The Purpose of Community – Part 1

Jimmy JoCommunity, SermonsLeave a Comment

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been talking about community.  We’ve been talking about this because my hope is that, as the pandemic guidelines have now been lifted for some time, and as we begin the new year (and recognizing that we are indeed already well into the new year), I feel like it’s important for us to remember, re-orient ourselves, and re-focus on what it means to be a church community. 

And of course, I recognize that on the one hand it’s impossible to be comprehensive about this, and that we actually talk about all these things very frequently.  Nevertheless, my hope is that this enables us to think about these things, because perhaps the tendency over the past few years is precisely to not think about these things.

Our first talk was on the Significance of Community – why does the church (or why does being the church) matter?  Last week, we talked about the Character of Community –what does or should the church look like?  Today, I want to talk about the Purpose of Community – in fact, we’re going to talk about this today and next week.  And if you’ve been following along, you know that we’ve been using Newbigin’s quote, “the church is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste,” as a sort of framework.  So by the phrase, “the Purpose of Community,” I am in some way trying to explore the question of, how is the church an instrument (specifically, of the kingdom)? 

Once again, I should say that I am in no way going to try to be comprehensive.  So I apologize ahead of time if I don’t address what you may have on your mind.  There are a lot of different perspectives on this subject.  I am only going to discuss a couple of aspects.  And today, I want to talk about proclamation.   

Now before we get too ahead of ourselves, I want to acknowledge that the question of “in what way are we an instrument?” is to a certain extent answered by what we’ve talked about in the past couple of weeks.  That is, as part of the community of God we act as an instrument of the kingdom by pointing to the kingdom.  We are an instrument when we act as a sign pointing to God’s redemptive purposes.  We are an instrument when we proclaim that the way that the world is is not the way the world is supposed to be.  But it can be, and it will be through Jesus Christ. 

And we are an instrument of God’s kingdom when we, through the values and priorities with which we pursue life, through the love we have for one another, enact that different way of life.  Living life through the Spirit, we have an opportunity to practice and experience God’s intention for creation – we can be a foretaste of what will one day be through the grace of God.  We are an instrument when who we are, how we are, and why we are proclaims that there is another way. 

And I suspect that this is part of, though certainly not all of, what is meant when God said to Abraham, that he (and his children) would be blessed to be a blessing. 

But what is also almost certainly also meant is that the people of God have a responsibility and a calling to proclaim the good news of God.  Indeed, this is what most of us probably have in mind when we think of the purpose of the church community, of how we are to be an instrument – that we are called to tell others.  Usually, we take as a scriptural reference, Matthew 28:19-20, which says: 

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

We’ve talked before about the interpretive issues here before, so I won’t dwell on it – suffice it to say that the verb in this passage is actually “make disciples,” and not “go.”  Nevertheless, the first step in discipleship is surely hearing the gospel. 

The corresponding verses in the gospel of Mark make this a little more explicit, at least as far as our responsibility in proclamation.  Mark 16:15 says:

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.

Mark 16:15

I should mention, of course, that this verse is part of a portion of Mark’s gospel that may be an editorial addition – that is, the earliest manuscripts don’t include these verses as part of the text of Mark. 

Other passages that point to this aspect of the calling of the church include:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Acts 1: 8

20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5: 20

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4: 2

Now of course, there are plenty of other scriptural passages.  And indeed, even these passages must be interpreted correctly and in the proper context.  Nevertheless, we take it to be a basic truth that God’s desire is that the gospel is meant to be shared. 

Therefore, we take it as a basic truth that the church is meant to share the gospel of Jesus. And I’m sure that many of us have taken that responsibility seriously and made various attempts to share the gospel with mixed results.  And one of the things that we need to recognize is that the world is rapidly changing (indeed, has changed a great deal).  We live in a postmodern world (or a post-postmodern world).  Some might say that we live in a post-truth world, but I don’t actually think that’s fair.  I think it’s closer to say that we live in a post-rational world (or something like that). 

