In this day and age making the decision to be part of a Christian community may involve a little more than finding out where they meet. We have a variety of communities with a variety of styles of worship and of structure. Some are more formal in their ways and others are much less structured. Some communities offer a time of worship that follows a book in which the service is printed while others are completely impromptu. Some communities use only modern choruses while others use a variety of music from the more traditional hymns to more modern forms of expression. Each community seeks to offer the participant the opportunity to engage in a corporate experience while at the same time building or reinforcing the person’s faith experience. No matter what the form worship takes and no matter how the community seeks to order its life, each community seeks to develop a corporate life among its members in order to strengthen and support one another as we live our lives as faithful followers of God keeping our hearts and minds set on the lessons we have received through the witness of those who had a personal encounter with God in Jesus when he was here on earth as a physical being.
Today it is relatively easy to find a church community and even to become part of one but this wasn’t always the case. In the early years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, it was not only a challenge to be a Christian but sometimes even a challenge to discover where the community was meeting. Meetings were in homes if possible, but more often in caves or – in the case of Rome – in the catacombs, burial grounds beneath the city itself. As much as the early communities wanted to express their faith openly – and many did – they were aware that they needed to exercise caution when welcoming a new convert. In a very real sense, they depended on one another for their physical safety. Today we are very much concerned with confidentiality to the point where we restrict our access to information about one another a little too much. But back in the early church, such confidentiality was important as well – not because people were worried about you knowing their joys or sorrows but rather because they were worried about being betrayed to the authorities. In spite of the fact that Christians were to welcome persecution there were not as many as we may imagine who relished the opportunity to become a living sacrifice in the arena of Rome.
But no matter how much access to Christian community has changed, no matter how our view of confidentiality has changed and no matter how we have chosen to express our faith in worship or order our community’s affairs through our system of governance, some things have remained the same and so we come to the lessons for community life.
The first lesson in community life is – no surprise – to love. But we are encouraged not just to love one another but to love one another in all sincerity. Have you ever told someone you love them and have them question your love? What they really doubted was your sincerity. When we say we love one another and then act in such a way as to demean or belittle or show a lack of sincere caring for another, we belie the truth of our love. Now I will not pretend that even I get this one right all the time but it is a lesson that we need to keep before us in order that we might work at loving one another in all sincerity. Paul goes on to give us some important ways in which we can reveal the sincerity of our love. There needs to be mutual affection for one another. The love we express in community needs to be something that all know and feel. He also encourages us to esteem otheres more highly than ourselves. This does not mean that we devalue or put ourselves down but rather that we do not become so full of our own self that we cannot see the value, the good, the ways in which others are making positive contributions to our life as a community. Nothing can kill a community quicker than when some are valued more than others. We may not all contribute equally but each one needs to feel included and welcomed.
The next lesson is about seeking the Spirit of God and through the presence of the Spirit in our lives serving the Lord through our life together in community – and, of course, in our everyday life when apart from the community. Paul then reminds us of ways that we can serve the Lord. We can strive to maintain hope in our lives and through it find joy. We can strive to stand firm in the face of trouble. We can be persistent in prayer, contribute to the needs of God’s people and practise hospitality. We need to be cognizant of the material needs of our community and to ever welcome one another in fellowship. We then need to learn not to condemn those who cause us trouble or distress but rather, Paul says, to bless them. Certainly not an easy thing at many times but one which is a lesson that the community found in Jesus himself.
These lessons give us the foundation to be able to learn the next lessons. With the base given in the previous lessons, we can rejoice with those who rejoice, we can weep with those who weep and we can learn to live in agreement with one another.
That last one has no doubt caused every Christian community a good deal of trouble. One thing we have great difficulty with is learning how to live in agreement with one another. There will always be differences of opinion about what is best for our community, but we are challenged to not separate ourselves from the community when a decision does not go as we think it should. As a community of faith, we seek the guidance of God through his Spirit of wisdom and trust that we make decisions that will lead us in the right direction. We may not always make the best decision the first time but we need to remain united in our life seeking to ever be part of whatever path the community takes.
As Paul says, do not be proud, but be ready to mix with humble people. Do not keep thinking how wise you are. This is Paul’s way of reminding us that we are to be welcoming and accepting of all who have put their faith in God and desire to be part of the community of faith. No matter what our level of education, no matter what position we hold in the community or in the wider community, we are to see each other as equals and to treat each other with kindness and respect.
As with every lesson from Scripture, there is nothing complicated about any of them but each of them has a challenging depth to it that will ever cause us to pause and look again at the life we are living with one another.