The Significance of Community

Jimmy Jo1 Peter, SermonsLeave a Comment

But 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. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2: 9-10

I usually like to begin the calendar year with a short series to help us, as a church community, to think about how we might approach the new year.  Of course, there’s an extent to which this is largely arbitrary – this oftentimes (if not always) amounts to what things are on my mind at that given time.  However, the New Year is often a useful time to think about perspectives and priorities. 

In previous years, we have taken a quick walk through a shorter book of the bible, usually an epistle to give us some sort of biblical framework.  However, this year I thought we’d do something slightly different.  And I’ll share with you my train of thought to give you a sense of where I’m coming from. 

Now I’m fairly sure that everybody is thoroughly sick and tired of talking and hearing about Covid.  However, for better or for worse, this is the context (or, more properly, one of the contexts) out of which we look at the New Year.  Of course, this is not the only thing, but (as I say) this is what’s on my mind.  Now we’ve been out of Covid restrictions for some time now, so it may be hard to remember that at this time last year, we were still limiting attendance in-building, wearing masks (?), and largely physical distancing. 

Make no mistake, I believe that we as a community did a good job of following the Health and Safety recommendations, and of acting to keep one another and the larger community safe.  Had we to do it again, I don’t believe that we would choose to do anything differently. 

Nevertheless, I think that we along with many other congregations, were affected by the measures that we put in place.  Of course, we had to suspend many of our gatherings (small groups, monthly potlucks, fellowship activities), and each week, a portion of our congregation joined worship via Zoom instead of in-building. 

And in the aftermath of the Covid restrictions, some congregations are reporting (though this is only according to a very small sampling or articles and etc. that I’ve encountered), that they are having difficulty returning to pre-pandemic attendance.  Whether or not we are experiencing a similar phenomenon is up for debate.  And let me be clear, if attending by Zoom works better for you (which I believe is indeed, or indeed can be, attending), I’m happy that is an option for you. 

Various surveys and studies over the past many years have also indicated that church attendance and participation has been dropping for quite some time now.  Therefore, it could be argued that Covid and the accompanying restrictions merely accelerated that trend.  However, it’s not my purpose or interest to examine this. 

So if I can frame this issue (or question) through a slightly broader lens, I suspect that the past few years have simply brought to the forefront that which has been lying underneath for quite some time.  I don’t want to delve into the nature or extent of “the problem,” but I do suspect that seeds of it can be traced to a growing individualism, a pervasive commercialism, perhaps overly-therapeutic expectations, and possibly the evident polarization in our society. 

So again, I don’t want to get hung up on “the problem” (and indeed, you may have noticed that I have not named it).  Because what I want to do is encourage you, and remind you of the truth that what we are doing matters.  What we are seeking to do, as a community of Christ, matters. 

And that may seem obvious to us, who make the church community a significant, if not central, part of our lives.  However, we do very much live in world that thinks of religion (never mind spirituality) as an extremely private matter.  Religion or corporate worship is often thought of as an extra-curricular activity – something we engage in if and when we have taken care of the regular business of life.  Among Christians, it is not uncommon to hear people say that they can worship God equally well by themselves in the woods (or wherever) as they can in a church building.  Perhaps Covid did indeed exacerbate such sentiments – though perhaps it merely gave many an excuse or a reason to relegate churches (and other gatherings) to our spare time, or even an unwelcome expectation.

Now I again want to be clear that my intention is not to make anyone feel bad or to make judgements on anyone’s walk with God or how we spend or prioritize our time.  My hope and intention is to encourage us, and to remind us of simple truths that I’m sure we all already know.  For that reason, I suspect that much of what I say over the next few weeks will be repetitive for a lot of you.  Nevertheless, I also hope that it still bears saying. 

