Living in the Community of God Dave Rogalsky Sept 17, 2017
Scriptures: Acts 2:37-47; 4:32-37; 6:1-7; Philippians 4:4-8;
Theme God has created us to be in relationships. God has called us to be in communities of mutual care, mission, worship, and growth.
One of the priorities for Church of the Good Shepherd is to stay together. To me that means “to stay a community.” One of the defining features of the postmodern era are philosophers who pushed the idea of free will and self-determination to the extreme. This is in response and a negative reaction to the modern idea that we can find one truth and one way of being for everyone. But some of those philosophers lived very lonely lives and had lonely deaths. What has happened is that many of the old forms of community have disappeared – extended families, congregations and other religious communities, community clubs. For many there is great loneliness. Others are creating new, alternative communities for themselves.
What is it about us that craves community – even for introverts?
What makes for a healthy community?
What makes for a Christian Community?
How can Church of the Good Shepherd be such a community?
We are created to be in relationship. In the first creation story, in Genesis chapter 1, God creates the whole creation, ending with the creation of humankind. There we read:
26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God created God them; male and female created God them. Genesis 1:26-27 (NRSV)
In this creation story God right away created humanity plural, male and female. It also says that this is in God’s image, able to be in relationship. God created a community.
In the second creation story, in chapter 2 of Genesis, we read that God first created a solitary creature called Adam. Adam means, the one made out of dirt. In time God noticed that this creature, in spite of relationship with God, was lonely.
18 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that Adam should be alone; I will make a helper as Adam’s partner." 19 So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what Adam would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name. 20 Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helper as Adam’s partner. 21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and Adam slept; then God took one of Adam’s ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from Adam God made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Genesis 2:18-23 (NRSV)
Humanity is inherently social. Humanity needs company. Humanity was created to live in community.
Later in the book of Genesis we read about God calling a couple to be the beginning of a special people for God. Abram and Sarai were called, together with their father Terah, and a few other relatives, to move from Ur, near present day Baghdad, to Canaan or Palestine. Abram and Sarai faithfully followed God’s leading. When they had come to the land, as nomads, following their sheep and goats across the hills and valleys, God gave them a special promise.
5 God brought Abram outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then God said to him, "So shall your descendants be." Genesis 15:5 (NRSV)
4 "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, (which means father,) but your name shall be Abraham, which means father of many; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Genesis 17:4-5 (NRSV)
15 God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, (which means steward,) but Sarah, (which means queen,) shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." Genesis 17:15-16 (NRSV)
Abraham and Sarah were called, not to just be two followers of God, but called to be the parents of a community. God’s people are a community, centred on God. In Abraham and Sarah, God created the Jewish community, the people of God.
In the New Testament we read that from very near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had a community. We read about disciples, whom Jesus called friends, apostles, who were leaders in the community, and about men and women who dedicated themselves to Jesus and to his cause. Listen:
Mark 3:13-19 (NRSV)
13 Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15 and to have authority to cast out demons. 16 So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Then he went home.
Jesus called together a community.
Luke 8:1-3 (NRSV)
1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
A community gathered around Jesus.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)
Paul wrote, 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)
The Christian church was a community.
Jesus lived in a community of like-minded and hearted people. To the very end they stuck to him – at the last supper (see Luke 22:7-14), as he was crucified (see Luke 23:44-56), and then they regathered after is resurrection (see Luke 24:14-39) and continued to gather even after he had ascended back to heaven (see Acts 1:12-2:4). Jesus created a community and lived in it. This community continued after his death, resurrection and ascension. It continues to this day.
That’s what we read about in our scripture reading today. The original disciples, apostles and women told the story of Jesus and others were drawn together by the Spirit into a new community (see Acts 2:37-47; 4:32-37; 6:1-7). Most of the writings in the New Testament are about being in community with others – how to live, how to care, how to worship, how to invite others into the community, and on and on. Being a follower of Jesus is not just a solitary practice. It is a communal, life-long endeavor.
Through the centuries the church has been community to people. It’s done better and worse at this. Sometimes only celibate groups were communities – only the so-called religious in convents and monasteries were part of the community, while the rest of the folk were on the outside. Other times the church included as many of the local folk as possible.
