1. Christianity is necessarily communal.
There is no such thing as an individual Christian. Certainly there are times when a Christian can be alone, but to be a Christian is to be incorporated into the body of Christ. In the words of N. T. Wright: “It is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself.”
Furthermore, because being a Christian means participating in the mission of God, and because God's mission is rooted in a love that actively pursues reconciliation and shalom, one cannot be faithful to one's Christian identity apart from community.
In this regard it is helpful to look to the ministries of both Jesus and Paul.
In relation to Jesus it is worth asking, “Why did Jesus engage in a three year ministry?” After all, if Jesus simply came to “die for the sins of the world” (or something like that) then why bother wandering around for a few years? Why not just get it over with? We need to realize that Jesus did not just come to die, he came to live — and in that living he intended to found an alternate community — a newly constituted “Israel.” Jesus wants to make sure that there will be a community of faith to continue his work after he is gone.
In relation to Paul it is worth noting that Paul's letters are all written to faith communities, and not to individual Christians. Paul is not so concerned with seeing people develop “personal relationships” with Jesus (although such language should not be dismissed altogether), as he is with developing communities of faith that live subversively in the midst of the Empire. As Michael Gorman says: “the ekklesia, then, is not for Paul an optional supplement to a private spirituality of dying and rising with Christ. Rather, the ekklesia is what God is up to in the world: re-creating a people, whose corporate life tells the world what the death and resurrection of Jesus is all about. This people, the 'Church,' lives the story, embodies the story, tells the story. It is the living exegesis of God's master story of faith, love, power, and hope.”
Indeed, the entire biblical narrative, is the story of a people. Our focus on particular persons — beginning with our Sunday school lessons that focus on individuals — like King David or the Prophet Elijah, or whomever, often causes us to forget that a King is only defined by his role within a nation of people, and that even the prophets lived as communities of prophets within the community of Israel, and so on and so forth. There is no way to live alone within this narrative.
Finally, it is also worth noting that, given the fact that the Christian God exists as a community (Father, Son, Spirit), it is not surprising that humans, who are created to reflect God's image into the world, must exist as a community as well.
2. Therefore, as Christians, we pursue community because we wish to be faithful.
Community is “hot” for a lot of reasons right now. As our culture reacts to the hyper-individualism of modernity, a new “postmodern” tribalism has developed. More and more, intentional relationships, small communities, are seen as the solution to our failures, our loneliness, our fractured lives, and our sufferings. In this regard, the pursuit of community is simply an extension of the cultural pragmatism that continues to be a driving force in the West.
However, Christians do not pursue community because that seems to be the pragmatic thing to do. We pursue community because we want to be faithful to God's calling. It is only being rooted and grounded in this faithfulness that will sustain us when the current fad for community passes. It is only faithfulness that will cause us to remain in communities that fail to solve all our problems (and all communities will fail in this regard). Faithfulness leads us beyond idealism and sustains us in the midst of a reality that is often a lot more hard work, and a lot more miserable (or just plain annoying) that we first thought. Read Nouwen, read Vanier, read the monastics, or any others who have lived and worked within an intentional community and you quickly learn that community is not the be-all-end-all utopian state that we imagine it to be. Faithfulness, and not idealistic fictions, causes us to remain.
3. Christian community is sick unto death if the confessing members of Christ's body are separated from the crucified members of Christ's body.
Mt 18.20 is often seen as one of the central verses upon which the sacramental nature of the Church is founded. Jesus is present wherever two or more are gathered together in his name. Or, stated another way, those who gather together confessing Christ, are members of the body of Christ.
However, although it is generally ignored in this regard, Mt 25.31-46 is just as important to our understanding of the nature of the body of Christ and Jesus' sacramental presence in the world. Within this passage Jesus tells us that whatever we do (or do not do) for the “least of these,” we do (or do not do) for him. This means that Jesus is also sacramentally present within this group of people. Liberation theologians are correct to remind as that the poor are the tangible crucified body of Christ in history. Thus, those who are crucified by the powers of today are also members of the body of Christ.
Therefore, if the Church is to be the Church these two groups, the confessing members of Christ's body and the crucified members of Christ's body, must be united with one another. When these two groups are not united the body of Christ is fundamentally fractured.
Indeed, if these two groups are not united, it is likely that the body of Christ is “sick unto death.” What do I mean by this phrase, “sick unto death”? I mean, on the one hand, that the crucified members are bound to die if the confessing members are not united with them. After all, when the poor are abandoned, they are abandoned unto death — death caused by disease, by hunger, by violence, by addictions, by neglect, and so on and so forth. However, I also mean, on the other hand, that the confessing members who just do ignore the poor may also be sick unto death because of this decision. Indeed, this is precisely the point that Paul makes in 1 Cor 11.17-34. The wealthy members of the church in Corinth were gathering together and celebrating the Eucharist in such a way that the poor were ostracised and (at best) treated as second class citizens. What was the result of this, according to Paul? The result was that wealthy members of the congregation were falling ill and dying! Indeed, living in this way reveals that one is not living under Jesus' lordship but is allowing one's life to be dictated by other lords — wealth, honour, social status, etc. — and all of these lords ultimately serve one lord — death. Thus, when the confessing members of Christ's body neglect the poor they serve the kingdom of death, and not the kingdom of God, and they are, accordingly, claimed by their lord. These are hard words indeed!
