In solitude we heard the voice of God calling us God’s beloved. We experienced unconditional love as God embraced us as we are. And we realized our solidarity with the rest of humanity. We are far more alike than we are different, and by the grace of God our salvation and our destinies are intertwined. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who has been the spiritual mentor of countless Christians in the 20th century, said, “There is no true peace possible for the person who still imagines that some accident of talent or grace or virtue segregates him from other men and places him above them.” In quiet solitude as we rest in the heart of God, we find our humble and joyful place in creation. At peace with ourselves and reconciled to the rest of the world because we have found that world loved in the heart of God, we are now ready for community.
One of the greatest needs of churches is the genuine experience of community–what the New Testament calls koinonia. The individualism of our society has largely shaped the way we define and experience Christianity. Community in which church members are authentically loved, accepted, cared for, challenged to grow in their discipleship, prayed for, and provided for when the props are knocked out from under them is virtually unknown within many churches. Some with the church may grow individually in their faith, but rarely does a faith community grow together in meaningful, transforming ways.
The nurturing of genuine Christian community must be a priority within the church. The deep sharing on every level required for authentic discipleship will not happen without intentional commitment and sacrifice. New Testament scholars tell us that Jesus intended his teachings to be lived out of the experience of such community. The path of obedient discipleship cannot be traveled alone. We need each other to be what God calls us to be. Only out of the strength, love, and challenge of genuine Christian community can we live the life Jesus asks of his followers. The “Lone Ranger” approach so many of us have in our Christianity is debilitating and contrary to Scripture. (Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!) The church, rather than being an optional and casual association for Christians, must become the primary context out of which we live our lives, make our decisions, and determine our priorities in a complex and challenging world. And for that to happen, we must seek genuine community.
Based in part on the insights of Henri Nouwen, I would suggest three qualities needed for the growth of community. The first is forgiveness. Within any kind of community whether it be family, fraternity, sorority, or church, forgiveness must be practiced over and over. Our Lord understood that. In his parables, the necessity of forgiveness is repeatedly stressed. In the prayer he taught which we pray every Sunday, he required us to ask that our sins be forgiven as we forgive the sins of others. When Peter approached him and asked how many times he should forgive his brother or sister, Jesus answered, “490 times” with the idea that if you forgive someone that many times, you will be in the habit of forgiving and will lose count, realizing that such calculation is not worthy of those who live by God’s grace.
Perhaps most of all we need to forgive others for not being able to fulfill all our needs. People are limited–each of us has weaknesses as well as strengths, flaws as well as virtues. And sometime we are the last ones to realize our faults. What may seem to us to be, at the most, an amusing eccentricity on our part, may drive our brothers and sisters within community bonkers. The truth is this: we finite creatures cannot love unconditionally. We can try to do so, and we should try to love as God loves us. But because of our finitude and sin, we cannot offer unlimited, unconditional love–at least not for very long.
We need to accept that about ourselves and about others. We are all limited–we are all mixtures of good and bad, virtue and evil, love and apathy, compassion and selfishness. And so if community is to flourish, we must be in the habit of forgiving others, asking forgiveness for ourselves, and practicing a love which as Paul says does not keep a record of wrongs. Forgiveness offered and received clears the air, allows for a new beginning, and imitates the grace of God. Without the faithful discipline of forgiveness, community is stifled and then it withers as higher and higher walls are built between brothers and sisters. Without forgiveness, community is dead in the water. With forgiveness, community flourishes like a watered and tended garden.
Once we practice the discipline and grace of forgiveness, we are ready to celebrate. Celebration is the second quality of community. Celebration was a major characteristic of the Jesus movement. Even Jesus’ enemies accused him of being a glutton (he knew how to feast) and a drunk (winebibber). He was a Galilean party animal who celebrated with the various and sundry “riffraff” of his day. He even said that being with him was like being at a Jewish wedding with him as the bridegroom. Anyone who has ever been to a Jewish wedding knows the extent of joy and fun Jesus is referring too. (My mother and grandmother once attended a Jewish wedding years before I was born. After I came along they were still talking about how much fun they had at the event. My father’s wry comment was, “It would take a Jewish wedding to show two old Baptist women how to have a good time.”) The type of celebration experienced in the Jesus’ movement has (or should have) a depth and breadth typically not found within many other communities. Because we love each other, have forgiven each other, know and accept each other, and are honest with each other, we enjoy each other’s company. We have so much in common in Christ to celebrate. As Tony Campolo says, “Kingdom time is party time.” And part of what we celebrate is the gifts we have. We all have gifts. Henri Nouwen tells of his experience l’Arche, a community of people with severe mental and physical challenges and those like Nouwen who have dedicated their lives in deep solidarity with what many consider the “unproductive” members of society. Nouwen writes about the gift of a smile from one member in the community to him which expressed so much gratitude, belonging, and joy. Nouwen said that smile was one of the greatest and most moving gifts he had ever received.
