Upon and Around
The Chinese community. The black community. The LGBT community.
Our society has a tendency to build community upon identity and around common practice. What distinguishes us from others, how we behave, the way we feel inside and the way we experience or perceive life is paramount to how we interact with others. We are fast to form groups that we feel safe in and that feeling of safety comes from being with people who look like us, sound like us, think like us and act like us.
I think it’s part of human nature.
When immigrants move to another country, they tend to live in an area where there are more people like them. Whether this is directed by government housing agencies I don’t know but although we say we have a multicultural society in the UK, it’s still pretty segregated in that sense. If you live in a big city, you probably know where to find the Jamaicans, where to find the Chinese and where to find the Somalians. If you live in a small town it’s probably even more obvious.
Even though we have many subcultures in British culture, they still tend to remain separate because they’re built upon identity and built around common practice. It’s not hard to see that the landscape of the Church reflects this pattern as well and that’s where I have a problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that God wants us as Christians to live holy lives that are distinct from the way the world around us does things because the direction of the world (even when well-meaning) is driven by sin which continually rebels against God, knowingly or unknowingly.
I believe that the reason we build so quickly around “identity” is because our separation from God has completely robbed us of the understanding of our purpose and therefore our authentic sense of identity.
We’re fractured within ourselves and fractured as humanity. As soon as we find something that makes us feel part of a whole we set up camp and this new sense of identity becomes our new god that we worship and put our trust in. Society either then accepts or rejects that new community. It either demonises them in the media or gathers defensively around them to defend the elusive sense of identity we all long for that some have seemingly found.
So what are we supposed to build Christian community upon? Before Jesus saves us we are a part of the system of the world and separate from the life of God our Father (Eph 4:18). We’re separated even from those who are most like us. But something incredible happened when we surrendered to Jesus and came into our Father’s kingdom.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV)
Whoa. That sense of alienation from God and from people not like us is taken away as we step back into God’s original purpose for humanity: union with Him and unity with each other. It’s built upon the foundation of the truth of the gospel that was preached by the apostles and the prophets.
I think this is what gives integrity and stability to the structure of Christian community. This is what makes it stable and strong. We’re quick to build upon other things. Sometimes we build upon a foundation of friendship or we build upon a foundation of shared ideas. Sadly our friends are usually like us and so we end up reflecting a trait of the world around us: only doing life with those similar to us.
A lot of Christian communities are built upon bitterness. We didn’t like the way things were done or the way we were treated in another community so we started our own. I’m a firm believer that what goes in at the start determines what comes out at the end and although I’m not very old, in my own life and in Church history I’ve seen that churches that begin in bitterness will most likely reproduce the fruit of bitterness again and again with church split after church split and people falling out with each other. We should stop that.
We need a different foundation for community.
I don’t think as Christians we take membership to worldly communities based on our identity but I think we should enter those communities as ambassadors wherever we can, speaking the same language with whatever shared life experience we have but we need to live in the truth that our citizenship is different.
It’s not the practices we hold to, it’s not the music we play on Sundays, it’s not the type of building we meet in or who we give microphones to. It’s the gospel that we should build upon. The Good News that the Son of God came to save us from our sin with His own life and restore us to relationship with our Father.
Jesus is the chief cornerstone. For those of you who don’t know, a cornerstone is the stone at the base of a building where two walls meet each other. Jesus is the chief cornerstone. The main one. It’s the good news about Jesus that joins us. And the walls we put up that would have separated us from each other He joins together in Himself!
This is huge for living as a community because it means that none of us are the focal point. It’s not about our personal sense of identity, it’s about Him. Through His death, Jesus paid the price for our redemption from our sinful lives. His sacrifice means forgiveness for us! Forgiveness! As in God doesn’t hold our sins against us but we receive grace and mercy through Jesus when we put our faith in Him! WHAT?!
Don’t slide past this as standard Sunday school teaching. There’s a reason that Christian community is built upon the gospel and centred around Christ.
During my year at Bible college I learned a lot of theology but the main lesson the Holy Spirit taught me was actually about simple forgiveness. My class was full of 21 very large, very diverse, very sensitive personalities and boy did we clash! There was often someone who wasn’t speaking to someone else and there were a few meetings organised with the specific focus of reconciliation.
For me, I found that learning how to apologise was essential to living in community. Even if you didn’t feel you were wrong! On several occasions someone would get upset with me and the Holy Spirit would tell me to be the first to apologise and make it right. I hated it! At first. But as I lived with these people and saw God do powerful things in and through them while we wrestled with each other, I saw something.
I sometimes wondered why the Church did not seem to be achieving her calling and fulfilling all that was she was supposed to and I realised it’s because she’s full of people! People are crazy!!
Forgiveness is hard and it’s easier to hold grudges. But when we remember how much and how freely we have been forgiven, forgiveness becomes more natural and the presence of God more tangible. It’s supernatural to live this way. Not just ignoring hurts and moving on but truly forgiving and truly reconciling.
When we can keep the gospel and the presence of God at the centre of all we do as communities, I think we’ll be on to something. In the Book of Numbers, Chapters 2 and 9, we see that God tells His people to camp around the tent of meeting. The place where His glory dwelt and they place where their sin was atoned for. It was to be the centre of their community. Their focal point. They would even travel as a whole keeping the tent of meeting central.
They built their community around the Tent of Meeting and lived that way with a constant reminder that their merciful God was in their midst. Unfortunately we seem to build ours around our Weekly Meetings instead, thinking that that is the place we will meet with God.
So much of our time, energy and resources seem to go into our weekly meetings that last such a short time. I have nothing against meeting altogether weekly. I think it’s great and an amazing privilege we should take advantage of in the West while we still have it. But I think that it has the knock-on effect of making us believe that church happens on a Sunday (or whenever your home group meeting is) and robs of entwining our lives together around Christ, regardless of the day.
I believe God wants us to keep the gospel and His presence with us as the central part of our communities and to keep our hearts and minds focused on Christ. But not just on a Sunday or a Wednesday evening (or whenever your midweek meeting is). As we focus on the sacrificial life of Jesus who is Immanuel – God with us – and we live in gratitude for His death and rejoice in His resurrection and look forward to His return, I think we might have a shot at living out authentic Christian community marked by the gospel of peace.
Thanks for reading. PLEASE hit me with your thoughts and reflections on your own experiences of Christian community.