The Ethos of Community

Renewal takes a tribe, or in modern day terms, a community. Now this is another a loaded word! The first question that comes to mind when I hear the word community is, “What in the world do you mean when you say ‘community’?” Everyone has a different idea of what it is, and for every idea of what community is, there are hundreds of different ways that each idea could be lived out.

So I am not going to give my opinion of what community is supposed to look like; that task is impossible because of all the various contexts and cultures that exist. What I hope to do though, is to paint a mental ethos of community and lay a foundation of some of the earmarks of healthy communities.

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher turned theologian, in 1964 founded a community called L’Arche in France. L’Arche communities are intentional places of living where those with intellectual disabilities are able to have a safe place to live and share life with others who have intellectual disabilities as well as those who do not.

A core ethos of L’Arche communities is for each community to display the “reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.” They desire to explicitly display “the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.” (see http://www.larcheusa.org/)

So as to not reinvent the wheel, I want to use the inherent qualities of L’Arche values as a means to lay a foundation or a framework for healthy communities, which I believe is a vital element of church renewal.

Welcome: an instance or manner of greeting someone with pleasure and approval.

Greeting someone with love and warmth is an acquired gift, especially when we’re greeting someone who is radically different than we are, and possibly offensive in the way they live. Community takes a welcoming spirit, or maybe as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, a spirit of hospitality. I was a Young Life leader for over a decade, and I have been associated with Young Life at an intimate level since 1994.

Young Life leaders (at least in my area in Phoenix) are some of the best “welcomers” I know. The spirit that Young Life exudes to kids in jr. and sr. high is one that is opposite of our everyday culture. Mainstream culture (Christian and non-Christian) typically says, “You can belong to our group once you behave a certain way and believe what we believe.” Young Life flips that cultural script and says, “You belong with us regardless of your behavior and beliefs.” This is risky business, but I believe it’s the right kind of business to be about.

For community to work and be healthy, it must start with a welcoming spirit that says, “You belong here, even though there are big differences between us.” Belonging precedes behavior and belief. This world view is at the heart of community.

Wonderment: a state of awed admiration or respect.

In the Christian, Judaic, and Sufi Islam world views, all humans have inherent value and worth because of the belief that we are all created in God’s image, which was later coined in it’s Latin form as the “Imago Dei.” If this doctrine were to be properly understood and fully believed, self-righteousness, biases, judgements, and racism would eventually fade away, and we will begin celebrating the beauty of our differences, rather than fighting about them.

Being thrilled about the gifts we bring to one another and respecting and valuing the differences of ourselves and other people is an essential element of healthy community. It is easy for us to be in a state of judgement and criticalness of each other, but to begin to be awed and amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of humanity is a part of every thriving community.

Wonderment ought to follow welcoming, yet this is a virtue that is mostly only attained after the church is caught up into the heavenly dimensions of the eucharistic life, which is the regaining of the mystery and the divine nature of the Lord’s table, and learning to see all of life as a liturgy of worship to God.

Spirituality: matters concerning the human soul (heart, mind).

To respect and admire someone and not care about the deeper parts of their heart and mind (the soul), are to not fully love and respect someone. As much as we can talk about being a community of welcoming and wonderment, we must not neglect being a community who cares for souls. With that said, welcoming people and finding wonder in our diversity is not an invitation to turn a blind eye to unhealthy living and destructive behavior. Much abuse is birthed inside the middle of tight knit communities, as the desire of a euphoric community becomes more important than individual human dignity.

In caring for the spirituality of a person and a community, we will be able to explore the deep parts of our hearts and minds and be changed in the midst of a welcoming community of wonder. It is in this context where behaviors are not coerced to get in proper formation, but challenged to promote peace and welfare for the individual and the whole. Caring for someone’s healing (body and soul) begins to be a natural corrective part of healthy communities, which will be able to offer space to those who need it. This type of community will respect boundaries, honors bodies and souls, and have self-respect and sincerity towards others.

