12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The elderly pastor was searching his closet for his favorite tie before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the closet, he found a small box containing 3 eggs and 100 $1 bills. He called his wife into the closet to ask her about the box and its contents.
Embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box there for their entire 45 years of marriage, and the 45 years of his ministry. Disappointed and hurt, the pastor asked her, “WHY?” The wife replied that she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings.
He asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time during their marriage that he had delivered a poor sermon, she had placed an egg in the box.
The pastor felt that 3 poor sermons in 45 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about, so he asked her what the $100 was for.
She replied, “Each time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them to the neighbors for $1.”
Today we continue in our series on Mennonite Church USA’s Purposeful Plan, and we come to priority number two: Christian Community. Community can be a beautiful thing and community can be messy. But we continue to gather together, week after week. And I know that you don’t come just to hear me preach, I have my share of stinkers as well. Something keeps you coming back, something brings us together. And I believe that “something” is in our DNA, our very being, because we were created for community.
From the MCUSA website we read:
As a sign and foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom, our church communities serve as a vital part of our witness in the world. As communities in God’s mission, we will strengthen the organic nature of the body of Christ and enhance our witness through worshipping together, extending hospitality, practicing scriptural discernment, cultivating Christ-centered unity and learning to agree and disagree in love.
In the book of Genesis we find the creator of heaven and earth both interacting with the things that he had made and observing them from a distance. And we find one of God’s observations in chapter 2, verse 18a, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’”
Was that man, Adam, alone? Nope. He had birds and plants and fish and llamas. Every animal that we have today was probably present with Adam. He was not alone, but he did not have contact with any other human being. God’s observation was not simply that Adam shouldn’t be all by himself because Adam wasn’t by himself. God’s observation was that Adam needed other people. And it isn’t just Adam that needed other people. We need other people as well.
We see this at the very foundation of who we are. In chapter one of Genesis we find that God created human beings in God’s own image. In verse 26a we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” Many people have asked why God is speaking in the first person plural. Why does God say let “us” make humankind in “our” image? And some have come to believe that this is a conversation taking place within the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. (It is a little more complicated than that, though.)
It is not good for human beings to be alone because we were created in the image of God, who is three-in-one. God is by nature communal.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry we see time and time again that he valued community. There was a particular group of people who were considered “unclean.” I am speaking of the lepers, who had a skin disorder. If you touched someone who was unclean, you became ceremonially unclean and had to go through a number of ritualistic washings before being able to enter the temple and eat with other Jews. What did Jesus do with the lepers? He reached out and touched them. Jesus recognized the importance of having the touch of another human hand upon yours. Jesus knew that it is not good for humans to be alone.
Jesus often gathered together with his disciples and they shared a meal together. We read that they also invited other guests to join in their time together. Jesus gathered together with people of all sorts of different backgrounds and different beliefs. The Zealot, the Tax Collector, the prostitutes, the sinners. They came together for community because it is not good for humans to be alone. And the thing that kept them together, in spite of their differences, was their commitment to learning from and following Jesus.
Now one might think that after Jesus was crucified that these people with their vast differences would stop coming together and stop being community to one another. But after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, we find in Acts 2:46-47, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
The “they” that gathered together daily was not just one or two individuals. It was a gathering of all of the believers in Jerusalem until this group got too big and geographically separated to meet regularly.
This brings me to my first take-home point for the day. Christian community isn’t just a bunch of friends getting together. Christian community is a group of people that come together for a higher purpose, in spite of their differences.
So what is that higher purpose? For what reason do we come together? We have they why, now we move to the what. Let’s break down verse 16 from our text for this morning to get a better idea of what we are to do in community.
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
Psalms, hymns, songs, singing. I get the feeling that there might have been some aspect of worship involved in the gatherings of the early disciples. And to this day, when followers of Jesus get together, we sing. This is one way that we communicate our love and appreciation to God.
Paul writes that the message of Christ is to dwell among the gathered believers. In the church that Paul is writing to, they would not have read from the New Testament like we do today for one simple reason: it hadn’t been written yet. But Paul is encouraging the early church to spend time discussing the teachings of Jesus. People would have passed on the teachings of Jesus by word of mouth, and some would have probably taken notes. So they came together to discuss these teachings.
This is what we are doing right now. We are taking these teachings from the Bible on the particular topic of Christian Community and we are talking about them. Granted, I am doing most of the talking, but you are always given the opportunity to respond after the message. In less formal gatherings everyone is given the opportunity to give input.
