Reflection – Christian Community
by Peter Mitchell
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
Being a community
Revd Canon John Sinclair, Rector of All Saints’ Church in Rothbury, Northumberland, a church which Moya and I know quite well, suggested a couple weeks ago that the now universally recognized term ‘social distancing’ is not wholly appropriate for our current situation, because what we are hoping to achieve is really physical distancing, whilst retaining, or perhaps even strengthening, our social proximity to others. For we are generally sociable creatures, social interaction is a God-given gift and, now that the opportunity to meet with other people has been severely restricted, for our protection and well-being, we are missing it and the sense of community that it brings. We are having to work hard at finding other ways of being a community and of maintaining social connectivity.
Last Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles Acts 2:42-47 NRSVA shows us that a sense of community was hugely important to the early Christians. They had shared lives, focussing on what united them rather than what distinguished them, spending time together as brothers and sisters in Christ; one family, in fact. Each contributing to their common resources as best they could, to support the whole Christian community; easier to do when there were fewer of them, but we are told that thousands were being added to their number and yet they persevered with the family model of Christian community.
Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that this, as yet unnamed, community was characterized by four things. They were passionately faithful people, keen to study and to develop spiritually, and received instruction from the Apostles, whose teaching was authenticated by the working of amazing miracles. They were loving and generous, known for their goodwill, hospitality and sharing what they had, not only within their own community but continuing the Old Testament Israelite tradition of giving to all who were in need. They were devoted to communal worship, both formal and informal, in the temple and in their homes; praising God, breaking bread together, as Jesus had shown them, and praying, as Jesus had taught them. And they were committed to proclaiming the gospel to others, as Jesus had commanded, increasing their numbers daily. Filled with the Holy Spirit, which enlivened and drove their community, they did all of these things both reverently and joyfully.
The Golden Age
This was the ‘golden age’ of Christian community, lived with expectancy and exhilaration; that they believed that they were living in the ‘last days’ and that Jesus would soon return no doubt lent an air of urgency to proceedings. There is much to admire in Luke’s account of this period and lessons which the church can learn. But we must remember that these exciting times were all too brief and that they could not be sustained; as the story in Acts continues, between the successes, we shall soon encounter exhaustion of funds, destitution, imprisonments, glory-seeking, conflict and murder, amongst other trials, and we must also learn from these. Down the years, the church has experienced many such ups and downs, fervent, spirit-led revivals, which have eventually burnt out, often with the principal motivators moving on and leaving those left behind exhausted, with no-one feeling called to take their place, for a time, until it all happens again; differently each time, but with a broadly similar pattern.
Neither hankering nostalgically for a return to the ‘golden age’, nor being overcritical of the church today for apparently failing to live up to its astonishing achievements is helpful, but perhaps we might take the best of the early Christians’ core principles and then apply them in a way which positively supports a passionate and hopeful community of believers both appropriately for today’s world and suitably fit for adapting to the unknown context of tomorrow’s world.
But first we must ask ourselves, what exactly is today’s world? Right now, it looks very different to how it looked just a few months ago and it will be set to change again as the current pandemic progresses and our circumstances evolve further. We hope for an eventual return to some sort of normality but, whenever that might be, for no doubt it will be a gradual process, things will never look and feel quite the same again and tomorrow’s world might arrive sooner than we previously had thought likely.
For the present then, we are making-do, managing as best we can in what we anticipate will be a temporary, albeit prolonged, situation. Members of our Christian community are separated now because we need to isolate and to distance, not only for ourselves but also to enable those providing healthcare and other essential services to be able to do so with as little risk as possible. To isolate means ‘to make into an island’, from the Latin word insula. We have made ourselves into islands and, at first, this may feel like we are cutting ourselves off from the rest of our community. However, many people who normally live in island communities will tell you that the sea which flows between the islands does not separate their people but connects them; the urge to join the community together is powerful and they see the sea not as a barrier but as a highway.
Full of the Holy Spirit
And so, whilst we may be a disparate community in one sense, we can still see the characteristics of Luke’s early Christian community amongst us. We are still full of the Holy Spirit. We can still learn and develop our faith by praying, reading our bibles and using on-line tools to study the meaning of the gospel, we can still be a people who are loving and caring for those in need by giving on-line or by providing a service for family, friends and neighbours, at an appropriate distance, we can still share in praise and worship for God on television, on the radio, and through digital media, and we can still pass on the good news of the risen Christ and the hope which that brings through telephone calls and social media and in distant conversations with neighbours; we don’t have to do this by preaching to people, for the way we live our own lives and the way in which we speak about the world and about other people is enough to betray the truth that lies within our hearts and that is a most influential and effective witness to Christ.
Planning to move forward
And, as for tomorrow, there will be choices to be explored and realities to be considered. We must soon engage with each other and decide which aspects of Christian community we have lost but which we really need to recover; there may be fewer than we originally think. We have discovered new ways of being a Christian community in recent weeks and we shall no doubt wish to continue to develop some of these. Most people have settled into new routines, the impact of the pandemic has radically changed some people’s lives, perhaps for ever, and many people will remain anxious and wary of close contact with others for some time to come; we shall have to take account of these things in planning to move forward, and to mark people’s experiences in some meaningful way.
A wonderful opportunity
The storms of life may bring perils but they also bring possibilities and we soon shall have a wonderful opportunity to transform our Christian community into one which is fit for future generations. Our children may not thank us if we fail to do this and simply sink back into a community which is little changed from that of the beginning of this year simply because that is the easiest thing to do and it provides the promise of short-term comfort. I am confident however that we can rise to the challenge and not only sing of being a new creation but actually live like that; a community full of the Holy Spirit and, like the early Christians, focussing lovingly, generously, hopefully and joyfully on those important strands of our faith: discipleship, ministry, prayer, worship, hospitality, pastoral care and mission.
Until then, let us thank God for his goodness, take care of ourselves and each other and remain a Spirit-led, connected community, as best we can.
Reader (Lay Minister)