Healthy communities labor towards minds being renewed, which leads to destructive habits and thoughts being challenged in love, and proper accountability that seeks the welfare of individual bodies and souls, as well as the corporate body. This might be the hardest value to embody in community, but we must labor towards this end, as spiritual realities always affect material realities.

As one is continually drawn into the presence of God on earth, it is clear to see that there is a spirit at work in this world other than the Spirit of God. It is a dark spirit that seeks to destroy body and soul (individually and communally). It hates diversity and destroys all creativity in community. It is a perverted spirit that seeks to twist and distort love, and it only has the the power to usurp, not to build up. This must be recognized in the spirit realm and addressed in community as the spirituality of individuals and the community is shaped.

Friendship: a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.

There are many forms of friendship that we could talk about, but at the most basic level, I take friendship to be a place where relationships are rooted, meaning, they do not run away after conflict and disappointments ensue. In our culture, where cars can take us far away from our neighborhoods and friendships, we have lost the sense of being rooted, and “sticking it out” with friends when trials come has not been a popular communal value among many believers.

In the local church context, it is easy with the advent of cars to find a new church community when friends and leaders stop giving us what we want, or stop serving our needs, seen only through the lens of what’s best for me. Friendship inside neighborhoods and communities seem to be difficult as well, since walking to stores and appointments isn’t part of our everyday culture. We get into our hollow metal shells and drive past neighbors daily, and most of our friends live a cars drive away.

A lack of rootedness in a particular place has made many friendships a shallow, social media type friendship that can cut you off if you offend, rather than a friendship that stays when things blow up. Friendship in healthy communities ought to include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, selflessness, mutual submission, compassion, confrontation, and the ability to royally “blow it” without losing the friendship. Friendships give, receive, and protect.

A lack of friendship may just kill community. When we love the idea of community more than we love people and desire true friendship, community will not thrive. Many seek community because of the good feeling they have in the beginning and the comforts than can be experienced. But for those who love the idea of community more than people, they will quickly run from community when the aura or people within the community stop offering what was desired. Love people more than your idea of community.

I believe church renewal depends on healthy expressions of communities in particular places and neighborhoods. I believe church renewal is dependent on new forms of community rising up being called “the church”. I believe church renewal will birth many forms of organic communities that embody the L’Arche values of community, that break bread together, regularly meet and gather and care for each other’s bodies and souls, and are a place of intimacy within the eucharistic life.

This is how fabrics of care can be created inside blighted hoods or disconnected suburbs, as neighbors form communities to band together to care for one another and for the needs of the under-served. Renewal happens holistically and organically, and until people know that there is a community to belong to, programs and organizations will not be able to have a sustainable impact.

I believe many Christ followers today are experiencing a “disorienting” call to step out of their current church expression and into something much more authentic and mysterious. And within this disorienting call, many of us struggle because we know of no other way to “do” or “be” church besides the modern, institutional approach. In addition, new believers are not embracing the formal way of “doing” church because in many ways it conflicts with their values, and they too are being called into something much more authentic and mysterious. I believe that new expressions of these types of ancient communities will lead the way in church renewal in the 21st century, as families, homes, businesses, and cities of those desiring to regain the life of the kingdom are transformed, and organic expressions of church communities become more of a norm.

I’m thankful for communities such as L’Arche, and leaders such as Jean Vanier, who have humbly and lovingly stepped out of the norm and allowed new forms of community to critique our old forms, and energize us to regain a new/old and prophetic way to live together.

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The Power of the Simple Life

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) is remembered for being one of the most powerful and influential Pope’s in Catholic church history, but he is also known for promoting and organizing crusades against Muslim rulers in Spain and in the Holy Land, and against heretics in southern France. This is not a great feat to be known for, but something about this Pope goes mostly unspoken of, is that he once had a vision.

During a meeting Pope Innocent III had with John Bernadone, he recounted this vision where the Lateran basilica (a basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) was almost ready to fall down. It is then that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, who was holding up the church with his own back bent underneath it, so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” said Pope Innocent III, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.”

