Monday, March 13, 2017

Following Jesus: Community

We honor people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther himself, for changing the world. And if it hadn't been for them, these changes would not have happened or at least not in the way it did. But if a community hadn't formed around them, those changes also wouldn't have happened. There are other people, whom you probably haven't heard much about, like Floridian civil rights crusader Harry T. Moore, or Gopal Krishna Gokhale who worked for self-rule in India, or Arnold of Brecia, a 12th century monk who preached apostolic poverty before St. Francis and is considered a precursor to the Protestant Reformation. They also had potentially world-changing ideas but they didn't achieve as much success. These people become footnotes to history. Maybe the time wasn't right or they weren't able to convince enough people. A person changes the world by changing other people. Attracting a certain critical mass of supporters has a multiplier effect.

And the same is true of Jesus. Had people not flocked to him he would be as obscure as Simon of Peraea, a slave of Herod the Great, or Athronges, a shepherd, both of them messiah-wannabes. And in fact, like those others, Jesus was killed by the authorities. His place in the world's memory would have faded as well had it not been for his followers. Instead of either going back to their old lives or switching allegience to the next would-be messiah, they stayed together and attracted more and more followers. This is directly tied to the fact that they had seen and proclaimed a risen Christ, a fact that destroyed their fear of death. Historians are at a loss to explain the survival of the Jesus movement beyond his death without the resurrection.

And just as Jesus foresaw his own death and resurrection, he foresaw the church, the continuation of his mission to establish and extend God's royal reign. Everything that is true of the Kingdom of God should be true of the church because it is to be the community of those who are redeemed by Jesus. It is the body of Christ. In it we should see people following Jesus and becoming more Christlike.

This might seem like a digression but stick with me. When Walt Disney conceived of EPCOT, it was not supposed to be what it has become. EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was to be an actual city of about 20,000 residents with businesses in the center and concentric rings of community buildings, recreational complexes, schools and residential areas radiating out. As Walt put it, “It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.” But instead of a model community of the future, we got an amusement park.

And something similar seems to be happening to the church. It's not exactly what Jesus wants it to be. Instead of a community, it is often just a place to meet. Peter Berger accused the church of often meeting just to make noise! That's harsh. There is content to our meetings: we pray, we study the Bible, we praise God in spoken word, song and music, and we share the Eucharist. We also meet to engage in activities for the good of the church and sometimes for the good of the outside world. But the real question is do we actually come together as a community?

According to Wikipedia, a community is a social unit of people who have something in common or who share common values. It also defines a community as “a group of people whose identity as a group lies in their interaction and sharing.” By those definitions we are a certain kind of community. What we have in common is a belief in Jesus as God's son, our Lord and Savior, and we share the values he embodied and espoused. In that sense we function as a community that shares a common interest or passion. But just as Walt Disney wanted EPCOT to be more than a new and improved Tomorrowland, Jesus wants us to be more than just his fan club. He wants us to be a community of action, one that works to spread not only knowledge of him but to put his teachings into action. In the Great Commission he told us to make disciples in all nations, to baptize them and to teach them to observe all that he has commanded us. (Matt 28:19, 20; emphasis mine) In other words, don't just tell but show.

What are the rules by which this community should live? Jesus supports the moral commands of the Old Testament, especially the 10 Commandments, but he expands and deepens their scope, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus it is not enough to refrain from murder; you must also refrain from rage and insults. It is not enough to refrain from adultery; you must also refrain from indulging in lustful contemplation of someone who is not your spouse. It is not enough to keep your oaths; you should not make oaths at all but simply do what you say you will.

Jesus tells us to do the reverse of our natural responses. Rather than taking revenge, we should absorb injustices against us. Rather than hate our enemies, we should love them. And when we do good, like giving to the needy, praying, or fasting, we should not make them public spectacles but keep them between ourselves and God. We are not to worry nor to pass judgment on others; we are to trust God to take care of our needs and leave all final judgment to him. We are to concentrate on working on our own flaws.

