My family recently moved to a new neighborhood near our church. From the outside, this neighborhood is seen as one of the better neighborhoods in our county. It is perceived as being full of neighbors who are close and intimate with one another – a community that has been relatively untouched by the slow erosion of neighborhoods happening all around us. I moved into this neighborhood with great anticipation, eager to be greeted by our new neighbors upon our arrival. After all, it’s really easy to “love your neighbor” when they love you first, right? I secretly hoped this new neighborhood would make my task of following Jesus convenient and comfortable.
Weeks and months went by without much interaction from any of our neighbors – until I finally met a nice woman who lives a few doors down from me. She and her husband have been living in the same house in this neighborhood for almost 40 years! She began to tell me about all of the other neighbors and how long they have lived here (some for 20, 30, or 40 years as well). I asked her how often they get together as neighbors for meals or other events. Sadly, she told me that while they used to get together often, they have not done so in a very long time. When I asked her why, she couldn’t point to any reason. They just don’t.
Even the strongest of our neighborhoods and small communities have not been untouched by the many fractures eroding the foundations of our neighborly relationships. How can Christians respond to the failing health of communities and the polarization of tribalism in our culture when we hardly know other church members, let alone our next-door neighbors?
Even the strongest of our neighborhoods and small communities have not been untouched by the many fractures eroding the foundations of our neighborly relationships.
When we read about the earliest Christian communities, we see that they were those who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts. 2:42). The foundation of these communities was built not on human efforts, hobbies, or similarities in personality. The foundation was built on Christ and his Word. Since its inception, our faith has found its source of life and power in the Word of God. In the Old Testament this came through Moses and the Prophets. In the New Testament it came through the teaching of Christ and his apostles. The Christian Church has always understand the teaching of the apostles to be Christ’s Word to us, found in the completion of the Old and New Testaments. When we confess, like centuries of Christians before us, that we believe in one apostolic church, we too are confessing that we are devoted to the apostles’ teaching.
In his classic book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the community of the church is built on Christ and his Word:
Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance…What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains true for all the future and to all eternity.
Christ and His word are the glue which hold the Christian community together. It is only here where we can discover that community is a gift for us to receive rather than achieve. Christian community is a gift of salvation and grace.Christ and His word are the glue which hold the Christian community together. It is only here where we can discover that community is a gift for us to receive rather than achieve. Christian community is a gift of salvation and grace. Click To Tweet
If we want to have any hope of living in healthy and strong communities today then we must learn to discover community itself as a gift. The best communities are those that are given to us and received as gifts to participate in rather than ideals to strive for. Bonhoeffer said it this way:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
There have been countless attempts in human history to create utopia. All of them have failed. This is the major difference between Christian community and utopia: the former is a purchased gift that can only be received, the latter is an impossible ideal that must be achieved. Because all human beings are sinful, prejudiced, prideful, and selfish the utopia of our imagination can never be realized. When we strive for utopia, we find ourselves making demands of others that are crushing and impossible to bear. But when we receive community as a gift, we enter into it with glad and generous hearts, grateful for the fellowship we can share with others.
This is the major difference between Christian community and utopia: the former is a purchased gift that can only be received, the latter is an impossible ideal that must be achieved.
Bonhoeffer summarizes this beautiful truth:
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers and sisters, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may life in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deed, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Give thanks to God today for the gift of the community he has given you. If you read this and realize you are outside of the community that God has gifted to humanity, and you are tired of the crushing ideals our culture puts on us to achieve, I invite you to consider these words of Jesus:
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:25–30.