Christian Community 101

In the four weeks that precede Pentecost, John walks us through the basics of Christian community. With metaphors of sheep and shepherd, vine and branches, he insists that the beloved community is defined by its ability to practice in its communities what it preaches to the world. We can hardly become legitimate bearers of God’s love to the world if we do not share it with one another. Preaching justice and equality to the world when our own institutions express the opposite makes our words hollow and our actions empty.

The love about which Jesus and John speak so emphatically is not sentimental and never condescending. It is love expressed among equals and therefore demands relationships and community structures that honor this truth. Our communities must also make manifest God’s new reign as lived by Jesus: extended to all, regardless of the labels the world has imposed—outcast, enemy, unclean, ungodly.

But because discipleship is an ongoing process, and because human institutions are by definition flawed, in the fifth week we celebrate the gift of the one who will “renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30) and “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The gift of the Spirit, a demonstration of God’s continuing optimism about and fidelity to humanity, is only the most recent manifestation of God’s desire to relate to us.

Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.

May 3
Practicing Good News
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

According to John, the first step to becoming church is confronting the gulf between thought and action. When we form community, we must ensure that the good news we preach is the good news we practice—starting with one another. When Jesus asserts that “I know my own and my own know me .… And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15), he is contrasting his commitment with the religious leader who acts as a “hired hand” and “runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep” (10:13). Far from an anti-Semitic tome, the gospel of John decries the Pharisees not because they are Jewish but because they fail to extend God’s love and mercy to their people. In doing so, he encourages us to examine our own faith communities and to see the gap between the love we profess and the love we share.

The issue is raised directly in 1 John, which asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:17-18). Jesus’ witness starts with making sure the gospel we preach is reflected in the lives we live. When in doubt, John’s words are the barometer with which to judge our actions, to ensure that we proclaim God’s word with our whole lives, “in truth and action.”

May 10
Branching Out
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

In the vine and branches discourse, John advises us to consider a community structure that is more vertical than horizontal. In Jesus’ words, our community will consist of God, “the vinegrower,” and ourselves as “the branches” (John 15:1, 5). Gail O’Day notes the significance of this metaphor, which she calls “radically nonhierarchical,” for in it, “no branch has pride of place” and “all branches are equal before God.” Writing in The Women’s Bible Commentary, O’Day highlights the implications for this structure on the church itself, which “is entrusted to God (italics added), not to any of the branches …. One cannot distinguish between clergy and laity in this vine.”

The metaphor is reaffirmed in 1 John, which provides practical implications for its use. Since we are all equal, we are all responsible for loving one another, as God first loved us: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). John reminds us once more that there is no room for hypocrisy in a community that truly hopes to preach the good news. If we cannot love one another—especially those we know—we cannot hope to proclaim God’s love with authority or integrity to those we don’t.

May 17
Who (Doesn’t) Belong?
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

With the celebration of Pente­cost only a week away, the scriptures testify to discipleship’s most important requirement: inclusiveness. In Acts, Peter is amazed that “even the Gentiles” receive the Spirit, asking “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). In Peter’s incredulity, we glimpse how very difficult it was for the first disciples to “get” the radical inclusiveness that is God’s reign, encompassing even strangers, enemies, and the unclean. Lest we are tempted to feel superior in the face of such ignorance, we need only recall the fact that, to this day, many Christian churches still deny gays and lesbians and women full access to all of God’s sacraments—a painful reminder that we don’t get the radical inclusiveness that is God’s reign, either.

Since we apparently still need clarity on the issue of who belongs, Jesus states the answer so plainly that it’s hard to find excuses behind which to hide: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). There are no exceptions, no footnotes or qualifiers. Given that the Spirit was poured out upon everyone, the commandment to love becomes far more challenging than we thought, going beyond simple inclusion. Indeed, our hardest task is not loving one another, but doing so as Jesus did—recognizing each person’s ability to receive God’s grace, and then serve as its ambassador to the world.

May 24
An Enfolding Peace
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Following the ascension of Jesus, John takes us back to Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which we find the key to understanding God’s relationship to us through Jesus, and our relationship to the world through them both.

Walter Wink, in a beautiful retelling of this passage published in The Christian Century in 1994, contemporizes Jesus’ words, emphasizing that the “enfolding” relationship between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ community does not mean removing the community from the pain and suffering of the world in some kind of rapture, but the opposite. As disciples our only mission is to continue to bear Jesus’ good news, which christens all of us as worthy of God’s love and mercy, thus subverting the codes of power, superiority, and shame by which the world operates. What this enfolding does provide, according to Wink, is “the peace that passes understanding when they are hauled before courts or tortured or killed” as a result of their obedience to Jesus’ life and mission.

In the words of Wink’s Jesus, “Your real capacity to incarnate in human beings, God, is evidenced not just by your presence and power in me, but in the capacity of these nobodies to create a movement that will span the globe.” From our current vantage point, we can testify that the community, despite all obstacles, missteps, and real imperfections, prevails.

May 31
Full Circle
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-35; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4-15

Pentecost is at once a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send an Advo­cate to guide us in his absence, and the description of God’s apparent desire to relate to humanity through the ever-changing work of the Spirit. Luke’s vibrant description gives us a critical template on which to base our own churches. First the followers were gathered together, revealing that the manifestation of the Spirit always takes place in community. Second, Luke is careful to note that the flame rests upon each member, without exception, and that each person receives no more and no less than others—confirming that we are all equally blessed with the gifts and responsibilities of the Spirit. And finally, it immediately enabled those it touched to speak “in the native language” of all who heard them—the Spirit surpasses all barriers of communication, whether self- or other-imposed.

As this Spirit compels us outward, we actually come full circle to our beginnings: The sacred breath brought life to clay, then became holy, written word (Torah), which sustained a people and deepened and broadened humanity’s experience of God. Christians believe that that sacred Word became flesh in God’s ultimate gift: Incarnate self. Now, with Jesus’ ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Word that was flesh has become both Word and breath. This word is not just written; it is primarily spoken, and thus compels each of us into the world, to bear the good news in word and breath.

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