The Church: Community of God and God’s Community
Readings: Acts 2:41-47
Introduction: In our technological world of constant and instant news, sound bites, slogans, and buzzwords, there have been two words in the last decade that it seems to me have stood out beyond others: both are C words. In the early 1990’s, the word “change” seemed to dominate most political and religious discussions. We felt the speed of change in nearly every aspect of our lives in new and often frightening ways. Certainly the word “change” was a constant in the life of churches, especially this one, in the last 10 years! It may be my imagination, but I don’t seem to hear that “C” word anymore. Like all buzzwords, people grow tired of hearing it, tired of talking about it, tired of living through it even if it is a constant in life itself.
The “C” word at the end of the millenium and the beginning of the new one is community, the need to be part of a group a people, to have not just a place to belong but a people to belong to. So much of what is happening in American life and life in the world for that matter, seems driven by a need that seems inherent in all of us, a need for that sense of community. People now talk about the global community; we’re interested again in “community schools,” in people taking pride in their community. The whole idea of support groups like AA or Al-Anon or the variety of others is to provide not a place but a people who can share their lives with one another and be accountable to one another and feel safe with one another. It is a shared community identity that ends up providing not just support and accountability but also personal identity--how odd that personal identity is found in terms of a community identity.
In settings like this one, the word community is easier to digest—it has less baggage than that other “C” word—church. When I grew up the so-called “community churches” struggled to have any existence at all, usually found only in very small towns or rural areas where the main Protestant churches did not have their own buildings. Now, Community churches are the fastest growing churches in America. That word seems to have power in drawing people away from denominational loyalties. It’s almost as if there is this slogan that says, “Come to community churches where the people really are unencumbered with all of that denominational stuff.” Community sounds like a place to belong, a place where people care for one another.
I want to suggest that the reason why the word community has such a ring of truth in church settings today has something to do with how humans were created by God in the first place. More than that, our need for belonging with others has to do with the very nature of God himself. Turn with me to Genesis chapter one. I want to read first from the account of day six of creation as it is described here. Then I want to turn to chapter eighteen and read about one of Abraham’s’ several encounters with God. Read: 1:26 ff., 18:1ff. For most of my ministry and teaching career I have taught this passage from Genesis one in close connection with the second creation account in chapter two and have basically ignored this account in favor of the chapter two account of the creation of man and woman because it is so much more complete or at least seems to be. This feels like a summary here in chapter one and you have to read chapter two to get the full story. I also have treated the plural God language here like an editorial or royal ascription where a singular God refers to himself in the plural even though he is really a singular being.
One of my new colleagues at Lipscomb, John Mark Hicks, has helped me and many others to rethink what it means to understand God not in the singular but in the plural as God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. At the heart of the human need and capacity for community is the fact that The Godhead is community. We remember those texts like John chapter one, where Jesus is described as the word that was with God and was God and how this Word was involved in creation—apart from the word nothing was made. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.
But in my individualistic world and culture, where personal relationship with God is prized, where personal prayer and bible study are championed and where church is what we individuals go do rather than describing who we are, I have always thought about God in individual terms. I can talk about how God the Father sent his only Son, Jesus into the world, and how Jesus went back to the right hand of God so that the Comforter, the Holy spirit might now be our means of access to the Father—but I have never thought about God as community. About God in relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By his very nature God is community, and when he created humans, he created them, not just him in his image. From the beginning, is it possible that the designation male and female carried with it the instinctive need for relationship and that relationship then is tied closely with what it means to be made in the image of God? Yes, God made animals male and female for reproductive reasons, but with humanity, there was from the beginning more than reproduction at stake. They were to become one flesh; they were to be the ones in conversation with the Creator. Out of his own nature as community, and relationship, he created humans to share in relationship with him and with each other. That is what the image of God is all about.
The sin of Adam and Eve tore relationship, brought about separation, almost led to God destroying the earth, but after the flood Noah and his family were reminded that they were made in the image of God. That whole business about shedding blood in chapter nine has to do with humans being made in the image of God (read 9:6). Then there is that very curious experience in Genesis chapter 18 when God appears to Abram. He appears to him several times in this story as you know, sometimes as a vision, sometimes with no description given as to how the Lord appeared. But here he appears as three men. (Note vv 5, 9, then the shift to “the Lord” as the story goes on.) I know one can’t build any cases here about the three being God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, but doesn’t it seem possible that that is the case? As you follow through the Abraham story, the whole point is that through Abraham and Sarah God will create a people for himself, a community, a nation that is to be a light to all other peoples. The community he is forming will demonstrate to the world the relationship that God intended from the beginning. When he brings the people out of Egypt, who they are as people in covenant relationship with God is established before the Mosaic Law is ever given. How they should live as a community was based on how they had been called into relationship with their God. What God offered them was koinonia, fellowship—fellowship with one another and fellowship with God. Israel was not up to the task. It was their ultimate failure to be the community of God’s calling, their failure to be the community that was a light to the nations that led ultimately to the community of God acting once more to redeem all of humanity.
