Following Jesus Requires Community

Have you ever noticed how the movies and stories that seem to affect us the most revolve around the relationships of the characters.  It’s almost as if the authors, playwrights, and screenwriters are only writing stories to provide a context in which the characters can interact with each other.  It’s true of movies, books, plays, and even TV shows.  My wife and I were just commenting on how one of our favorite TV shows isn’t as good as it used to be since many of the cast members have left and been replaced.  The relationships that had become so important to us aren’t there anymore and it affects our enjoyment of the show.

The relationships in stories are important to us because we’re relational beings. We were created to live in relationship. From the beginning humanity has always needed and valued relationships. This reality is seen in the story of Jesus as well. During his ministry, Jesus formed a community. All four of the canonical gospels describe Jesus inviting people into his community. Jesus formed a community that experienced and expressed God’s love.

Think about this, in the strictest sense, did Jesus need to form a community.  Jesus could have accomplished just about everything he wanted without his disciples getting in the way.  Did Jesus need his disciples to be able to teach?  No, the crowds found him without the need of a PR department.  Did Jesus need his disciples to perform miracles?  No, that power came from God not the disciples and often they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing anyway.  Did Jesus need his disciples to redeem humanity through his death and resurrection?  Clearly, no one could do that but him.

Yet, I propose that Jesus did need to form a community.  And it wasn’t just to carry on his message after he was gone.  Nor was it merely for theological reasons (i.e. 12 disciples representing the 12 tribes of Israel).  Those reasons are important but, I don’t think they are the most important.  I believe the key reason Jesus had to form a community was because humanity needs community.  The first time anything was “not good” in all of creation was when the first human was alone.  Don’t believe me?  Reread the story in Genesis 1 & 2. We are communal beings.  To experience the fullness of who we are as humans we need community.  Our identity, our purpose, our value are all realized in the context of community.  I said realized in, not defined by.  Those things are defined by God, which is another relationship but that’s not the topic here. Who we are and what we are is realized in the context of relationships.

The idea that we can live successfully on our own is a pernicious lie.  John Donne illustrated this in his famous poem “No Man is an Island:”
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Jesus built a community because it is essential to the human experience.  Moreover, he built a community to show us what community should look like.  Like everything that humanity touches, our relationships are affected by sin.  Jesus shows us the what relationships should look like.  He shows us in the context of a community; a community that experiences and expresses God’s love.

How Should This Inform the Life of a Christ-follower?

We need community.  We cannot follow Jesus alone.  The only way to truly follow him is in the context of community.  He illustrated that by living in community.  Moreover, to live out the greatest commandments presupposes a community:

“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12:29b-31)

Furthermore, Jesus tells us that the only way people can tell if we are following him is by how we love each other.  That can only be done

Challenging the Institution

A young man from Montana who had gathered a small following of farmers and ranchers burst into the U.S. Capitol building the morning of the President’s State of the Union address. The young man with a burning passion bordering on manic rage began shouting and screaming and chased the lobbyists out of the Capitol building. He was fed up with the lobby system in the country. He felt that lobbyists, funded by wealthy individuals and organizations of both the liberal and conservative persuasions, were ruining the American political system. Because of the huge amounts of money these lobbyists were able to bring to bear in support of their specific issue the young man believed that the common man, the people Congress was elected to represent, no longer had a voice in their government. At the top of his lungs he shouted, “The Constitution provides for a Congress to represent the people in government, but you have turned it into an auction for the rich buying votes like they buy art!”

Now, this isn’t intended as a political statement. It is the closest contemporary illustration I could come up with to describe what Jesus did when he cleansed temple in Jerusalem.

On the busiest day in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people were traveling there to celebrate the Passover (one of the most important Jewish religious holidays), Jesus walks into the Temple, the center of Jewish worship.

In the Temple, there were people selling animals for sacrifice and changing Roman coins for Jewish ones. Like lobbying, this system of selling animals and changing money was intended to help the common people. It was a lot of work and money to transport animals for sacrifice to Jerusalem. The Roman coins were stamped with images of gods or the emperor and were considered improper to give in worship (this had to do with the prohibition on worshipping images). The farther one lived from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture and commerce, the harder it was to find Jewish coins. Those “selling oxen and sheep and pigeons and the money-changers” were there providing a service.

The problem was the people providing the service had corrupted the service. Like any vacation destination today the prices changed based on the anticipated volume of business. Basic economics, when the demand goes up and the supply doesn’t change the price goes up. This was a particular burden on the poor. Not only had it cost them a lot to travel to Jerusalem to attend the Passover celebration now they had to pay inflated fees for the sacrifices necessary to participate. Which, by the way, violated Jewish religious Law. According to the Old Testament, the rich were expected to share their Passover sacrifice and feast with the poor. The system intended to help the common people became institutionalized oppression of the poor.

