First Mennonite Church
May 16, 2021
Called to Live in Community
Texts: Ephesians 2:14-15; Galatians 3:26-29
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam explores the increasing social void many people are experiencing today. There is a sense of emptiness regardless of the pervasive materialistic society that we are and a sense of loneliness despite the fact that the majority of people now live in mostly urbanized contexts. Putnam’s study shows that in the last twenty-five years, attendance at club meetings has dropped 58 percent, family dinners have dropped 43 percent, and having friends over has dropped by 35 percent.
It seem that people are avoiding making real connections with others. Community life is threatened by our culture that prioritizes the individual and which encourages the individual to achieve self-fulfillment independently from others. And that is the trap for all, including the people that make up the church. The price for such an approach to life is disconnection and a profound sense of loneliness.
Frederick Buechner writes:
To be lonely is to be aware of an emptiness which takes more than people to fill. It is to sense that something is missing which you cannot name.”
We are still crawling out of a historic pandemic, of lockdowns, and social distancing. Yet, despite the freedom there was before the pandemic, to gather, to congregate, and to indulge in social life, loneliness was still pervasive problem in our society.
It is so ironic that although we crave to be in community, that is, to be allowed into other people’s lives and to allow others into our lives, we are also afraid to open ourselves to others and afraid to receive others into our lives.
We are born into a world rife with all kinds of divisions. In some cases the lines of division run deep and the barriers of separation between one and the other seem unsurmountable. There are ethnic, economic, religious, cultural, and ideological lines that separate us from one another. Just take a look at one of the least harmful of cases. The die-hard fans of any given sports. The grandfather was a fan of such and such a team and at his grandson baby shower, the baby is proudly given his first jersey with name of the team emblazoned on it. The baby will be born into an already fixed circle of people and in some way different from the rest. Only think of other types of sociological divisions that go down from generation to generation, such as ethnic prejudices, politics, or religion. All these forms of social differentiations perpetuate the human condition of being separated from one another.
We know that God created mankind with a need to live in companionship. “It is not good that man should be alone,” God said in Genesis. God created human beings to live in community. It is only there, in community, that we can develop our God-given potentials and achieve our divine purpose of loving God and neighbor as ourselves. In quest of forging social connections, people throughout history have formed tribes, guilds, cities, nations, and many other ways to satisfy this need. The unfortunate result is that humans ended up being further more divided and separated from each other.
It is within this sociological reality where Jesus comes calling followers to become a new humanity. It is out from this splintered world that Jesus comes calling his followers to become brothers and sisters. Thus, everyone who Jesus calls comes from a different sociological background, everyone has a particular personal story, and some might even be raised in a different part of the world. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges this group of people have is that out of such vast diverse people they are to become one people and a new humanity. They are called to reflect God’s original intention when he created Adam and Eve. But, unlike Adam and Eve, to them has been given the potential to achieve that, but not on their own wits or power. Jesus is the glue that holds them together. Therefore, life in community should be the natural cornerstone of our being in Christ. He holds us together and the Holy Spirit empowers us to overcome every difference we might come with. It is the Spirit of God who fits and enables us to become useful in the body of Christ. It is by the power of the Spirit of God that we can become one body, one community, and one people.
We are meant to be part of the community of God’s people. We are meant to seek the wellbeing and interest of the other ahead of our own first (Philippians 2:4).
That is what Paul says in Ephesians
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:14-15
In Galatians Paul also writes:
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).
In the passage to the Ephesians, Paul is speaking about Jews and Gentiles being brought together to form a new community in Christ Jesus. Paul says that Jesus nailed on his cross all the differences there were between these two groups. Jesus reconciled these two extremely different groups of peoples. Christ was their peace. He did so by removing every animosity that existed between Jews and Gentiles. And in the passage to the Galatians, Paul says that through baptism, every social marker that used to separate the children of God is erased and overcome. In Christ, master and slave can sit together and share in the body of Christ. The hierarchy that kept people subjugated one to the other, based on gender, economics, or social status has been nullified once they are baptized in Christ. Therefore, we who have been baptized in Christ are brothers and sisters. In baptism, every social marker ceases to exist, is invalidated, and we all become members in the body of Christ.
Central Christian Church in Phoenix, AZ, has a practice that exemplifies not only the equality symbolized in baptism, but also the radical focus of those baptized. When people are baptized in this church, they are given a T-shirt with the words “Made for more than just me.” That is exactly what Jesus calls us for, to look not only on our own interest, but on the interest of the other.
Jesus called a disparate group of people to be his apostles. Among them were fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, the equivalent of a guerilla fighter, two hot-tempered brothers, James and John, and one with sticky fingers, who became the betrayer. We are only told of two occasions when the disciples were at odd with each other. Once was because they were disputing for positions of power. The other time, was when they were angry against the two brothers for asking Jesus places of honor in his coming kingdom. But who knows how many more times they fought amongst themselves but were not reported. But it was to that diverse group of characters who Jesus called with the purpose of becoming an alternative community in the world, a new humanity. And as recorded in the book of Acts in the NT, shortly after Jesus ascended in to heaven, those who believed and were baptized shook the world. Their way of life became a stark contrast to the way the world lived. They were radical in their hospitality, by sharing everything in common. Although the group of believers was so diverse, it became as of one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32).
It is Jesus who decides who will be our fellow disciple and he has no preference about whom to call. We are not the ones who make the call. And he has call you, and you, and me, and all of us. We don’t have much in common. He has called abled-bodied people as well as people with disabilities. He has called those who have more means than others. The Lord has called us from every kind of family backgrounds and yet he calls us to form a new family.
How sad and further more divided our world would be if Christians only seek those who share things in common with them to be their members. How ineffective the church would become and more similar to other social clubs of like-minded people if all its members were alike in every aspect. It certainly will call the attention of outsider, but for the wrong reasons.
Fortunately, Jesus is the one who decides who our fellow brother and sister are and will be. Therefore, life in the community of God’s people begins when above all things, being a disciple of Jesus is our primary identity. The starting point for this life in community is by being clothed in Christ. Every outer sign and every worldly marker have been covered with the garment of Jesus’ righteousness. We have been robed with the clothes of Jesus who is our peace. That means having Jesus in our heart as Lord and Savior. Therefore, our first and foremost identity is Christ. Above everything else, we are Christians, not a teacher, not a retiree, not a sales person, not a republican or democrat, not Hispanic or Black or Caucasian, not rich or poor, but a follower of Christ.
Community life is not only having connections with others. Facebook and other social media users have connections, but it is superficial. Anytime someone finds something they don’t like about the one who they are connected with, they just drop him or her off. So often you hear people complaining about being “unfriended” by their social media friends. Community life is a life where we open ourselves to welcome others into our lives. Their wellbeing is our wellbeing. Or as Paul would put it, we rejoice when our sister rejoices. We mourn when our brother mourns. We hurt when others hurt. We become God’s presence to our brothers and sisters. Life in community is more than just being physically close to others. Being physically close to one another is the easy part about church life. Life in community means we honor each other’s story. We listen to them with open heart and without judgement. It means we help them carry their burdens, whatever those might be. Life in community means we cherish each other’s gifts and talents. We nurture each other.
My dear brothers and sisters, God designed life, and particularly the life of faith, to be a shared one in the context of the community of God’s people. God never calls anyone to live the life of faith alone, by him or herself. God almost always calls people from within the community, so that they can flourish in community. God is day by day making us into one people, so that we might give witness to the transforming power of God to a world that is so divided. We are God’s new humanity that lives and learns to love in the context of community. Amen!
 Frederick Buechner, Whistling In The Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York HarperOne, 1993).