THE QUEST FOR COMMUNITY

The Godhead exemplifies perfect community. Humankind, created in God’s image, was created for divine community (Gen. 1-2).  God came in Christ to restore that perfect community broken by disobedience, through his reconciling death and resurrection (Eph. 1-2;  Col. 1). He calls his Body the Church to exemplify that community in a broken world.

Each of us is built for community, hence there is a constant ‘quest for community’ in the human heart. In my teen years I was quite strongly introvert, but by my late twenties I was certainly ready for the community of a Christian marriage! (God was gracious to me) As I have learned to find myself more fully since, even though I appreciate my personal space, I hungrily long for authentic Christian community in the local Body and beyond.

I recognised this quest for community as I listened to the story (while holidaying with family in Cape Town) of a young Christian family in the organic house church community our eldest daughter, her husband and two sons are part of.

  • The husband and father related how, growing up as the son of a Christian pastor in a mainline denomination, he did not find spiritual reality in the normal processes of institutional church Christianity. On leaving home he began to socialise with friends outside of his local church and started experimenting with ‘weed’ (marijuana).
  • In his pursuit of ‘belonging’ and better weed, he came across a group of Rastafarians. I was unaware of how many parallels of religious Christendom they have in Rastafarianism, but my new friend pointed out such concepts as a ‘Messiah’ (Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the ‘Lion of Judah,’ being a kind of ‘forerunner?’), community life-style, a quest for ‘holiness,’  etc. For the first time he saw and felt what appeared to be a genuine sense of community, with acceptance of one another, no hierarchical domination, community meals, a community lifestyle, discipling one another, and so on.
  • His enchantment with Rastafarianism continued for quite a while. After a while disillusionment set in, especially when some of his ‘disciples’ who professed to be serious about their faith began secretly indulging in the breaking of community rules and stealing. One day, disillusioned and broken, while sitting on a rock overlooking the Wild Coast ocean the living God revealed himself and his ways of grace. It burst on his mind and spirit that ‘salvation’ and the pursuit of holiness sprang out of sheer grace on God’s part and not on continual striving on his (our) part. Unfortunately his compatriots just couldn’t get a handle on his new-found discovery or share in his enthusiasm, and so he left the commune in the forest.  
  • Returning to Cape Town, my friend met up with a young lady who invited him to a local charismatic congregation. The pastor very kindly took them in and ‘discipled’ them for a number of years. Afterward, although grateful for what they had learned, when my friend and his wife started questioning some of the church beliefs and practices from a biblical point of view, the rather ‘controlling’ pastor made it clear that they were no longer welcome in their midst.  
  • Disillusioned with the ‘Church,’ my friend gave up on his faith as it were, and he and his family moved to a neighbouring country where he pursued a life of pub-crawling and drinking. His family life gradually disintegrated due to his heavy drinking. One day, while walking home in a drunken state, the Lord Jesus appeared to him by the road side and challenged him to repent and return to Him. Thereafter he and his wife had a number of encounters with local church groups who ‘discipled’ them into their way. Eventually disillusioned with these agenda-driven groups, and having tasted community with a number of neglected people he had led to Christ, my friend and his family were led to return to SA and Cape Town in particular.
  • Through the Lord’s sovereign intervention, and his gracious honouring of their quest for true community, they came into contact with believer friends who lived a truly community lifestyle, sharing, helping, demonstrating honesty and authenticity and loyalty. This extended even to their businesses – these men meet as needed to discuss their respective businesses and pray for one another around key issues and challenges. Today they are in a place where they have experienced a community with Christ and his followers, outside of the institutional Church, which they wouldn’t exchange for anything. When my wife and I arrived at our daughter’s home, their youngest was on the verge of needing yet another anti-biotic for chronic chest congestion. My friend and his wife (now living across the road) came across for prayer and with some helpful generic medications. Some hours afterward they enquired how it was going with Caleb. Within days he made a spectacular recovery and we left him two-and-half weeks ago healthy and well!

A long story, but was this not what the early Church, despite its shortcomings and challenges, tasted and displayed? Read Acts 2, 4, 6, etc. Having received the gospel through the preaching of the apostle Peter (Jesus’ messiahship, life and ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation, i.e. ‘the apostles’ teaching’) Acts 2:42 records how these newly baptised and Spirit-filled believers immediately devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (true ‘fellowship’ always costs!), to the breaking of bread and to prayer’. This was evidenced in regular house-hold fellowship and practical caring for those in need. ‘Fellowship’ (koinonia) means lit. ‘mutual sharing,’ i.e. in the life of Jesus and that of fellow-believers. A number of translations/renderings of ‘fellowship’ appeal to me:

  • Christian Community Bible: ‘the common life of sharing…’
  • New Jerusalem Bible: ‘the brotherhood…’
  • ERV: ‘they shared everything with each other…’
  • CEV: ‘and they were like family to each other…’
  • MSG: ‘the life together…’ The latter is my personal favourite, because it depicts a family way of life in Christ. [sell your shirt and get yourself a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little classic The Life Together if you want to get closer to the essence of fellowship]

Over the last seven years my wife and I have experienced, again and again, the reality of such authentic ‘fellowship’ in our organic house communities, which include rich and poor and vastly differing culture groups, etc. We never got near it in thirty-eight years of pastoring denominational churches, with the rarest exceptions. While our ‘fellowship’ is by no means perfect and sometimes has had to ride out vicious storms, I could relate story after story and give many practical examples of our house churches’ community and outreach to the needy, but this blog is already too long.

This biblical ‘community’ will transform your Communion experiences and corporate prayer life (Acts 2:42). Let me whet your appetite. Dorothy Day (who worked much among the poor of American inner cities) relates in her ‘Finding God’: ‘We cannot love God unless we love each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, when there is companionship.’

We’ll chat again…

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UNEXPECTED KINGDOM MEMBERS

It’s been a while since writing, after a delightful two-week vacation with family in beautiful Cape Town and then two weeks of catching up with ministry back home. Here goes…

In my last blog we addressed the matter of ‘numbering’ among kingdom citizens without ‘membership’ of the kingdom of Christ. We noted how Judas Iscariot ‘numbered’ among the Twelve but never really ‘belonged’ to the Twelve and the Master of the Twelve (Lk. 22). Essentially, he was disappointed in Jesus’ messiahship. He was looking for something nationalistic, political and material. He didn’t want to be found backing a ‘loser’ – he wanted to be associated with a ‘winner.’ [another false gospel of our time]

By contrast we noted a well-off institutional man, Joseph of Arimethea, beginning to grasp the fact that there was something more to Jesus and his kingdom message (Lk. 23:50ff). Hence he asked for Jesus’ body in order to give the King of the Jews an honourable burial in a decent tomb. Luke described Joseph as ‘a man of good heart and good character. He had not gone along with the plans and actions of the council. His hometown was the Jewish village of Arimathea. He lived in alert expectation of the kingdom of God’ (MSG).

Somehow I missed another unexpected kingdom seeker in Luke’s passion story. We come across him in Lk. 22:39-43, “One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: ‘Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!’ But the other one made him shut up: ‘Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him – he did nothing to deserve this.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.'”

Who would have expected such understanding (admittedly limited) and such empathy with his crucified neighbour from a common thief? Maybe we are surpised, but God never was, nor his Son Jesus. As Anglican theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, the penitent criminal asks in the spirit of Israel’s prayers in the Psalter, he asks as one believing that his strange neighbour, undergoing the same crucifixion, is capable of fulfilling his desperate request. This thief asks to be remembered because he recognizes the One who can remember. This humble man is able to see and acknowledge that Jesus is indeed ‘King of the Jews,’ come to redeem Israel. Maybe he was familiar with the odd psalm and recalled Israel’s prayer in Ps. 42:11, ‘Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.’ In the last analysis he backed a ‘winner,’ when most (including Israel) considered Jesus a hopeless ‘loser.’

Jesus’ kingdom, his sovereign reign over the universe and in this world threatens all the kingdoms of this world. So many think our world leaders have the answer, some brilliant politician or social reformer. Others think Mammon can deliver the deal. Others are so caught up with themselves that they look within and traipse off to India or Tibet. Many live by the saying ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!’ Other multitudes, possibly millions, have some or other link with Christendom or the visible, institutional Church, while they have never belonged to Jesus and his body on earth. They have never understood the call to incarnate the Christ among lost humankind and pray daily ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10). They know nothing of death to self and life in Christ:  long ago Keswick speaker lan Redpath reminded the Church that before we can pray ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we must be willing to pray ‘My kingdom go.’ 

Hauerwas reminds us that to be with Jesus, to be claimed by Jesus as a friend, is paradise, the autobasileia, the kingdom of the crucified! 

For those others who insist, like so many do today in the name of Christ, that it’s all about getting your doctrine and theology ‘spot on’ (I am one of those who constantly pleads for a biblical theology and good biblical teaching), how could we ever think we need to know more than this repentant thief in order to be part of the kingdom? The only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus!

[When next we ‘break bread in remembrance’ of Jesus, let’s remember this and be thankful!]