Christian Community Today and some Barriers

This is a manuscript from a sermon I preached on Sunday, Sept. 6th at Saint Peter’s Church. Here is the audio.

1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

– James 2:1-14

“32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Acts 4:32-35

For several weeks now we’ve been in series on Christian community, and most recently we were talking about how, at the center of that community, is the church’s faith in the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. The passage that was read from the book of Acts describes the kind of gathering that was taking place in response to that good news. It was so good, that this is what it led people to do — to share and hold their possessions in common. It’s the kind of behavior that would only make sense if it they really did believe the resurrection was true!

Think about what had just happened. Jesus is leading this movement and teaching and preaching about a new kind of world order that is available to us, that we get to live in, and he is perceived as a threat by the religious and political establishment. So they try to stop him and his followers, by torturing and killing him. And it doesn’t work. These Christians believed, whether people today do or not, that the best attempts by the most powerful people in the world to stop this guy — failed. Which means Jesus and everything that he was about, proved more powerful, and now these Christians think they have that power on their side.

But what kind of power is this? The kind of power that now this time, finally, gives Jesus the ability to go and lead a militia to be victorious over the Romans? No, the resurrection means that there’s already been a victory, and the picture of Christian community described in the book of Acts is the result of people believing and living into the freedom and the peace of that victory. Because there’s nothing the world could do to them that Christ hadn’t just overcome.

So here’s what it says they were doing:

Testifying to the resurrection of Christ, full of grace, and being a church for the sake of others. And they were able to do this, it says in verse 32 at the beginning of the passage, because “All of the believers were of one heart, and one mind.” They had community.

But of course, we all know how hard it is to actually live this out so much of the time. So this morning I want to mention just some of the ways that Christian community, as it is depicted for us here, gets thwarted, gets derailed — what are the barriers to community in our church, and what keeps us from being able to live life together in this manner: full of grace, unified, and for the sake of others?

You know as I think back on my own life at the times when I felt like I have had the strongest, closest community, it’s always been when I was in a group that focused on something beyond itself. Not a group that simply existed for itself. Maybe you’ve experienced how some friend groups are like that, where it’s fun to get together to have fun together, but that’s pretty much it. Which is ok, but it doesn’t really endure.

So like even something as ordinary as a high school football team or band, a theatre group — these kinds of activities and group efforts help you form relationships without even really having to try. Community is the natural byproduct. You’re not trying to form community. You’re trying to do something else, and in the process, community gets forms. They provide you the structure and routine. There’s this intensity and commitment that unifies you around a common goal and mission, to which everything else is subordinate.

Community forms when we are compelled and become willing to struggle for something, to fight, to strive, even to suffer for the sake of the people in our group, for the sake of a cause, or for the sake of others.

This past week I found out that a high school friend of mine died. He was a teammate. We haven’t seen each other or talked but a few times in many years, and I would be sad if anyone in my graduating class had died, and he wasn’t even the first one, but I think I’m really feeling it because we were part of a community together. We went to practice or to school every day for six years. Same team, same huddle.

Of course not all groups are good just because they form community. There are cults, gangs, mafias, extremist groups, fascist regimes — that have community, you could have community, you could say — but they’re not good. But all these groups, these communities that I’ve mentioned, or the ones you can think of — even the best of them — they’re still worldly forms of community. They’re interesting. They have the potential to create real and lasting bonds and lasting bonds, but there’s a limit to them. There’s conditions. There’s fine print.

At a certain point, they show favoritism – they become exclusive. And judgment is more central to these groups than mercy. In James 2:13, which we also read, says that mercy triumphs over judgment in Christian community. See with these other groups and communities, not anyone can join them. Colleges have an admission process. Sports and dance teams and musicals have tryouts. You have to be judged to be good enough at something before you can belong. Of even in the case of family, you have to be born into it. That doesn’t mean these other kinds of groups are bad, but they have a particular purpose. They’re not the same as a Christian community, or as church.

Or take countries themselves. Maybe some of you saw the story this week: how it is possible that 12 refugees from Syria drowned on while trying to get to Greece. Why wasn’t there some way for them to secure safe travel and temporary asylum? Because nations are exclusive. They don’t look out for the interests of poor migrants.

Now, I’m not saying that churches can solve immigration or refugee problems. And we do have something that we’re centered around, something that we’re about — it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power of God’s grace working in us through the Spirit. A community has to be about something. It can’t just be a community. Something calls it together — even if that something is just proximity and survival.

But what I’m submitting to you is that the church is the most radically inclusive form of community that there is. Most people don’t want a radically inclusive community. And the church doesn’t stop with inclusion, and inclusivity is not the same thing as tolerance. But what makes the church so inclusive and potentially so unified is that because it’s organized around Christ, the starting point for everything we do, is that we’re all in need of forgiveness, and we’ve all received forgiveness. It’s the most universal claim of our faith about the human condition and about our relationship to God. And it’s what guards against all forms of divisions and factions, exclusion.

