Quaker Spice IV Community
The first glimpse we have of what we could call Christian community, according to John, occurred behind doors which had been locked out of fear. Jesus returned and blew his breath on those gathered, imparting his grace and granting his spirit to this disillusioned, disappointed and dismayed body of desperate individuals. Up until that moment that is what the disciples were, a bunch of individuals, each with his or her own purposes for following the Master. And here they changed. Jesus is said to have said to them “’As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Then he breathed on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit!’” From its inception, the Christian faith has existed as community. The resurrected Jesus gave to those assemble his grace and his spirit. To be a Christian meant that one belonged to the community. No one, as an isolated individual, would be a Christian by his or her own self.
Deut. 1:19; Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1, 2; 1st Timothy 4:14
Before Jesus appeared in history there already were contemplative hermits committed to poverty and chastity who chose a solitary life in the wilderness. The rugged, arid conditions were molding grounds for Old Testament Prophets such as Elijah, Elisha and John the Baptist. And there were early Christians who, choosing to find in Jesus’ experience a pattern for their own faith journey, went off into the solitude of the desert. Monasticism begans with an individual’s quest for God in the solitude of the desert, it rapidly began developing communities of hermits.
With Constantine’s ascendancy to the Roman throne in 325 and the rise of Christian political power the spiritual enthusiasts who had survived persecution and martyrdom turned to monasticism to escape the growing worldliness of the Church. By the 4th century, church doctrine asserting an external source of grace. Thus the Church’s lack of provision for individual spiritual enthusiasm led to monasticism as a protest against a concept of religion which excluded common people from highest spiritual attainment. We refer to these people as the Desert Fathers: Anthony, Pachomius, Basil and many others.
The people God chooses to take on important work in the Kingdom tend to share a common experience. Most all of our spiritual ancestors spent time in a wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the children of Israel, David and Elijah spent time there. Jesus was there. The Apostle Paul relates his own desert experience. Since it is such a common experience for people of faith we need to learn about it.
As strange as it seems we are most likely to experience the wilderness on the heels of a great spiritual breakthrough. The children of Israel had just miraculously been delivered through the sea as they escaped Pharaoh and Egyptian bondage. They had also just received the Torah, had experienced the very presence of the Living God in smoke and fire and had feasted on the manna provided by God. Quite soon after their mountain-top experience they found themselves wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Centuries later, immediately after Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit come upon him as he was coming up out of the Jordan river we are told that he was led into the desert forty days and forty nights.
A wilderness experience shouldn’t be denigrated. It can toughen us up, strengthen our faith. It can cause us to develop perseverance and to acquire maturity. Along with character it also breeds humility. When Moses lived in Egypt he was ‘a man mighty in word and deed’. However, after his years in the wilderness he was unable to speak clearly and relied on Aaron to be his spokesperson. God humbled him and he became the meekest man on earth. Only then was God able to do mighty things through him. The wilderness is a lonely place. Many of us try to escape it. Recalling our own wilderness experience can bring tears to our eyes. It softens our hearts. It deeply affects the way we relate to and minister to others.
However, before we canonize the hermit’s individual spiritual pursuit it might be good to recall Adolf Harnack’s brutal description of what he characterized as an ascetic epidemic. “A hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain…”
First there was the solitary monk and out of despair that movement began to develop into a community. Next there was the cenobium, a solitary community consisting of an association of monks. Finally Benedict developed a rule for monasteries through which some of the austerities, torments and deprivations were reduced, hours of prayer were set and labor was organized. It grew into a system of centrally governed monastic communities which served for many centuries. This was so effective that at the height of monastic development it controlled one quarter of the developed lands of Europe.
”The first glimpse we have of what we could call Christian community, according to John, occurred behind doors which had been locked out of fear. Jesus returned and blew his breath on those gathered, imparting his grace and granting his spirit to this disillusioned, disappointed and dismayed body of desperate individuals. Up until that moment that is what the disciples were, a bunch of individuals, each with his or her own purposes for following the Master. And here they changed. Jesus is said to have said to them “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit!’”
From its inception, the Christian faith has existed as community. The resurrected Jesus gave to those assemble his grace and his spirit. To be a Christian meant that one belonged to the community. No one, as an isolated individual, would be a Christian by his or her own self. In 1st John 2 the predominant and determining note of Christianity is living in that brotherhood, that brotherly love, which makes the difference between darkness and light. Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians and Philippians draws on the word koinonia, a concept which implies closeness of union approaching identity. It is the essential characteristic of anyone who would call him or herself a Christian. There is no room in the life of the church for isolated individualism. It is a community whose nature is love and where there exists union, fellowship, interdependence—not self imposed isolation and indifference to others.
Because of the way many of us grew up, this is a difficult concept. Secular notions of rugged individualism have twisted our thinking about Christ’s church. The history of this development is understandable. It grew from early Protestants seeking to differentiate themselves from what they saw as the false institutionalism of Rome. But it lead the reformers to loss sight of the inherent inter-relatedness of each person within the Body of Christ and replacing that vision with the view that the church was the sum of the individual faithful.
In our own country the Fundamentalist’s view of Scripture accelerated this development. The logical conclusion to the notion that the bible alone should be one’s guide suggested “who needs others for guidance or instruction when I have the Bible”. “For what do I need others if I’ve got a concordance?” This was emphasized in American revivalism in the mid 1800s. Mass crusades underscored religious individualism and salvation became a ‘personal’ matter. New followers of Christ didn’t learn that this new commitment was an equal commitment to others within the faith community. The twin goals were to ‘win the lost’ and attend to one’s own private holiness. The core of the New Testament Christian experience became distorted. Tragically, Christianity became a thing focused on the person instead of the community. Rather than being an environment of love where people cared about one another, the church grew to become a market place where a person would go to get their spiritual needs met. Self centered independence and individualism are not characteristics of God’s church, they are characteristics of the world outside of Christ.
The church is a relationship of love. It is in interaction, in communion, that makes us into the image of Christ. To enter the church should be to engage in a spiritual encounter in which we are each transformed by the love of God and God’s people. In 1st John 4 we read: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has beheld God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
In Jerusalem we learn that ‘all those who had believed were together and had all things in common.’ What could account for that? They had been ordered too?, Had they been guilted into giving? No. They gave generously to the needy out of compassion. They were all part of the same family of faithful. This is the way of love. This is the way of the church. It is the only commandment in the church necessary to manifest our oneness in Christ
Lloyd Lee Wilson insisted that for Friendsour Monthly Meeting is a covenant community, called into being and sustained by God. The divine-human covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which we as human beings respond in faith. God has been reaching out to each one of us even before we began to seek God. God calls individuals to live in covenant with God’s self and through that covenant in community with one another. Hebrews says that: “In their minds I will plant my Laws, writing them on their hearts, and I shall never more call their sins to mind, or their offences.” Most importantly, Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, the only true mediator between God and humanity. Because of the covenant relationship we have with God through Christ we are enabled and equipped to live together as human beings in a way that witnesses to God’s relationship with us and serves as an outpost o the Kingdom of God on earth.
In other kinds of organizations we choose to be in relationship with the members of the community itself, in order to share in the community’s identity. In the covenant community, we choose to be in relationship with God, and God gives us to one another and to the community. Our primary bond is to God, which gives resilience to the community and makes it capable of great healing. Crises and interpersonal failures which could destroy or dismantle a human community become, in the covenant community, opportunity for the love of God to heal and reconcile us to one another, and for the community to witness to God’s healing presence to the world.