This little man, dressed in rags, who lived a simple life, was the model of reform Christ had for His church in the 13th century, who was also known as St. Francis of Assisi. This simple man who lived a very simple and unassuming life style, established the Order of Friar’s Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the 3rd Order of Saint Francis for men and women who weren’t able to live lives of being itinerant preachers, which was later followed by the Poor Clares. Many of those names might not mean much to most of our ears, but what all these orders represented were safe havens for the poor and for those who desired to care for the poor. This was before social services was popular and goodwill was highly dependent up on the goodwill of neighbors. St Francis was a good neighbor. All of these orders serve Christ’s body in simple ways, devoting their lives to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Now fast forward with me over 700 years, and meet a women named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who joined a Catholic order for women that was birthed because of the simple work St. Francis committed himself to. In 1928 Agnes left her home at the age of 18, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, never again to see her mother or sisters.

Agnes was a teacher, and a good one at that, but she became more and more disturbed by the poverty that she experienced in her new home town. When a famine came to her city, death and misery followed, and violence broke out between Hindu’s and Muslim’s, leaving her city destitute, along with the people who lived there. This was the beginning of her next “calling within a call” to live simply, care for the sick, feed the poor, and befriend the dying as they await their last breath. All this was done with simple, unassuming means, and in the name of Christ.

Years later, and throughout more than 120 countries, her work is living and active, and lives beyond her life. Agnes is also known as Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and leaves a legacy of simplicity, with a passion to be Christ to the vulnerable, the sick, and the marginalized. Mother Teresa inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world.

As I remember the lives of John Bernadone and Agnes Bojaxhiu, I am left with ambiguity, and I question the world view that has been erected in Western Christendom, where the victorious and prosperous church is given more prestige than the poor and suffering church; where Christian ministry is often a movement toward relevance, popularity, social acceptance, and power; where numeric growth is more celebrated than sacrificial living and solidarity with the poor.

Yes, Christian ministry is always wrapped in good deeds and god intentions, but the glamour of ministry and the lure of success seems to get more attention than the Catholic Cherokee Hermit-ess Midwife who most will never know, but lives simply and profoundly influences many people on the margins of society. These stories make us remember that more is often done with less. Bigger growth happens as we become smaller. More radical change happens when we work with less, and have less to distract us. But this is not in our DNA, and we are left asking the question, “How has one small poor man, and one small poor woman accomplished so much?”

The “Christian” answer is “By the power of God, of course,” but God’s power empowered this man and this woman to live a simple, unassuming life, stripped of ego and desire for worldly gain, with a posture of humility and listening as they served others.

Simplicity. Through a very brief observation of two very popular Catholic saints whose legacy’s go far beyond their lives lived on earth, we learn that simplicity of life is a powerful tool in the hand of God to bring about great change in any generation. Names of men and women who had great power but used it for sordid gain, are men and women who you and I have likely never heard of. But saints who have lived simple lives, serving others and caring not about material gain, are known and spoken of worldwide as a model of Christ-likeness.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating a movement towards poverty, and I’m aware that some will only see that. What I am advocating for is a life that is committed to living simply in the midst of so much ‘stuff.’ The age of global advancement is among us with opportunities of great wealth and power, as well as the technology age that gives us access to so much information and opportunities to fill our time in front of a cyber-world-lit-screen.

Consumption is over the top in the West. The good economics of Capitalism has been exploited and used for selfish and evil purposes with seemingly no boundaries. In this unchecked system, life has become complicated and the power and wealth that was given to bless, has been turned inward. Church growth has been more focused on building a healthy budget, acquiring the right property, in the right neighborhood, with the right building space to set one church up for more growth of “butts in seats,” since the business model trumps the Jesus model (no pun intended). I see the simple life as a means for Christ to be truly seen and known in an increasingly self-centered, complex, consumeristic church life.

For renewal to be a reality in the midst of out-of-control globalization, lives of simplicity must rise up all over the world. In our churches, there must be those who commit to living simply; those who are committed to slow and patient discipleship that helps lead and develop men and women to be a holistically alternative community within the machine of global advancement; those who are stepping out of the mainstream view of success, advancement, consumption, and individuality; those who live with less food, less trinkets, consume less resources; those who take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him.

