“What does community mean to you?”
A self-inquiry by Jon Trott, offered as a message at JPUSA Church 04/23/2018
What does community mean to you? Every one of us has our own list of answers to this question. Not all of those answers are “spiritual” sounding. Not all of us agree on even the questions. But still… what does community mean? What is it? We put “Christian” on the front end of community… that might seem to help define it. But does it? Or does the mystery remain?
In the past few years, we here at JPUSA have undergone a series of changes. Community has, of course, always been about change since our 1972 beginnings. But these changes seem a little more seismic. And in many ways, unavoidable. Yet we’re still here, still together in the mystery.
For me, as an older member of the community here since 1977, the loss of key leaders who happened to be my dearest friends struck hard. Losing my parents in the same time frame and experiencing other upheavals in my own family front contributed to my sense of loss of those friends here.
For my entire 41 years here, I have thought long and hard about community – not just in general or in some useless philosophical way but specifically, among and with you / here / now. I don’t promise these few thoughts are wise, or will be agreed with, they are only thoughts such as one human being’s heart caught by both faith and suffering can express. Use them in any way they seem useful, even as something to push against to find a better way. If nothing else, I hope we continue to think and pray about what it is we do. Community must not become merely a reflex, a “place” for me or you to pursue our own desires and opinions and beliefs. It must be more or it is far less than it was meant to be.
In marriage, that first community God created in Genesis 2:18-25, we see the invisible made visible. What is the invisible? Love. I would not draw that conjugal love / community analogy except that Paul himself does so, and powerfully, in Ephesians 5. Repeating Genesis 2:24, “the two shall become one flesh,” Paul then says, “This is a great mystery and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.” Sexuality is God’s gift only for that married couple. But transparency – removing our psychological armour, stripping ourselves of our imagined protections and power – is Christians’ duty, calling, and offering to the God of Love. By extension, it is also our duty to one another. As James writes, “Confess your faults one to another.” Yes, there are limits between humans. Wisdom is needed in truth-telling and in knowing when not to say a truth that will only wound and not heal – whether in your case or your hearer’s case. There’s also the little issue of just what “truth” is or is not when two or more disagree…. But we’re not going there today!
Back to the invisible being made visible. Here’s what Paul writes in Colossians 1, starting at verse 15, about Jesus: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And so, I suggest the primary place we look to understand the mystery of community is to Jesus Himself, and to the Triune Godhead of which he became the visible member. That Tri-unity, by the way, models a level of unity beyond our ability or calling to achieve. But we too are called to unity. (Not, however, to uniformity.)
I suggest that love of neighbor, the second most important commandment after love of God, is another clue to understand community. Genesis’ first few verses tell us that “male and female” we are made in God’s image. The implications of, for instance, making myself remember that even Donald Trump shares in the “Imago Dei” – that is, in the image of God. Theologically, I’m going to scare you. At least, this scares me. That term means more than just Jesus looks like us or shared our humanity. Imago Dei means also that, to quote one definition, we – that is, you and me! – are “the creatures through whom God’s plans and purposes can be made known and actualized.”
Matthew 25:31 – 46 may be one of Jesus People USA’s most often quoted chapters. There are reasons for that, not least that Cornerstone Community Outreach and various other ministries past and present we’ve been blessed with have the poor at their heart. Most of us understand, I hope, in more than an abstract way that this business of feeding, clothing, and housing the poor, visiting those widows and orphans who grieve with sorrow and are starved not merely for food but also for human contact, visiting those in prison no matter the reasons, puts the legitimacy of our faith on trial. These, by the way, are judgment and hell verses, something both “liberal” and “right wing” folk should take note of. And they define community – two communities, at least. One community is commended by Jesus. The other community, which also uses his name and claims allegiance to him, is rejected by Jesus. A community that forgets the marginalized, whether those within it or outside of it, is in trouble. And no, we don’t ever get to think that we have arrived… there is always room for one more sacrifice on our part… and God will be faithful to bring those people our way or us their way.
