The Gospel of Community
For too many of us churchgoing folk today, Christian faith is just part of our thinking. It may or may not inform what we do. It is a tool perhaps for "successful living," but just one of a few tools we can live to achieve "victory" in life. It is certainly preached this way in too many churches.
But for the first-century Jews and the Christian community birthed out of early Judaism, there is no distinction between who you are and what you do. What you do is who you are; who you are is what you do.
We can see this breakdown in how we look at Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Many Christians today have adopted the typical view of the non-Christian of the Sermon. That is, that the Sermon on the Mount is a great series of ethical platitudes that may help us live at peace with our neighbor or maybe even achieve a higher state of being (whatever that means). But to reduce the Sermon to just a set of instructions, godly instructions or not, is actually to divorce them from the kingdom context in which they are given. The purpose of the Sermon is not so much to inspire change in behavior as it is to spark change in heart. The call of Jesus into the kingdom life is about character, not behavior. The former will naturally flow into the latter, to be sure.
So the Sermon on the Mount is a great descriptive of what life in the kingdom of God looks like, what the life of those inside the kingdom looks like. They are not necessarily behavioral goals to which we ought to aspire, although there is certainly nothing really wrong with trying to live out the Sermon's "commandments." Rather, they are character traits with which we are to exemplify for the cause of the kingdom and for the glory of God. We cannot do what the Sermon says to do until we can be what the Sermon says to be.
Being what the Sermon says to be is the real test of one's assimilation into the life of Christ. Not that being Christlike doesn't take a conscious effort, but the less conscious that effort is, the more Christlike we become. In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard talks about believing in the work that Jesus has done for us and is doing in us and automatically acting as if it were so.
A lot of this "automatic" action comes from previous meditation on Scripture, communication with God, and exercising the spiritual disciplines, all conscious efforts of their own and each beginning with plenty of conscious (and self-conscious) efforts. But the goal is to move our conscious efforts away from self-consciousness and into God-consciousness. As an illustration, let's re-phrase an illustrative q&a:
Question to Christian: Why do you follow Jesus?
Typical Christian Answer: Because I want to get to heaven (or have a good life, or because He died for me or some other sense of gratitude).
The typical answer is not an incorrect one, as far as it goes. There's nothing really wrong with that answer, except that it does not really get to the heart of the matter. There's nothing wrong with this attitude of gratitude, but it does not really capture the fundamental specialness of the God-life.
Here is perhaps a better reply:
Question to Christian: Why do you follow Jesus?
Christian Answer: To glorify God, and because I am a part of God's people.
The foci in the latter example are a) God, and b) the community. Again, there's nothing wrong with concern for our own personal kingdom life, particularly as it concerns a life of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us personally. But kingdom life requires kingdom concern. Community life requires community concern. The Christian life is to be lived outward focused, bringing glory to God and sharing in the burden and calling of God's community.
This is a Great Commandments Gospel. You know the Great Commandments, right? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself." Because the good news of the Gospel of Jesus is that we are reconciled to God and reconciled to each other, our Christian life ought to not focus on "personal victory" per se, but on God's glory and the life of God's community (the church).
See, the worldview of the first-century believer was not just a perspective, a way of looking at the world. His worldview was who he was. He didn't just believe philosophically in the Creator God, the LORD and Lord of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac, and so therefore think God would redeem his nation and people and interrupt history as He had done so often before and set things to right. He believed in that God with all his being -- with his heart, soul, mind, and strength -- and so therefore expected with certainty and lived automatically like God would redeem his people and interrupt history and set things to right.
Does your view of church reflect this? Is it merely a place to get fed and inspired; or is it a place to cooperate in the feeding of the sheep, a place to contribute to the living witness we are called to be, individually and corporately, to God's interruption of history in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ?
(A version of this piece originally appeared at Thinklings in October 2004.)