life in Christ is a life together

There is no doubt that our life in God through Christ by the Spirit is basic and fundamental. The vertical is always central in our lives in Christ. But the horizontal is never to be lost in that. Central to our lives in Christ, as well, is our relationships with each other in him. We belong to Christ, but we also belong to each other. We are members of Christ, members of his body. And so we are joined together by the Spirit so that our oneness is not only with Christ himself, or with God through Christ by the Spirit, but with all of God’s people, those who are in Christ and members of his body.

We neglect this simple, yet profound truth to our own peril and to the peril of others, we could say, the others. We don’t have any other choice in Christ, but to get along, to get past our differences, so that at least we can live well with each other in him. If we allow other factors to undermine our life together, then we need to consider just what is hindering that, confess it to God, and get rid of it. Working through problems is part of that, rather than simply pushing them aside.

Something will be missing if our lives are only plugged into God through Christ, into Christ himself. We also need to be plugged into each other. We actually are already joined to each other in and through Christ. We are to live that out. Our devotion to God through Christ is never only about ourselves and him. It is always also about ourselves with each other in him. There is no getting around it. Our fellowship in the Father and in the Son by the Spirit is a fellowship with each other. It is both at the same time. This is simply the way it is, organic and as real as the dynamic and interplay between brain and other parts of our physical bodies, from which comes the metaphor of the body of Christ.

Love is key here, the love of God in Christ and by the Spirit which is to permeate our relationship with God and with each other. It is no less than a communion of love. We interact with each other in that love, no less: God’s love in Christ. In this life in Christ, together.

knowing God personally and in community through Jesus

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

John is writing about an incarnational faith, one that is both material and spiritual. Somehow the very life of God was not just spirit, but matter, indeed flesh and blood in Jesus. And the disciples knew Jesus in the way we all know other human beings. In relationship, as a friend. So this knowledge was something very much down to earth, right where they lived. Yet at the same time, heavenly. Bringing both a fellowship to the community of believers with the Father and the Son, and to each individual within that community, eternal life. That fellowship ongoing, not only for believers and followers of Jesus during that time, but for us as well in Jesus.

I like what I read from Michael Bird in his recent book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, on the importance of not only knowing doctrine, but knowing God in and through Jesus. What I especially liked from Bird was the thought that this knowing of God impacts our understanding of doctrine. One can of course perhaps understand what scripture says intellectually without knowing God. But one cannot grasp its intended meaning apart from that knowledge of God. In other words the knowledge is indeed incarnational, meant to touch and somehow transform all of life.

This knowing is both individual and communal. In other words we experience it as individuals and in and through community —in Jesus. It is strictly speaking not at all what we know about someone, though that is not cut off as if unimportant. One can know everything about someone without knowing that person at all. To know someone is far more than the sum total of everything we might know about them. But of course it doesn’t mean that what we know about them is unimportant. In the case of Jesus there is no doubt that we need to accept God’s revelation about him. Life is what it is in many details, about us. But at the heart of that is a relationship, indeed a fellowship with the Father and the Son by the Spirit, which we believers and followers of Jesus enjoy together.

the fellowship of the broken

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, Life Together, points out how as soon as we want to find the perfect fellowship, we are automatically disqualified from finding it (my paraphrase of the point he makes in many more and interesting words). Don’t even dream of being part of a church fellowship in which no one offends the other and there’s no need for forgiveness, and this ongoing. If you find such a fellowship, it will not be real but nothing more than a facade, or you will have failed to really get into any depths at all.

Those who are married know this especially well. You will have to deal with your brokenness on both ends normally sooner than later. You can do well in this if you accept this as fact, and part and parcel of life. And make amends through confession to each other and dependence on God through Christ for forgiveness as well as light to continue on.

What is especially tragic, but so very much like us broken humans is when we hold grudges, and fail to let go of the past and go on. It surely can take time for hurts to heal, but if one is in any true fellowship or communion with others, one can be sure that they will be wounded here and there along the way. We are wounded and we wound, by the way of course.

And so we need to settle down and avoid the thought that we want to flee from such. If we do that, then we are leaving community to which we are called in Christ. In a true sense we are leaving Christ since we are leaving his body. We need to remember that we are just as broken ourselves and that we need ongoing forgiveness as well. As we realize all of this, God can make us more and more like Jesus, a process which is with others in him.

the impact we have on each other

Going into this new year, 2014, I think of books which have had a major impact on my life, along the way. Of course the Book, the Bible being in a place all by itself. But other books, besides. But just as important as that, if not more are the people who have impacted me along the way, both for good and ill. I hate to say for ill, because I am sadly sure that I have hurt others at times in ways which require God’s redemptive work, no less. And actually in a true sense we are a mixed bag. We help and hurt each other in our relationships, though hopefully in and through Christ we are learning to live in the way of love and truth. Although in Jesus there is no way to make everything comfortable, since that is not what Jesus and the way in him is all about.