In an excerpt from “Three Temptations of a Christian Leader,” Henri Nouwen prophetically states: “Jesus asks us to move from concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people… The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deeper solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and bring the light of Jesus there.

 

We must challenge our Western notion of what it looks like to be “leaders.” To follow Jesus in a culture committed to over-consumption, individualism, financial success, and “fast” everything, I believe it’s imperative for the simple life to be mainstream again, as people begin planting roots in particular neighborhoods, living radically different lives that are alternative to the Western story, and more in line with God’s story.

This simplicity must penetrate the church systems and forms that arise in this next era of church planting, business development, and city engagement. The simple life has a powerfully corrective voice to those who only have one eye open to the problem of consumerism, materialism, and globalization. Jesus counter acts oppressive systems through small, simple acts of small, simple people.

This section is best summed up by the words of Tolkien via Gandalf, as he responds in Rivendale to Lorien’s question, “Why the halfling?” for the journey with the Dwarves:

“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things… everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid and he gives me courage” (From the motion picture, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”).

Thoughts About Justice and the Christian Life…

There is no peace without justice while we are living “east of Eden.” If shalom (universal peace and flourishing ) is the end goal of all of creation (human and non-human), then peaceableness is the top floor of shalom and justice is the bottom floor, the foundation; they are book ends if you will (read my thoughts about peace here).

So what is justice? In the Greek culture, justice most likely referred to the Greek goddess Dike, who would have been the personification of the virtue. This is where the Greek (and biblical) word díkaios would have come from, which means, “to be just, or right.” In the biblical sense, the word justice would imply not only the just execution of the law of goodness, but right living on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

The words “righteous” and “justice” seem to go hand in hand in the biblical narrative, and they actually could be defined by the term justification. In salvation terms, to be justified, is to be declared “right and good” before God and having been justly acquitted of one’s rebellion and brokenness because Jesus paid for what we deserved (justice) with his sacrifice.

So justice, in part, means to be free and forgiven of one’s inner and outer brokenness, and empowered to do what is right based on the freedom one has received. This is the long and difficult way of simply saying: justice is that state in which everyone receives what is rightful and appropriate. Since humans are created with certain rights (food, clothing, work), then a society is just when everyone in the society enjoys the goods that everyone has rights to. But a society is also just when there are consequences for those who have disregarded or kept others from these certain rights as well. A city that is just is a city that respects the dignity of every human, especially within the Christian worldview that believes that every human is created in the image of God.

At the least, in the talk of renewal, justice is absent whenever basic needs go unmet. This means that liberation from in-justice and repairs made because of the wrongs done are at the very core of justice. If one skimmed the Old Testament to search out who were some of the people whom God had special concern for in view of justice, you would see that it is the most vulnerable of society: widows, orphans, aliens, sojourners, the homeless, the naked, the hungry and the afflicted. And this justice was never a nationalistic priority that made one nation or one people group more important than another. Actually, we can see in the narrative of Scripture, when Israel took their nationality too seriously, or saw themselves as more important or elite and selfish, correction swiftly followed. Humans, universally, who are a part of the demographics of God’s special concern are to be an integral part of our every day relationships.

If we followed this theme throughout the Old Testament, it would be hard to ignore the loud and clear message that justice happens when the marginal ones are no longer marginal. And this Old Testament understanding of justice is fully embodied in Jesus, who was very concerned with those who were on the margins of society, those who were vulnerable and exploited by people who had the power, and in many cases, Western Christendom has been more about law and power than justice and service.

This can also be teased out to include all who have ever come to Jesus for salvation (the forgiveness of one’s sin and being declared right before God). We are all marginalized because of our brokenness, cut off from God, but because of God’s mercy and love for us, Jesus became one of us, to once and for all, deal with the rebellion and tyranny that we created, both internally and externally. God brought justice to humanity through the advent, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The righteous demands of the law, or in other words, the legal expression of God’s justice, were satisfied when Christ was put to death and suffered the torment of separation from God, in our place. In simpler terms, it is because the “just” paid for the “unjust,” that we can be granted mercy and grace as people on the margins, and be brought near to God (no longer making our home in the margins).

