“The most profound change that occurs in community, and the most simple, is learning the meaning of love.”
— John J. McNeill, Taking a Chance on God
The charred wood from the house stood out starkly against the pale, gray sky. Snow, fresh from the passing clouds, clung thickly to the blackened remains of the home. A woman and her five children stood amongst the debris, stooping to retrieve whatever precious remnants of their lives they could salvage from the rubble.
In the distance, the headlights of trucks flooded the scene with a warm glow. The family looked up from their tragic work to see who was visiting their desolate home site. Out of the trucks poured neighbors, friends and complete strangers — the beds of their vehicles laden with lumber, tools and supplies.
“I won’t take no charity,” the woman told the first man out of the truck. “I don’t want to owe anybody anything.”
“You’ll pay us back,” he smiled as the workers swept past her to rebuild the family’s home.
The woman and her children cried and smiled, and promptly pitched in to help rebuild their home.
“Now that’s community,” my partner said from the lounger next to me.
I could only nod in agreement as the heart-rending scene playing out on our television brought tears to my eyes and choked me with emotion. It was, indeed, community.
The movie had revolved around a single mother and her children trying to make it in a ramshackle home in the frigid Midwest. She came to the town without knowing anyone, taking any job she could find. As time went on she had made friends, though she remained fiercely independent, refusing the charity and comforts of the community around her. But, in her time of need, despite her aloofness, those around her were there for her, without hesitation. The woman, in the end, learned that profound meaning of love that community ultimately can teach us all if we’ll only open our hearts to it.
I have to admit right up front that I don’t understand community. I honestly don’t know how it works. It’s one of the great paradoxes of my life. I crave community, but I have no idea what it looks like. I’ve been a loner for most of my life. In high school, while others were out cruising the mall or socializing with their friends, I was in my room, writing, reading, or listening to music. It’s a trend that continues in my life to this day. I do not have a wide circle of friends, although I do have a wide circle of acquaintances. So, I’ve never really experienced the feeling of “community” that socializing with special friends can bring.
Seminary has not been all that helpful in my quest for community. Theologians are very clear on what it takes to be an individual in relationship with God. They write book after book on the subject but they only seem to add community as an afterthought. They spill a lot of ink about how we should act in our personal relationship to God and then say, ‘Oh, and by the way, we need to take our personal relationship with God into community,’ like it’s something we all automatically know how to do. It leaves people like me, who are not sure exactly what community looks like, scratching our heads.
That’s why this scene moved me to tears. While my experience of true community has been limited, I still know community when I see it. I can name the characteristics of community, sure, but it seems to me that true community happens only rarely. That’s not to say that I have never experienced community. I have. I suppose its rarity, and its power, is what makes me crave it. Once you’ve experienced true community you want it to be around 24/7. You want that experience of exclaiming, “Now that’s community!”
My most recent experience of the power of community came at my recent holy union with my partner. I have not attended the church where I am a member for a few months now for reasons that are not important to this article. I called the pianist for our church to ask him to play at the ceremony. Expecting only the pianist to show up to provide the music, we were pleasantly surprised to learn the entire choir would be there, ready to sing for us. It was a true moment of community when a group of people, who I had not seen in a couple of months of Sundays, came out to support my partner and myself on our joyous day. It was another moment that moved me to tears, where I could only sigh, “Now that’s community!”
Community in the Bible
Using the Bible’s view of community to determine how we are to live with others is an exercising in untangling contradictions and harmonizing the different approaches put forth by both Jesus and Paul.
Jesus’ view of community appears to be wider than Paul’s view, which probably shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that Jesus’ audience was anyone who came to hear him, and Paul’s audience were members of a fledgling religious movement. Paul’s message had to be narrower because he found himself dealing with situations that Jesus never encountered. However, it can be argued that Paul took his narrowing too far — making community something that was exclusively Christian to the exclusion, often, of “the least of these” that fell “outside” the community of believers.
Jesus and Paul had two very different ideas of what it meant to be in community, but ultimately I think both approaches are what we need to model today.
Paul and Community: Being “in” the World
For Paul, being in Christian community meant being “in” the world, but not “of” the world. Paul tells the Romans in chapter 2, verse 2, “Do not be conformed to this world …” That message of forsaking this world for the next is carried on by other early Christian community authors like James who asked pointedly: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God” (James 4:4). The author of 1 John echoes that sentiment, writing: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.”
The enmity early Christian writers held for being “of” the world is readily understandable when you look at the situation in which they found themselves. The man they had called “Messiah” died between two robbers on a cross. He died the most disgraceful death a person could die in that day. It would be like a religious movement springing up around the death row execution of someone seen as a hardened criminal today. The world (meaning at this time, the Jewish culture) flatly rejected this fledgling religious movement as the worse kind of heresy. The Roman Empire viewed the new movement with suspicion and often contempt after attempting to quash the controversy Jesus had started in the first place. Jews tolerated them for awhile, even letting them worship in their temples, but eventually, a split came and the new Christians began meeting in the homes of members, often in secret.
