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Becoming a People

Cultivating Christian Community

C. Christopher Smith

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The Sermon on the Mount is the key to understanding who Jesus was and what it means to follow in his way. Yet we struggle to know how it pertains to our lives today. Formed by the prevailing individualism of Western culture, we try to read the Sermon as a set of personal instructions – and we fail. Often we accept that the way of life described here is the way that Jesus intends for us, but amidst our fragmented daily routine we lose hope of actually being able to live accordingly. When it comes to the harder teachings of Jesus – “Love your enemies,” “Do not worry about tomorrow” – we may even rationalize why we don’t have to have to take his words seriously.

Yet Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount were not meant primarily for us as individuals. Rather, they offer a vision of what maturity in Christ looks like for our church communities. As German theologian Gerhard Lohfink reminds us, God’s redemptive work in the world consists in the gathering of a people.(footnote) This work began with ancient Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and was carried forward by Jesus, who gathered a little community of twelve disciples as a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel. After Pentecost, when these disciples were sent out, Gentiles were invited to be part of God’s people as well as Jews, and the people of God was no longer defined by ethnicity.

In light of this community-building mission of God, what the Sermon on the Mount offers us is not a new law by which to judge ourselves or others, but rather a vision of what it means to embody Christ. The teachings in the Sermon show us, above all, how we are to live with our sisters and brothers in our church community, sharing life together in a way that is different from that of mainstream culture. We must pay attention to the many times Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” With this rhetorical pattern, Jesus paints a contrast between the way of God’s people and the way of the world. He makes the same point by means of the imagery of salt and light: these are likewise images of contrast.

The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are rooted in the slow, transforming work of God that begins with particular communities of God’s people and spreads outward from there. Perhaps this is one meaning of Jesus’ words, “Do not judge,” and “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:1-5). Our church communities need to focus on getting the log out of our own eye by seeking to embody Jesus together and living in the way that he taught us, rather than judging or trying to fix our neighbors (or the world). We are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies – but we demonstrate that love best by allowing them to see how the transforming wisdom of Jesus is at work in the midst of our church community.

How then do we embody Jesus together in our churches in ways that draw us deeper into the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount? For over a decade, I’ve been a member of Englewood Christian Community Church, an urban congregation in Indianapolis. Our shared search on these questions suggests three practices that can give us a good start in the right direction: stability, conversation, and rhythms of work and Sabbath. These are each “patient” practices because they compel us not only to seek the things that Jesus sought, but also to do so in the way he sought them – including his choice to suffer rather than inflict violence. As Eugene Peterson has written:

If we want to participate (and not just go off in a corner and do our own Jesus thing), participate in the end, the salvation, the kingdom of God, we must do it in the way that is appropriate to that end. We follow Jesus.(footnote)

These three practices teach us to follow in the patient way of Jesus.

If the primary work that God is doing in the world is indeed one of gathering a people, then it is essential that we value rootedness in a church community and a place: a practice that the Benedictines have called stability. For instance, the Benedictine monks of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa describe their commitment to stability in this way:

We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.

I have certainly suffered the effects of a lack of stability. In the decade prior to coming to the Englewood church community, I lived at twelve different addresses in four states. Raised in a thoroughly individualist ethos, I spent my twenties following the narrative of self, choosing the educational and career opportunities that seemed best for me: college, summer internships, a full-time job in a global corporation, grad school, and an internship with a church. Though I made many friends along the way, I paid a price for chasing that story. I was isolated, disconnected from any particular place and community of people. If we are indeed called to embody Christ together, as the Apostle Paul maintains (1 Cor. 12:12–31), then how healthy a body will we be if our members frequently move from one church community to another? As the Benedictine vow reminds us, it is through stability that we learn to practice peacemaking and to be reconciled with one another at all costs.

In addition to the stability of our members, we also need to commit to stability as congregations. Great damage can be done by churches relocating, creating a void that contributes to economic and racial injustice in the neighborhoods they leave behind. We have much to learn from the parish system of Catholicism, in which church and neighborhood are interwoven. Saint Philip Neri parish in my neighborhood, for instance, recently celebrated its hundredth anniversary, having persisted in the same location despite challenges including severe persecution from the Ku Klux Klan in its early years and a drastic shift in its demographics over the last quarter century from a mostly white to a mostly Hispanic congregation.

