“How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe; only the obedient believe.” …The Cost of Discipleship
This is the hard starting place for this generation. We hear lots of talk and angst and desire for community but rarely find it. We rarely find it because we are rarely obedient. There is a parallel within marriages or should I say our couplings. We withdraw. They can have our bodies, but not our hearts. They can have our presence, but not our attention. They can have our acts, but not our being. We have committed adultery before even opening our eyes. Likewise we are weak in faith and unbelieving because we will not be obedient to the Word. We do not keep the Sabbath, yet expect the Word to be present on demand. We keep a Sabbath mentally, but harden our hearts to our neighbors. Or keep it with our hearts, but stay our hands. We will not have a true husband or wife withdrawing a part of ourselves, likewise we will not have an ecclesia, a church, withdrawing ourselves. Thanksgiving precedes the miracle, obedience precedes the blessing. To those who have more will be given, but to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.
“The community of the saints is not an “ideal” community consisting of perfect and sinless men and women, where there is no need of further repentance. No, it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel of forgiveness by constantly and sincerely proclaiming God’s forgiveness…Sanctification means driving out the world from the Church as well as separating the Church from the world. But the purpose of such discipline is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of men who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.” ..The Cost of Discipleship
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” …Life Together
If the devil cannot convince you to withdraw from the church before ever really being part of her, he will try the opposite course, to push you through to the other side. The quickest way to accomplish this is to convince you that this group of people you have turned yourself over too isn’t worthy of that offering. This works as one of those brilliant almost truths because the church and that specific church in and of itself is not worthy. They are not worthy because those gathered are sinners. The church will break your heart. It might even rip you limb from limb. It might even put you on a cross. That is what it did to the one you follow. The chief priests and the leaders of the people handed him over to be crucified. The lie that resides in the midst of the devil’s truth is that he has stolen the mirror. When you see a bunch of sinners, we should see our own reflection. Our churches have become devoid of the mirror. Which leads many of us to react like Bonhoeffer’s horrified righteous. We remain alone either because we leave that gathering of sinners, or because we become expert at helping our enemy hide the mirror.
The authentic community is a gathering of lepers who have come for the cure. “You sins are forgiven, go and sin no more”. Yes we will sin again. And we return again and hear the same words – 70 x 7. The authentic church gathers to hear both the healing and the charge. In the healing she finds her strength. In the charge she finds her hope. It will not always be this way, because hope will give way to fulfillment. The perishable will put on the imperishable. The corrupt will receive the incorruptible.
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” …Life Together
Bonhoeffer here captures some of the shallow and rocky points to which the devil can drive us where faith can be shipwrecked. We can see four of these shallow points prominent in the American church of today. We are afraid of being alone or of solitude so regardless of confession or creed gather together under “non-denominational” banners. These gatherings often happen to be the largest because we are afraid of solitude. Not that the smaller church is truly solitude, but because we have no firm words to stand up we need the mass of feeling. The feeling provided by amplified music, lightshows, choreography and well-honed rhetoric often devoid of actual substance. That is the typical mood affiliation of the modern right(eous). Likewise there is a mood affiliation of the modern left that also rejects words for the warm fellow feeling of those who truly “love”. Because of being afraid of being alone the definition of “love” is so broad as to encompass those outside of the church as if they were members of the body. There also exist those who afraid of solitude conjure up the communion of saints through words. Not that the words are wrong or that the communion of saints is false, but we are not after the real content of the words, just the fellowship with an entity we invoke with words we do not understand. Those are the three shallows of the modern church, but a fourth exists on its periphery – in the narthex and the site of baptism but not in communion. The forth shallow are those who refuse the fellowship opting for the vanity of personal spirituality. The sole purpose of such an unconnected faith is to substitute the true body of Christ with a body that looks more and more like ourselves every passing day. Such a love affair can go on for a long time, but meets a rude end when on the death bed this body proves unable to save.
These are the shallows we are called to recognize and avoid. The life of the church is one of feast and fast, of fellowship and of solitude. We believe with the heart and confess with the tongue. We do not neglect to gather, yet we also ensure that we have our own oil and examine ourselves.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” …Life Together
The last peril is actually believing that such a place deserving of our love exists this side of the Kingdom. Even Ephesus was recalled to their first love. Philadelphia kept the word but had little strength. This is one part of what it means to be Christlike. Seeing the manifold faults of the church that separate her from our dream community, we love her as Christ loved her. As long as we are with-holding ourselves for our dream community we will continue to persecute the church as she actually is. It is only love, which covers a multitude of sins, that knows fully. Christ has fully loved the church and knows her fully. Can we say to the member that Christ has washed “I have no need of you”? There is a still more excellent way that everyday creates and abides forever.