This is justice, which flies in the face of a Western view of justice, condemns all of us, if we indeed held ourselves to the standard of justice that we hold others to. Justice does not make sense to a world committed to the four P’s: power, progress, profit, and pursuit of happiness, and within this world view, many forms of churches in the West have been engrafted.

When we see injustice happening in our city, it usually means that we will have to miss out on one or all of the four P’s if we’re going to stand against it. There’s no money in it for those who want to plead the case of the widow, feed and clothe the naked, or stand against oppressive systems and structures that abuse and exploit the weak. Actually, downward mobility is to be expected if one is going to give their lives to this kind of justice, and it’s hard to build a church when downward mobility is one of the chief engines of church growth. This new ethos must be present in the renewal of the Western church.

The result of living a life of justice in the biblical sense in our 21st century Western society, most of the time, means that we lose ground on the four P’s of our culture and this is not very attractive, at least not long term. To see renewal happen in churches then, I am convinced that we will need an uprising of men and women who are willing to not be controlled by the P’s within the old institutional church model, and begin courageously living as an alternative community in the midst of our over-indulgences and commitments to the bottom line and financial sustainability of church business.

This will not be an easy lot for the pioneers of renewal, but justice has never been an easy virtue to live by. After all, justice on God’s part was very costly. The promise of comfort is very seductive, especially when faced with needed changes in lifestyle to begin standing against injustice. Ultimately, justice will always prevail, with or without us, but we do have a choice to get in on the fight for “justice.” It’s not attractive nor easy these days to stand for what is just and right, nor is it always clear what we should be fighting for.

I hope in this short article I gave you the beginnings of a blueprint with which to pray and meditate about what justice looks life in your life and among those around you. We are living within a contemporary Christian culture that has lost much of the ancient orthodox faith that has painstakingly been passed down to us and made Christian worship more about events, projects, and business, but not justice. I believe this “norm” must be renewed to have not just a biblical view of justice, but a biblical life of lived justice.

Christian Nationalism

The early Church began in the midst of a powerful Roman empire that had no patience for any sect, religious group, or leader that challenged the “lordship” of Caesar. Before Jesus came on to the historical scene, there had been many self-proclaimed “Jewish messiahs” who marched into Jerusalem trying to fulfill prophecy, gain a following, and essentially over throw the Roman oppressors who were thought to be the final evil empire before God would deliver Israel. After Jesus came on the scene, performed many miracles, and was eventually crucified, the Jews (and the romans in the region) thought that His “small” following would come to an end. 

When it did not end, but instead grew in number and in power, the Roman government eventually sought to declare the Church as a ‘heranos,’ or in English, a ‘private religious gathering’ rather than an ‘ekklesia,’ or a ‘public gathering’ that declared public truth (Light to the Nations, 180-181). The Romans wanted the empire to come first, and the new Christ followers knew that no nation could stand before their allegiance to the Kingdom of God. 

As we from early Church writings, they rejected this status and chose civil disobedience against the Empire, and they were eventually persecuted because of it, as they claimed to be “Kingdom citizens” over and above being “Roman citizens”. They called themselves the “ekklesia,” a public gathering in the public marketplace that declared a public (universal) truth that Jesus was Lord, not Ceasar. They had a higher standard of love and sacrifice to live by that the Empire didn’t share, nor honor. So after a few centuries of brutal persecution, the Church’s self-proclaimed name, “ekklesia,” became acceptable, prominent, and nationalized at the time of Constantine (the beginning of Christendom early 300’s AD). 

This is the beginning of a “Christian” Empire, one that once again placed the importance of allegiance to the Empire over and above allegiance to the Kingdom of God. Will your allegiance for the Empire shape your vision and action, or will you seek first God’s Kingdom, even if it means that you must not be completely faithful to protecting the Empire and its comforts? Herein lies the struggle and tension of nationalistic Christianity. Some would say it is no Christianity at all.

Church: Divine Household or Refined Methods?

