The Necessary Activity of Community

Spend enough time with members of an older generation and you’re bound to hear the phrase “back in the good old days”, or some derivation of it. The phrase is so common that it’s worked its way into our stable of stereotypical jokes. Perhaps one of the most common ways in which the phrase is employed refers to the nostalgic fun and safety of the “good old neighborhoods”. You know, the ones where no one so much as locked a door, children ran feral in the streets and walked unaccompanied to their friend’s house, and everybody knew everybody else on an intimate, personal level. Of course, the reason the phrase and the memories it evokes are being employed is to lament the fact that the current neighborhoods don’t look like those “good old neighborhoods”. In today’s neighborhoods, doors need to be locked and dead bolted and iron bars installed over the windows. Children need to be driven next door by both parents and dropped off with a cellular phone loaded with unlimited data so their whereabouts can be tracked and the panicked parents can rush over at the slightest hint of danger. And, of course, people rarely dare to venture out of the confines of their suburban fortresses to traverse the barren landscape of their neighbor’s unkempt yard in order to strike up a friendly conversation.

I must admit, I’ve slightly exaggerated the complaint. Nonetheless, the complaint is there and it’s common one. Even if that complaint is exaggerated and sometimes unfounded, the reality is that many neighborhoods don’t look like they used to look. Many communities don’t  interact like they used to interact. The friendliness and comradery are gone and nary does Tim Taylor look across the picket fence into Wilson’s eyes. Such a community is no community at all, nor can it be. Community is not merely, or even primarily, about proximity (as important as that is). Rather, community is about participation. It’s about a selfless giving of ourselves to others in the community, in order that the community itself might grow, thrive, and prosper. Without participation, a selfless giving participation, community is dead.

Several weeks ago, we began our foray into the investigation of Christian community with the foundational fact that Christian community is centered on our common union in Christ and our common interest in the life of faith. In this installment, we continue that investigation by discovering what Christian community looks like, how it acts, what it does, what WE do as members of the Christian community. Fundamentally, Christian community and the communion we have with one another must be characterized by a deeply selfless, giving participation. The Confession puts it this way:

“All saints…have communion in each other’s gifts and graces…” WCF 26.1

What, precisely, are the Divines talking about? The answer to the question is readily found in the proof texts they provided as Scriptural support for their statement. The Assembly appeals to (among other Scriptures) Paul’s language in Ephesians 4:15-16. Paul declares that the church is Christ’s body and this body is to “grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” This is common language for Paul. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to demonstrate the deep, intimate unity of the church as Christ’s spiritual body and the necessity of each member’s participation. We are all connected and active participation in that connection is absolutely necessary if we are, as a community, going to grow up into our head. As Paul says, the church is “…joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part of the body does its share, causes growth of the body…” That is to say, in our common head we are united to one another and every joint, every component part, is absolutely essential to the proper functioning of the body as it strives to reach its goal; namely, greater and more perfect love for God and for one another. When different parts of the body refuse to participate, or fail to participate, the whole body suffers. We were re-created in Christ Jesus to actively work together, using our individual talents, gifts, and graces to serve one another and, in serving one another, serve Christ.

It stands to reason that if the proper functioning of the body is dependent upon the full participation of its parts, then that full participation is an obligation and duty that rests upon us. The Confession says exactly that in the next portion of the paragraph quoted above:

“…and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good…”

That phrase doesn’t need much unpacking, does it? It means we are obligated to serve one another. We are duty bound to use our gifts and graces, both in public and private, in such a way that we are all mutually promoting and fostering each other’s good. We aren’t to be insular. Contrary to the popular trope, Christianity isn’t merely about “Jesus, my Bible, and me.” Especially since Jesus and your Bible tell you that you weren’t meant to go it alone. Paul employs the metaphor of the body again in 1 Corinthians 12 as he calls out the misguided and self-serving members of the Corinthian church. Verse 12 drives home the point that “for as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” As members of a body, we are to be about the business of nourishing and caring for that body with every part doing its share.

So how do we actively participate in the Christian community? The bulk of that answer is found in paragraph 2 of Chapter 26 which we’ll investigate in our next installment. Yet, before we get there, we would be remiss not to carefully consider the closing phrase of paragraph 1.

“…both in the inward and outward man.”

That’s an easy phrase to pass over without giving it much thought, but it’s a crucial one. Our participation in our community is to be full-orbed. In other words, it is to touch the entire man – inward and outward, physical and spiritual. We have a tendency to skew one way or the other. Either we emphasize the physical to the neglect of the spiritual, or we emphasize the spiritual to the neglect of the physical. Both are important and, accordingly, our selfless, giving participation ought to be engaged in both realms. We are to be offering the cup of cold water in Christ’s name and we are to be edifying, exhorting, and encouraging one another.

In 2011, Jim Hinckley wrote “Ghost Towns of Route 66”. The title of the book, of course, makes its content fairly self-evident. Joined by photographer Kerrick James, Hinckley chronicles the history of that once illustrious highway and the formerly flourishing, but now abandoned towns that dot its twists, turns, and straightaways. The pictures of these ghost towns are beautiful, but tragically so. The communities that once existed there have long since been swept away by the movement of history and the expansion of the interstate highway system. No one lives there anymore and, certainly, no one participates. Those communities are dead. The universal Christian community will never die, but local ones certainly can and without the active, selfless, giving participation of its members, they certainly will. The highway of Church History has its fair share of ghost towns. So, then, “let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, and so much the more as [we] see the day approaching. (Heb. 10:24-25)”.

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