Column: Imperfect Community
By Drew Williams
It is one of the greatest fallacies of modern life that we were born to be independent. Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. The Austrian author and journalist Karl Kraus put it this way: “The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.” The Christian author and journalist Tobias Jones has identified the same trend, and comments, “I have a complete disbelief that we can get away with the solitary way in which we are living. We seem to be obsessed by a kind of stylish, posing lifestyle in which we travel obsessively and seek redemption through purchasing things. I think everyone realizes it’s absurd and unsustainable.” In such a culture, when we think “one” our first instinct is to think “singular, mono, separate, alone, independent from.” But when Jesus speaks about “one”, He has something very different in mind. God Himself is, after all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in one. In Kingdom mathematics, one is most often plural. One is connected. One is familial. One is community. The apostle Paul summarizes this very simply when he writes, “In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)
Tobias Jones spent the past four years living in various Christian communities around the world, working out what works and what does not. On the subject of common purpose he says: “If people simply want to hang out together and enjoy all the benefits and rewards of sharing things, it does not work. If it is a group of like-minded people who have chosen to live together, it becomes conceited. But if it is a community that exists to help people to survive — orphans or drug addicts or the homeless or the elderly — the whole thing has a completely different atmosphere.”
If we are to be one, at some point we have to decide that we are going to be part of God’s greater purpose for that community. Everyone from St. Benedict to Simone Weil has said that the spiritual core of any community has to be its shared endeavour, a shared purpose where each member of that community puts his or her own body into the circuitry of that community.
All of that said, no matter how you come at it, “one” is a huge risk because eventually we have to take the gamble and find out if God can really love us through other people.
So, not surprisingly, if we are going to sign up for community, we look for a community where the odds of a successful outcome seem high. We look for a perfect community. The paradox is that strong community is imperfect. Paul wrote, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7)
Kingdom community is not that we find perfection, but that we understand our own imperfection. Jesus invites us into a community where imperfect people can find acceptance, love, forgiveness and a new beginning. Imperfect community is about the revelation that even though I might feel that I am not good enough, God will never reject me, and that any community that has His heart will embrace me as I am. It is about being loved even when you do not deserve it; it is about being loved by others who know you do not deserve it, and being loved by others who know you all too well, even when you find it difficult to love yourself. Jones concludes, “Forgiveness is massively important. The danger of theorizing about community is that it can all sound idyllic, a yellow brick road; but there comes a time when the honeymoon wears off, when you are in a wet field in the middle of nowhere and you can’t do it without forgiveness.”
If God is at the core of community, if He exists at the hot flaming center, what you are going to find is the power of His love. And love can never simply be between you and God. Love is more than the relationship between a man and a woman — no matter how extraordinary that might be. Love is ever expanding. Love always grows, not just deeper but wider. Love always loves people more and always loves more people. Love compels us to community; love calls us to each other. The Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw put it like this: “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege — my *privilege* to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
Drew Williams is Senior Pastor of Trinity Church. Visit trinitychurch.life