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“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

The Spirit blows where he pleases or sometimes, he even chooses not blow at all. This should be scary to a church culture that has plans, methodologies, measurable outcomes, that guide them and determine how “church” is done. See, here’s the thing, the Holy Spirit will not be reduced to or restricted by our forms, methods, or measurable outcomes.

While I believe that smaller gatherings, in a home for instance, allows the body of believers a greater freedom to respond to God’s Spirit, just meeting in homes can become another method. The wonderfully dangerous thing about methods is that they leave us in control, feeling like we are the ones building the Church, determining her shape, her form and her methods.

So even a Home Church type movement is in danger of going the way of the institutional/larger church models, and indeed many home churches are anything but a biblical alternative with their hatred for anything other than their model (another false consensus effect in action). Any form claiming to be “the right way” of doing/being the Church is in danger of missing Jesus and quenching the Spirit of God. We need to continually ask ourselves, “Who is building the Church?”

The only one who is truly building the Church is Jesus Christ, who is the same reality and substance that replaced and reformed old models and shadows and rituals of the days of old (Hebrews 8:5-6). Jesus, the One who is greater than the Temple, greater than nationalistic Churches, and greater than our Western institutions, is among us today! What’s He saying?

As the late Brennan Manning says, “There is no need to mince words. I believe that Christianity happens when men and women experience the reckless, raging confidence that comes from knowing the God of Jesus Christ.” And it is precisely these people who become “the Church”, the gathered family of God, experiencing Jesus, and therefore able to truly offer him to those who don’t know Jesus.

We do not build a building in Roman form and call it “the Church.” We do not have special organizations or religious institutions in which we call “the Church.” What is the Church? It is the people of God living in union with Christ and His whole family within the household of God. It is the family of God building one another up into the fullness of who we were meant to be. Family discipling family, growing up, maturing, and inviting those on the margins into their family dinners, offering adoption in Jesus’ name for all who believe. That’s the Church.

Our religious procedures and techniques, even the home church kind, can be the enemies of the real Church, God’s people. Through mimicry, we can hinder the realization of what we endeavor to be. God has not called us from the building of institutions to the building of home churches or smaller, more intimate gatherings. No, He has called us to gather around his Son, Jesus, in the glorious communion of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, and give him freedom to continue to form it in new and fresh ways.

Jesus, the Christ, is the starting point. His Spirit is now in charge. He’s our life, our joy, our power, our starting and ending point. He is the form we are to conform to, which gives us freedom to gather in new and fresh ways, in patient slow ways, in seemingly insignificant ways, and in ways that are rooted in particular places, caring for a particular neighborhood or people group. Jesus gives us freedom to be the Church in new contexts and at new times, other than in church buildings on Saturday night or Sunday mornings.

Our heritage of over 1700 years of being preoccupied with various forms and methods that do not produce life, forms of godliness without power, is very hard to kill in us. The title “Methodist”, given to one of the major denominations, describes the mindset of many of the institutional churches of our day, looking for the right method.

The Reformation was more external than internal in many ways, although many great doctrinal changes were made as well. Most of the changes however, were in the material form, which led to all the bloodshed that came with the reform. Much of the reform was void of the Spirit. The doctrine of “Salvation by grace through faith” was clearly established, yet death would come to those who disagree with them. Is that what following Jesus produces? Concern with external reforms has been the center of most Catholic and Protestant reforms.

Have we forgotten that we, the 21st century Church, are represented by Israel in the Old Testament: “But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway…” Jeremiah 18:15

We are the family of God, the body of Christ Jesus, forming the divine household of the Trinity. Within the household of faith, life takes one form and one form only: Jesus. The true Church is the body of Christ without walls or divisions. What was the first century church concerned with? Following Jesus; not a method or even a movement called “Christianity”. That was the first century model and could be ours today as well. This is the form. This is Church 101, 201, and 301. The Church is nothing more than God’s family re-gathered around Christ Jesus and reconciled to one another, breaking down walls of division, offering Jesus to all, constantly reforming, and listening to the Holy Spirit to encourage and critique what she’s doing.