Another issue with the animal-sellers and money-changers was the location in which they set up shop. They set up shop in the Temple. They were selling and changing money in what was called the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only area in the Temple where non-Jewish worshippers of the Jewish God, called “God-Fearers”, were allowed to worship. By setting up their kiosks there, the shop-keepers and money-changers were preventing the God-Fearers from worshipping God. The system intended to help the common people became institutionalized racism.

Jesus saw this and was enraged. I imagine him seething as he walked through the Temple court observing this institutionalized oppression and racism. The Bible says that as he fumed he found three strips of leather and wove together a whip. Once he had finished the whip he used it to chase out the people oppressing the poor and preventing the racial minority from worshipping God. As he did he shouted “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16b).

Jesus saw institutionalized sin and challenged it. He would not let it stand.

How should this inform the life of the Christ-follower?

Institutionalized sin is real. It can be seen in countries that don’t allow girls to be educated. It can be seen in governments that imprison people for religious or political reasons. It can be seen in corporations that turn a blind eye to violations of human dignity to save money on materiels. Institutionalized sin is real and it’s prevalent.

When Jesus saw institutionalized sin he challenged it. When Christ-followers see institutionalized sin we should challenge it.

What are some ways you can think of to challenge institutionalized sin?

Symbols of Sin Become Symbols of Joy

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle was one of his most famous and has become one of the most controversial. At some point early in his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding. If the accounts that I’ve read are accurate the first century Jews knew how to party. You’ve never experienced a party like a Jewish wedding in first century Palestine.

The wedding in the town of Cana would have been no different. Spirits were high and the wine was flowing. And therein lies the problem. The wine was flowing faster than the host intended. They ran out of wine before the party was over and this was a major faux pas.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t want the party or the host’s reputation to be ruined. Not far from where Jesus was standing when he heard the news were several large ceramic barrels used for ceremonial washing. You see, not only were the first century Jews great partiers, they were also spiritual hypochondriacs. They lived in a constant state of fear of becoming spiritually impure. (This is an issue that Jesus will address repeatedly in his ministry.)

The guests of the party used this water to wash their hands before they ate to ensure that they consumed no spiritual impurities. This hand-washing was not just good hygiene. This was religious ritual cleansing.

This water represented a way of relating to God that Jesus came to renew and improve upon. This water was symbol of why people don’t experience the love of God the way he intends. This water is a symbol of sin and evil and all the bad things we deal with because of sin and evil in the world.

Jesus takes this symbol of sin and how humanity isn’t experiencing God’s love and changes is to wine. That’s pretty impressive in and of itself. Changing water into wine is almost as good as walking on water (we’ll get to that on later.) Yet changing water to wine so that the party could continue is only a small part of what Jesus is doing.

For first century Jews, wine is a symbol of joy and God’s favor. Jesus took the symbol of religious fear and the consequences of sin and changed it to a symbol of joy. Jesus took something that reminded people that they couldn’t live up to God’s standards and changed it into something that reminded them that God loves them. One of the biggest transitions that Jesus leads us through as faith in God transitions from the Old Covenant to the New, from Mosaic Judaism to Christianity is the transition from focusing on the need to be restored to God to focusing on God’s love that restores humanity to him.

That’s really the story of the Bible. God created humanity to express his love to us. The first humans and every human after rejected this love by choosing to love themselves more than God. God desperately wants to restore his relationship with humanity. God sent Jesus to restore that relationship. We can experience the love of God through Jesus.

Jesus’ first miracle was a symbol of that story. He took a symbol that represented how we are missing out on God and changed it to a symbol of joy and God’s love.

How should this inform the life of the Christ-follower?

All around us there are ceremonial washing vessels. There are symbols of sin and our separation from the love of God. They can be seen in poverty, racism, disease, suffering, hatred, anger … do I need to go on? As Christ-followers, we can’t let the symbols stand. We need to actively transform these symbols to something else. We need change these symbols to symbols of love and joy. We need to show people they can experience God’s love. We do this by expressing it.

Earlier this week, I saw a news story of a New York City police officer who did just this. He saw a homeless man sitting on the street without any shoes. On a whim he went into a shoe store close by and bought a pair of shoes for the man. He then went to the man and put shoes and socks on the man.

Very few things reveal the reality of sin and pain in the world that a homeless person who cannot even find shoes in the winter. Very few things express God’s love more than putting shoes on the feet of someone who desperately needs them. This police officer transformed a symbol of sin into a symbol of joy and peace.

May we all open our eyes and see the world the way this officer does, the way Jesus does, and may we transform symbols of sin and evil into symbols of joy and peace by expressing God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.