If you take I64 west of Shelbyville for about 160 miles you will come to the community of New Harmony, Indiana. Have any of you been to New Harmony? New Harmony was the site of two attempts at a utopian society in the early 19th century.
In 1814 a group led by a man named George Rapp settled there, and, believing that the second coming of Jesus was immanent, sought to achieve Christian perfection in all areas of their daily living. The community of New Harmony was sold in 1825 to Robert Own, who also desired to establish a utopian community, but his so-called Community of Equality dissolved only two years later, in 1827.
John Calvin, the famous reformer of the 16th century, sought to build a utopian society in Geneva, Switzerland, but a man named Michael Servetus would probably have argued that it was anything but a utopia, as Calvin had him arrested and burned at the stake in 1553.
In the 60s, a time of great idealism and hope, there was a movement that led to the creation of communes, which, in their own way, were attempts at creating a utopian society. Some of which are still in existence, such as The Farm, in Summertown, Tennessee (http://thefarmcommunity.com/index.html) and Jesus People, USA, in Chicago (http://jpusa.org/).
There have always been, I suppose, a quest to build the perfect community, a place where individuals and families can live in complete harmony, but it never quite seems to work. Our own heritage as Disciples churches has proved that somewhat. A movement that sought to unite churches together and to heal the denominational divisions led not to unity, but to the creation of three new and distinct groups of churches.
The word community is quite the buzzword in our society, perhaps because there seems to be so little of it remaining in our society. But a genuine sense of community seems to be lacking, doesn’t it?
Think for a moment about what comes to mind when you hear the word community. And what would be the marks of a Biblical community? What does a Biblical community look like? How does a Biblical community act? What are the values of a Biblical community?
Building a sense of community is one of the most important concepts that we find throughout the Scriptures. Old Testament Israel, for instance, was a founded upon several principles, one of which was that they were called by God to form a community that would reflect his values.
There are many Scripture passages that teach us about community, and the one I chose for our text this morning is Galatians 3:26-29 –
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
How do we develop a sense of community, a sense of connectivity, in such fractious times?
A Biblical community is not a place of perfection.
We are a messed-up group of people. What a glorious, wonderful mess we are! But who isn’t? Find me a group of people anywhere that isn’t full of a mixture of sinners, hypocrites, and maybe a few saints thrown in for good measure.
Some people have the idea that the church should be a place where people always get along, where everyone is happy, where there are no problems, where everyone’s lives are perfectly together. We need to pop a hole in that balloon. I don’t know how that idea ever got started. We are not a gathering of the perfect, but a gathering of those who are wounded, those who are imperfect, those who are nursing hurts and failures, those who are beset by doubts and worries and fear, those who struggle in so many ways.
The Scriptures certainly prove that the gathering of God’s people is never an exercise in perfection. In I Corinthians 11:18 Paul writes these words – I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you. Talk about an understatement. The church at Corinth was a mess. There were enough problems in that church to be evenly distributed to many other churches and still have some left over. Why was it a mess? Because there were people there, and that’s what happen with people! In fact, here is an interesting point to consider – much of the writings of Paul found their genesis in addressing problems. The only people in the Scriptures who believe they had it all together were the scribes and the Pharisees, and they were deluded into thinking they had it all together.
Read through the Old Testament and you’ll find plenty of stories of people with problems, failures, and struggles. You’ll find the same in the New Testament. The disciples didn’t always get along. The disciples didn’t always reflect the kind of thinking and actions that Jesus taught them to exhibit.
A Biblical community is one that extends beyond normal human barriers and division.
How many of you remember the consolidation of school systems? Do you remember how painful it was to communities? My home county consolidated in 1973. I remember so many of the parents talking about their fear of violence in the schools because of the competition between the different communities throughout the county. They were worried that the kids from Wellsburg and Follansbee wouldn’t get along. They worried about what would happen when kids from Weirton were thrown into the mix. And those poor students from the little community of Bethany – they would be overwhelmed by it all! None of this happened, of course, and the fears seem silly now, but consolidation did change the communities a great deal, because the loss of neighborhood schools was a loss of something that held together a community.
When you cross a county line or enter a different community you travel across boundaries that in various ways remind us that as people we are separate and different from one another. Things can change a great deal in such a short distance.
I realize I’m a bit of a broken record on this theme of overcoming barriers and divisions, especially of late, but the more I read the Scriptures the more this theme jumps out at me. Perhaps it’s because of the times in which we live, but I seem this theme pervading almost all of the Scriptures.
Take some time and read the second chapter of the book of Acts. In the first verses of that chapter we read of the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church. Verse six tells us that all of the people gathered together that day heard the gospel in their own language. If you read verses 9-13 you find there were a lot of different nationalities gathered in that one place.
