily something given to us. We no more create it than we create our Lord whose community it is. Jesus Christ is who he is independently of us. Because he’s free from us, he’s free for us, free to create his own people. He does just this. And therefore Christian community isn’t first of all something we sweat blood over to fashion for ourselves; primarily it’s something we receive. And therefore it’s something for which we thank God, something in which we can delight for the rest of our days. Then every day we must thank God for his gift.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the Christian thinker who has helped me most here. Bonhoeffer, a member of the Confessing Church in Germany (that handful who resisted Hitler and paid dearly for it,) operated an underground seminary in Finkenwald, north of Berlin , on the Baltic Sea . In his discussion of Christian community Bonhoeffer writes, “The pastor never complains about the congregation God has given him to serve. He complains to no one: not to church members, not to fellow-pastors, not even to his wife.” Why not? Because there’s nothing in the congregation to complain about? There always is. We complain to no one, rather, because to complain about the community is finally to complain about him whose community it is, the community’s Lord. I, for one, do not want to be found badmouthing the only Saviour I can ever have.

“Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you,” writes Paul. And how has Christ welcomed us, each of us? As much as he’s irked by our nastiness and pettiness and faithlessness, he’s simply welcomed us – period.

Of course we’re irked by those who frustrate us. But we aren’t irked by fellow-congregants as much we ourselves irk and frustrate our Lord. Of course we’re disillusioned by the notorious sin of our sister or brother. Then we must recall that our sin, more subtle and perchance even secret, is no less disgusting to God. All of us live only by his mercy. What’s more, since love covers a multitude of sins, says Peter, then the presence of sin in our fellowship is plainly a summons to greater love.

I don’t wish to appear unrealistic. While it’s true that community is our Lord’s gift to us, this gift we must labour to render visible. What he’s given us will become visible among us only as we give it visibility. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves. The community’s visibility doesn’t come easily. Conformity, on the other hand; conformity always comes easily. To achieve conformity we need only get rid of awkward people, noisy people, needy people, opinionated people. Let them know they aren’t welcome. What’s left will be very cohesive. But it won’t be a community; it will be merely a collection of clones. If we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us – that is to say, welcome all sorts of people without qualification or reservation or hesitation, then community, our Lord’s gift to us, will always be something we must struggle to render visible as community.

VIII: — Where is community to be found? I think it can be found on several different fronts.

[a] One is the community of the congregation at large. We meet to worship. We meet at coffee hours. We meet in mid-week committees and groups and associations within the congregation on behalf of the congregation-at-large.

[b] Another aspect of community consists of the clusters of people that spring up spontaneously. Most people are naturally closer to four or five others than they are to the remaining forty. This has nothing to do with elitism or exclusivism or snobbishness. The four or five men in this congregation who meet weekly for coffee and doughnuts; no one is suggesting that there’s anything exclusive or elitist here. They simply happen to be linked in a bond that is as real as it is undefined. Would they allow a sixth person to join them? Of course. And the sixth person would find that he too shared that “chemistry” with them that renders a morning spent in each other’s company anything but being towelled with sandpaper.

[c] Lastly I’m convinced there’s a form of community that appears more nebulous than the two I’ve mentioned yet in truth is as concrete as any form. I’m speaking now of community beyond the precincts of this congregation. Three or four years ago I was asked to teach a class over and above my normal seminary load. This class, however, wasn’t to be for seminary students (whose average age is 38;) it was to be in the university college; in other words, undergraduates, much younger, whom I don’t customarily teach. I did so. One young woman in the class I subsequently met in Schomberg IGA, Lindsey O’Hara. She and her fiancé attended worship here several times. They asked me to marry them. At the wedding in Kingston I met Lindsey’s dad, and her dad’s wife. I learned that these two live next door to the Groombridges.   Then I learned that her dad’s wife was housecleaner for some people in our congregation. Then I met them again at the funeral for Gary Miller. These people worship in the United Church congregation in Schomberg, not here, and yet they too are as much a part of that concrete Christian community forged by our Lord as is any one congregation. If they wanted to see me I’d visit them tomorrow. I don’t doubt that they and I will find ourselves intersecting and intertwining (the more often people intersect the more they intertwine) repeatedly.

It all means that community takes both a form that is more or less structured and a form that isn’t structured at all. But it’s all community nonetheless. In this respect I liken it to the situation in Rome . When Paul was involved with the congregations in Corinth and Philippi and Ephesus there was only one congregation per city. In Rome , however, there were five. Each congregation was a community, to be sure, and as such the Body of Christ. Yet the five together were also the Body of Christ in that one city. Then Christian community in Schomberg includes the people in other congregations whom we see less frequently but who are dear to us nonetheless.

In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica Paul writes “Night and day we pray that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” Yes indeed. None of us is possessed of perfect faith. Some people lack instruction, others wisdom, others courage, others diligence, others patience. Whatever the deficit in our faith, however, fellow-believers can supply it – as long as we are ever meeting face to face.

                                                                                      Victor Shepherd   


January 2005