After posting on the value of ‘living together’ and a personal response to the challenge, I wanted to try and root some of this thinking from the experiences of the people of God, specifically as shown through the Bible. I’ve posted before about how I view the Bible as a source for followers of Christ, challenging the concepts of infallibility, inerrancy and other big ideas, but it’s still really important for us to get a sense of the ways that people have experienced God at work in their lives.
My core argument here is that we are designed to be in community, that ‘personal salvation’ misses the point that God’s work of salvation is not just about getting our sins forgiven and us ensuring an eternity in ‘heaven’, but much more about redeeming and restoring the whole of broken creation. The former focuses on the ‘me’ and ‘my needs’, whereas the latter on ‘us’ and ‘our needs’. This, of course, is a gross simplification of these positions, but I just wanted to highlight the importance of deep, long term community against that which is merely transitory – perhaps focused on a weekly worship gathering. We may share a physical space with others, but if our focus is entirely on what we ‘get’ from the sung worship and the Bible message, and rarely if ever engage deeply and meaningfully with those around us, I think we’re missing a key aspect of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s a bit like the difference between passengers on a train heading somewhere as opposed to pilgrims sharing a journey to a sacred place together, learning from each other as well as from
Looking at the Biblical account of the people of God, right at the very beginning in Genesis, God says that it is not good for man to be alone, and creates a partner for Adam to share creation with. Whether ‘true’ or not, what’s important here is the message that we cannot live life focusing simply on ourselves and our own needs. As the story progresses through the Old Testament, God calls a whole nation into being – intended to ‘shine as a light’ in the darkness, calling others to recognise and join the true source of all that is good. The problem is that people miss the radical inclusivity of this message, and focus instead on ’purity’, so that we end up focusing on who’s in and who’s out, rather than recognising that all are in under this kingdom.
Jesus calls us back to this message as he forms a new community around him to share this revolutionary message. He chooses the last, the lost and the least as those who will spread the word and change the world. He teaches us to be willing to give up our rights and even our lives for others. As we lose ourselves – perhaps even our something of our individuality – we gain so much more (as the disciples response to the interaction with the rich young ruler and how Jesus replies shows us). What we give up, we gain through those we join with.
These followers grasp this message (despite a few hiccups) and become a transformative community who embrace the fringes so successfully that even the very centre of society was eventually radically changed. The earliest Christian writers have a huge focus on what it looks like to be community, how we should live and journey together. It’s clearly massively important – yes, there is more than this going on – but this forming of community is definitely central to what it means to follow Jesus.
The beauty of what happens across this story is that these communities are always deep places, where life is shared in all its raw intensity. Happiness, grief, wealth, poverty. When we gather with others we believe better – at times we even believe on behalf of those who can’t. Our communities must be places of welcome, of challenge and and commitment to each other as well as God. Key to all of those communities mentioned above is the reading of and interpreting of the stories of those who came before – theology must not a lonely, individualistic academic journey – it must be shared in the midst of real life. After all, theology is trying to put into words what we experience. It can never be a closed story, it must always be growing and changing and being shaped both by us and what we experience.
By doing this communally we create safe spaces in which a dialogue about all that is important can take place. We become multi-rather than mono-dimensional in our understanding of life and God and everything in between. Diversity brings beauty.
Living together is our natural default. Our society praises and idolises the individual – and we’ve seen the consequences. We’re called to reject this, to build something new, something radical, something counterintuitive.
That’s what excites me, what pushes me through the threshold of uncertainty that I described in the last post. It is worth it. It really is.