That’s a lot of languages. I was eating lunch recently at a restaurant and found it interesting that I could hear four different languages being spoken in that one place – there was Chinese, Spanish, English, and Kentuckian. And Kentuckian is the one that was hardest for me understand! (I know, I’m from West Virginia, so what right do I have to say anything about how people talk)
Listen to what the people ask in verse 12 – What does this mean? It meant that God was undoing what took place at the Tower of Babel where people were separated by language. God was communicating something very powerful – while human communities are defined by boundaries, his kingdom transcends human boundaries. There may be differences of language among God’s people, but those language differences do not divide us into separate communities.
Verse 28 of our text this morning reminds us there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The early church struggled to develop a sense of community that transcended boundaries. As people from the Gentile world began pouring into the church there were some who were uncertain about this influx of new and different people. Even Peter and Paul had quite a disagreement over how to deal with these very different people (When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong – Galatians 2:11). The point is this – when we begin drawing boundaries within the kingdom of God about who should be in and who should be out we destroy the sense of Biblical community. Biblical community exists when boundaries between people are removed and all become one people under the name of Jesus.
God, very purposely, I believe, brings together people across human boundaries of language and geography and outlook to demonstrate that a Biblical community is a gathering together of people under his name, restoring a community that has been broken and shattered since the Fall.
A Biblical community is a faithful community.
Paul sometimes addresses his letters to the saints in a particular place. How would you define a saint? Most people think of a saint as someone who is extremely righteous, perhaps the closest a human being can get to perfection. Did you know that’s really not the definition Paul gives of a saint? Paul often used the word saint to designate someone who is faithful (see Romans 1:7, I Corinthians 1:2, II Corinthians 1:2 – the people at Corinth were certainly not saintly in the way they lived – Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, and Colossians 1:1). If you are a saint it doesn’t mean you are more righteous or better than other people, but that you are faithful. And it means someone who is so faithful they will remain so even if it leads to the loss of their life. Think of the saints in your life. There have certainly been quite a few in mine.
The early church was an extremely faithful group of people, faithful to God and faithful to one another. It is to faithfulness that God calls us and that we are to call one another. We live in a world where the idea of faithfulness is a dying concept. Think of the power the body of Christ can demonstrate by faithfulness – faithfulness to God and faithfulness to one another.
If you read the second chapter of II Corinthians (verses 1-11) you find Paul pouring out his heart to that church. Evidently there was a problem with someone there and it had caused quite a division among the people and Paul writes passionately about the need to affirm their love for one another. Near the end of that chapter he writes this in verse 15 – For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. Paul says our faithfulness to one another is not only an example to one another, but even more importantly, to those who are outside of the church.
A Biblical community is a place to where people can come home.
My hometown is Wellsburg, West Virginia. It is the second oldest town on the Ohio River and is due west of Pittsburgh about 25 miles. I wanted to leave Wellsburg from the time I was young. For most of my life I have not spoken kindly about my hometown. Perched between the river bank and a mountain it was a place covered with the soot and grime of steel mills all of my growing up years. Like many young people, I wanted to get out of my hometown at the first opportunity. During my high school years, as the steel industry started to collapse, Wellsburg – and the surrounding area – began a long economic downturn that has resulted in a sad decline of the towns. Watching the town decline just made me more certain that I wanted to leave. In more recent years, I have come to realize that I have been too hard on my hometown. Wellsburg is a part of me because it is the community that helped to raise me, to influence me, to educate me, and where a lot of people have loved me all of my life. Though I have been gone from Wellsburg for a long time and only make it back a few days each year, there are people there who still love me and, I’m convinced, always will. It is, and always will be, in many ways my community.
We need a place to which we can return. For some, it is our hometown; for others, it is the family home place. Several years after my father passed away, my mom sold the little farm where I grew up. I vividly remember my final walk through the house, a walk that I somewhat regret now. The house was empty, except for a few tools that still remained in my dad’s garage workshop. As I walked through each room of the house memories came rushing back to me and overwhelmed me. My bedroom, where I would play my guitar and listen to records; the living room, where my family celebrated many holidays; and the kitchen, where we all gathered around the table for many meals and for late night talk and card-playing sessions when we all came home on breaks from school. It was hard to think that though I could continue to visit with my family, there would no longer be the same home place to which I could return.
We need a place where we can call home, a place to which we can return. There is, deep within the heart and soul of each of us, a longing for a place to which we can return. When I speak at funerals and memorial services I often speak about the longing we have for “home,” for that time of being reunited with those who have gone before. This is part of the longing we have because of the God-created need for community.
Thank God for this community of believers at First Christian Church!