When Church of the Good Shepherd was founded in the 1830’s there were a lot of options around to be community. You lived in a village and had neighbours. You practiced mutual care – if someone had a pig to slaughter you gathered as a community – in a week or two someone else would slaughter and again the meat would be shared – no refrigeration. If someone needed to rebuild a barn, you gathered as a community. On Sunday you gathered with like-believing people in a church. But you were all, mostly all, Christians.
As the years went along the need for, and opportunity to be community with neighbours decreased. Insurance hired a builder to rebuild the barn. You bought your meat from a store – preferably Schneider’s brand. The church became more and more important to people as a place of care and love and community.
But the church has fallen into disfavour. There are a number of reasons for this – abuse in the church of money, power, gender – only men could lead – abuse of sex, and spirituality have driven many out of the church in pain and anguish. Many questioned the non-scientific truth being taught. If science teaches that the universe is 13.5 Billion years old, and that we have evolved over Billions of years, then insistence on a 10,000 year old earth, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible, means the church loses meaning. If people are many gendered, not just male and female, and the church insists that it is only behaviour and not basic being, then people are excluded, feel pain, leave, and others go with them. The church claims to be a place of love and truth, but for many it has been a place of pain and untruth.
That doesn’t mean people have stopped needing community, or finding it. In our postmodern time many have moved to other communities – game groups, book clubs, movie groups, eating and drinking groups, travel groups and on and on.
And yet, here we are – a Christian community. What about this place makes it good? What makes for a Christian Community? What can this congregation be and do in this time to be an attractive Christian community?
We are not just talking about doing here. We do all kinds of community things here – women’s group, men’s group, book club, card club, hiking group, Wednesday morning group, prayer shawl group, potlucks and BBQs, and of course Sunday morning worship and coffee hour. We do lots of community. And that’s good!
What we are talking about a way of being. Let me explain.
Being is about getting into the depth of things.
For example, being is about seeking truth, even when truth is upsetting. Our comfortable ways of believing and thinking get upset by new ideas, by seeing our old ideas need adjustment, or being discarded. Seeking truth means that sometimes we have to change. And sometimes we ask questions about other’s truths, both to learn, and because it doesn’t seem like truth to us. Seeking truth can be uncomfortable.
Being is about seeking love, even when truth is hard to come by. Seeking love means being friendly, even when the person I’m with makes me uncomfortable. There is a need to keep safe so uncomfortable/unsafe is a place of caution. But just because the person I’m with is dressed differently, or may be showing ambiguous signs of gender, or is expressing views I find uncomfortable, we don’t not talk, not draw near with words and thoughts. We seek to express love, even when there are others in our society who would reject or slander the one we are with.
Being is about owning weakness. We admit that we don’t know. We admit that we made a mistake. We admit that we feel uncomfortable. We admit our biases, prejudices and so on, so that we can change, so that we can learn, so that we can be weak. The church’s big mistake was to pretend to be strong, to know all the answers, to have all the solutions. The past 50 years have pushed us to the margins where we are among the weak. We aren’t God. We don’t know the whole of God’s mind. We don’t have all the answers, solutions, resources, helps. We are weak. Being is about acknowledging that, living it every day.
A live example from this week. If you look in the bulletin you’ll see we’re changing a few words in the last song. At worship meeting on Tuesday Terry Schnarr noted that some of the songs I’ve been choosing don’t fit Swedenborgian theology. Some of it made sense to me right away, but the language about God being one, three, three in one, or one in three didn’t. He and I corresponded back and forth a number of times until we came up with this solution for this song. I don’t know everything. He wanted to act in love. Both of us want honesty/truth. We worked, in community, until we found a collaborative solution – one to which both of us added. By the way, he knows I’m talking about this today.
Being is about getting personal. In a community we know things about each other. We are vulnerable with each other. We tell our stories. We listen to others’ stories.
Being is about getting inside, not just being together, not just doing things, it’s about getting inside each other. The change necessary in the church is one of mindset, of paradigm shift, of cultural change, of deep cognitive change. It’s happening all around us. We need to do it. With God’s help, we can do it.