Community of Love: What on Earth?!
St. Paul wrote the following to the Church at Ephesus (Ephesians 3:14-19) -
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
You may have heard the observation more of a quip really: ‘The reason mountain climbers tie themselves together is to keep some of them from running home.’ I want to talk this morning about the importance of being together, sharing together, growing together and doing together; about being bound together as we Journey as Jesus’ followers, as we make our ascent - not literally with ropes but with bonds of love.
Something is being formed; there is something happening in the here-and-now, something that has been formed in the past and that continues to be built on this earth, intended to bring us together and keep us together to help bring us to our destination - something that manifests the eternal right here and now, on earth, that reveals God’s Presence and Love, and shows His Kingdom and its values to our world.
That ‘something being built’ is the Christian Church. And we remember Jesus’ promise that He do this - that He would build his church. I think that we get to help but we must be careful as we seek to do so. Maybe, sometimes, our failure to get it right means that Jesus has to re-build, not his whole church, but maybe some breach in the wall, or a crack in the plaster, or a corner where light ought to shine, but doesn’t anymore.
Paul was praying that the Lord's holy people might grasp how "wide and long and high and deep" is the love of God, a love that is to be demonstrated (lived out) in & through the Church. Ephesians 3 combines the dimensions of the ‘love of God’ with the dimensions of the Church. It is to be - we are to be: a Community of Love.
Churches go through challenging times. I want us to think together about ‘community’ so we can continue to build and rebuild if necessary, as God helps us. God is building a spiritual edifice that is marked by love. Why is that? Why has God called us out, brought us together, and is working in us to form community? What does He want to do in and through us, individually, but especially as a Body? What are the reasons, the responsibilities, the benefits? – and the purposes and ends? in other words: what are the dimensions of this building?
How can we practically strengthen Christian community, here? How do we make it better? Do it better? This people-of-God family-time that we share is the new beginning of new creaturely life and renewed fellowship with God and with each other in the redeemed community. It’s a holy thing , this cathedral, this Community of Love – and it is a people and a place to which we belong, as we believe and grow, and go. It’s is a context for preparation & for joining in the Mission of God as His People, in God’s Mission of reclamation of all people, places and things on this planet.
I have a friend who designed & built a large house on his estate-like property. He designed the context, the apparatus, what it would be made of. He knows every stone and glad and nail in that house, all the pipes and electric wiring. There’s a building, God’s building, being built; we can know more about it and contribute.
Paul is almost overwhelmed by the thought and prays that the Ephesians would at least get a glimpse of what’s really going on - something almost un-seeable, unfathomable, unknowable, except by eyes opened and minds expanded – almost blown, in wonder at God’s love, and experienced by us as we actually become the community God intends, in and for our world.
THE LOVE OF GOD
Christian Community is an expression & demonstration of the Love of God. How wide and long and high and deep is that love?
God so loved the world. . . . writes St. John in His Gospel. Later he writes in one of his letters: Don’t tell me you love God if you don’t love your brother; if you don’t love your sister.
Paul in a familiar chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 tells us what love looks like, acts like, what it effects and makes happen. It’s forgiving, patient and kind; it does not seek it’s own, delights when others do well; does not delight when others fail nor keep track of folk who wrong us. You know how it goes.
This agape (ah-gah-pay) love, that we’re to be known for, is a reflection, the expression of God’s love.
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.
God’s Love: have you discovered it? Are you demonstrating & distributing it to ‘your’ world? The world needs it, this love we have - to show & to share
We think of The Wider World & the Global Community, we see:
1. Community is difficult for us in the West. We very much value individuality.
Whether Leaf Nation or Ford Nation – or Bloor West Village, or life at the Beaches or ‘a taste of the Danforth’ or ‘a taste of the Kingsway’ - they’re all attempts to build community. It’s done for political or commercial ends, or community spirit, trying to join together with others to cheer for favorite teams, to build some sense of oneness. But mostly we likely to do our own thing, to pursue our own individual or family ‘rights & freedoms.’
It is really difficult to think of ourselves as one, as comprising one body. It is hard for us to agree with one other person (think of marriage a times), let alone three or four, and astonishing really to think that we might agree and share purpose and common cause with a whole lot of different & oft-times differing persons. In the US, It took a great Civil War (and civil wars are always the nastiest) to move beyond being a collection of individual states. ‘What have we done to each other?’ cried the Americans after the Civil War. Civil Wars are nastier than most others. ‘Let’s make even our enemies our friends,’ as Lincoln put it. ‘Let’s prove that we are better together.’ And the disparate ‘united states’ – these United States became THE United States.
2. The idea of the Commonwealth is also largely gone
Commonwealth comes from an old concept of the shared health and shalom of people, of their “weal.’ The community gathered together to feed, protect, nurture and advance itself. But so often today, it’s: ‘What’s in it for me? What are my benefits, my rights? How do I protect them?’ This is relatively new in history, but it’s the way we think most of the time. So, it’s difficult for us to think of ourselves as part of a larger body. But individual and group self-interests as main priorities are not the answer to life on this planet. We are to share life here. It takes a village, a community: takes us all. And the local church is to model that – as a community of love.
3. The Global Community Called ‘Christendom’ has mostly ended.
Lesslie Newbigin writes that ‘"We are the heirs of the Christendom experiment. “We . . . live in societies that have been shaped by more than 1000 years during which the barbarous and savage tribes of Europe were brought slowly and with many setbacks into a community conceived as Christendom – a single society in which the whole of public and private life was to be controlled by the Christian revelation. Much of what we take for granted about normal human behavior is the fruit of that long schooling. However much we rebel against it, we are its products. . . . Christendom is no more and we cannot go back to it."
