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Life in community: not in the playbook
One of the worst things about the Super Bowl, besides the relentless advertisers and the generally dull football game, is the endless coverage. For hours yesterday and throughout last week, sports writers and commentators gave us seemingly unending coverage of the game between these two teams, outlining every possible scenario, and wondering what the outcome of the game might be. In fact, on last year’s Super Bowl, over 93 million dollars were waged on the outcome of the contest.
In a sport that is so unpredictable, I’m amazed at the efforts that we go to try and make the uncertain certain. The reality is that the game itself is completely unpredictable—but I think that certainty, the idea that it might all be formulaic might be attractive to us (or to some of us). I mean who would have thought that the power would have gone out for 30 minutes? That San Fran would have made a game of it?
I think we can carry that idea into our life in Christ and community. It would be convenient if the Bible, for example, were just a list of rules that would teach us how to live our lives. If our beliefs were all codified in one place like a Constitution, we might find some comfort in that.
But life’s much more complicated than that. Especially life in a faith community. You could give it coverage for more than a week on ESPN, but I’m not sure how many conclusions you would draw. In that, in community, the dialogue that centers it is essential to it. So we’re doing community when we talk about community. We have a community of leaders that lead our community. And we serve a “triune God” (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) who himself is in community all the time.
And so, we have to try and fail at community, and above all love and forgive each other when we inevitably goof. We can make rules and come up with strategies and even get counseling through the hardest parts of it, but all of those things are flexible anyway. Community is pretty squishy if you ask me.
The writers of the Bible don’t record a systematic theology that acts like a “community for dummies” if you will. They tell stories, anecdotes, and write letters to specific groups of people—and even when we take those examples and make a systematic theology out of them, once we actually start playing the game, it doesn’t apply as perfectly as we thought. The humanity of the Scripture and its writers make it relatable. The Spirit sanctifies their work and makes it holy. Their communion with God makes it relevant to believers.
Jesus obviously gets that and in one of the discourses that Matthew (18) records in his Gospel, we see Jesus’ specific words on life in community. The two main ingredients he adds to the mix, the two essential things he attributes to community, fly in the face of any systematic formula. He stresses the importance of humility and forgiveness. They are the keystone of Christian community, which is the ultimate reality for Christians.
I’m trying to embrace love and mercy being central to our faith, knowing that our whole religion, our whole movement, our redemption and transformation, come from the power of forgiveness—God’s forgiveness of us.
At the start of Matthew 18, as is also recorded in Mark 9, the disciples are getting into an argument on the way to Capernaum about who is the greatest one among them. In Mark, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, and they stay quiet about. Matthew omits it from his version (maybe he was in the argument and kept quiet about it too). The importance of rank, or allotted position, was important to the disciples and their contemporaries and they naturally wanted to know where they stood
Jesus reverses their idea of greatness as the first element of community—be as humble as a child (not as a child humbles himself, however). Be dependent on God in your community and find him as the loving parent he is. Get taken care of, and know your weaknesses, submit them to God as you venture into community and get transformed.
We’re responsible for each other in community, it’s a group project that we are working on. We’re creating a culture of discipleship, and if our lack of discipline causes a child, or someone who has become childlike to follow Jesus, to stumble; there is a great a cost to that. Jesus’ hyperbole helps to deliver that level of importance—it would be more tolerable to hang a millstone around one’s neck and be drowned then to do something so egregious. And if you are bold enough to “hurt the conscience” of individual, it would be better for you to cut off your hand, or arm, or gouge out of your eye. Again, this is illustrative, poetic language that Jesus is using. I hope we can see the importance of that, without interpreting it dogmatically or using it as a platform from some broken theology that ends with everyone getting drowned without their arms or eyes.
Let the childlike among us into our homes, and communities, and love them well. I always that to my cell when we meet—well, we got together to love each other in the name of Jesus and we’ve accomplished our goals—the “content” of the meeting is less important than actually being the cell together.
Jesus continues to make his argument that we are to humbly love everyone around us and that is what defines his community. He again argues that God, despite his majesty and dominion over the whole world, despite his sovereignty and the magnitude of his mission, despite, in fact, not needing us to fulfill it (but rather offering us the beautiful gift and invitation of being engaged in it), he loves each of us so much, that he would chase after us and leave the whole flock behind to find his. Jesus follows us down whatever wretched path we take and never leaves us. He’s always with us. And he bears our sin, fully and wholly. He does that work, so that we don’t need to, so that we don’t need to fight for our own forgiveness.