Remember how that Scripture reading from the book of James started off today (2:1). It says,

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

And then James goes on to give the example of favoritism being shown to the wealthy and the powerful – elite of society who were in church, because of maybe how the church stood to potentially benefit from showing them favoritism. While the poor and ordinary folks were discriminated against by comparison.

Now this is tricky for us today, because increasingly in American churches in recent decades, we’ve already shown our “favoritism” by the time we choose which church we’re going to part of or which neighborhood we’re going to live in to begin with.

Even 40 years ago, it was far less common for people to go “church shopping” — to pick a church. Obviously we were divided before that into denominations. But you were Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, whatever – you didn’t choose that. I mean, how many churches do you drive by on your way to get here? For some of you I know it’s not very many, but for others it’s probably dozens.

I’m not condemning this, but it makes a point, that there’s been huge shift in church culture in the last half century, as a result of the decline in denominational loyalty, to cater to average Christian consumers who are looking for very specific things when they visit a church. And there are some good things that have come about as a result of this change, but often the adverse effects on our thinking about community can go unnoticed.

Take a look at this quote from Eugene Peterson’s book Christ Plays in a Thousand Places about community:

As we realize both the necessity and the nature of our lives in community, we also become aware of the difficulty, the complexity, and, as Christians who are following Jesus, the seductions all around us to find an easier way, a modified community, a reduced community customized to my preferences, a “gated community.”

You see, the thing that potentially makes Christian community different from any other kind, is when we don’t have a gated community. Do we have a gated community at Saint Peter’s? That’s a question we just have to continue to ask of ourselves. How can we move toward being less of a gated community?

Because that’s the direction Jesus was headed — he called a tax collector and zealot into the same group of 12 disciples. It’s like if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were forced to be friends.

There is not a single social group that has a common bond strong enough to bring two people or groups like that together other than the church. It takes the gospel, or as it says in James 2:13, the triumph of mercy over judgment. That’s what’s at the core of Christian community. When God’s grace and forgiveness is the organizing center of our community, our judgment of each other is disarmed, and reconciliation and unity are possible.

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight talks about how the earliest Christian churches were made up of folks from all over the social map. They did not meet in churches like we do. They didn’t “drive home” afterwards. The churches were small and met in homes. There were slaves, craftsmen, women, children, tenants, landlords, migrant workers, homeless people, probably a few wealthy or elite people, all the way down to an enslaved prostitute. There were likely to be three or four different ethnicities represented, without one single group being the dominate one.

And I’m not saying this to romanticize the early church. Quite the opposite. Think about the problems and social divisions that they would have had to deal with. And we read about some of them all throughout the New Testament. But here’s the thing about these kinds of conflicts.

Conflicts themselves are not the barrier. We don’t seek out conflict, but the problem for community isn’t so much conflict, but the avoidance of conflict — the unwillingness to engage it in the spirit of Christ. We would do much better actually if as Christians and as a church, we would always try to see conflict as an opportunity to be faced and dealt with when it arises, in the Spirit of grace and forgiveness and mercy.

I was talking to someone recently who works for a charter school, and she was describing their company culture. They’re not allowed to complain to anyone about anyone else. If someone starts complaining to you about someone, you’re immediately asked to stop and go talk to them. So literally in this particular charter school work environment, it’s a normal practice for coworkers to schedule like 10-15 meets where all they do is have a very direct, honest conversation about an issue.  They deal with it, try to resolve it, and move on, not holding any grudge about it. Critical energy has to be channeled into actually solving the problem, in other words.

There’s hardly anything more counterproductive to the formation of community than getting offended, or having our feelings hurt, and refusing to make the effort to go to the source of the problem and have a graceful confrontation. Because the hurt is inevitable in any church.

We’re so autonomous though. We’re so entitled and consumer-mind in our culture, that we just walk away from things or people when we don’t like it or that bothers us. Most people didn’t have his luxury. They didn’t get to choose their community, they just had one, and they had work on making it better.

Look at verses 33-34 from chapter 4 in Acts one more time before we conclude: It says,

“And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them.”

Too often we take something as beautiful and transformative as God’s grace, and made it into just another doctrine or idea — but it’s intended to come alive in our communities and in relationships.

When the power of God’s grace is at work in our church, there is no conflict or difference or sectarian agenda, or need that can get in the way. Because we’ll be a people aware of our need for forgiveness, receiving that forgiveness, and extending that same forgiveness to others. We’ll be of one heart and one mind, testifying to the resurrection, full of grace, and becoming a church for the sake of others.