Category Archives: Church Unity

In search of Christian community: What happened to our life together?

0

This is not what I had in mind.  When I became a Christian, I though that I joined a family, that we all loved each other.  Have you ever tried to get all the Christians in a room?  I thought we were a body.  But, not just any body– Christ’s.  Far from his truth, we talk as if reconciliation is the hardest part of the Christian life.  I beg to differ.

Death, dying to self, is the most difficult thing we will ever have to do.  Here are the instructions Jesus left for us: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).  Jesus says that if we are traveling with him, then the only thing we need is the means by which we will die.  “Pick up a cross and let’s get going.”

Because we have some dying to do.  There should be little grave markers along the way.  “Here lies pride.”  “Arrogance, 1970-2018.”  “Jealousy, never satisfied.”

Coming to terms with who we are is the real “come to Jesus meeting.”  Two enter, one leaves.  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30).

Still, there doesn’t seem to be much room for Jesus or his cross.  Sunday services become pageants and the building is another money- making machine.  I can’t wave and smile while being crushed.  Tonight, I am questioning Christian community.  Surely, this is not what Jesus had in mind.  Christ did not die for our divisions.

While each ministry context is different, with its own interests and challenges, our goal as believers is to create authentic community, to emphasize our commonality in Christ. But, we do not create commonality around our cultural traditions, our socially constructed identities and affinity groups.  Instead, we create community around the body of Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this. … Christian community is only this.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

For Bonhoeffer, membership and belonging are found in Christ.  And there is no Christian community apart from him.  His body is what brings us together.  There are no cultural middle-persons, no priestly barterers that can provide or prevent passage into Christ’s presence.   While multicultural/ intercultural churches are not the norm, it should be expected that persons from all walks of life can and do walk through the doors of the church.  And if they don’t, why not?

I thought that we were a Christian community.  When did we stop going from house to house?  Why don’t we share all things in common?   What happened to our life together?

Advertisements

No enemy lines

See the source image

I hate you.  Three words that we do not expect to hear from a Christian and certainly not from the pulpit.  This is why we use other words to cover them up.  Because it doesn’t sound good.  And it’s not a good look for those who would profess to be in relationship with the God of love.

So, we say, “I don’t hate anyone.  I just dislike them strongly, wish I had never met them and would be glad if I never saw them again.  No, I don’t hate anyone; I just can’t be in the same room with them, have to bite my tongue when they come around, can’t think of one nice thing to say about them.  I don’t hate anyone.  Still, I won’t miss them when they’re gone, won’t sing a sad song because I am better off without them, wish they were never born and won’t shed a tear when they die.

But, I wouldn’t say I hate them—because that is such a strong word.

Actually, hate is defined as “a passionate dislike” and is a common occurrence in our vocabulary.  So, we may not hate the person, but we hate their guts.  So intense is the dislike that we hate the very sight of them.  For some relationships, there is a balance of devotion and hatred, described as a love- hate relationship.

And there are those we feel justified to hate.  It is a hatred that is long- standing and well- founded, well- grounded in points that have led us to this place.  There are hatreds we love and people we love to hate.  Villain and hero, they are in every story.  Strangely, we can only see ourselves riding in on a white horse.  So, we imagine ourselves saving the day and thus, loved by everyone.  We have no enemies.

***

But, even Jesus could not and would not make this claim.  While on earth, persons tried to stone him and throw him off a cliff.  He was run out of town on more than one occasion.  While we imagine Jesus knocking on the door of our hearts, I can see doors being closed in his face more often than not.  Jesus told a scribe who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[i]  Homeless, the creatures were living better than the Creator.

And please don’t choose the Jesus Way if you want to be well- liked.  I assure you that Jesus’ yearbook did not include him as the most popular or even class president.  The Lord’s Table was not the cool kid’s table.  No, our leader was the laughing stock of his community.  Jesus goes home to preach and people were offended that he presumed to know more than them when he had grown up with them.  Jesus says of the incident, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown and among their own kin, and in their own house.”[ii]  Jesus makes it pretty clear that this was a packaged deal: “You will be hated by all because of my name.”[iii]

Like those who lived during Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, we pretend that we would have walked with Jesus, been found alongside him.  But, the truth remains, that all of the disciples left him.  “No not one” was at his side or would cross the line between crowd and crucifixion.  Instead, they stayed silent.  Because though they hated to see a good man die, they loved their lives more.

