[About four years ago, I wrote this article for Relevant Magazine's online edition. Since the article is no longer available through their web-site, I thought I'd re-post it here.]
Community … community … community. Everywhere you turn, inside and outside of the church, people are obsessed with talking about community.
This is a good thing insofar as it combats the individualistic tendencies of our society. When we stop thinking about the world as millions of autonomous selves and more as related parts, we are headed in the right direction.
However, the manner in which people discuss community consistently disappoints me. It is commonly left at a superficial level. You know, the sort of community that lasts the few hours of a weeknight gathering, endures for a weekend-long retreat or exists within online communities where people know little about one another’s everyday lives. The word community is used, but the reality being discussed lacks true depth.
More pointedly, I am coming to terms with the fact that community is not about people like me. It’s easy to be in community, or at least on congenial terms, with people who are similar to me: similar musical tastes, similar clothing tastes, similar discussion interests, similar stages of life, similar political leanings, similar biting critiques of other people.
This sort of community of sameness reminds me of Jesus’ powerful statement: “You will be greatly blessed when you love those comfortably like you.” Hmm. I think I may have just misquoted the Gospels. What Jesus really says is this: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Look around the room when Jesus said this. There is Simon Peter, that abrasive and over-talkative attention-getter. And James and John, the glorious “Sons of Thunder” who constantly seemed concerned with getting the places close to Jesus. Good old Thomas, whose skepticism and “glass is half full” view of life could bring such a sour tone to things. And Simon the Zealot, who, after these many months together, still talked about Jesus starting a fiery political revolution. Not to mention everyone else, some of whom seem to skulk behind the scenes with little to say about anything. It’s a miracle that these 12 guys didn’t argue all of the time about everything … oh, that’s right, they did.
It’s interesting that they apparently changed the topic once Jesus emphasized this loving one another idea again. “You’ve said that before, and we already know about it,” they may have said. “Move on, Jesus. Give us some words about more exciting matters, like the end of the world.”
It’s sort of like us.
Look around the room next time you’re gathered with other followers of Jesus. See the different faces: some attractive, some homely, some happy, some depressed, some attentive, some distracted, some awake, some sleeping. Think about the person you just bumped into at the door whom you’ve never met beyond an awkward initial conversation.
Think about the person across the room you would rather not have to talk to, let alone see. Think about the people you’re glad you haven’t seen this time. Did I hear a sigh of relief?
If only Jesus had formed a community out of something other than ordinary, irritating, disagreeable, quirky people. Life would certainly have been easier for all of us. But also less true.
Community does not exist without quirkiness, disagreement, awkwardness and difference. We—all of us so different and distinct—are made one in Christ Jesus. Just as He held that rag-tag group of disciples together, He holds us together.
The ugly side of community is that we are repulsed by community in this more authentic way. More often than not, we sell out for a paltry and superficial community that is easy and romantic, not letting our dreaminess be interrupted by the reality of you and me being made one through the tough love of Christ.
His love is tough because it cost Him everything to make us one, and twice tough because it costs us everything to really love one another as a community.