September 20, 2020 – Essentials of the Way 3: Community

Essentials 3 – Community
Psalm 133
Lev 19:9-18
Rom 12:9-21
John 17:1-11

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing: life forevermore.” (Psalm 133)

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people dwell in unity. There’s a lot to be learned from that one sentence. First of all, apparently, God has a people. And since the Psalmist is remarking about how good and pleasant it is when it actually happens, we can infer that unity amongst God’s people might not be an everyday occurrence.” We come to the third in our series of Essentials of the Way, the pillars of the Christian life. This week is about Community. How is this new little church a community? How do we fit into the broader community of the one universal Church? Why does God call us to live this way?

God uses Christian community to be a blessing to one another, and to be a blessing to the whole world. How we love one another, and the values that we share with one another, spill over to the world. “One another.” You’ll hear that phrase a good bit today. If you read the New Testament, you’ll hear it a lot in how Jesus tells his followers to live, how Paul and Peter tell the new church to live. The Greek word is “Allelon,” and it’s used 59 times in the New Testament as the people of God are instructed in how to live in community. Love one another. Serve one another. Outdo one another in showing honor. Bear one another’s burdens.

And I want to say right off the bat – I realize that it is ironic to be talking about the idea of community in a time where we can’t gather like we used to, and that’s highlighted this week by several of our families being absent because of a positive covid test or covid quarantining. But we know that unity is still possible even when gathering together is not. Here’s a few questions I’d like to look at today as we consider what Christian community looks like, and why it’s so important that we look at it as a pillar of the faith.

Point 1 – WHAT is community?
Point 2 – WHY does God call us to live this way?
Point 3 – HOW do we grow together in community?

Point 1 – WHAT is community?
The church is not a building (fortunately for us), the church is a people. The church is the people who God has gathered to himself. When you hear the words from Romans 12 that we just did, it paints a picture of the kind of shalom, the kind of harmony and peace, that this world was intended to have, and that it one day will have in perfection. And AS the church, we are interconnected. Every week in our Communion liturgy, we say “We are because he is.” It’s a line from the liturgy of the Anglican Church of Kenya. And it picks up on the African concept of “oo-BOON-tu.” And oo-BOON-tu says that it’s impossible to consider an individual independently from their group. And the people of God are interconnected, one with another.

And the interesting thing here is that this kind of community is one where CHRIST calls us into it, not that we choose it ourselves. Throughout the New Testament, we see pictures of the church being composed of RADICALLY different people. In Jesus’ disciples, there were Matthew the Tax Collector and Simon the Zealot. So, one guy, Matthew, who was an employee of the Roman government, working against his own people to grab up tax money for Rome, and another guy, Simon the Zealot, who was part of a group of nationalist radicals who were trying to overthrow the local Roman leadership and free Israel from Roman rule. In any ordinary setting, Matthew and Simon probably would have hated each other. But this was no ordinary setting, this was the church. As the church grows, we see examples in Paul’s epistles of churches that were composed of Jews, Gentiles, slaves and slaveowners, rich and poor, Scythians, barbarians… all kinds of people. All brought together by God to be part of his church. Aubrey put it this way: “The church does not receive someone into membership because they look a certain way, or because they have arrived at a certain position in life, the church receives someone into membership because they say Jesus Christ is Lord. And that means we are going to get a strange assortment of people. But that is very much in step with the trajectory of the Gospel, which calls us into sacrificial relationships with people who are not like us.”

So, what is community? It can’t just be people working together to get stuff done, because we can get more done together than we can by ourselves. No. God calls his image-bearers to live in community with one another to mirror the community that God lives in within himself. I know I talked about this last week, and maybe the week before, but it’s so fundamental, and that’s why it’s all over our liturgy every week: Our God is Three-In-One. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of God in one being of God, and he has complete community within himself. The way God wants his image bearers to live, the way Christ wants his bride to live, is the same way that he lives – in perfect community. And so all of those One Another passages, all of those Allelon commands, those are all a mirror of the caring, loving, self-giving community that God already has within himself.

The basis of our unity is that we are both in Christ and Christ is in us. The source, the secret of Christian community is our union with Christ. The Son of God takes you and me into his own intimate relationship with the Father. “Human community [is] formed by participation in the divine community.”

In the same way that marriage is an earthly, visible representation of the relationship that God has with his Church, the idea of Christians in community with one another is an earthly, visible representation of the relationship that the Three Persons of the Trinity have within himself. And so we can see that unity and community is a gift from God. We heard that in the psalm – How good it is when God’s people dwell together in unity. It is like precious oil on the head, running down on the beard of Aaron. If you don’t know what that means, Aaron was Moses’ brother, and he was also the first one chosen by God, set apart and ANNOINTED, as the High Priest of God’s People. That was something God did, not something that people chose. It was a gift. And so, the unity of God’s people is itself a gift from God, a gift given to the people that God has set apart to be his kingdom of priests, his holy nation. The unity that we have is a gift and we must cherish it and nurture it. And unity is also miraculous! In the Psalm when it said that the unity of God’s people is like when the dew from Mt. Hermon falls on Mt. Zion – those are hundreds of miles apart! The dew from Mt. Hermon is not going to fall on Mount Zion apart from an act of God. So, the unity of God’s people is itself not only a gift from God, but a MIRACULOUS gift from God! And that’s why it can be transformative not only within each of us, and amongst ourselves, but it also spills over into the world. And that’s one of the reasons behind the next thing, “WHY does God call us to live this kind of radically giving, interconnected, self-sacrificing community?

Point 2 – WHY does God call us to live this way?
Well, as I just said, it’s formative for us because real Christian community is a reminder to us of God is. But also, it’s also one of the main ways that God draws more people into the kingdom.

