and for those who prefer to read rather than watch, here it is:
Living well in community
This morning as some of our lockdown restrictions begin to lift, many of us are asking ourselves what does it look like to live well in a community. As people begin to make choices and many of these choices are different from choices we would make, how can we live well together knowing that other people’s choices may well affect our well-being, safety or health.
Each of us faces a challenge about how to live in this new and strange environment. Each of us has different pressures for some the economic imperative overrides everything, for others their mental well-being is the deciding factor, for others their physical safety trumps all other considerations.
The Christian faith offers a model about how to live well in a community and it is called the church. Now many of you will switch off at that word and you will consider the church to be out of date or irrelevant, based on myths or misunderstanding. Perhaps you will have looked at the church and seen chaos: hostility, injury, brokenness, perhaps you have been aware of church fights or church sleaze, perhaps you have turned away frustrated because everyone seems to think that their church has the right angle on things.
But the church is only a microcosm of the world. The world is full of hostility and injury in brokenness and so is the church.
So how then can this be a model that helps us to live well in community? Precisely because it is a community that believes that everyone is welcome, everyone is forgiven and everyone has a part to play.
A lot of people tell me that they feel closer to God on their own in the peace and quiet of their own gardens, or on a sunset walk along the beach, or walking in the woods. Even hymn writers are prone to these kind of feelings “when through the woods and Forest Glades I wonder then sings my soul”
but this solitary sublime experience is the easy way out it does not help us grow up to be mature people who live in relationship to other people in our community. It is of course very helpful to soothe our souls from time to time by seeking such sublime experiences of creation but this is creation it is not community.
And the challenge of modern life is community, How do we live well in community?
So let me come back to the church as a model of community. In the new Testament one of the writers asks the question “do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you? Do not hear that you as individual it is plural. It means “you all”. In other words the presence of God is experienced in other people particularly when those other people are committed to loving one another, accepting one another and living with difference.
One of the psalmist’s tells us to seek God in his temple but he doesn’t mean a building. Not soaring arches or beautiful stained-glass. But stubborn, quirky, odd ordinary human beings.
Let’s be honest this is not the first place we go looking for the presence of God, other people can be challenging. I think someone quipped, “hell is other people”
So how does church offer an alternative way of looking at other people and creating community?
If you have ever been part of the church you will have known if you are honest that moment when you have looked round and thought, “is this it? Is this the best we can do?” We are also ordinary, we have all got hangups and baggage and background, every single one of us. We are all quirky in some way or another. Some of us talk too fast, some talk to slow and some talk too much. Some are sensitive and easily hurt while another is thick-skinned and stubborn and doesn’t see beyond the end of their nose. We are what Eugene Peterson called “a mixed bag of humanity: broken, preoccupied, emotionally unstable, passive, passive-aggressive, workaholic, driven, lazy, addicted, abused”.
The only difference between the church community and the wider community is that we know and acknowledge that we are all these things. And yet we are trying to get along. When you commit to being part of the church community you commit to those particular individuals you don’t get to choose this family just like you didn’t get to choose your biological family. If we start picking and choosing and looking out only for glossy, capable, successful, articulate or mature disciples of Jesus to hang out with we have missed the point and we are not going to grow up and mature. When you only hang out with like-minded, congenial people you are not challenged to grow or change.
When we acknowledge that the church and our own communities are full of people just like us, people with preferences, obsessions, people with doubts or darkness people who are prone to insecurity and others who at times are prone to pomposity then we have accepted the conditions that are ideal for our growth as human beings. We have stopped looking for an ideal universe and we have accepted the flawed version of reality, we have accepted life as it is and we have accepted ourselves for what we are, equally flawed. In other words, when I look round and realise that the church is full of people just like me, with all my weaknesses, then I am more than halfway towards loving them and forgiving them. And it is that love and forgiveness which makes the church a model of living well in community.
Here is the key idea which the church has to offer the world: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” Ephesians 4:17
We need to work backwards through that sentence because it is the clause at the very end of the sentence that makes the rest of the sentence possible: God in Christ has forgiven you, you are loved and forgiven and accepted and acceptable with all your weaknesses your inadequacies your insecurities. God knows you God loves you, God forgives you and if that word forgiveness makes you feel that I’m telling you your some terrible sinner, don’t get too hung up about that. Can you accept that you are simply a flawed human being? If so, (and I hope you can accept at least that) then all I’m saying is that God accepts you just how you are and wants to help you grow up into being the best version of yourself that you can be. But community, getting along with other people is the method.
So we have to start with the idea that we are forgiven and we work backwards from that to the idea that if we are forgiven therefore we should forgive other people remembering that they are as prone to fear anxiety, self protection and all those other things that motivate our own selfishness.
If we can be forgiving of one another, can we stay tender-hearted? Not hard-hearted not judgemental, not brutally dismissing others as “them” or “these idiots”? Can we, in short, coming back to the beginning of that sentence, “be kind”?
So there you have it, that is why the church is a model of how to live well in community.
If you like those ideas you will find them much better expressed in the book “Practice Resurrection” by Eugene Peterson which I recommend to you.