Thus, the union of the confessing with the crucified in community is an essential element of Christian faithfulness. As Jean Vanier reminds us, we come to the poor “not just to liberate those in need, but also to be liberated by them; not just to heal their wounds, but to be healed by them; not just to evangelise, but to be evangelised by them.”
4. Consequently, the Christian community must be known as a risk-taking community of suffering love.
The proposition that “love is absolutely essential to Christianity” seems so obvious that it barely registers with us. We read that proposition and think, “well, of course it is,” and then move on. However, given the violence, division, and hatred that is embodied within, and proclaimed by, much of contemporary Christianity, we would do well to pause here.
In particular, it must be stressed that, for as long as the world is broken, suffering is an inescapable element of love. Really it is quite simple: if the one I love suffers, my love causes me to suffer with them. It is the suffering of our love that makes our community — our solidarity — genuine. Any community that seeks to flee from suffering will always be superficial. Alas, too often the Christian community has been presented as that which will lead us away from suffering. In reality, the Christian community is the community of those who sustain one another in the midst of suffering until the day when all sufferings are put to an end.
Furthermore, we must realize that love is about the pursuit of a trajectory, and is not about the achievement of a static state. That is to say, love leads us into ever deeper levels of intimacy with God and with one another. Thus, in my life time, I never come to a place where I can say, “I am adequately loving my neighbour and my God.” Indeed, love itself leads me to discard that way of thinking, for love delights in loving ever more. Thus, like Jesus, we pursue a trajectory of love that leads us to be poured out more and more for others.
Yet this is a hard road, for it must be remembered that it was only on the cross that Jesus was able to say, “It is finished.” Only in the moment of being utterly poured out, poured out unto death, can we say that our love has arrived at the static place where movement ceases. And even then, because Christ has triumphed over death, this cessation of movement is but a pause before our resurrection by love into love.
Thus, Christian love is essentially cruciform. It is shaped by the form of discipleship that is defined by cross-carrying.
Furthermore, this Christian openness to suffering (combined with previously mentioned union of the confessing and crucified members of Christ's body) causes the Christian community to be a risk-taking community. This is the folly of love, for love does not know fear — or at least does not allow its actions to be controlled by fear. This risk-taking folly, this irresponsibility, manifests itself in two central ways.
On the one hand, love leads us to journey into dark places so that those who are abandoned there can discover the presence of God among the godforsaken. Thus, love enters into places of violence and of illness and risks suffering there. Love leads us to walk into alleyways at night and talk with prostitutes and drug dealers, just as it leads us to embrace lepers and share the kiss of peace with those who are infected with various diseases. We do this because we believe that love's infection is stronger than violence and disease. Indeed, even if we suffer violence and illness ourselves we remain convinced that, even in these things, we are more than conquerors (as Paul reminds us in Ro 8).
On the other hand, love leads us to confront the powers who continue to oppress the poor and destroy the earth. As Jim Wallis once said (before he got confused and mistook the State for the Church), “prophets speak hard words from broken hearts.” Thus we speak against government officials who favour the rich over the poor; we speak against police officer who beat, rob, and rape, homeless youth; we speak against corporations that steal the resources and children from other nations. We risk confronting those who are more powerful than we are, not simply because we love those who are oppressed, but also because we love the powerful and long to see them set free.
Thus, our love for the poor leads us to a risky solidarity with the poor, just as our love for the powerful leads us to a risky confrontation with the powerful.
Furthermore, in loving in this way, we do not only risk ourselves, but we allow our loved ones to risk themselves, and sometimes we even risk our loved ones. I do not merely take this risk, we take this risk together — and by taking this risk together we are able to sustain one another when things go ill for us. It is essential that we realize this point within our contemporary context because it is the (supposed) desire to protect loved ones from harm that is the single greatest justification for violence in our world. Christians are those who are willing to even expose loved ones to harm until that day when all violence ceases. More hard words!
5. Finally, Christian community is superficial and largely inconsequential unless it is an eschatological community formed through the practice of counter-disciplines.
To be an eschatological community, is to be a storied community. This means allowing the biblical story to define our existence, and this requires us to live with both memory and hope. Over against the popular desire to “live in the now,” Christians are those who proleptically and hopefully embody the future in the present based upon their memory of God's past actions and promises.
It must be noted that this is a deeply subversive way of living, for it is memory and hope that empower us and encourage us to create transformation here and now. Losing these things, losing our story, leaves us at the mercy of the powers that be and gives their story control over our lives.
Thus, if the Christian community is to be genuinely Christian, it must be a community of discipline. This is true in part because our culture — despite popular opinion — is a disciplined culture. From infancy we are disciplined to desire certain things, we are disciplined to consume, and consume more all the time; we are disciplined to be suspicious of all authorities by ourselves and our own desires; we are disciplined to hope in the State; we are disciplined to hope for very little real change; we are disciplined to have our lives follow the same patterns as everybody else; we are disciplined to pursue distraction; and so on and so forth.
Therefore, Christian communities must exercise counter-disciplines if they are to live meaningfully in our context. Thus, we are disciplined to call Jesus “Lord,” and not Caesar, or the President, or whomever. Thus, we celebrate a liturgy that reminds us of our story and shapes our life by a very different pattern, and we follow the Church calendar, recognising that is is seasons like Advent and Lent that define us year to year — and not holidays like Thanksgiving or Veterans Day or whatever. Thus, we are taught to live simply and compassionately and not extravagantly and selfishly. In this way, we become agents of God's new creation and not members of the status quo.
Five Propositions on Christian Community
1. Christianity is necessarily communal.