Structures of Love
Twenty-third Sunday of the Year. Fr Colin Carr preaches on the vital importance of community.
Our society seems to admire the rugged individualist, the self-made person, someone who doesn’t worry what other people think, the one who sets their own agenda and doesn’t wait to be invited to act.
Yet we also rather fear individuals like that; we wonder how much they care for the community around them, how kind they will be to vulnerable people. We might, too, want to point out that however individualistic they claim to be, they are in fact dependent on a lot of other people for their success in doing things; they are part of many networks, and couldn’t do anything without other people being around. If they deny that they are part of society, and try to live as if they aren’t, they will achieve some things, hurt many people, and will in fact be living a lie.
The Bible is very firm about what it is to be human: it is to be part of a community; humankind is made in the image of God, not as isolated individuals, but as male and female, as community. ‘From age to age you gather a people to yourself,’ said Eucharistic Prayer 3 as we used to know it: now we say: ‘… you never cease to gather a people to yourself’. God calls Israel into being, and argues and cajoles and threatens and forgives them, to bring them back into the covenant they keep breaking. Jesus calls people to himself to form a new community, and Matthew chapter 18 contains much teaching by the Master about what sort of community it is.
One of the obvious things about community is that we care about each other. Ezekiel is reminded that as a prophet to the community he has a responsibility to warn people about their behaviour. The individual who has done wrong is completely responsible for the wrong-doing, yet Ezekiel also is responsible for warning that person. It’s not his responsibility to convert people: that’s their own responsibility; but it is his duty to warn them, to recall them to the life of the community. He doesn’t do it because he’s a judgmental busybody, but because God tells him to. A community gathered around God’s Covenant is not a haphazard bundle of warm feelings. There’s structure, a method for dealing with wrongdoing; that is not a denial of the Spirit: the Spirit brings order into chaos. You can see that in Ezekiel, and in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus, the freest Spirit who ever walked this earth, was concerned for proper procedures for dealing with disputes. What the wrongdoer had to learn is that you can’t just do your own thing and ignore the community. This isn’t the community being oppressive and stifling individual initiatives; it’s the community very patiently encouraging the one who has strayed to come back home.
The very meaning of our life is that we belong to a community. Many churches and Christian communities keep next Sunday as racial justice Sunday. Society in Britain has become much more diverse, and the Christian response to that fact has to be to see this as a positive, an opportunity for everyone to be enriched. It’s very sad when a Christian congregation is less racially tolerant than the society around it.
So, we need Community like we need the air we breathe; but Jesus goes on to talk about the power of community: his followers are promised, as Peter was, the power to bind and loose, to be in partnership with heaven. However great and other God is, God chooses to work in partnership with us, chooses to give us power such as ‘ought’ only to belong to God. To put it riskily, but truthfully, the community of Christ’s followers on earth has power in heaven. This is shocking to some pious ears, the ears of people who want to stress that God is utterly above us, that we can do nothing without God’s grace, and that therefore it is blasphemous to say what I’ve just said: that we have power in heaven. Now it’s perfectly true that God is utterly above us, and that we can do nothing without God’s grace; but that doesn’t stop God, by his grace, giving the community power with him.
And it’s all because ‘I shall be there with them’. If we believe that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, then we believe that God has chosen to share life with us. We find our meaning and our nourishment in communion with others and with God. We love our neighbour as ourselves and discover that God too is our neighbour.