This is how we learn what God’s will is for our lives and for the church. We read and study the scriptures and then we come together to discuss them. Sure, we can read the texts on our own, but different people see differently, and this is one way we can grow. I really appreciate it when someone lovingly points out that a passage can be understood differently. I really appreciate when someone can share some of their life experiences and help to shape my interpretation of a passage.
The word “church” is only found in two chapters in the four gospels: Matthew 16 and Matthew 18. Both times the context has to do with discerning what the will of God is. Christian Community is a place where we seek to better understand what it means to follow Jesus.
We come together to worship, pray, to study scripture. But I can do all of those things at home by myself. So why come together?
I like to draw from popular songs when I form my theological reflections from time to time. And today you will see that my taste in music is about 40-50 years behind the rest of the world. The first song is by Simon and Garfunkel, called I am a Rock (1965).
The words of the song really strike me:
I have no need of friendship/ friendship causes pain/ It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain/ I am a rock, I am an island/ Don’t talk of love/ But I’ve heard the words before/ It’s sleeping in my memory/ I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died/ If I never loved I never would have cried/ I am a rock, I am an island.
It is clear that this person has been hurt; hurt by friends and hurt by loved ones. We can probably all connect with these words at some level or another. Perhaps you have poured out a lot of energy or a lot of time building relationships with others. Maybe you have invested years of your life to loving an individual only to have them break your heart. Building relationships is tough work and sometimes we get let down. People let us down. Friends hurt us. Sometimes the church hurts us.
Sometimes we just want to withdraw from other people and be a rock, an island. Simon and Garfunkel go on to say that they have their books and their poetry to keep them company. You know, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman can make for pretty good friends when one is all by themself.
I know the feeling. We don’t need other people, we don’t need the church. I can study my Bible at home, listen to podcasts, listen to hymns and praise songs on the radio, and get by alright. But it is not good for human beings to be alone. Neither my iPod nor my television ever baked me a casserole.
Life is going to be challenging at times. Jesus said that in this world you will have troubles and I have not found anyone who wishes to argue otherwise. We get sick, we lose jobs, people have surgery, some die and some are born. These are times when we need just a little help. These are the times when the church needs to come together and support one another. We need to be there for one another. I can’t begin to tell you how much we have appreciated meals after the birth of our children. People have helped watch our children during busy times. I am not sure what we would have done without you. Had we been a rock and an island, we probably would have sunk. No, I think I would prefer a different metaphor for our communal lives.
I recently came across some interesting information on the largest tree in the world. The largest tree is a coast redwood. The coast redwood is known to grow over 300 feet tall and 25 feet wide. The tallest redwood in the world is just over 379 feet tall from the ground to the tip of the highest branch and it is said to be about 800 years old, which means that it is only about half as old as some redwoods grow to be. It wasn’t until 1899 that human beings built a building taller than this great tree. The coast redwoods are truly magnificent!
With a tree being this big, you would probably imagine that the roots go really deep into the soil to provide stability for this large timber. But the average redwood only has a root system that goes about 4-6 feet deep. 4-6 feet deep, that is shorter than most of us. So how does the redwood keep from falling over?
While the roots only go 4-6 feet deep, they span about 250 feet, which is almost as wide as they are tall. This alone provides more support, but it still isn’t enough. We also need to consider how redwoods reproduce.
Redwoods are conifers, or cone-bearing trees. The tree produces cones and drops them from its branches onto the floor of the forest. Inside these cones is a number of seeds which find their way to the soil and if the conditions are correct, they produce baby redwoods. These redwoods then grow to maturity and make cones and drop their seeds to the soil below them. The seeds are only dropped as far away from the parent tree as its branches will stretch. This is why you have stretches along the west coast of redwood forests. These trees grow, reproduce, and thrive in a close community.
The reason that the reproductive process of the redwood is important is because where the other trees grow is important to the life of the parent tree. Remember that the redwood’s root system is shallow and broad. But it is also a twisting, winding root system. So when more trees grow up beside the first tree, they all put down shallow, twisting, winding roots as well. The roots of one tree intertwine with the roots of another, providing more support than either tree would have had on its own. If you remove just one of these trees, the others are weaker because of it.
No, we are not called to be a rock or an island. We are called to be a system of redwood trees, supporting one another during the storms of life. And I think I prefer the teaching of a different song, which I will close with today. This one from 1972 by a man named Bill Withers. The words to Lean on Me:
You just call on me brother, when you need a hand/ We all need somebody to lean on/ I just might have a problem that you’d understand/ We all need somebody to lean on
If there is a load/ you have to bear/ That you can’t carry/ I’m right up the road/ I’ll share your load/ If you just call me.
Let’s be community to one another. Let us be that system of redwoods, leaning on one another.