So what I want to talk about today – briefly, I hope – is the significance of community.  Why does it matter?  And firstly, let me say that by “community,” I am in some sense using the word synonymously with “church.”  And by “church,” I am pointing to the spiritual reality that we are bound together as a people by the Spirit of God.  But I use the word “community” because, among other things, the term “church” unfortunately has some institutional connotations that I want to avoid – that is, by “community,” we typically understand something more organic, less structured, and perhaps more holistic. 

1 Peter 2:9-10 says: 

But 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. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

We won’t get into a detailed analysis of this passage, much less the letter of First Peter.  But in short, Peter is writing to a group of believers who are struggling with persecution in an ungodly society.  Peter is urging the believers to cling to the hope they have in Jesus Christ.  And for me, a key verse in the letter is Peter’s exhortation to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:12).

1 Peter 2:9-10, our scripture reference for today, is immediately prior.  And the thought, “You are a chosen people,” seems to be the thought that leads to, “live such good lives” (that is, “live such good lives” because “You are a chosen people…”).  In contrast, Peter says that the message and work of Christ is incomprehensible to the people of the world.  Jesus Christ – His work, His person – doesn’t make any sense to the world.  God, creator and sustainer of heaven and earth, becoming a human being makes no sense.  Jesus’ message of the kingdom doesn’t make any sense.  Jesus accomplishing redemption through his death on a cross makes no sense. 

As we’ve said numerous times before, the expectations of the Israelites as to how the Messiah would restore Israel, would establish God’s kingdom were far different than what Jesus came to do.  But it also makes little sense to the non-Israelite world.  It makes no sense to worldly philosophies, it makes no sense to scientific rationalism, it makes no sense in the context of the industrial revolution, it makes no sense in a largely capitalistic, humanistic society. 

Indeed, it takes little to no effort to see that the world at large, the society in which we find ourselves, if we were to leave “fixing the world” up to them (or us), would choose very different means to accomplish this.  The world’s solutions are decidedly not Jesus’ solution.  Therefore, Jesus seems like a nice story, a comforting metaphor, or simply wishful thinking to many in the world around us. 

But to you – to us – who believe, He is the stone that the builders rejected, but which has become the cornerstone.  You [we] 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.

With these words, Peter recalls the very history of Israel, the well-known story of God’s redemptive work in human history to redeem creation.  We too, know the story well: 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He created the world and everything in it, and saw that it was good.  He created human beings, male and female, and saw that it was good.  And human beings walked with God and talked with God, and had nothing between each other, and were given stewardship of God’s creation. 

But human beings were tempted by the serpent and fell.  We fell victim to (or actively decided that we wanted) the serpent’s words that we could become like God, knowing good and evil – deciding for ourselves the nature of the world, the fabric of reality.  We chose to supplant God in our own lives and thus separated ourselves from God. 

And at that point, God could have wiped us all out, chose to start over or create something new.  The story of Noah points to this.  In the time of Noah, “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5b).  Every inclination of the human heart was for ourselves all the time.  We know the story of Noah, that God destroyed the earth with a flood.  (And isn’t this precisely what many from a human or worldly inclination would do, would claim is the best course of action?)  But from this flood, God also kept a remnant – Noah and his family.  And God promised to never again destroy the earth.  Instead, or as part of the plan, part of the story all along, God purposed to redeem a fallen, rebellious, sinful humanity. 

And so God called Abraham, then known as Abram, and told him to go.  God told Abraham that through Abraham, God would create a nation, a people called by His name, blessed to be a blessing. 

And God called Moses, and God called Joshua, and God called David.  We know the story, or at least part of it.  But at each step along the way, God is creating a people, is committed to this people, is working through this people (culminating in Jesus) to redeem creation. 

And after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, through whom God has fulfilled and completed the work of redemption, the propitiation for sin, it is not just one nation, one ethnicity, but all nations of the world that are invited into the promise of God.  Paul says in Romans that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6).  And further that, “it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Rom. 9:8). 

Now I don’t want to get into the many questions and distinctions, but what I want to say in a very simplified way is that the promises to Israel (in the Old Testament) are fulfilled in and through the Church (in the New Testament). 