A community, I suggest – and this is from personal experience on both ends of the transaction – resists rosy romantic definitions of either human interrelationship or Christian faith. I once wrote a blog article – it is still up on my “blue Christian” website – called “I hate community (Today).” You can look it up if you want a few laughs and maybe evidence against my spirituality!
But there is one more thing I’d to add here before closing this short rumination on our life together…. Our lives together. Notice how we can say that in either a singular way, meaning all of us as a unity, or in a plural way, meaning each one of us distinct within the group.
Group. Interesting word. Do we call the JPUSA community a “group”? A “family”? A “ministry”? An “association”? A church?
I know that I came here in search of a family of believers. My own family was a loving one as I grew up, my parents loved each other intensely. My five siblings made life interesting and usually fun. Sometimes not. I sometimes made their life uh… interesting as well. But I understood, before most people do, that the issue of God’s existence directly impacted my own ability to love or not, and by extension, to truly belong to a family or not.
This stuff may bore those of you who never doubted in God’s existence. Bless you, what a gift to have that sort of faith! I didn’t find God easy to believe in. At all. But I did, as early as 11 years old – and never believe that children cannot think deep and terrifying thoughts! – begin to deeply ponder how God and Love are connected. My parents seemed to cheerfully disbelieve. To me, and I didn’t say so to them for quite a while, if there is no God, and the universe is a giant material/space object filled with material objects and empty space and with no purpose or Person behind it, then love itself is nonsensical. Love is just a cover for biology. And it serves as a psychological coping mechanism to make this brief and sometimes very painful journey ending in death into something more. If this universe is all there is – or even if multiverses are all there is – then love is a useless concept. I could call it greed, or self-interest, or self-preservation, or (best) a big lie, a whistle past the graveyard. Except in the end I ain’t gonna make it past the graveyard. I am functionally alone even in the midst of a crowded room, even in my wife’s arms. If… if the universe is empty of God.
If God does exist, and here I refer specifically to the God revealed in our Scriptures and our Christian journey, then Love exists. More than that, Love is Pre-eminent. Love is ruler of all. Love is all, in the end, there is going to be. But Love here is not referent to a feeling, or intuition, or certain platform of ideology or concepts. Love refers to the living Triune God, and to Jesus the Son under Who’s name all things will be subject. He suffered all, and still suffers in and through us. As His beloved community, then, we all are called to be a family with Christ as our Source, our Center, our Redeemer, our Brother, our friend, our Shepherd (pastor), our LORD, our example, our leader, our King. He is the King Who Kneels. The Sovereign who washes feet. The LORD of all who did not grasp all but instead humbled himself even to end up in a stable, a manger, rejected, beaten, whipped, mocked, and crucified for even those who plotted his death and drove the nails.
Our identity as a community must begin and must end in our identity as disciples. We must not live together merely to get by, merely because we don’t know what else to do. We must turn to the first love that drew us here. We are his family, his friends, his body. Consider that. Hold up your hands. Look at someone’s next to you. Really look at it. This is Jesus’ hand. Look at your neighbor. This is Jesus’ face looking back at you. Look at your hand, your arm…. This too is Jesus’ body. We are a mystery in a mystery, the riddle of human beings saved by grace who now live as part of that Grace, that God, that Jesus Whose name this community bears. Jesus People. We are a motley crew, sometimes a dysfunctional family for sure. But we endure… because He Who Loves us holds us fast.
Some of you are like me, caught in a stubborn sadness that seems not to end. Some of that sadness, and I say this because transparency demands it, may even come from being in the community. Some of it comes because trusting Jesus is a moment to moment thing. We don’t ever – and I mean EVER – get to a point where we’re past doubt. If you think you have… just you wait. But after all, faith’s own definition, as that old Jesus People favorite, the Amplified Bible, puts it, is to trust in, cling to, rely on. And who do we trust in, cling to, and rely on? It must be the Lord of Love. It must be Jesus. Because in his mystery alone can the mystery of community be fully contained. Thanks for listening.