In Jesus’ ministry, it is clear that he operates in the context of shared relationships of community. Early on, he selects the 12. When he dies, only eleven are left, but they are part of 120. The mobilization of his new community on earth comes when they are empowered from on high, when one part of the Godhead community comes upon these people. And when three thousand are baptized on Pentecost, Luke writes this summary (read Acts 2:41-47). Do you hear the language here of relationship of koinonia in Christ Jesus?
The community of God seeks, pursues relationship with those created in his image. Humanity hungers for relationship, hungers for community, not knowing that that is the essence of our being as ones created in the image of God. This is the story of a whole multitude of people who realized their hearts had stopped beating and someone had revived them again. Three thousand people had been brought to the brink of death—they had experienced an encounter with God in many ways similar to the encounter that Isaiah experienced. Isaiah was a dead man because he had seen God; these people were dead because they had killed God's Messiah. Staring their eternal destiny in the face, crying out to Peter, “What shall we do?” Peter had extended to them God's gracious offer of life—repentance, baptism, forgiveness, Holy Spirit presence. They could not save themselves but they could be saved from the crooked, evil generation that surrounded them.
3000 people are a lot of people! People gathered in Jerusalem from all around the Mediterranean world. People who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. People planning to go home right after the feast of weeks. People far removed from their own homes and jobs, people whose vacation fund wouldn’t hold out much longer. Yes, there were doubtless others who in fact lived in Jerusalem, people who had themselves been entertaining guests for several weeks; people ready for the relatives to head on back home. In one day, God added to that small band of 120 followers of Jesus 3000 souls—3000 human beings saved from death, given new life. Suddenly all other plans are put on hold as they experience true conversion—the complete change from one outlook on life to another. Getting back home takes a back seat to the thanksgiving for new life received. There is a tremendous hunger to know more about who they are, what they have experienced, how they can pay back the debt of gratitude they now feel they owe for the gift of life. How do you repay the person who saved your life? How do you reclaim the Messiah that you thought you killed but you now realize has given you life? You’ve just been given a new heart, and there is recovery time and therapy time that is necessary before you can go home.
Remember that these people already had a sense of shared identity; they already had a shared story as the people of God, as Jews. But now the story was radically changed. Identity was altered. Community identity was now centered in a new story, a new revelation of the God as community—God manifesting himself in human flesh, God manifesting himself as Spirit indwelling the new community. The people devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship—koinonia, sharing together, having in common—to the breaking of bread and prayers, as a means of forming their new story, their new identity as the community of God.
What I want us to hear this morning is not a set of rules about why every Christian needs to go to church, or why Christians ought to identify themselves as members of a local congregation under the oversight of elders. What I hope we see is that relationship with God and relationship with other believers are both rooted in the very nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s love that manifests itself in our salvation has to do with us being made in his image, which is community oriented. Our cultural hunger for community in our time is inherent within our natures as beings created in his image.
How absurd it is then to even conceive of salvation as an individual or personal matter! Personal relationship with God is never just personal; it is always communal. As God is Community from the beginning, so we were intended for community from the beginning. Jesus died for people he promised to build his church, his assembly on Peter’s confession that he was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The church is God’s redeemed community in relationship with him and one another. We have fellowship with one another and our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, made possible because we share in the one Spirit given to all who have believed in him. We have been redeemed from sin as individuals to attain LIFE as the community of God, to share once more in the image of God which is ultimately seen to be community and relationship as God is community.
To be very practical now as we close, if fellowship with God and one another is the point of creation and redemption, then that ought also to be the focus of whatever it is we call church and going to church and being the church. Instead of “going to church” being a rule you have to keep in order to keep your salvation resume in order, being the church is at the very core of what it means to be a child of God. One cannot be Christian without being in relationship with the community of God. It seems logical to assume that since koinonia, fellowship with one another and fellowship with God go hand in hand, then being in relationship with his people is a first a matter of who we are not what we do.
Woodmont Hills did not choose “c” words when the sign was placed outside—very intentionally the words we see are “Family of God.” We all understand the intent. The word “family” has its own baggage, I suppose, but the invitation is that in being here one can belong to community, one can grow and learn and become the STORY—I can become WE and US in the image of God.
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, August 20, 2000.
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