And yet our world needs community. Wanting to belong is what street gangs are about. We were made to experience community, to be in family, to make progress in the Journey of Life, together. The Anonymous Groups show aspects of what a church can and should be. if you want to find out what a church could look like, you need only attend an anonymous group – for alcoholics, narcotics, and so on. Desperate people gather together to share their journey, to admit to who and what they are; to share their stories and to ask for each other’s help. They know their lives depend on it; they know they can call or text, in-between meetings, to ask for help, a listening ear a word of encouragement – just to know that someone is there.
God Wants to Heal and Save the World Through the Church; wants to demonstrate His love for the world in and through this Loving Community. Paul says (in Romans 12) – “in Christ, we though being many are one body.” We are a members of a family –God’s family, called out and brought together that we may grow and mature in Christ. There are a lot of things you can do by yourself; being a Christian isn’t one of them.
Think of all the different directions in which we have come. We came this morning to worship & minister to one another, to be together even though we have driven from Mississauga, Etobicoke, from miles away on bus and subway, some travelling for a half hour or so, or just minutes by car – while some have simply walked to be here together. But we are one body. I think of the characters in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ - from disparate and sometimes desperate backgrounds: humans, dwarfs & hobbits joining in a great adventure, a grand mission, and helping each other make progress in their shared mission.
Even Jesus didn’t do ministry alone! He started the church by discipling a small group of men and women. We forfeit a significant part of our growth when we do not join with other believers. George Buttrick argues, "For one to argue I do not go to church, I pray alone, is no wiser than if he should say – "I have no use for symphonies; I pray alone.” One Bishop of the Church, whenever he heard people saying, "I can worship God anywhere," used to say” – "O, but do you?!"
Individual prayer, reading the Scriptures, meditating in worship in the woods is great – but we cannot forsake the gathering of ourselves together if we are going to be spiritually healthy. Says Jean Vanier - “The process of becoming a community happens when the majority of its members make the transition from ‘the community for myself’ to ‘myself for the community.’“
Community is a Christian discipline, one that is often overlooked. And why is community so important? Because one of the primary ways God ministers to us is through other believers. Fellowship is not pizza and Coke after church; it’s the certainty that we’re in something together and that our common faith will keep us going no matter what. We need each other more desperately than we know. Community is an essential part of the thriving life.
What is the Church to be known for? What is This Church Known For? We talk about the community of faith, and that is good. We may be known for our moral standards and for our stands against immorality - and it’s natural for Jesus’ followers to want to live good and holy and fruitful lives and to seek the best in society. And I hope that our approach, disciplines and attitudes are more like Jesus than like the Pharisees in our lives. But Jesus said that we will be known by our love. So, we are to be first of all: a community of love, to live in such a way that our neighbours, our world, will see and say: ‘See how they love one another.
Years ago in Chicago, a man named D.L. Moody, who was after to become a world-known evangelist, when still a young man, built up a huge Sunday school that attracted hundreds of children and young people. One little ragamuffin boy was asked why he walked several miles to attend Moody’s Sunday school, answered: ‘Because they really no how to love a fellow there.’
The old hymn, Blest be the tie that Binds, seems a little corney & sentimental; but it’s all there, really: -
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
We need to be encouraged by the Community. Author Madeleine L'Engle wrote that she was "sustained by the deep rhythms of the faith." And such sustenance comes is when we are together in Christian community. The message of the day may be from the pulpit – or in the overall sense of belonging; or in the specific word of counsel or encouragement of someone to whom we relate as fellow members of the body of Christ. This Interaction in community is it itself healing as God talks to us through others, arrests us, encourages us., guides us.
The Communion Meal is about Community. – about ‘discerning the Body.’ Paul talks of that In his ‘words of institution and instruction.’ In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul rebuked some who met together for the Agape Meal, a gathering time that included what we now call ‘Communion.’ The rich folk who had more time and freedom got there early & managed to eat & drink up most of the bread and wine before slaves and other poorer believers could slip away to be with them – after work, for Communion.
“What kind of Community of Love it this?!” asks Paul, in effect. "You are not discerning the body! "Do not you know that you are to be one body in Christ and not have divisions among you?" The ‘body they were to discern included remembrance of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, but also each person in the local Body of Christ - the Church, that is ‘re-membered’ whenever we gather around the Table of our Lord. Both horizontal relationships in the community are in view, as well as our worship and response to the Lord who is present with us.
There’s an odd evangelist in novel I read once, called "Love Feast." He throws a Thanksgiving meal and invites anybody in town who will come. When they assemble, he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a great feast, a love feast, where no one is a stranger." Then he says,
"We all got secrets, hurtful things, long-ago things. We are all scared and lonesome but most of the time we keep it hid. It’s like everyone of us has lost his way so that we do not even know which way the way is, and we are too ashamed to ask. You know what would happen if we would own up that we are lost and ask? Why, what would happen is we find out home is each other; we’d find out home is "Jesus loves us" – lost or found or any which way."
Friends, At Communion we sit at a long, long Table. It stretches around the globe and back through the centuries to the last Passover meal Jesus had with his disciples - your remember, when he took the bread and of the cup and said ‘this is my body; this is my blood . . . ‘
Listen then to this Old Prayer of Invitation to the Table -
You that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith, and take this holy ordinance to your comfort . . .