Religious movement is what happens among “Christians” when Christ is absent. My prayer is that God would make our religion obsolete in the face of Jesus Christ, that church would once again become a divine household of people instead of a refined form of gathering.

The Body of Christ

In the book of Ephesians, the word body in the Greek language is sṓma, which means “an organized whole made up of parts and members; a body, a collective mass.” In other words, the whole body of Christians collectively, of which Christ is the head. This word shows up in the book of Ephesians many times (1:22-23; 2:15-16; 3:6; 4:4, 11-12, 16, 25; 5:23, 30) (see also Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:13, 27; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15).

There is a very striking illustration in 1 Corinthians 6:15 regarding the body of Christ (the Church), where Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” If you are a disciple of Christ, then you are a “member”, joined as a part of the body (family) of Christ, and the parts of your body are parts of Christ’s body. And this body feels what the other parts of the body feel. It also hold the body accountable to take care of itself when it’s hurting, neglecting itself, hurting others, etc.

We’re not Christians, we’re ‘family members’ joined by and with Christ, with a mission to make His beauty and worth known over every earthly treasure. Jesus Christ has a body here on earth. It is called the Church. She has legs to go to the places that Jesus would go. She has arms to do the work that Jesus would do. She has mouths to say the things that Jesus would say. She has backs to carry the burdens that Jesus would carry.

Paul said that his aim in life was that “the life of Jesus might be made known to others in his mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). In other words, his aim is that his body might make Christ’s body real to the world. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you follow me, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Love, not self-centered interest, or nationalistic commitment over the good of your neighbor.

Since this is not alway the case, Jesus calls out religious short-sightedness in Matthew 23:23c: “…you neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” It’s this kind of neglect from among those who identify themselves under the term Christian, that misrepresents Jesus’ body.

It seems we as a church in all our forms and commitments, have often neglected the weightier matters of God:

– We’ve been far too focused on success…

– We’ve been far too concerned with entertainment and comfort…

– We’ve been far too consumed with material goods…

– We’ve been far too obsessed with being the best…

– We’ve been far too competitive with our neighbors…

– We’ve been far too promiscuous with others…

– We’ve been far too neglectful to the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner

– We’ve been far too quick to conform to the patterns of this world…

– We’ve both far too blind to injustice and the imbalance of powers…

– We’ve been far too committed to the American dream

God’s people are willing to humble themselves, receive the correction, and let God’s spirit change them from the inside out. We’ve all blown it. We’re all among those who are far too something… Christianity isn’t about perfection, it’s about death. God’s people are willing to die, to admit when they’re wrong or have blown it.

They are people who embrace brokenness, who boast in their weakness, and look for ways to serve the least, the last, the lost. Again, this is not a perfection competition, but a death sentence. A death sentence that places the Jesus follower into a tomb that becomes womb. The new birth that takes place after the death, is like ashes on forest floor, oil on dry skin, water in a dry desert, forgiveness from an enemy. A new life is willing to be poured out and consumed like the elements of communion, so that others might have access to God, or be refreshed, included,  The bride will not always look like this, but she also will not blatantly ignore these corrections either. Her heart will be soft and teachable, eventually.

The late Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, writes this in 1967 with her message being addressed to the church: “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”  “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter”, The Catholic Worker, January 1967, 1, 2.

The body is the bride. She is messy. She is adulterous. She does not act like a bride of a king at many times. She has members, and those who claim to be members, and they both shall remain together for now. She is often entangled in affairs that makes the groom cringe. She is in many ways lost. She needs to run back to her first love. She needs a conversion of the heart, not a reform of methods or a GOP who can give her the freedoms she wants. It will take humility and love to move forward, and I know God’s people will rise up to the challenge.

Diversity and Unity: Necessary Inconveniences

This past Sunday evening we gathered together with various churches, denominations, ministries, ethnicities, and generations. To say it was beautiful would be an understatement. It was so utterly normal and unimpressive on so many human levels, but the message this gathering shouted reverberated throughout my soul. It shook the heavens. It defied cultural norms. It was a corrective to the usual Christian gathering.

