Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone…I will not be with you then, nor you with me” (Luther).
But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me” (Luther).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).
In his book A Fellowship of Differents, Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, unpacks the unfortunate process of folks who idealize Christian community, refusing to make space for the messiness that comes with human relationships. He writes about a common pattern, or process, that we often see when their idealism crashes into the realities of life in the church:
They read the NT carefully.
They discover the glories of what the church could, or should, be.
They start all over again with a vision of the church.
They experience problems achieving the vision.
They get discouraged.
They withdraw from church.
They start another church with a new-and-improved vision.
They soon find fewer and fewer like-minded souls.
They do church at home alone.
The idealism of the church will inevitably lead us to isolation if we do not learn how to deal with our disillusionment with the church. The church is a messy place, but it is a place where we walk together in the grace and truth of God in Christ.
If we are looking for the ideal church, it’s important to remember that it ceases to be ideal the moment we walk into it.
This past weekend at Eastbrook Church I concluded our series “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances” on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I took us through the last section of the letter, Philippians 4:4-23, where Paul draws together some final exhortations and personal reflections. This section has some of the most well-known verses in the entire letter, which makes it both a delight and a challenge to preach in its context.
You can view the video and sermon outline of this message, “Multiplied Joy,” below. You can also follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.