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