Each church/ministry/ethnicity/gender was able to contribute to our time of worshiping Jesus. Multiple gifts were exchanged. Blessings were offered. Confessions were made. And the Lord’s table brought us together as one broken body. All this was done on a Sunday night when some families were stressed trying to get there, others sacrificed other routines, and a night at home to rest alone or with friends and family was forsaken.

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The inconvenient exchange was a night to display the brining together of diverse peoples and beliefs, a foretaste of the “every tongue, every tribe, every nation” reality that is proclaimed in the book of Revelations. It was beautiful, but disrupting of rhythm and comfort, and as we all worshipped together, I couldn’t help but to reflect on the way in which we’ve formed our typical weekly worship experiences.

We live in a culture that is fairly homogenous (ethnically, denominationally, generationally, etc.) when it comes to Christian worship. Some say we’ve splintered the table of the Lord into little pieces, and each Sunday we partake, we are only getting scraps compared to what God intended to offer his people. I’m not sure about that, but I do know we’ve been divided over the Lord’s table, and as the words of a good friend once said, ” It’s not our table to divide.” Some will read this and begin to defend their church, or stance, etc. My point isn’t to stir up a defense, but to call us to something altogether different than what we’re normally used to.

I’m reading a book by James K.A. Smith entitled You Are What You Love. In this new book, he shares a short vignette about the polar expedition of the USS Jeanette in the late 1800’s. The whole mission was established on a faulty map and false visions of what the Arctic was really like. In short, the ship and crew got stuck in polar ice, only to break free months later and eventually parish in the cruel Arctic. After this vignette he writes this:

“We become misdirected and miscalibrated–not because our intellect has been hijacked by bad ideas but because our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing… this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart… More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do – and what those practices do to you.” 22

It’s my opinion that our ideas of church and how we form as corporate entities have been terribly misguided by cultural homogenous norms. What we do and how the practices of what we do actually affects us is not fully known. But what we do know is that we are changed by the habits we have in life. What we believe to be the way life is supposed to be is made known to us by how we behave, who we gather with, and the things we make time for. What we love shines brightly in our thought life and in the way we organize our social world.

To say we love diversity and unity and are “All for it!”, yet have little to no experiences of eating, praying, worshiping with those who are radically different from us, is to prove that we “like” the idea of diversity and unity, but we do not “love” it. We are not committed to it. We make time for the things we love. We sacrifice other good things to ensure our “loves” get primary time in our lives.

This is precisely why a worship gathering with those who love Jesus and are of various ethnicities, tribes, denominations, and generations is a corrective voice to our typical way of living. These gatherings stimulate our prophetic imaginations. This is why an evening like last Sunday is worth the inconvenience, discomfort, or any awkwardness you may have while joining a gathering like this.

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We’ve had many cultural practices that compete for our hearts, our loves. And if diversity and unity isn’t an intentional part of our lives, it will be left out every time, and we will either admit we don’t really love it, or will make excuses as to why diversity and unity aren’t a major part of our Christian worship.

What are you calibrated to? What is it that you love? Be slow to answer these questions. Take a life survey of the last month before you answer. Who do you hang out with? Who do you worship and pray with most? What’s your church look like? Does your church intentionally connect with other ethnicities and denominations? Or are the gathering mostly a single local church focus? What events are promoted in your tribe?

I hope you can admit with me that we can do better, that we have work to do. We have some decisions to make and some things to consider sacrificing for the sake of glueing the splintered table of the Lord back together, metaphorically of course. And we need to be able to do this in humility without pointing the finger; offer a voice of correction, YES… start accusing certain people, churches and movements, NO. Look around you. Who’s crossing the aisles, joining other tribes, carving out space to do life together with those who are different than they are?

Join them, but don’t leave your church. Invite others from your tribe to join you. Be a change maker, a trendsetter. Make it attractive and mainstream to be uncomfortable and uncommitted to homogenous worship gatherings and leadership teams. We need new normals, and I know that our time this past Sunday night was one of many of gatherings that have already been laboring towards this end. I pray for more to come and for a flood of professed Jesus lovers to welcome inconveniences for the sake of diversity and unity.