Jesus also holds to an ethical hierarchy which puts the commands to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbor as we do ourselves above all other moral demands. Not only do these 2 commandments supercede all others, all ethical rules should derive from them.

As for new commands, Jesus really only gives us one: to love one another as he loves us. In other words, act in self-sacrificial love towards others.

Jesus even gave us two ethical rules of thumb to help us in situations where there may not be a specific command. The first is the Golden Rule: treat others as we would like to be treated. Nearly every religion has some form of this. And the second is to see Jesus in others and treat them as if they were Jesus: feeding the hungry, clothing the threadbare, quenching the thirsty, welcoming the foreigner, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. What we do or neglect to do to them we do or neglect to do to Jesus.

As his followers, we should emulate our Lord. Jesus helped all who came to him, even if it meant breaking lesser religious rules. And when they didn't come to him but he saw their need, like the man born blind, or the widow at Nain, he proactively helped them. He was thoughtful about others, such as telling the parents of the little girl whom he had just revived to give her something to eat. She had been very sick and could use the nutrition. He did not shun the disreputable, like tax collectors and prostitutes, seeing them as spiritually ill and in need of his healing. Even though Jesus preached against adultery, he saved the life of an adulterous woman whom the law said should be stoned to death. To Jesus the total wellbeing of each person he encountered was paramount.

As his body on earth, we need to exemplify the divine love to which we are called. As new creations in Christ we need to display the new thing that God is doing. The church should be Jesus' experimental prototype community of today. We need to be a community where we not only obey the greatest commandment but the second greatest as well. We need to be a community where there are no insults or anger or sexual harrassment. We need to be people who say what they mean and do what they say. When dealing with those with whom we disagree there should be no retaliation and no hate. We should not indulge in passing judgment on anyone.

And what should we do if there is more than disagreement but actual harm done? In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus gives us an approach to use. First, go to the person whom you feel wronged you privately and try to patch things up. If he won't listen, then try again with 1 or 2 other people as witnesses. Only if the person is still recalcitrant should the matter go before the whole church. Often when we are wronged, we do the opposite. We let everybody know, which makes it harder to approach the person and resolve matters. That's especially true in the age of social media. Often the accused gets piled on before they can get their side of the story out. It's always better to talk with the person one on one first and see if you can't work things out without involving everyone else.

Just as love and forgiveness and peace should reign within the community of Christ, that should be the way we approach the world. Paul tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” (Romans 12:18) Scripture does not condone presenting a belligerent posture towards non-Christians. There is no place for the hostile in-your-face acts of the Westboro Baptist Church or preachers who call people names or demonize them. It is also counterproductive to spreading the gospel, the good news about the healing, forgiveness and grace offered by God in Christ. As one speaker at a Campus Crusade event I attended pointed out, we should never have an exchange that goes like this: “Hey, have you heard the good news?” “No. What is it?” “You're going to hell.”

That is not good news. We need to remember that God sent his son because he loved the world so much. As followers of Jesus, we must also love the people of this world—all the people. Surveys show that a lot of folks don't go to church because they find it too judgmental or hypocritical. Yet Jesus routinely tops lists of the most admired people in history. Obviously people do not see enough of Jesus in us, his followers.

On the night before he died Jesus said, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) There is a lot of hate and anger and fear in the world. Those things are not solving the world's problems but making them worse. And when they fail to make things better we resort to force. It's a cycle we keep going through. And you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We need to try something different.

To paraphrase the old Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, “What the world needs now is love—God's love.” Jesus showed us that. As his students and followers, we need to do that too, not only with our lips but in our lives. In Ephesians 5:8-9 Paul says, “ were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light—for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth....” Light is vital to us. It helps us see where we are going. It reveals what is good and exposes what is bad. It elevates our mood and sunlight is essential in helping our bodies produce vitamin D, which in turn increases our absorption of calcium and phosphorus from food, and plays a key role in our bone growth, immune system and blood cells.

So let us indeed walk as children of the light. Let us reflect the glory of God in all that we think, say and do. Let our church be a model of the love and grace and healing found in Jesus Christ and let us shine our light to guide others to him, the source and goal of all that is good.

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