Sometimes churches almost function like closed societies, like the exclusive club with the red velvet rope and a huge bouncer. That kind of church operates in a pattern that we can think of as Believe, Behave, Belong. FIRST, you need to affirm this set of beliefs. THEN, you need to show that you are living a good and moral life, that you know how to BEHAVE. After you’ve gotten those two things squared away, then, you can BELONG to this community. Safer, more homogenous, easier. Also pretty unbiblical.

There’s a different way, and it’s one that I want us to start actively thinking about here. It is sometimes called The Celtic Way of Evangelism, because that’s the pattern that was followed when the Gospel was first brought to the British isles around the year 600 or so. They were following what I think is a more Biblical pattern. So, the Celtic Way of Evangelism is this – BELONG, BELIEVE, BEHAVE. Belong is FIRST. We invite people into this community who don’t think like we do, who don’t act like we do, who might even think we’re all nuts for believing this stuff. At my old church in DC there was a guy who had been going there every week for 10 years.… and he was pretty much functionally an atheist. Didn’t believe any of it. But he came to church every week and he came to small group every week and one time I asked him, “Why are you here? How can you keep showing up when you think this is all silly myths and nonsense?” And he said, “Because I have never seen a group of people love each other like this church does. Ever.” And he wasn’t the only one. And after 10 years of seeing the people of God live in community the way God calls us to, he came to believe in Christ. And then, he started living for Christ. Why? Because he saw how the people of that church loved one another, and he saw it UP CLOSE, because he was welcomed in, he was valued, he was known, and he was a part of the family.

BELONG, BELIEVE, BEHAVE. It’s a lot harder than the BELIEVE, BEHAVE, BELONG model that says that you need to get all your paperwork squared away and get everything in order and THEN we’ll let you in. But it’s so essential if we are going to be a missional community, looking at every aspect of our lives with a Kingdom mindset.

Point 3 – HOW do we grow together in community?
Four directions to gain community – Up, Down, In, and Out. You’ll start hearing this a good bit as we talk about who we are as a church. I didn’t invent this – you might have heard it at Incarnation or another church you’ve attended. This is going to be our pattern for how we do our community groups, how we think about church wide events, and how we can increase our interconnectedness as we continue along The Way.

UP is our worship going up to God. When we gather together to give praise to God for who he is and what he has done, is doing, and will do in his creation, our love for one another grows and our bond with one another deepens. ESPECIALLY when we come together and worship as who we REALLY are, not who we pretend to be. When we come with our true selves and are fully present in worship, we grow in community with one another. And so sometimes that worship is praise. And sometimes, and this seems to be happening a lot these days, sometimes that worship is lament. We cry out to God together vertically while we bear one another’s burdens horizontally.

DOWN is what we receive from God. Word and Sacrament. When we sit together and hear God’s holy Word read and preached, we grow closer together. When we receive the Lord’s Supper, when we receive COMMUNION with Christ in the presence of COMMUNION with one another, we grow in unity and community with one another. But even in something like the sacrament of baptism, we grow stronger with one another. In a few weeks we’re having a baptism, and at one point the entire church takes a vow that we will do everything in our power to see that this young child grows up in the knowledge and love of God. We’re making a community promise. So in a few weeks, when we get to that point in the service, look around and really SEE the people you are promising to take this journey with.

IN – This is the deep stuff of relationships. This is knowing and being known, loving and being loved. When you are in a group of people who meet together regularly to share a meal, to share their lives, to share joys and pains, bonding with one another in the power of the Holy Spirit, you can’t help but grow in love for one another. And it’s messy and it’s slow and sometimes it’s frustrating. But with patience, with grace for one another, with a realization that as Christians we are still sinners, AND that we are all equally loved by God and saved to eternal life by the shed blood of Jesus, with all those things, the IN component of community can produce wonderful growth. Some of you have heard me talk about Triads before, and we’re going to be rolling out more information about them soon. A triad is a group of 3 people of the same sex, meeting once a week for prayer and mutual support. It can sometimes take a while to really get the trust going. But they can be powerful ways to know and be known, love and be loved.

OUT – Sometimes a good way to get to know someone is to sit across from them and look them in the eye, and really see and be seen. And, sometimes, the best way to get to know someone is to be standing shoulder to shoulder with them, facing the same direction, on a mission together. I can say this – a lot of my friendships are work friendships. These aren’t people I necessarily had a ton in common with, and it’s not that we knew EVERYTHING about each other. But there is something to working on a shared goal together that can bring a lasting bond. There are people I worked with for 6 months, 10 years ago, and it’s not like we talk all the time, but I am cemented with them in a way that, if they called me and said, “I need help,” I’d say, “I’m on my way.” And we built that bond by simply doing day-in-day-out ordinary everyday work together. Shared labor brings us closer. But remember what I said above – our unity with one another is not that we share a common cause. A church is not a collection “of individuals who have joined together for a common cause.” A church is the people “in Christ.” Our identity as a church doesn’t come from our voluntary membership in some club called Restoration Anglican, our identity come from the fact that we are incorporated into Christ. Our unity with Christ is the basis for our unity with each other. This is why we say every week that there is ONE HOLY CATHOLIC APOSTOLIC CHURCH. There is one church, that church is HOLY, or set apart for God, that church is CATHOLIC, or universal, and that church is APOSTOLIC, because it is based on the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. The church is very, very old.

And in fact, let me close with that. This is not new. We are not trying to do a new thing by talking about unity and community. We are trying to live out God’s pattern for how we will live together. That will bless us, bless one another, and bless the world around us. Last December, after I accepted the calling here and we met downtown at the Mary Baldwin Wharf space, I read Acts 2:42 and following. It should be every church’s pattern and every church’s goal.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

So may it be with us, dear Lord. Amen.