Years ago my wife told me something which has proven true over and over again. I don’t think the idea was original to her, but she was the first I heard to express it. She told me that people’s weaknesses are often the price they pay for their strengths. A quiet, reserved person may have the gift of listening; a loud, noisy person, the gift of greeting; a serious, reflective person, the gift of insight; or a “frivolous,” playful person, the gift of spontaneity. Our weaknesses are so often the price we pay for our strengths. Part of what we do within community is celebrate, affirm, nurture, and evoke the gifts we all bring to our common life together. We are all beautiful children of God with unique selves and one-of-a kind gifts to offer. A genuine community will celebrate the proliferation of these gifts and recognize that these gifts are a limited fraction of God’s unconditional love and passion for diversity.
The final quality of authentic Christian community is a search for and obedience to the will of God. The priority of every Christian and every congregation was given by Jesus: “Seek first the Reign of God and its righteousness.” Every Sunday we pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” For any fellowship to be a Christian community, there must be a commitment to the will of God. God’s will, not our will, must be our final reference point for our individual lives and our common life together. And in the pursuit of that will, we must be willing to put aside our prejudices, petty agendas, disagreements, and reluctance to change. We must be open to the movement of the Spirit even when that Spirit turns our world upside down as we experience the radical and liberating grace and justice of God. The sincere desire and the fervent prayer of every community of faith must be the discovery and fleshing out of God’s will.
And if we have been faithful in our practice of solitude and in our forgiveness and celebration of one another, then our collective insight into the will of God will be astounding. Imagine a community of people coming together–a community made up of individuals who have practiced solitude, know they are God’s beloved, realize their solidarity with all other humans in their need of grace and their potential for goodness, and have discovered the whole world in the heart of God. And imagine these same individuals coming together within community and forgiving and accepting forgiveness from one another, celebrating the unique personalities and gifts each one brings to the family of God, and loving each other too much to live in deceit and behind masks. Imagine these persons celebrating with the bridegroom so that Kingdom time is truly party time. Now wouldn’t you think that such a collection of individuals–that such a community together could discover far more about the will of God than anyone of them separately could ever hope to learn? And wouldn’t you think that individuals within such a community would find far more support, affirmation, guidance, and encouragement in living out their Christian discipleship than they could ever have going it alone? The holy potential of authentic Christian community shaped by forgiveness, celebration, and unflinching commitment to the will of God is perhaps the most powerful force on earth just waiting for its discovery. And it can be ours as we move from solitude to sharing within the family of God–that is if we are willing to take the risk of loving ourselves and one another. May such be our burning desire as we gather faithfully as the Body of Christ.
Gracious God who is happy to give us the Kingdom, we ask you to bless us this day with joy. We pray for the joy of human fellowship permeated by love. Teach us the profound wisdom of putting people before things–of speaking before it is too late those words of tenderness to those precious to us–of spending time in meaningful relationships instead of wasting our moments on that which can never fill the emptiness of our souls. Turn us toward the joy of love.
We pray for the joy of deep communion with you. Our souls ache with a need–a hunger–a thirst that can only be met by you. And yet for unexplainable reasons so often we seek you last and least. Teach us that the depths of our joy depend on how centered we are in you–in your will–in your way. Grant us the desire to journey with you deep into your will–far into your vision of us and our world so that our lives may shine with the pure light of your presence. Turn us toward the joy of prayer.
We pray for the joy of knowing what is enough, for the sad truth is, we do not know what is enough–we do not know when to stop – we do not even know why. We dart from activity to activity, from purchase to purchase–from hour to hour believing all along that the abundance of our possessions or of our activities or of our accomplishments comprises the essence of life. Teach us the divine economy of what is enough, so that our souls may be quieted, our hearts calmed, and the needs of others created by our excesses may be met. Turn our eyes toward the joy of sharing.
And we pray for the joy of celebrating life–of living the moments that are ours–of embracing the opportunities of service, loving, growing, changing, learning, hoping, creating that you spread before us day by day. Give each of us the grace needed to own our own lives, to accept who we are, and to walk with you into tomorrow confident that we have only just begun the molding of our identities in Christ.
Regardless of who we are, what we have done, or at what stage we find ourselves in our life’s journey, help us to see the horizons you have just for us–horizons that melt into eternal frontiers that can be filled with joyful purpose. Turn us toward the joy of life in all its abundance.
Conscious now of these horizons and their purpose, we remember before you those on our hearts. Bless them and us with the joy of abundant life that is ours for the asking, ours for the receiving, and ours for the living. Amen.