“Following Jesus in Community”
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Ephesians 4:11-16
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
This morning, we enter our second week of a year-long series titled
Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living.
The Biblical practice we are exploring in September is Follow Jesus,
and the specific theme for this Sunday is Following Jesus in Community.
One definition of community is “a group of people having a particular characteristic in common…
a group of people who share a feeling of fellowship with others
as a result of common attitudes, interests, and goals.” (Merriam-Webster)
The particular characteristic we share in common in Church,
the common attitude, interest and goal that we share in the Church,
is the desire to follow Jesus Christ, to follow in his path of loving God
with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving neighbor as we love ourselves.
As we seek to follow Jesus, we do so together.
While we are called by name as individuals, each of us has an important role to play in the community.
One of the foundational aspects of Christianity is togetherness, is community.
And we discover along the way that following Jesus in community,
participating as a functioning member of the body of Jesus Christ,
can be the most exciting and demanding enterprise we ever attempt.
Ephesians 4:1-3, 11-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
In a survey taken a few years ago,
88% of “unchurched” persons and 75% of “churched” persons
responded that a person can be a good Christian if they don’t attend church. (source unknown)
This is simply not true.
A Christian, by definition, is one who participates, one who serves, one who worships
within a community of fellow believers, fellow seekers.
Even before Jesus began teaching in the synagogues,
the Jewish people had been coming together forming local discussion groups,
often starting them in their homes.
There had to be a quorem of ten, a “minyan”, before the discussion could begin.
Then someone would read a passage from the Law or from the Prophets, and the group would discuss it,
not unlike today’s Sunday School classes or small group Bible studies.
In his earthly ministry, Jesus built upon and expanded the practice of strong fellowship and discussion.
Close fellowship and the sharing of one’s worship and thoughts with others
became a distinguishing characteristic of the early Christian church.
Being a Christian was never simply about asserting a set of beliefs.
Being a Christian was and is always about participating in a way of life,
a way of life formed by the example of Jesus of Nazareth,
a way of live lived among the community of people who seek to follow him.
As has been said many times over: “There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.”
We are called by name as individuals at our baptism,
but we are called to follow, as Paul asserts, as an irreplaceable part of a body.
A few weeks ago, we baptized Allysen and Nathan’s son and we called him by name,
Emerson Thomas, and we affirmed that he is a unique child of God,
who will have his own set of gifts and talents and passions.
And as we baptized Emerson, we called him into community.
We welcomed him into the Church, into the family of faith, which is the body of Christ.
And Emerson, as he grows and matures, will discover his own role to play within the community.
He may become an encourager or a connector or a charismatic leader.
He may have gifts of administration or gifts of discernment.
The point is that his gifts will not be given for his own edification only;
Emerson will develop and mature with God-given gifts that are given for the sake of the functioning
of the larger body.
Each one of us has an important role to play.
You and I have unique roles to play in this community of faith.
For this community to function properly, each one of us must be fulfilling our specific role.
I try not to use too many sports analogies, but hey, an exciting football season just started.
If the team of eleven is executing a play on a football field and one of those eleven
fails to execute the particular task of his position, the entire play will likely breakdown and fail.
If one of the eleven members of a soccer team receives a red card and must leave the pitch,
the entire team will be greatly affected and will struggle to fulfill their purpose
as they seek to cover for the loss of their teammate.
Each one of us has an important role to play,
and the body will not function fully or properly without all of us.
Unlike most of our sports, following Jesus is not a zero sum game.
In the Christian community, the goal is not for some individuals or some communities
to emerge as winners and others to fail as losers.
We are not in competition with our fellow Christians, nor with other congregations,
nor even other faith communities.
Yesterday, members of our local Christian communities gathered with others
from the local Jewish and Muslim and Buddist and Hindu communities,
and with local police and fire officials and city commissioners.
As part of a remembrance of the 9-11 tragedy,
we built together a symbolic wooden bridge, a bridge that reminded us that none of our communities
are meant to live “over against” the rest of the world,
but we are all meant to live for the sake of the world.
And each of our communities becomes stronger when we gather in peace and work together in harmony
and learn together in discussion with other communities of faith.
Following Jesus Christ does not lead to competition but to cooperation.
A better analogy for what we do in the community of faith is a symphony orchestra.
We have one leader, Jesus Christ, whom we follow and each one has an instrument to play.
When writing about this text in 1953, then President of Princeton Theological Seminary,
John Mackay, claimed:
Each member must contribute to the life and functioning of the Body of Christ
and all action must be coordinated, accordingly acting together “in love” for the good of the whole.
Every Christian has an important role to play, and each role is to be undertaken in a spirit of love,
considering and appreciating the work of those around you.
On one hand, each member functions in accordance with their particular nature,
expressing the fullest sense of their individuality, yet without any tinge of individualism.
On the other hand, “the activity of the various parts must be harmonized with the action
which the Body as a whole undertakes to perform.”
(John A. Mackay, God’s Order: The Ephesian Letter and this Present Time, 1953)
Some of you have experienced the joy and challenge of harmonizing in an orchestra or a band.
I played the trombone for six years during middle and high school.
When we all showed up prepared and played together in harmony, something beautiful would emerge.
Even in middle school, the music would become far more than simply the sum of all the parts.
And the wonder and joy of it all could carry the entire band, and sometimes in high school,
an entire stadium, to a higher plane of human experience.
The Church, like a band or an orchestra, exists not for its own sake.
The body of Christ gathers and worships and serves – in harmony with others –
for the sake of the salvation of the world,
for the sake of the wholeness and wellness of all people.
I have appreciated the many stories that have been shared this week as we remember
the 20th anniversary of 9-11. Powerful human stories have been told from those whose lives
were dramatically impacted on that fateful Tuesday morning.
I remember exactly where I was that morning and how the Church came together that evening for prayer.
I remember the theological and ethical questions that followed the event.
I remember the discernment over how Christian institutions were to respond to a terrorist attack.
As one of our nation’s leaders stated in the aftermath of 9-11,
“Not only is our security in danger, but our values are in danger as well.”
The mettle of America was tested, just as was the metal in those World Trade Center towers.
How many degrees of heat could we take as a country and still stand strong on the principles and values
which have guided us in the past?
The future Senator Pat Moynihan’s heard a friend claim after President Kennedy was assassinated
that they would never laugh again. He said, we will laugh again, but we will not be young again.
Many in America after 9-11 would learn to laugh again, but Americans would never be young again.
As Paul wrote long ago, “we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about
by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way…”
Reflecting on 9-11, perhaps we can take to heart Paul’s words about growing up…
growing up by speaking the truth in love, by seeking the ideals of unity and maturity,
by holding before us the goal of building up others in love instead of tearing others down in hate.
The key to maturity is unity – as Paul wrote earlier in this chapter in Ephesians:
there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,
who is above all and through all and in all. (4:4-6)
Unity is a gift that comes from God, and unity is nurtured in following God’s ways together.
If all share the mutual goal of following, unity, even in the midst of diversity, becomes possible.
The Church is not simply another worthwhile institution,
but the most exciting and most demanding and life-altering enterprise in the world.
The Church has much work to do; the Church’s work will not be done
until all of the world comes to unity…and maturity…and peace.
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Corinthians 12:27)
And you have an important role to play in this community.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church