So, they turned their backs on him and his back is torn to pieces, whipped.  They hide behind closed doors as he cries out for help.  We hate to hear the truth but even those disciples Jesus hand- picked would not pick up a cross to follow him.  He taught them to turn the other cheek and they turned and walked away not long after Judas kissed his.  All seeking to save their own skin, there are no heroes here.  But, are they villains too, enemies of Christ and his cross?

If so, we don’t hate them.  And why is that?  Is it because we can identify with them?  We can see ourselves in them?  Because if the truth be told, our response would be the same, which is why we love Jesus so much.  Jesus knows that they don’t know any better: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”[iv]  Jesus does not hate us, but he loves us and forgive us, his enemies.

Perhaps this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross, he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause, he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God.  So, the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.  (Quoting Martin Luther, he continues,) ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’.”[v]

Jesus loved his enemies from the beginning and until the very end.  And he commands us to do the same: “Love your enemies.”[vi]  Described as a hard saying, love is often viewed as failure.  We think, “Where is the win in turning the other cheek,[vii] in suffering and forgiving, in serving someone who has wronged us?[viii]  From the cross, Jesus would point to all of us.  Jesus didn’t come to win a game but to win souls.

These days, it is hard to know whose side the Lord is on.  Perhaps, it is because Jesus takes no sides but desires to bring everyone to his pierced and bleeding side.  He died not to score political points but for our salvation.  And he did not die only for those we love and who love us, but Jesus lived and led, loved and died for our enemies.  For him, there was no difference.

Because in our sinful state, we were all behind enemy lines.

________________________________________

[i] Matthew 8.20, NRSV

[ii] Mark 6.4, NRSV

[iii] Matthew 10.22a, NRSV

[iv] Luke 23.34

[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

[vi] Matthew 5.44

[vii] Matthew 5.39

[viii] Romans 12.20

Who is my neighbor?

See the source image

The early Church shared all things in common; but, the Church in North America remains stingy and divided, only willing to see our differences (Acts 2.44).  One community: in Christ.  One confession: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4.5).  Still, the divisions seem to intensify as the Bible is politicized and the people we have been called to serve are increasingly demonized. 

Questions like “What would Jesus do?” and “Who is my neighbor?” are harder to answer without starting an argument.  While Jesus’ story and subsequent record are clear, our explanations often are not.  It’s complicated by a national narrative that continues to keep its citizens in conflict.  But, living as Christ did and calls his disciples to doesn’t just lead us to church on Sunday mornings.

Instead, he leads us into places and among people we are called to love but whom the current administration of American government and its leaders prejudice as dangerous and a threat, who argue that their presence attacks and eats away at the very fabric of American life.  But, things seem to be unraveling.  It feels that we are hanging on by a thread and on the verge of chaos.

Chaos or community, these were the two options offered by civil rights leader and preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As the nations rage and the kingdoms totter, every tribe is for themselves.  Moving farther apart, we know the answer to the questions.  We know what Jesus would do because of what Jesus has done.  And in a nation that prides itself on individualism and independence, we know how to love ourselves if no one else.  The problem lies in seeing our neighbor as ourselves.

Because this would require the acceptance that we are all neighbors, all tenants and not the owners of the earth we pretend to be.

Hello Racism!

Race and its progeny, prejudice, racism and stereotypes, are the elephants on our pew.  It’s a jungle in here on Sunday mornings and more than a tight squeeze as we attempt to lift our hands in worship, to fold our hands in prayer, to grab the hand of our neighbor in fellowship.  Let’s be honest.  They are not visitors but members of the Church in North America.

Disregarding our attempts at colorblindness, we can see that this is not working.  Still, we gave them all the right hand of fellowship the moment we accepted a new creation narrative: “In the beginning, God created white people and then, beige, brown, black, red and yellow people.”  Yes, this is the way that the race story goes and we are its narrators, its co- creators.  Race comes from our mouths.  Race is the covenant that we have made with each other—not God.  It begins, “Only my people are God’s people.”