When I was pastoring in a previous church, there was one fellow who was a regular attender, an active participant in all of our activities, but who would not have called himself a Christian.  He grew up in a Christian home (what he would call a fundamentalist Christian home) and as he grew into adulthood, became quickly disenchanted with the claims of the church (and I say that in distinction from the claims of the gospel).  Frequently, he would talk in support of the quote by Francis of Assissi, “Preach the gospel always; when necessary, use words.”  And what he was expressing was a criticism of the efforts of Christians to convince others, through logic, coercion, guilt and shame, or etc. to extract an expression of repentance or a confession of faith.  As someone might say, you can’t (mostly) argue someone into the kingdom. 

And while I agree with St. Francis – indeed, the phrase, “when necessary, use words,” points to what we have previously said about the church being a sign and a foretaste – certainly it is sometimes necessary to use words.  Sometimes, we are called to speak.  Sometimes we are called to actual dialogue with people to communicate the truth of the gospel and to help them to be open to the Holy Spirit working in their hearts.  The question is, how might we do that, especially in this day and age? 

It seems to me that what my friend was expressing through the St. Francis quote is something that is shared by a lot of folks in the western world.  Namely that there is little appetite – and sometimes even a strong aversion – to hearing Christians talk about our faith.  There are many reasons for this which I won’t get into today.  But some of that sentiment may be due to the post-rational world in which we live that I alluded to earlier – that is, our way of sharing our faith is a remnant of a way of thinking that is less and less relevant.  And it may also be because of the perceived hypocrisy (justified and not) that people see in Christians – our living simply does not match our profession.  And it may even be because what people are looking for is simply not what people hear when we share with them the gospel. 

So what I want to share with you are just some of my brief thoughts (and once again, these are simply my thoughts) about how we can dialogue with others about Jesus.  This is not in any way a manual for evangelism or a “three simple steps to leading someone to Christ.”  These are simply my musings, especially in light of some of the challenges of our changing culture.  (And of course, we want to remember that our culture is not a monolithic thing.  We are not identical products of a cultural machine.  Therefore, we need to remember that each person with whom we dialogue is an individual – in fact, maybe that’s the first thing). 

As a reference, along with the passages I previously pointed out, I want to direct our attention to 1 Peter 3:15-16.

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3: 15-16

Very briefly, it’s important to remember that Peter is writing to a community who is suffering or being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ.  One of the things that Peter encourages this people to do is to continue to do good, continue to live by kingdom values, even in the face of such suffering.  I’m not going to examine the immediate context of these verses, but I want to call your attention to the phrase:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

The first thing that I would note about these verses is that Peter says, “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you…”  Now again, the context of this is that the believers are doing good (or so Peter is encouraging them) in the face of suffering.  That is, they are displaying a different kind of life, a different set of values.  This presumably leads to those around them noticing that difference and asking what is “the reason for the hope that [they] have.” 

Therefore, the first thing that I would say is that we need to be able to answer the question, “What is the reason for the hope that we have?”  That is, “Why am I a Christian?”  For some of us, that entails understanding how you came to Christ.  For others of us, and here I’m thinking of people who “grew up Christian,” the question is, “Why am I still a Christian?”  And the phrase, “the reason for the hope that we have,” may be here a little misleading.  Because I am inclined to believe that, these days, those who are persuaded by the so-called “proofs” for Christianity are in the minority.  More likely, it is a matter of encounter.  And some of us did indeed encounter God through reasoned arguments.  But many of us encountered God because of a relationship or because of a community.  Some of us encountered God in supernatural ways, but many of us encounter God in much more mundane ways. 

And of course, if we understand that we live (to some extent) in a post-rational world, the so-called “proofs” become more and more irrelevant (though certainly not completely).  My point simply is that in our western, post-rational, postmodern context, what is perhaps more important is not our rationale, but our stories.  What is more important is not our arguments, but our testimony. 

How have you encountered, and do you encounter, God?  How have you seen and understood God working in your life?  How has understanding the biblical story of sin and redemption helped you make sense of your life?   What is the reason for the hope that you have? 

