Encounter, Action, Faith: The Call to Community
Text: 1 Corinthians 10:13a: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.”
How’s your lent going? Has it made any difference to you? Have you noticed any change in these sixteen days of our season of self-examination so far?
We’re nearly halfway through our forty days in the wilderness. We’ll pass the midpoint on Thursday, and next Sunday, in keeping with the old tradition of the church, we’ll lighten up a little bit for Refreshment Sunday. And it’ll be downhill from there; Easter will be here before we know it.
But will it make any difference? Will Easter be the joyful end of your season of self-imposed spiritual discipline of some sort, or will it be just another Sunday?
I am your pastor, and so I hope that in some way the church has helped you do some spiritual spring cleaning in this holy season of preparation. Brother David Steindl-Rast used to speak of this season as the time of sweeping out the rooms of our heart, so as to prepare for great celebration—which will come, at Easter. And it will come, whether we have done the cleaning or not.
This business of Lent, this matter of making ourselves shift out of our comfortable seat for at least a little while, this is not easy. That may be why we don’t do it, or at least don’t do it with a great deal of enthusiasm. What is especially hard is to do it with no one else to do it with. It’s one of those points at which the practice of religion really does separate from the solace of spirituality.
Taking on a discipline for Lent, even a small and simple one, that is an act of religion. Whenever we make a practice of something, whenever we keep a rule of life, however small, we have made the shift into the category of spiritual and religious.
These past three weeks we’ve been thinking a little differently about how it is we develop as Christian disciples. We’ve imagined that instead of getting our beliefs just right and then finally getting our act together, we end up stumbling, faltering, groping in our efforts to act like disciples and, from that, come to a deeper understanding of the claims our faith makes on us, and the freedom we receive from accepting those claims.
One of the things that becomes more and more real for us as we move from action to deeper faith is the simple fact that the Christian faith is not something we can act out, or figure out, all by ourselves. We can’t be Christians without the church. The call to community is at the living, loving center of the faith itself.
A different way to say that is, whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not, we are all in this together.
We all have enough of an anti-social streak that the idea of having to hand over part of our time, part of our lives, to a group of people not entirely of our own choosing is, well, a little off-putting. We make a lot of our meaning in life by being in control of how we spend our time and who it is we spend it with.
But the church doesn’t work that way. We may not all like each other, but we do have to love each other.
What we get in return is help we’d rather not admit we need—but can’t do without. We get the help of accountability to each other—which, whether we like it or not, gets us to behave better than we might otherwise do. If we spend enough time in each other’s company, we get the gift of finding ourselves surprised by catching glimpses of grace lived out by the people around us in ways we might never have imagined possible.
We get the support of each other’s encouragement, the lessons of each other’s failures, the blessings of each other’s triumphs. And we are gently and frequently taught a lesson that our culture works very hard to make us forget—that no one can flourish, no one succeeds, entirely on their own, and that life is much richer in connection with others.
We are given by nature to want to regard our troubles, our temptations, our sorrows, our disappointments as somehow unique—not just ours alone, but ours in a way that makes us alone, that cuts us off from anyone else. No one can understand.
That idea is a lot easier to believe in if you aren’t part of a larger community. But if you are, if you have connections within a gathering of others, you quickly begin to see that you’re not the only one—almost no matter what it is you think sets you apart. As Saint Paul says, we all face the testing—whether it’s the testing of disappointment, or despair, or worry, or resentment.
Here, we have help, because we have each other. Here, as we keep at the work of surfacing all the stuff that has been getting our way in moving closer to God, we have the hope that comes from seeing God’s love at work in the people we share this place with. Here, as we prepare the house of our souls for the joy that comes at Easter, we have others to share that joy with—others to invite in for the party.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.