We have impact on each other just by being in each other’s company, being the people we are. That is a large part of what church is all about. In church a whole different dynamic is present by the Spirit, so that in God’s grace in Jesus we rub off on each other in all sorts of ways. In God’s love by the Spirit for good, even while we inevitably have to work through the hurts in our failings which we inflict on each other.

Actually, I am becoming rather convinced that an important place for change is to simply live in the melting pot of humanity. Particularly in the church and among other believers in Christ, but also among others. To enter into their world, and accept something of that world as part of us, as part of our own world. So that we can both give and receive from others, and in that process together find the one who has found us, God in Jesus. We need to remember too, that it is important that we love with no strings attached, even while we pray and hope for the best for everyone, in and through Jesus.

I know I have been impacted by those around me, through our church: Redeemer Covenant, through my work at RBC Ministries, through friends elsewhere such as online on social networks. Life as humans is lived in relationships and within community. That is where it finds much of its meaning. In fact the heart of all meaning is found within the Community of the Triunity of God as Father, Son and Spirit. We humans in and through Jesus are meant to be taken up into that Communion of God by the Spirit. We’re meant to live there, but not in some ethereal existence, but in a down to earth way. With all that is involved in our humanity in this life, and in the life to come within the new creation in Jesus.

And so I am thankful for the people I know and have known (as well as the books I have read and am reading). Wanting to do well by those nearest me in both my family, and in the family of Jesus. As well as all in this world, in my world, who regardless, are neighbors. That is what is foremost in my thoughts at the moment as we enter into this new year.

the individual in community in Jesus

Recently I read an interesting link from which I found a paper comparing C. S. Lewis with J. R. R. Tolkien. And it got me thinking some more on the place of community (or lack of it) in our tradition and practice of the faith.

What I find shocking looking back on my life, is just how optional many believers in Christ make church to be. Okay, it is a bit more than just a nice addition to them. But it is too often not an essential. What is essential to them is personal faith in Jesus, the salvation that comes to them individually through that.  According to Ralph Wood, Baylor University Professor of Theology and Literature, his evangelical students- the majority of those he teaches, hardly have a clue when it comes to community and its importance.

I’m sure without a doubt that I more or less share in that ignorance. Our context in life trumps anything we might gather in intellectually, or from the “ivory tower.” I find that insights and understanding seem to come out of life more than from anywhere else, guided by the text of scripture. I may catch a glimpse of community here or there in a way that can inform me toward a better scriptural understanding and practice of community in Jesus (such as in a Roman Catholic mass/worship service). And get some suggestions concerning it from a paper, as in the interview of Ralph Wood from the link above, or in his paper cited. Again, thoughts that need to be considered in terms of real life, in faith and practice.

I believe in personal devotions, even though I hardly practice them at all as many Christians in my tradition do. We must have a relationship with God through Christ- living and growing, on a personal level. But we don’t get that on our own, not even with us and Jesus. I like the way Ralph Wood puts it, from the interview:

In teaching my wonderfully receptive and overwhelmingly evangelical students here at Baylor, I have great difficulty convincing them that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian, that our faith does not depend on a primarily private relation to Jesus, and thus that we cannot be Christians apart from our baptismal participation in his Church. Their blindness in this regard is not their fault: this is what their churches and our individualist culture have taught them.

I find too often that I exist among other Christians who have been raised in this kind of tradition. We live and move even around each other oftentimes in isolation. As if we were separate islands. And that whatever impact we might have on each other does nothing more than to shore up those islands, i.e., our personal walk and life in Christ.

Yes, our individual life and walk and experience in Christ is vitally important. But that needs to be understood in terms of the whole which includes participation in Christ and Christ’s body, the church. One can’t have participation in Christ apart from participation in his body. Somehow in ways that are beyond us for sure, we need to live as those who are part of the whole. Belonging to Christ means belonging to his members. There is no such thing, really, as an isolated, individual faith. At least not in terms of God’s will and where he will bring us, his children.

Now by this, I’m not suggesting we have to become Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican, something either in or more attune to the Great Tradition, though in some ways that would help. Joining a church of the Great Tradition does not seem to be an option for me. But we most certainly can learn from each other across different traditions, and that is what I would be suggesting here. Even as they can learn something from us in and through Christ.