A second practice that can help us mature into a deeper embodiment of Christ is conversation. Although not typically thought of as an essential Christian practice, conversation is ever more necessary in an atomized culture that is rapidly losing the capacity for real dialogue – the escalating partisanship of the United States Congress in recent years is an obvious example. Conversation is the way in which we actively seek to be faithful together, an expression of our shared hunger and thirst for righteousness. If I may expand on Paul’s image of the body, just as there is an ongoing “conversation” of neurons that guides the movement of every bodily organ, so too there should be an ever-present exchange between the members of our church body that is directed by Christ, our head.

Conversation is essential to our under­standing and interpreting the scriptural story in our churches. Through reading the Bible in dialogue with each other, we sort through the theological heritage we have as a congregation (and as individuals) while discerning our vocation as God’s people in a particular place. Tim Conder and Daniel Rhodes of the Emmaus Way community in Durham, North Carolina, note how gathering to interpret scripture together has changed their life together:

[We] have developed a passion for the intersection of word and community as well as our distinct willingness to hear each other’s voices. This is not an innate skill. It’s a learned practice that we’ve worked hard to cultivate…We believe that many of the strengths of our community are due to this commitment to a community hermeneutic.(footnote)

Almost twenty years ago, the Englewood church stopped our traditional Sunday night church service. Instead, our members circled up chairs in one of our multi-purpose rooms and began a conversation that continues on Sunday nights to this day. At first these meetings were volatile – yelling, sarcasm, people walking out, a few even leaving the church altogether – but we have persisted in this practice and have been transformed by it. Conversation did not magically solve all our problems, but it taught us how to trust one another and to work together even when we had substantial disagreements about theology or practical applications.

As we continued to talk together each Sunday, we found ourselves starting to work together on a variety of common endeavors during the week. These became ways for us to extend the conversation into everyday life and help keep it grounded in concrete realities. Unexpectedly, we found that in this way we were being equipped to help lead a broader conversation with other area residents as we sought to envision a flourishing future for our neighborhood. This part of Indianapolis had been abandoned by many businesses, churches, and families. But thanks to this growing dialogue, our neighborhood is slowly beginning to flourish, and we are delighted that we have been called to bear witness to God’s transforming love here in this place.

A third practice that draws us into deeper life in Christ is establishing rhythms of work and Sabbath. While our technological age tempts us to minimize inconvenience and exertion, if we seek to embody Christ together it will require diligent work. On the other hand, we are not to be consumed with the anxiety of work (Matt. 6:25–33); rather, we are to trust in God’s continual provision for us. We need Sabbath spaces in our life together in which we cease working and can rest, play, dream, and reflect together. One symptom of our individualistic culture is that most of what is written today about Sabbath is directed toward individuals and families. But originally the Sabbath was instituted as a social practice, one that gave shape to the Israelite people of God. We have much to learn from Judaism about what it means to keep the Sabbath as a community. Traditionally, Shabbat has been celebrated with three festive meals, with singing, socializing with friends and family, with contemplation, and with gathered prayer at the synagogue. Even today, in many Jewish communities it remains a day of celebration, the “queen” among the days.

For us at Englewood, common work is an important part of our shared life; we have a daycare, a community development corporation, bookkeeping and publishing businesses, and other not-for-profit ventures. But like many churches today, we struggle to imagine what keeping the Sabbath as a community might look like. As a result, we are often a pretty tired community. Perhaps the closest we come to a shared practice of Sabbath is the Sunday night conversation I’ve described. Here we cease working, learn to reflect together, and get to know one another better. For many of us, this conversation is the high point of our week, not unlike the Jewish Shabbat, and we are hopeful that our understanding of Sabbath will continue to deepen.

These three practices, if undertaken ­diligently in our churches, can be first steps on “the narrow way that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14), the life of blessedness and peace with humanity and all creation that Jesus envisions for us in the Sermon on the Mount.

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Footnotes

  1. See for example Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community (Fortress, 1984).
  2. Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways Jesus Is the Way (Eerdmans, 2007), 7.
  3. Tim Conder and Daniel Rhodes, Free for All: Redis­covering the Bible in Community (Baker, 2009), 85.
Contributed By photo of C. Christopher Smith C. Christopher Smith

C. Christopher Smith is co-author, with John Pattison, of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus and editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is a member of Englewood Christian Community Church in Indianapolis.

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