We have been having much discussion of late in the church I attend about what it means to live as Christians in community. There are some who are expressing misgivings. “Is this really so important? I mean, we are judged individually, right? We each go to heaven or hell on our own, right?” I sigh, because it seems to me that this posture is more a function of the rugged individualism embedded in and embodied by our culture than it is biblical faith. In Matt. 5.13-16, when Jesus names the vocation and task of the church, it is not, “Individuals seeking an escape from the lake of fire.” It is a visible community–“a city on the hill”–whose good deeds give the world a reason to celebrate our heavenly Father.
One of the inroads we have taken into the realm of what it means to be church as such a community is Luke’s descriptions of the fledgling church in Acts:
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47 NLT)
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. (Acts 4.32-37 NLT)
Several among us are questioning the ongoing validity of these passages for the life of the church. After all, isn’t context essential? Weren’t all these expressions of solidarity primarily occasioned by the fact that the church in Acts 2-4 was composed mostly of the displaced? Weren’t they hunkering down, circling the wagons in response to persecution? Of course all this is true. We should never ignore context when we are reading scripture. As biblical scholar Jack P. Lewis is often wont to say, “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.”
On the other hand, do we really have to be displaced and hunkered down in the face of persecution to embody the generosity of the early Christians? Do we need a pretext for sharing, for believing that we do not need to own what we possess? After all, in 1 Cor. 7. 30-31, doesn’t Paul call upon his readers to live thus: “those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” Are those words any less true?
Another question I have heard from those who have misgivings about the community emphasis is, “Do we really need to practice such radical sharing to be faithful to the claims of the biblical text on our lives? Aren’t these really heart issues?” While sharing or not is indeed a heart issue, can we really trust our deceitful hearts to provide a solution? Are we really physicians who can heal ourselves?
I’m writing to the music of Burning Spear–“Social Living.” “Do you know social living is the best? It takes behavior to get along.”
Burning Spear is singing about virtue. Peace, generosity, courage, truthfulness, loyalty–those virtues needed to “get along.” They are not just warm fuzzies we feel in the heart. They must be embodied in the life together of a people. They must be nurtured and fed by tangible deeds. There can be no peace without peaceful people doing peaceful deeds. There can be no generosity without some form of almsgiving or sharing. For Christians, our virtues are comprised by what Paul names “the fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5.22-23). It is important to note that that these are virtues we do not attain on our own. They are “of the Spirit,” which means from the Spirit–given to us as gifts. It is equally essential to recognize, however, that these virtues presuppose a social context. We cannot practice them in isolation, but we must practice them.
Over at the “Black, White, and Gray” blog yesterday, Margarita Mooney shared some perspective on Pope Benedict’s Sunday address in Lebanon. Of course, in these days of turmoil, the Pope was calling for peace, but Mooney was impressed by how he stressed that peace must never be only in word or disposition. Rather, according to Mooney:
Human goods are not only interior dispositions, nor are they only exterior actions. Human goods must be the alignment of interior dispositions and exterior actions. Is peace a state of mind or the heart? Or is peace a state of social relations? It is both. It must be both. Although it is clear that there is no peace if two parties are warring against each other, there also is no peace if one person hates another, even if he or she does not act on that hate. So how does one build peace in a context that lacks peace? Not only by cultivating good feelings, but also by enacting peace.
One of the readings upon which Pope Benedict’s homily was based was James 2.14-18, which says:
How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation? If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,’ without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that? In the same way faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead. But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith. (New Jerusalem Bible)
Some things to note in these words from brother James. He asks, “Will that faith”–the faith without a tangible expression that can only be found in our involvement in the lives of others–“Will that faith bring salvation?” Of course, there is an implied “no” inscribed. But we often take it to mean, “It won’t save the one one who claims such faith.” And this is true. But more fundamentally, as James’ illustration about how one relates to those without the basic necessities for living demonstrates, such “faith” will not save the one in need! Salvation is constituted by faith at work, not merely in a pious disposition. Otherwise, the world would have no idea of what it means to be saved. My point is confirmed when, after painting an absurd word picture of someone believing saying pious things to those in need will save them, James says, “In the same way faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.” That’s right–such piety is as dead as the starving, naked person will be if we do not feed and clothe them.
No, I’m not suggesting that we all sell everything we own and move in together. That won’t in itself make us good disciples, either. A step in the right direction is suggested my Mark Mitchell in his recent article, “The Culture of Hospitality.” Mitchell points to a late second-century letter from a Christian author called Mathetes, in which he describes the Christian community as follows: “They have a common table, but not a common bed.” Mitchell contends:
When we share a common table, we necessarily cease, at least for a time, from contending against each other as our attention turns toward rejuvenating our physical bodies. We can lay aside differences as we join in one of the most basic of human activities. As we share food and drink, our common humanity is starkly revealed. Good food and good drink facilitate, nay almost demand, conversation, and conversing over a shared meal is a means by which differing ideas are mellowed by the common activity undertaken by all. Hospitality breeds friendship, and friends often disagree, but disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between avowed enemies … While hospitality will not solve every problem (neither will any policy, program, or party), a culture of hospitality will address a variety of issues—care for the infirm, the elderly, and the poor, for example—in creative ways that are simply overlooked or ignored by those who are focused primarily on public policy, court decisions, and protests … Do you want to change the culture? Practice hospitality.
In other words, like Burning Spear sings: “Social living is the best. It takes behavior to get along.” We can have an open discussion about how to embody Christian virtues and Christian hospitality within the church-as-community, and we can, I believe, choose in our present circumstances not to embody them precisely as the church in Acts 2-4 did. But what we cannot faithfully do is suggest that the individual, not the community, is the proper locus for the practices of such hospitality and virtues. The biblical context won’t allow that. Neither will it allow us to relegate these matters to merely private, interior, “heart” matters.