This post is simply shared as food for thought. How can we better be what we are in Christ? Not just individuals, but those who together are Christ’s body in the world. How might this help us see not only our sheer dependence on God through Christ, but our utter interdependence on each other in Christ? I am groping, myself.

community in Jesus: a life and death matter

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

In Christ we are members together of one body, Christ being the head. While we can talk about a universal, global church, most of the time in the New Testament, each local church is the body of Christ, in itself. This analogy presses home both the relationship we have with Christ and from that with each other. It is not the case that we all get our sustenance from the head and then everything is good. In God’s will and working Christ’s body depends not only on the head, but on the “work” of “each part.”

Early on in the history of the church, the church took on a ceremonial sacramental understanding of participation in the body of Christ. What came to the fore was the essential need to partake of Christ’s body and blood through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in the bread and the wine. What was likely the case in the beginning, actual meals, was now about a ceremonial, sacramental practice.

In this sacrament through the partaking of the bread and the wine, the faithful partake of Christ. The church in its teaching made this essential for salvation, even if grace has been extended to those who either don’t believe in “the real presence” in the bread and the wine, or don’t practice the ordinance. I personally have no problem calling the Lord’s Supper a sacrament. I believe that through the Spirit the Lord is especially present during such times. However I wonder if unwittingly we can lose out on the aspect of sharing in Christ through our actual participation in him with each other. Not only is there a vertical aspect, but a horizontal one as well. We go on as best we can essentially by ourselves, of course in relationship with God through Christ, hardly touching the aspect the passage (quoted above) is referring to. We don’t experience much at all of the ministry of the body through the head. So much of the time it is more the case that we get what we can and go on, not really expecting much if anything in the way of ministry to each other. That does not necessarily follow, but I think it most often is the case, at least to some degree.

The danger in emphasizing what I want to emphasize here, is that we can simply try to minister, or probably better put, serve each other, apart from the needed emphasis on a relationship with Christ. On the other hand we may also simply be satisfied with getting what we think we need from the Lord himself, and minimize with a shrug of our shoulders, the need to give and receive in relationship with others. None of us will arrive on this, and perhaps we are weak one way or another, even both ways (“vertically” and “horizontally”). But God in his grace in Jesus continues his good work, even though it will suffer as a result of our lack of understanding and participation.

I believe this is a life and death matter. Christianity is essentially organic in the sense of a living union by the Spirit to Christ, which consists of all who belong to Christ being joined to each other, especially to be worked out in local settings. We all suffer much when this is not practiced. And this analogy of Christ’s body is not merely for itself, but for the world. We in Christ are Christ’s body for each other and for the world.

not acting alone

George Muller lived a wonderful life of being a testimony to God’s faithfulness to provide for one’s needs, specifically for orphans. He wanted to either deny or downplay the thought that he had a special gift of faith, wanting God’s people of his time and place to better trust the Lord for their needs (rather than working 16 hour or more days). It has been said, whether true or not, that he largely acted alone, not being much into community. He was one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement, and believed that the Spirit wanted to teach each individual directly in receiving truth and doctrine. Early on that movement had splits.

I say this not to criticize George Muller. To be sure we can all learn from his example of faith, and all the more if we read of his life and how the Lord led him and grew him over time to become the person of faith he was. And this goes to show that God will use our witness of faith even in all its inevitable imperfections. What I would suggest, though, is that we are not to be acting alone, but in an interconnectedness with others in Jesus. In harmony and in sync with each other. That should be the goal.

For that to be the case there has to be a commitment that this is both possible and more than that, what God calls us to in Christ. We are indeed one body in Christ. By the Spirit each member* has their special work to do as part of the whole, of course the result being more than the sum of all the parts, indeed the very expression of Christ himself. Not only in the gathering, but in the scattering afterward. Christ being seen even in the individual parts and especially in his body. Together in him and for the world.

*Member here, of Christ’s body. Not in formal sense as is practiced in local churches.

 

finding community

Community is an important part of the heart of our calling in Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. The community is inclusive rather than exclusive with reference to its missional calling, and yet through baptism consists of the faithful in Jesus. It is community, but not just for the sake of community. Community is most fulfilled within the uniqueness which makes up what is called church, pockets I take it of God’s kingdom come in Jesus.

And so we aren’t just talking about finding community when we use that phrase, but the community of those in Jesus. A community of the Spirit, of the followers of Jesus, of God’s resurrection people. Of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted because of righteousness and because of their testimony of Jesus.  A community full of the grace and truth of our Lord.