To put it another (again, very simplified) way, we might say that in the Old Testament, Israel points to the work that Christ will do.  And that in the New Testament, the Church points to the work that Christ has done. 

Now why does any of this matter to us?  Well if I can sum up in a way that may sound a little tangential, one of the key themes that we talk about a lot here at Grace (and again, we’re not unique in this) is the kingdom of God.  And we’ve talked a lot about what this looks like, which I won’t reiterate here.  But some time back, in a previous pastoral position, a number of us were having a conversation about the kingdom of God.  And one person asked what might seem like a pretty obvious question:  What does the kingdom of God mean?  And there are a lot of ways to answer that question, but for me, when we talk about the kingdom of God, one of the main things we mean is that there is a King. 

Most recently, we walked through the book of Samuel and the establishment of the Davidic kingdom.  And of course, we know that this occurs in the context of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, and Moses and Joshua.  It takes place in the context of covenant and the claiming and settling of the land of Canaan.  And God’s purpose was to, eventually, appoint David as king over Israel. 

And one of the main things that we’ve explored, in the story of the establishment of the kingdom, was that Israel was supposed to be a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of people, not like all the other nations of the world.  And it was a different kind of kingdom because, at the end of the day, David wasn’t the real King – David only represented the King.  The real King, the true King, is God.  The one King is Jesus Christ. 

And we as the Church live in a world where all kinds of people, all kinds of governments, all kinds of corporations and institutions have opinions on how they think the world is supposed to be.  Some may claim that the way the world is supposed to be – or how to solve all of the world’s problems – is found in the right science or the right technology.  Some claim that it is found in the right politics or philosophy.  Some seek it in individual liberty or pleasure.  And most, at least in this day and age, see the way of Jesus as outdated, irrelevant, or just plain silly. 

But 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. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2: 9-10

We seek no other Kingdom than Jesus, because we have no other King than Jesus.  We choose to be His people, His priests, His nation. 

As many of you know, the word translated “Church” in the New Testament is ekklesia in Greek.  ekklesia is usually translated as “gathering,” “assembly,” or “community” (or “church,” in scripture).  Now while determining etymology of ancient languages is tenuous at best (and how we use such etymologies is even more perilous), the word seems to be a compound of the prefix “ek” (ek) which means “out” or “out of,” and “kalew” (kaleow), which means, “to call”.  So we might think of it thusly:  We the church, the community of God, are the called out ones.   

We have frequently referred to Lesslie Newbigin’s saying that the church is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste.  And today, we are talking about the significance.  And by significance, we are talking about “why does it matter?”  And part of the answer to that is, it matters because of what we point to.  We are a sign because we point to something.  And what we point to is the fact that there is another reality, another truth (indeed, we would say the true truth), a different set of values, and a different goal by which we live our lives.  It matters because we are called out of this world, to live and proclaim His world, so that the rest of the world may know that Jesus is King. 

Community matters, Church matters, and this church matters because there is a King.  And we are a people of His kingdom.  We are called out of this world to participate in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.  We are bound together by a belief and a faith that the way of Jesus is greater than the ways of this world. 

And by choosing this community, by participating in this community, we are deciding and declaring that the way of His kingdom is the way we choose to live in the in-between.  We are deciding and declaring that the life of the world is in fact not-life, and that the true life we seek is to be found only in Him. 

So again, I hope to encourage you.  I hope to remind you that what we are doing (what we are trying to do) matters.  We are going to spend the next few weeks exploring this a little more – what does it mean to be an instrument, a foretaste?  But in the mean time:  I know that it can be hard; I know that it can be annoying; I know that it often seems like we have better, more important things to do.  And far be it from me to suggest that we are doing this (or can do this) perfectly. 

But by choosing to do it, we are declaring the truth of Him who died for us that we might share even now the life He has in store for us. 

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