Sunday, January 28, 2007

Renewing our Vision: The Communal Church

Acts 2:43-47; John 17:20-26

Let me tell you what I’m up to in this sermon...
and the next one, and the next one.
I believe in truth in advertizing,
and I take full responsibility for the shape of this series of three.

I’ve called it “Renewing Our Vision,”
and the three Sundays are focused on
the communal church
the missional church
and the practicing church.
The reason I’m doing this is to pave the way for some hard work,
that any or all of you will be invited to do this year.
If you’ve been paying attention to my sermons this past year or so,
and of course, all of you have been,
you may have noticed some themes that kept reappearing.
And it’s not because I’ve run out of new things to say,
so I keep repeating myself.
It’s because I’m learning new things.
I’m being challenged in new ways,
in what I’ve been reading, studying, and talking to people about.

You’ve probably picked up that I’m pretty passionate about our identity,
being clear about who we are,
as Christians, in community, in culture.
I’ve been talking about the role and identity of the church,
about how we as individuals relate to this community of faith,
and about how the church relates to its surrounding culture.
I’m talking about what you might call the organic church—
the community of faith, the body of Christ—
and the role it needs to play in the lives
of people who call themselves Christian.

I’m becoming more sensitized to the many ways the culture we live in
distracts us, derails us, makes us lose focus—
and before long we’ve lost sight of who God has called us to be.
Our vision has gotten too blurry to see.
So think of this series of services as a group eye exam.

You know, we can talk till we’re blue in the face about great new ideas
for programs, and outreach activities, and ministries,
and structures, and budgets...and by-laws...
But if our vision is not clear about who we are called to church...
then we’re wasting valuable time and energy.

Congregational Council has said,
and you affirmed it as a priority for this year,
that we take a new look at our congregational vision.
This is getting ready for that.
On Feb. 18, the third Sunday of this series,
we’ll use our Sunday School hour
to talk to each other about what we’re hearing and thinking.
About our collective vision
of what God may be wanting to make of us, as a people.
So I encourage you first of all, try to be here each of these Sundays,
next Sunday, and then two weeks later (Feb. 11 is Membership Sunday).
And secondly,
let’s talk to one another about what we’re hearing and thinking,
in Sunday School classes, small groups, over coffee.
Talk with me, if you’d like. But especially, talk to others.

But here is where the hard work comes in.
Because we won’t be talking simply for the sake of talking.
We will be discussing how to translate our vision into practices.
Real, down-to-earth, day-to-day practices of the Christian life.
So after these first two Sundays,
where we deal with two essential parts of our vision,
that we are communal and missional,
we’ll wrap it up on the third Sunday with the essential practices—
the practicing church.
You know, vision and practices impact each other.
Seeing ourselves more clearly, will help us act with more integrity.
But it’s just as true, that
the practices we engage in, will shape how we see ourselves.

So hang on for the ride. What we’re talking about is not only practical.
It could be life-changing.

The communal church.
Communal is a word that is sorely misunderstood.
It conjures up images of hippies and Hutterites.
It makes us think of intentional communities
where there is no personal property or bank account,
where everything is held in common.
Nothing wrong with that kind of community.
But it’s not for the faint of heart.
Very few can pull it off.

But when we talk about church,
we cannot help but talk about it in communal terms.
Community is the predictable by-product of the Gospel.
What’s the first thing that happened after the Gospel of Jesus
broke out on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2?
I’ll read it to you straight, beginning in v. 43...
“Awe came upon everyone,
because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;
45 they would sell their possessions and goods
and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple,
they broke bread at home
and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,
47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
And day by day the Lord added to their number
those who were being saved.”

No one told them they had to form a community.
But they caught a new clear vision of the kingdom of God.
They saw a way to live.
But they were in a hostile environment.
When they chose to identify themselves with Jesus
they had to give up old loyalties,
and declare their new allegiance to the kingdom of God.
That was threatening to the kingdoms of this world,
which wanted the absolute allegiance of their people.
Jesus got crucified—crucified—for preaching this new kingdom.
So they did the only practical thing.
They bound themselves to each other
for strength, for courage, for guidance.
It’s nigh to impossible to make God’s kingdom priority number one,
unless we join people who are on the same radical journey.

But the community that forms, does not make the kingdom come.
It’s the hard realities of the kingdom that give rise to community.
This communal church does, however, proclaim the kingdom.
Because Jesus gave his disciples a commission,
to continue his ministry in the world.
And that’s what Jesus’ ministry was—proclaiming the kingdom.
Leslie Newbigin said that the calling of the church is to be
the sign, instrument, and foretaste of the reign of God.
To be a sign, means we point towards the kingdom.
To be an instrument means we actually help God,
in God’s mission to establish his reign in this world.
But to be a foretaste of the reign of God,
is what I’m talking about this morning.
The communal church is a foretaste of the kingdom.
The church is not equal to the kingdom.
But life together with the people of God,
gives a glimpse, through a glass darkly,
of the character of the kingdom of God.
A foretaste. An appetizer, if you will.

It should come as no surprise to any of us,
that to experience an authentically communal church,
is a monumental challenge for us today.
Our culture does not encourage this kind of living,
any more than 1st-century Jerusalem encouraged
those first followers of Jesus.
In the 1st century, it was because their new loyalty to this king Jesus,
was a threat to the powers of the Empire,
and the religious powers.
Today, the communal church presents a different kind of threat.
It threatens the modern god of individualism.

Let me read a short quote from the book Emerging Churches
by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger.
“Any attempt to join people in a community
presents a challenge for individuals
who have been nurtured in the culture of modernity,
in which independence, individual rights, and privileges
are the norm...
Because of the pervasive nature of culture,
people are largely unaware of the extent to which
they have become individualized and privatized.”

The communal church is not welcomed in our modern culture.
Stanley Hauerwas made the statement that we need Christian community
because it’s a safeguard against a world
that wants to cure us Christians of our oddness.

Culture makes every attempt to reshape the church
into something more suited
to the appetite of the modern individual.
And it’s done a pretty good job of it.
So we have churches that cater to our consumerism.
It’s all about giving the individual what the individual wants.
Gibbs and Bolger say that churches have developed
a “shopping mall ideology” that caters to
the search of the American religious consumer.
So whatever communal bonding occurs,
happens when individuals are consuming religious goods
alongside one another.
Another quote from their book:
“[Sometimes] the only community expression in worship
is the casual glance at other people
who are [also] enjoying their own personal worship...
[We] glibly assume that community is formed
in the process of mutual recognition.”
You know, that doesn’t even come close
to the biblical understanding of community,
where we are called to lay down our lives for one another.

Let me be clear.
Developing a more communal church
does not mean an escape from culture.
It’s not the kind of separatism
that effectively isolates us from the world.
Mennonites have been there and done that.
It gave us the nickname “quiet in the land.”

We don’t ditch the dominant culture. But we are distinct from it.
Marva Dawn, a prolific Christian writer and speaker, said that
in the church we form an alternative and parallel community.
She said, and I quote,
“being parallel deters us from being so alternative
that we no longer relate to our neighbors”
and “being alternative prevents our parallelism
from moving closer and closer to
modes of life that are alien to the kingdom of God.”
But a parallel alternative does not just happen by default, she says.
And here I’m quoting again.
“It requires language, customs, habits, rituals,
institutions, procedures, and practices that
uphold and nurture a clear vision of how it is different
and why that matters.”

And while I’m quoting people, let me draw from our own tradition,
from a couple generations ago: H. S. Bender.
Bender talked about the “cardinal elements” of the church.
The first and foremost being “the concept of the body of Christ.”
And if the church is the “body of Christ,” he said,
it has implications for individual members.
1. individuals belong to that body,
2. they are under the authority of the head of that body, Christ,
3. they are part of the other members of the body, and
4. the totality of each member’s body belongs to that other body,
the church.

Not much room for individualism there.
Bender, and lots of other Mennonite theologians,
like to talk about the church using the German word, Gemeinde,
which implies a group of people who share a common life.
That’s a different slant than the English word “church,”
which implies an assembly of individuals in a common institution.

So what are the implications for our lives?
What if we started to renew our vision of the church as community,
as people who share a common life?
What would it be like?
It wouldn’t be easy.
Communal life is never easy.
It’s messy.
It’s inefficient.
It’s agonizingly hard work.
It’s potentially painful.
And it’s the only way we can grow as Christians.
It’s the only way to live as whole human beings.

The communal church is costly community.
We can get cheap community at almost any local organization,
club, coffee shop, or bar—
anywhere that birds of a feather might flock together.
It’s no big deal being with people who like each other,
who naturally gravitate toward each other.
It feels good to be with people like me,
who share my same interests or lifestyle or values.

But true community is something different.
Parker Palmer said,
“We might define true community as that place
where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
And along the same line, a Quaker proverb says,
“True community exists when the person you dislike most
dies or moves away and someone worse takes that place.”

Community is not handed to us on a platter.
Community is costly.
It requires tremendous risk.
It requires sacrifice.
I’m not assuming we’re all ready for this right now.
I’m not assuming I’m ready for it.

David Augsburger, in his recent book, Dissident Discipleship,
tells a sort of rabbinic tale of the kingdom.
His story goes like this.
In a faraway land, the ruling prince dreamed of making a better kingdom,
where all persons were equally committed and loyal to each other,
where all would seek the welfare of their neighbor,
even at a cost to the self.
So the prince called together all the wise and trusted heads of the clans,
and invited them to join this new society,
where everyone would lay down self for the good of the whole.
To inaugurate this new community,
they would have a covenant ceremony,
where each clan head would bring his very best bottle of wine,
produced from his ancestral vines.
These treasured bottles would be uncorked,
poured into a great communal vat, and mixed,
representing true community, a common vintage,
and they would all drink from it.
Well, one of the clan leaders, after pulling his best wine from the cellar,
said to himself, “How can I mix this exquisite wine,
with that of my neighbors.”
I would sacrifice the unique characteristics of the grape,
the special climate of the year.
Everything that makes this wine what it is
would be adulterated by mixing it into the common cup.
So he put some water into a dark bottle,
put his most beautiful label on it, and corked it.
It would never be noticed.
At the time of the ritual,
everyone poured their bottles ceremoniously into the vat.
When the covenant was being sealed,
they filled their glasses for the communal toast.
And as the cups touched their lips,
they all knew the truth.
It was not wine, but water.
No one had been willing to pay the cost of community.

I suppose, that was sort of like the undoing of Jesus’ miracle at Cana.
When we fail to lay down our selves
for the sake of the new community, the body of Christ,
the wine is turned back to water.

But lest you get discouraged by the demands of this call for community,
it’s not something we create by our own hands.
Fact of the matter is, true Christian community is a miracle.
It’s water turned to wine.
It’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
It’s the work of the love of God in us.
The communal church could not exist
except for the amazing grace, and miraculous love, of God.

That’s why it’s such a beautiful thing to behold.
That’s why the psalmist gushed, in Psalm 133,
which we read together and sang together.
1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head...
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.

That’s why Jesus poured out his heart in prayer for his disciples
in John 17, which we read.
Jesus knew they couldn’t pull this off on their own.
So he prayed, “that the love with which you have loved me
may be in them, and I in them.”
This is how people will know that we love God,
if we have love for our brothers and sisters.

Let’s join our hearts and voices in a song of community,
“How can I say that I love the Lord, whom I’ve never seen,
and forget to say that I love the one whom I walk beside.”

—Phil Kniss, January 28, 2007

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