Now what this suggests is that when we share the reason for our hope, we are entering into dialogue.  And by dialogue, we are assuming that we are engaging in relationship.  And so the second thing that I want to bring up is that teaching is not the same as learning; speaking is not the same as being heard.  1 Peter 3:15-16 says: 

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3: 15-16

Peter says that when his community shares their reasons for hope, they should do this with gentleness and respect.  Now I’m making a leap here – an assumption about how this applies – but it seems to me that Peter is suggesting (among other things) that the hearer matters. 

In discussions about pedagogy, one important principle is that the teacher’s goal is not to teach, but that the students learn.  And that’s a pretty important distinction.  How many of you have ever been “taught” something from someone who was obviously extremely intelligent, logical, and persuasive, but didn’t seem particularly concerned about the students.  It’s the kind of teacher for whom the task of lecturing is everything, but the students might as well leave tape recorders in their place – because their presence doesn’t really matter.  Teaching is not the same thing as learning; and speaking is not the same thing as being heard. 

Now of course, we have to recognize that actual our responsibility is limited.  And by that, I simply mean that ultimately it is God working in a person that will bring about salvation.  There’s certainly a sense in which all we are called to do is proclaim; we are not called to save.  But what I’m trying to say is that there is a way of proclamation that takes the other person seriously, and not just as an object or a target.  Our goal shouldn’t be simply to teach or to preach (“I’ve said what I wanted to say, so now my job is done”) but to open people up to the possibility of encountering God in their lives. 

So what I want to suggest is that this means is that their stories matter too.  Genuinely listening to and engaging with others is needed.  And perhaps as we take their stories seriously, we can help them to understand that God takes their stories seriously, also. 

The final thing that I want to talk about is the importance of consistency.  That is, if what we are proclaiming is that Jesus is the king, and that it is His kingdom that will endure over all the kingdoms of this world, then our lives should actually reflect that.  On some level this is the criticism that has been consistently leveled against Christianity – that we are largely hypocritical and that our lives do not conform to what we say we believe. 

I think that oftentimes these criticisms are leveled at our behaviour.  Are we kind enough, are we generous enough, do we display anger, jealousy, pettiness?  And that makes sense if our proclamation is largely about behaviour.  If we’re telling people, or what they hear is, that the important thing is what we have to do and what we cannot do, then naturally, when we do those things (or don’t), we will be called hypocrites – and rightly.  And when our behaviour does not match our stated beliefs, then our proclamation will suffer.  And of course that will be the case – that our behaviour falls short – because we are still (on this side of eternity) sinners. 

But perhaps if we are able to focus on worldview, on the way we believe the world is, that there is a God who loves us, who wants to save us, who is full of mercy and grace, and who is redeeming creation from its sin, our proclamation can be something greater than our behaviour. 

During Jesus’ time on earth, His proclamation was not, for example, “be better and you can go to heaven when you die.”  Rather, it was “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” 

And we may profess that, we may say that we believe that, but do we live in such a way that bears witness to the Kingdom of God – that Jesus is king?  Or do we live as if we are citizens of some other kingdom?  That we are subjects to another king?  Whether that king is money, notoriety, pleasure, power, or politics, do we put our trust and our hope in something other than Jesus?  And is it evident in our lives – despite our proclamation – that the foundation of our lives is something other than Jesus? 

Now I don’t want to go on about that.  But it should be apparent that this brings us all the way back to what we talked about the past couple of weeks, and what we mentioned earlier today.  And that is, being a sign and a foretaste.  If we are to be an instrument, we should be consistent to what we are pointing to and how we are living that out.  To put it another way, our proclamation should match our practice and our hope. 

All of that should lead us to recognize that the three are interconnected – all three matter (and, of course, I also recognize that Newbigin’s definition is not scripture, and is limited in its own way). 

So here’s what I hope we can think about.  As we as a church seek to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste, as we seek to be salt and light in the world, as we seek to be an outpost of heaven in a kingdom of darkness, would someone want to share in what we have?  If someone were to walk through our doors, or if you were to invite someone to partake in our community, why would they want to stay?  To be clear, I actually think there are a lot of reasons – plenty of good reasons.  But to put it another way, how can we seek to be more a living example of God’s grace on earth?  I’m not saying there’s a simple answer to that.  But what I am saying, what I do want to encourage us towards, is to live more fully into the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. 

So people of God, know that you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *