The way to freedom: church as community

Mark 9:33-37
Mark 10:35-44
Philippians 2:1-11

If you want a sure fire way to wind up certain sections of the population, all you need do is refer to today as Mother’s Day, and a many of us start foaming at the mouth and turning purple as we insist that there’s no such thing and it is Mothering Sunday, which, of course, is nothing at all to do with presenting flowers, sending cards, and having family meals. Originally it was a day to one’s ‘mother church’. In the French Reformed Church there is often kept the beautiful custom of the congregation gathering outside their church building, linking hands and forming a human chain around it and singing a hymn of love and thanks for ‘mother church’. I’ll let you know who’s climbing over the walls at the end! Rather than just bemoaning the secularising of the day, might not Christians find an opportunity to reflect on how the community of the church and the wider community of which we are part – including of course the family – relate to each other?

All three of our Bible readings have something pertinent to say about precisely this. In Mark 9, the disciples were unable to agree about who was the greatest among themselves – even they couldn’t manage not fall out with each other sometimes. From Mark 10 we heard James and John trying to put themselves above the other disciples. The letter to the Philippian Christians doesn’t tell a story of people falling out, but it’s clearly addressed to people who have “selfish ambition”, “conceit”, who “regard others as better than yourselves”, and who “look…to your own interests”.

All three passages pull out some of the darker side of human nature, but they do also suggest ways to avoid this. In Mark 9, Jesus reminds the bickering disciples that they need to welcome one another as they welcome little children. In Mark 10, Jesus reminds them that whoever thinks they’re important needs to become a servant. In Philippians, Paul reminds his hearers that their focus should be upon God. This talk of being lowly, and serving others, and focussing more upon God is rather a contradiction from what we see in the world around us, and we don’t always get all that right as a church, but isn’t today of all days a wake up call to keep trying?

That said, our church seems to have dealt with deciding to redevelop our buildings with a remarkable lack of falling out and good grace all round. Everyone knows we can’t all do what we want, but questions of compromise and mutual graciousness have been remarkable.

Yet, we’re still called to be a community, a family in God, with the challenges that brings. Many Christians put very high expectations on their ‘life together’ in the church, and feel that they should also be setting an example to the world on what community should be like. But ‘human nature being what it is’, churches don’t always appear, either to themselves or to those ‘outside’, to be good models of community.

And more than called to be a community ourselves, we’re also called to be a part of the wider community around us. A minister in Hackney, scene of some of the riots in August 2011, said, “The electronics shop across the road from the church was looted, and the kids here at the church made a card, which when I went in, the electronics people said they’d put up in pride of place – and that they’d never realised before how caring the community was, in view of the number of well-wishers who had dropped in.” It’s simple things that matter, and it’s things like this we need to be doing ever more of, if we’re to continue to build our connections and networks in the community around us.

What I’m trying to get to is that not only do we need to be rid of any “us and them” attitude within the church, but also between the church and the community. Our life is interwoven with that of community around us. Of course we must always be mindful that we’re not just another agency. As bearer of the Gospel of Christ, we always has a specific calling and mission. But it is precisely by the way – the humble, incarnate Christ-like mode of servanthood – that we can enter into life of the community, and the Gospel comes alive. It means we always need to be ready to learn what makes for community, life-in-relationship, and how the good news of God, graciously and amazingly making relationship with us, makes a special gift to the creation of community. It means we no longer have to burden ourselves as church asking all the time “how can we be the ideal community and get people to join us in it?”, but rather “where and how is community being born, or trying to be born, in our world, and how can we join with God in bringing it about?”

And would not this be real freedom for the church?

If this means anything, surely it means being alert to quite new and unexpected ways in which the Spirit may be working, new channels by which grace may be flowing in our day?

Connecting with the community around us is surely about love drawing us up into the vortex that is God, as we invite those around us to join the divine dance of life. Yet somehow, for too long we’ve reduced it to an idea of ‘bums-on-seats’ at a bit of a naff church do ‘that used to bring in the whole community’. So many folk are saturated with the demands of work and leisure opportunities, why would they want to go to a ropey night out when we could go somewhere lovely, made for the activity? I’m not sure church can begin to compete with leisure industries, it’s not what we are about, and nor should it be because it isn’t community.

A vicar who use Twitter a lot described how at Greenbelt, a person burst into tears and threw their arms around her crying, ‘It’s like meeting an old friend!’ when she realized the person in front of her was the person she’d followed so much and learned so much from, online. They’d had some pastoral conversations, theological conversations, silly banter, and sent the odd prayer to one another, yet I had no idea who she was in the flesh.

Community has many different forms today.

This same vicar said she once spent five hours talking about Jesus, faith and spirituality with someone else on Twitter, only to discover months later that he was a senior barrister, worked in a top city centre, and their two worlds would never have otherwise collided.

On mothering Sunday there’s the ever present and very challenge of making community real within our church family, but there’s the bigger and stronger challenge of making real connections within and among the community around us. We’ve started to do that over many years, but we’ve a long way still to go. If my ramblings this morning say anything at all, let it be that once we start out on this path of community, it’s actually setting us free from so much, to be. Just to be.

The church is church only when it is there for others. When people see Christians as being simply there for them, refusing to manipulate or cajole them in any preconceived pattern of allegiance or behaviour, then they will be free to take seriously the Gospel of a love which desires only that people should be themselves. Such love is expressed only in the lives of people who have learnt the art of being rather than doing.

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