Such a community is God’s working, and yet we in and through Jesus are to join in that working. From the place of rest in Jesus we are to do the works of God. We are woven into a community which is interdependent in its interconnectedness. In and through that community in Jesus, God’s grace is mediated. The community is strengthened and grows within itself, but it is not for itself. Again, it is missional in its orientation, alive and dynamic. Not a social club (not to put that down, because significant human community can occur in them).

And so we are called into this community and out from that into the world as part of that community in Jesus.

is it about individuals, or about community?

I have a theory which may at best end up something toward a maxim, meaning something that is true at times. But the theory simply stated is something like this: When a local church sees itself as the group of everyone present, in other words, when the church sees itself as the people of God in Jesus committed to their gathering and work (of course this involves worship, edification, etc.), then community comes to the fore. But when a church is focused on a leader, or a few leaders, the dynamic of community can dissipate, and perhaps all but disappear. It becomes the good work of a few which others benefit from.

That was probably rather crudely put. I think the most healthy churches are those that are quite interactive with bustling activity which is rooted in relationships, first to the Lord, and then to each other, and out of that to their neighborhood and world. Too many churches I suppose particularly in America, seem dependent on a superstar who if not present, makes the gathering seem not as good, or even second rate. Of course even in those cases the Spirit can work so that perhaps even more is accomplished when they are away. But generally speaking, I think this could be a problem.

Does it have to be that way? I don’t at all think so. But I also think that the best leaders will model leadership in a way which promotes the working of the Spirit through the body of Christ. There may be common steps as to how that may be done, but I think those gifted as overseers or set apart in positions such as elder or deacon especially need to pray and lead in such a way that somehow all are involved, or feel a part of God’s work, what God is doing.

It is hard to describe what I’m trying to get at, and exactly how it works out will differ since every community is composed of different people and therefore, different giftings. What might be easier to describe is what we want to avoid. A place which is dependent on only a few. In which many attend, Sunday after Sunday, but don’t contribute anything in the way of their gifting either that day or during the week. I am afraid that such fellowships will dry up and wither and die over time.

Now any church may have strong leaders, and in fact most churches do. A healthy church will likely have a pastor, or pastors along with leaders (perhaps teachers, etc.) who are gifted and do their work well, and are appreciated, even looked up to. But in those healthy churches, those same pastors and leaders will much appreciate others in the body, and God’s presence and work through them.

Perhaps this is a post which unlike the posts I like to write is more theoretical and not so much built on revealed truth. But I do believe there is a dynamic, which I’m afraid is largely, or perhaps often missing from churches. The dynamic of a thriving, growing community, in which if someone wasn’t present, would not miss a beat, since the dynamic is a Spirit-driven body.

Do I mean that a church won’t miss a leader or leaders? No, of course not. And a healthy church will be glad when they return. But a healthy church I take it, is one that is at heart a community, and not about one or more leaders everyone depends on.

friendship

Simple friendship is underrated across the board. Of course what that friendship is like will depend on the relationship, be it a parent and child, spouses, workers, members of a local church, etc. I don’t think much good will get done until people are not just friendly, but actual friends. Hospitality is not as much a gift as a virtue to be pursued by all Christians, according to the New Testament. Though there is surely a gift to some in that, as well.

Jesus had a close relationship with the Twelve, and it seems perhaps a closer relationship with Peter, James and John, the latter called “the one who Jesus loves.” It was a friendship based on commitment: to the Lord and in that, to each other in mission to the world. People are not meant to do it alone. Jesus could have, and anyone can, actually. And there are times when that is necessary: Jesus on the cross, one prime example. But by and large we are in this life together, evident in a number of ways in scripture, in love to each other, as well as to others.

A spirituality, or better put, a Holy Spirit led existence which does not make friendship one central aspect of life, is surely missing out on an essential for life and mission, indeed for the life that is in Jesus. Friendship meets the other where they are at, available to touch wounds for healing. Churches which are healthy will be strong in the area of friendship without excluding outsiders.

While following Jesus is central, the Christian life too often has been made to be one’s encounter with God through Jesus, period. Friendship is not adequately considered a part of the new life in Jesus. God’s love in Jesus is seen to be enough in a way that excludes others. Whenever I read or hear someone say God’s love is all we need, I either accept that with qualifications, or more likely, I cringe. No, God has made it so that we need each other in Jesus.

The heart of sin is that it divides in breaking relationships. The heart of the gospel of reconciliation is that God’s love in Christ restores relationship between God and people, and people to each other. Not everyone is going to be friends on the same level. David and Jonathan had a special bond of friendship, and we will be closer to some than others. The point is that we in Jesus are all to be friends. Committed that way, and growing in that. As we reach out to bring others into this restored humanity of love in Jesus.