When I was in college, I was involved in a mid-week Bible study called Covenant University Fellowship – CUF. One of the things that attracted me to that study was the prospect of being with people who were honest, nice, approachable, supportive church-goers. And we studied the Bible and prayed, too. The other Christian fellowship I was a part of in college was mainly social. I also went because I thought it might be a good place to meet the kinds of girls I wanted to marry. It was a good group. It felt safe. And, you know, some people in that group fell in love and got married to each other. (I didn’t).
A few years later I met up with another former CUF person whom I’ll call “Byron”. He told me about “Jen” and “Will”, a couple from that group who’d married after graduation. Well, “Jen” left “Will” and married a doctor that she’d been seeing on the side. Byron told me “you know, it was a Christian group and all, and you just don’t expect that sort of thing to happen”. And you know, he was right, you don’t expect that sort of thing to happen, but what was behind Byron’s comment was the notion that a Christian community is a safe place made up of good people and sin – really ugly sin, doesn’t ever invade.
But it does.
Now, just to be clear, I’m writing this at a time when I’m enjoying a wonderful expression of community and fellowship. The stumbling attempts at missional community over the last year have been amazing. The ministry is fruitful. The fellowship is sweet. God is doing some wonderful things. And I write this as a reminder to myself – as much as anything else – to keep Christ at the center.
Ever read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer? It is about the importance and the nature of Christian community. I remember reading it in seminary. What I was expecting, to be honest, was a series of insights on how to live together. I expected Bonhoeffer to list some ideals, and then say that our sinful nature keeps us from experiencing the real goodness of life together. I expected a description of the things that everyone is supposed to do: how we should love each other, and encourage each other, and worship together – that our shared Christian life and values would be the thing that binds us together. Doesn’t that sort of make sense? That he’d say, “This is what you do, and if you do it, it will work?” I was way off.
Bonhoffer says those ideals for community are all idols in the light of Jesus Christ. That can be unnerving. “Community” is obviously very important to a group called First Coast Missional Communities.” But read what he says: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish or a dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is very likely to have a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. He does not allow us to live even for a brief period in such a dream world. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight.”
I’d put it this way: when you start trying to live with other Christians in community, relational junk will happen. We may not like it much and may be tempted to bail out – but we need to hang in there.
Hebrews 10:24 and 25 seems to anticipate that. “Don’t give up meeting together – as some are in the habit of doing, but rather encourage one another and spur one another on to love and good deeds.” That’s good stuff, but it is tempting to turn it into a list of things to do. Encourage each other. Check. Do some good deeds. Check. Love one another. Check. But that can lead to an empty or legalistic community. All invitation or all challenge.
So it’s crucial to look at what its built on. Hebbrews 10: 19-21 points to what Christ has done – a lot of this refers to the covenant you find in the Old Testament. The system of sacrifices and ritual, and the author of Hebrews is explaining how Christ completed the task.
First, we are formed as a community through the blood of Christ which has cleansed us from our sins making us holy before a holy God in his holy place. When each of us can say (like John Newton) that “I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior,” we are ready for to community.
Second, we are formed as a community through the body of Christ which gives us access to God. The writer of Hebrews explains that Christ has replaced the curtain in the temple. The curtain functioned to keep people apart from God and only the High Priest could pass through it. The High Priest is now Christ – and Christ brings us through, into the presence of God.
Third, we are formed as community through the faithfulness of Christ. Because (and only because) of what Christ has done for us, we can safely stand before a holy God. Community is possible not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us.
The blood, the body, and the faithfulness of Christ is what makes Christian Community possible. Only with an awareness of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ are we in a position to spur one another on, to faithfully meet together, and to encourage one another. There is a real temptation to build community out of the desire for community. To build that place where everybody knows us by name, where we’re comfortable, and where we’re not alone. But the call to build community, Hebrews-10:25-missional-Christian community is a call to be together through what Jesus Christ has done for us and to anticipate that Jesus Christ will work through us. This can only happen if our first attraction is to Jesus Christ, not to each other.
But the longer I’ve been in church work, the more clear it has become that Christian community is not a safe place. That’s especially true of missional community. Our only safe place is with Christ. But there is a temptation to substitute Jesus Christ with community. Jesus Christ must be at the center of all we do. When we get together, we need to make sure our focus is on God in Jesus Christ, and not on ourselves.
That’s why we’ll worship and celebrate what God is doing.
That’s why we’ll pray and listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why we’ll look at God’s Word to learn the way of Jesus.
That’s why we intentionally serve outwardly in the community, looking to see where God is at work so we can join him.
That’s why we gather around the table and remember Christ’s death until he comes again.
I’ll wrap up with a little more Bonhoeffer: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”
Blessings on the journey.