It is the word we have fashioned with our own tongues and made fact by our decision to treat each other accordingly.  It is the way we choose to perceive people and consequently, certain places in the world.  It is the way that we choose to know each other, its categories help us keep track of where people belong or are expected to be, if only for our self- serving purposes.  And it is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom we are made one body, one people and one nation.

No race card, no race baiting, race and racism are a part of our personal theology and its practice.  We hear it in our reading of Scripture and its interpretation: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as wool” (Isaiah 1.18), in our singing: “Jesus loves the little children/ all the children of the world/ red and yellow, black and white…”  But, this is not how Jesus loves us; this is how we love each other.  Most obvious, the social construct of race informs and influences our fellowship.  Buses and schools, water fountains and restaurants, hospitals and even cemeteries have all been integrated, but, not the church.

Our willingness to see persons created by God as somehow lesser or greater than based on the social coloring of skin is the issue.  Race is the word we made flesh.  White is the color we have deified and those who are identified as such are made socially righteousness.  This is good news in America, which should not be confused with the message of the coming kingdom of God.

Persons labeled socially colored beige, brown, black, red and yellow have no chance of experiencing this kind of salvation; there is no deliverance for them. They are subjected to seemingly endless abuse, aggression and assault.  And no matter how many times it happens, it is their body’s fault.  No body else’s.

We have to take responsibility now.  With countless video recordings of racial profiling, harassment, false arrests and even death, we have to change the story of the Good Samaritan.  True to the parable, this generation assumes that the Church will not get involved.  See no evil.

But, there is much that we can do.  I do not offer three steps to a more inclusive church, seven steps to a multicultural ministry or twelve steps to a race-less church.  The moves are not so easy as they must ensure that we all get there together.  Because we are not as far along in our conversations about the social construct of race as we thought or had hoped to be.  No church is doing it right until the Church rights its wrongs concerning race.

So, let’s start from the beginning.  Rather than race introducing us to ourselves and to each other, we need to learn more about race, where it comes from, what it does and how it predetermines our relationships with others.  Not simply repeating after its prejudices, we must question them.  Rather than continue to pretend that race does not exist or claim that we are all apart of one human race, let us accept that it does exist and that it does not help us.  Then and only then can we deal with the meaning of its reality and its implications in our practice of discipleship.

Because we must also interrogate ourselves, asking, “What would the Lord have us to do about race and racism?  How am I complicit in the compromise of Christian community formation?  What of my sight needs to change for me to see persons across cultures as my brothers and sisters?”  And then listen for a response.

Let us begin.  Say, “Hello Racism.”

 

 

Note: This post was originally commissioned by and featured on the Ethics Daily website on June 5, 2018

Books that build community

What’s on your summer reading list? Along with sunscreen and shades, what do you have packed in your beach bag? While the summer allows us to take a break, it can also provide the necessary time and space to strengthen areas of our faith, namely the practice of Christian community.

An outgrowth of hospitality, Christian community- building is a natural progression. Sunday morning was never meant to be the end of our fellowship. Family in Christ, we should expect to spend more time together. The New Testament church models this time and time again. Books can call us back to community and away from the temptation to “go solo” or “go at it alone.” Besides, our faith was meant to be practiced together.

So, use these books begin a book club that builds community. Like the early church, go from house to house, share a meal or light refreshments, pick a topic and then discuss it. Add community service projects and it allows the words to literally leap off the page, both practicing what you are reading and strengthening your fellowship.

This summer, I am all about community- building. Here are a few books that I hope encourage you to join me.

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus by David Janzen, Paraclete Press, 2013, 333 pages.

The Post- Racial Church: A Biblical Framework for Multiethnic Reconciliation by Kenneth A. Mathews & M. Sydney Park, Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011, 280 pages.

Why We Live in Community by Eberhard Arnold, Plough Publishing House, 1995, 62 pages.

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland, IVP Books, 2013, 220 pages.

Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community by Mike Graves, Cascade Books, 2017, 163 pages.

Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2016, 359 pages.

The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society by Jonathan Sacks, Bloomsbury, 2007, 273 pages.