Jesus never leaves us and always loves us. It might be easy to take this passage and actually think that it is now our responsibility to bear the burden of the whole world on our shoulders, to bear the community’s sin, and never have a conflict about it in the name of humbly loving all of the people around us.
But we not Jesus, we’re called to follow Him, but his redemption of the whole world is something that he’s already accomplished. The work that we do in community, looks much messier than that, and its much more complicated. Because once we start being a part of a community, an intentional one where we are living together, or even one where we are regularly interacting with each other. We start to see how messy things can get, how much we can hurt each other, and how we sin. And so Jesus knows that, and he knows we can’t just bear all of it on our own, as we go wandering after all the stray sheep. So what happens when a person sins against you?
Jesus of course, has a great way to respond. Resist the triangulation. That’s a great first step in working out a problem with a brother and sister. Start the dialogue with private reasoning. It’s the first step of love. And one of the reasons that it is effective, is that is allows for a dialogue that might help reveal in you why your brother or sister’s action hurt you, what that says about who you are, how you grew up, and you are growing now. It helps humanize the individual who “sinned,” so to speak, since it is almost never one person or another, but a more complicated process. So even when Jesus seems formulaic, if you actually go and have a dialogue with in individual who has wronged you, chances are everyone will end up apologizing and loving on each other.
I think most of our conflicts end here. And in fact a lot of intimate relationships begin here. Go and talk to the individual that wronged you, instead of holding in the resentment, the anger, and the hate. It’s great to dialogue. It’s good to do so with a plan and a time in mind, as opposed to right after your roommate broke all of your dishes, or left the toilet seat up again, or put away an empty carton of orange juice, or drank all your beer or something.
Of course, sometimes the dialogue gets a little heated, a little difficult, and we can’t keep our cools. Tempers can flare, fists can get clenched, knuckles get white, and someone walks out of the room. It’s good to take a time out, but returning to the conflict with a plan is good. Sometimes that plan involves someone else, it’s OK to ask for help. Sometimes we jump right away to mediation, but I think we should try to do it one-on-one first, and then bring someone else in it. Your cell leader, or pastor, or friends can be great helps in this case. The conflict is getting pretty intense at this point, and usually will get worked out then, but if we’re talking about serious cases of abuse, addiction, betrayal, violence, et cetera; the “church” can get involved.
The church, just like every individual in this scenario, has to be rooted in Christ and saturated with prayer before getting into this dialogue. A lot of times we end of condemning the prophets among us, the people who will guide us to a new truth that God is trying to reveal—developing eyes to see those people takes time and requires discipline.
The result if this doesn’t work is what we call “excommunication,” but Jesus leaves it a little open, I think. If the individual refuses to listen to the church, he says, treat him like you would a pagan or a tax collector. Jesus discipled those people and brought them along with him. They were those wandering sheep that he went after and transformed again.
We’re talking in hyperbole a lot in these stories. To reject someone complete and excommunicate them from the church is rare, and so Jesus again mixes it up again and it becomes hard to make a policy out of Matthew 18.
We actually need to have relationships with people, and we can’t reduce the whole thing down to an interpretation of scripture, for example. Knowing that we were all lost sheep that were saved by Jesus is important; that the gift he offered us is beyond value. That were all bought for a hefty price and that love and generosity that Jesus gave us is impossible to pay back, so it is our duty to try to forgive as endlessly.
Jesus’ disciples ask him, how long can we do this? How long should I forgive? He answers, as much as God the Father forgives you. You debt to God and your connection to him, you bondage to him really, is endless. So strive to allow your love and your forgiveness to be as endless.
That’s really the formula that Jesus offers us, and it’s not an easy one to follow to be sure, and so there is also some practical steps that he helps us to take when this seems impossible. We need to apply Matthew 18 because we can’t perfectly love. The difficulty that comes with that imperfection is knowing that God loved us so much and offers us such a gift, a gift we can’t live without, that we can never pay back. But to use that gift to its fullest and actually believe that despite our imperfection, that gift actually transforms us and purifies us completely—so that we can do the impossible, like endlessly forgive. May that be what is endless among us, that love and that grace, as opposed to endless commentary on how to do it perfectly. Or who’s going to win the game.