Three Disciplines of Community
The Rev. Philip Tierney
September 7, 2014
Some of us have cravings. They may be for a certain food, like, oh, say, chocolate. They may be for certain feelings, like, excitement. They may be for certain experiences or physical exercises, like hiking through the woods in the fall. Some of us have cravings. And, often, cravings have causes. Over the years, one of my cravings, odd though it may seem, has been the craving for meaningful Christian community. It may have been caused by the fact that I was an only child or that my parents were separated from before I was born. But whatever the cause, I’ve craved Christian community. And so, when I studied in England, I wrote my master’s thesis in pastoral theology on the subject of the therapeutic value of sharing and caring faith communities. Later, when I did my Divinity degree at Virginia Theological Seminary I asked the administration to use an empty faculty residence on campus for a house community, and then helped to recruit six students to launch the experiment. I’ve often looked to encourage genuine Christian community.
Today’s readings describe three basic characteristics of a faith community.
The reading from the Book of Exodus describes precise details. You might be forgiven for thinking that this passage actually gives the specific details of a recipe from a cookbook for roasting lamb. But it’s really details for a ceremony. The passage describes the establishment of a particular ceremony. Yes, it’s a culinary ceremony, but more than that, it’s a religious ceremony, a spiritual ceremony. It’s a defining ceremony. The ceremony defines the identity of a community. The ceremony reenacts a historical experience. It’s an experience of God. It’s an experience of God’s rescue of a community. It’s a ceremony that defines those people as people who’ve been rescued by God, and who have been given special identity by virtue of God’s rescue. That special identity, reinforced by this ceremony, is what has kept the Jewish people intact throughout the course of 3500 years. It has instilled the core identity of the Jewish people confronted by forces that would otherwise have destroyed it, including domination by foreign empires, the abduction of those people from their homeland to Babylon for more than three generations, the Diaspora when the Jewish people were broken up by Rome and spread out across the Roman Empire, and persecutions through the centuries in many different countries, culminating in the holocaust. This ceremony has defined the community throughout history and preserved it. It is a spiritual ceremony, a defining ceremony, a community-building ceremony, and a ceremony that involves food and fellowship. The food is festive and it’s symbolic. The fellowship involves shared remembering, praying, sharing, singing, and a little intergenerational engagement and playfulness.
Community, especially a community of faith, must celebrate ceremonies. The ceremonies need to be more than social and communal. They must be spiritual. They must involve the source of our lives, the meaning of our existence, the historical experiences and roots of our shared identity. They must transcend our current experiences of life and connect us with our reason for being. They must be more than ritualistic, and should be meaningfully symbolic. They must involve food and fellowship, which include shared remembering, praying, singing, sharing, and intergenerational playfulness. That is, in fact, what our Eucharist and other ceremonies are meant to be, and they are foundational to meaningful community.
Actually, there’s a direct connection between the Jewish ceremony of Passover and the Christian ceremony of Eucharist. Christ is our Passover. In fact, you can hardly read the instructions in Exodus without noticing its parallels with Christ —lamb and the Lamb of God, the lamb’s blood spread on the cross-posts of the door frame so that judgment will pass over the people who live there, and the blood of Christ shed on the cross so that God’s judgment will pass over those who take it upon themselves. This is our defining ceremony. It is basic to our identity. And it is central to Christian community.
Most communities of Christian faith have room for growth when it comes to intergenerational engagement, playfulness or fun…. It’s not that we need to hold staffs in hand and stand during the Eucharist, or hide the bread so that kids can run around to find it and bring it to the altar, or even stand holding crosses on our shoulders. But we do well to think of ways to be physically engaged and inter-generationally involved, even symbolically playful. Community needs ceremony.
Let’s shift to the epistle reading. St. Paul succinctly explains the next core characteristic of meaningful faith community, and yet it is also comprehensive. He quoted Jesus when he wrote this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” A community of faith must demonstrate love in all the ways it can.
The Sunday before last, we saw love in action when we prayed together for Nancy. This is how it happened. People knew she’d be having serious surgery last week. At least one person learned that she’d appreciate it if the church could pray for her. That person asked me if we could pray for her during the service. I asked others if that were customary. They said that it was not, but thought that it was a good idea. I asked lay leaders when it might best done within the context of the service. We agreed on a plan and implemented it. When we did, many in the congregation came forward to lay hands upon and pray for her. And God did his part. This little episode involved personal sharing. Love involves personal sharing. It involved compassion. Love involves compassion. It involved empathy. Love involves empathy. It involved prayer. Love involves prayer. It involved risking personal awkwardness or embarrassment. Love puts aside self-interest and personal comfort. It was done with dignity. Love respects the dignity of each person. Community involves love, self-giving love in action.
Finally, Jesus had something to say about community in today’s gospel reading. He said this: “Again, I tell you, if two of you agree on earth, it will be done by my Father in heaven.” As I understand it, Jesus was talking about the discipline of consensus. Consensus is the process of finding agreement or a common mind about something. In our time, in our country and in many parts of the world, alas, power politics seems to rule the day. That’s divisive and domineering. It undermines and can even destroy community. Unfortunately, that dynamic has also infected faith communities as well as secular ones. Nothing undermines churches and faith communities more than divisive politics. It’s not Christ’s way, at least not according to this passage. He goes so far as to say, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am among them.” When it comes to decision- making, community involves the discipline of reaching consensus — finding a common mind and agreement. And it is not to be found in coercion or politicking, but by prayerfully seeking shared conscience. This strengthens community, whereas seeking to achieve one’s own way weakens community. Working for consensus makes Christ’s presence in a community easier to see.
These three are corner posts of a strong community of Christian faith — heartfelt ceremony, mutually loving behavior, and the discipline of consensus. The stronger a community is in these disciplines the more Christ’s presence will be felt.