So, it’s understandable that early Christian writers would counsel their followers not to love the world too much simply because the world certainly did not love them back. Given that kind of background it’s easy to see why Paul would counsel church members to not eat with unbelievers, “since then you would need to got out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10) or believers who are “guilty of immorality or greed, is an idolator, reviler, drunkard or robber” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
The rules in Paul’s world were different than the rules in Jesus’ world because Paul dealt with situations that Jesus never faced. Often the house churches faced contention, arguments over who was the greatest and divisions about whose teachings to follow — Paul’s, Peter’s, Apollos’, or a host of other disciples teaching varied brands of the Good News.
Many of Paul’s letters address specific problems like 1 Corinthians 11:18ff, in which he counsels a house church on how to deal with community meals where the poor and disadvantaged are being left out because they cannot bring as much food as the richer members. Jesus never had to lay down such rules because the situation never came up!
Paul’s focus, then, was on being “in” the world. He counseled his followers how to be Christians “in” community, not “of” the community at large. This was important to build a new religion. The new community needed ground rules, structure and leadership if they were to keep the members they had and attract new ones into the fold. Learning how to live with each other “in” community was the most important thing at that moment. They needed to nurture themselves, to build up other believers. Being “of” the community at large was not their focus, nor should it have been at the moment.
However, today, we tend to take Paul’s admonitions to not be “of” the world too seriously. Churches tend to stay in that fledgling state, forsaking “outsiders” — the world — so they can build up the believers. They believe that God’s love is exclusive to them and take Paul at his word that they must “drive out the wicked” (1 Corinthians 9:13) they find among them and completely ignore the “wicked” in the world. This approach to Christian community flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching on community.
Jesus and Community: Being “of” the World
Jesus’ mission was completely about being “of” the world. He was totally immersed in the culture around him, eating and cavorting with society’s outcasts — the tax collectors, prostitutes, women and other marginalized groups. Jesus had no problem breaking bread with “the wicked.” In fact, he reiterated that is who he came to be with in the first place, noting that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31).
That didn’t mean that Jesus never had to settle disputes. Even amongst his own disciples, bickering over who was the “better disciple” broke out. But, it provided Jesus with the opportunity to teach his disciples, and us, about what true community is all about, telling them clearly that “the least among you is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). For Jesus, community was about ministering to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) — those who are “of” the world. To do that, we must be humble — ourselves becoming “the least” among everyone who is “of” the world.
Jesus’ mission was not one of building a church or keeping a bunch of believers in harmony. His mission was to connect people directly to God. His mission was to remind those in power that they did not hold all the answers. His mission was about bringing the marginalized into the presence of the only power they truly needed — God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.
Jesus never taught a creed beyond simple belief (John 3:16), faith (even the size of a mustard seed means nothing is impossible! Matthew 14:20-21), and ultimately love (for God, self and neighbor (Matthew 22:39).
Love is ultimately what community teaches us, if we only open our hearts and minds to God, self and neighbor. Jesus counsels us to “love our enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). This is ultimately about being “of” the world and bringing our love to those who, often times, would rather see us dead than anywhere near them.
The word Jesus uses in this passage, and many others where he speaks of love, is agapao which means to “cling,” “long” or “desire.” What Jesus is saying is that we need a true “desire” for our enemies — a longing love that consumes us — that leads us to do acts of unbridled beauty and love for those who despise us. We are to “cling” to them — to never tire in doing good for them. We do not do this to get anything in return. We do this because Jesus tells us to be “of” the world — to do good to “the least of these,” not just those who believe, live or love as we do.
This word is even stronger than the agape term that permeates Paul’s letters. Agape does not include that longing and desire for the other in the same way agapao does. Jesus demands a stronger kind of love when we are “of” the world than when we are “in” it as part of the structured Christian community. We are certainly to love one another “in” community, but we are to “desire,” “long for,” and “cling” to those who are “of” the world. They are the ones that Jesus calls us to love most fervently.
Being Both “in” and “of” the World
Despite the difference in the details between Jesus and Paul’s approach to community, we are called to follow both models today. We cannot take Paul’s idea of only being “in” the world but not “of” it and expect to connect the marginalized with God’s redeeming power. Similarly, we cannot merely take Jesus’ call to be “of” the world without connecting ourselves to a community of believers who will love, edify and build us up in our faith.
We see the problems being one way or the other can cause. The Southern Baptist Convention recently proved how isolated and backward religion can become when one becomes exclusive — “driving out” those they deem wicked from among them and forsaking the world at large for their own narrow idea of community. We also see examples of people getting burned out working for the marginalized — GLBT people, the homeless, women, children, the poor and economically excluded — mainly because they don’t have a Christian community that supports their work “of” the world.
We must be both “in” the world and “of” the world to effectively live out our call to be a Christian community. It is in this fashion that we learn the simple and profound meaning of community — love. Only when both factors are present are we truly able to shed a tear at a movie or welcome a movement of community in our own life with the joyful cry of, “Now, that’s community!”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.