Sunday, December 04, 2005

God's new community

November was a tough and stressful month for me, possibly one of the toughest months I've had in my life in recent memory. Basically, a couple of things all appeared to come to a head all at the same time, which put a huge drain on my physical, mental and emotional resources and left me feeling overwhelmed. I had a chronic cough all term which I now suspect as being stress-related, and was ill from the middle of last week to the middle of the week that just passed, which did throw me into a slight panic because I was very behind in my extended essay. No surprise, then, that blogging was not on my agenda!

But that's all behind me now. The essay's done, the illness mostly gone, and despite still occasionally feeling discouraged this week, I know that our God is Immanuel, God with us. Over this weekend, more than one person has commented on the big smile that's semi-permanently plastered on my face, in contrast to the miserable figure I cut out last week.

What can I say? I've been so aware of God's grace during this time. In retrospect, I think God was very gracious in preparing me before I even knew it myself. Thinking back, I can't help but chuckle over the friendly debate going on in the Christian blogosphere over the past month over the cessation or non-cessation of certain spiritual gifts, as I can't help but feel that it's a moot point. On the last Saturday night of October, I was praying (and struggling), when I felt a very, very strong impression to pray in tongues, something I haven't done in a long time. So I did, and it was liberating - God gave me such joy and empowered me to desire to pray for other people that night, it's been a long time since prayer came so easily to me! And throughout, I knew that God was saying that eternal joy was not tied to mere circumstance, a truth that has kept me going over the past month.

My experience here, I think, is in keeping with what Scripture says about tongues. It is mysterious, but adds a new vitality to our prayer life, especially when we don't know what to pray for (1 Corinthians 14:2,14; Romans 8:26-28). It is God's gift to edify the individual (1 Cor. 14:4, although it is this aspect that also means that tongues is actually the least of the gifts, for it cannot edify the church except when it is interpreted). And any gift of the Holy Spirit must point us back to Jesus (John 14:26).

God's New Community I have been haunted since the beginning of the year by the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Those are strong words, for Jesus is laying down the marker by which we will be recognised as his followers! And as I struggled and helped those who were struggling this past month, I've had the chance to think anew on those words and reflect on the nature of Christian fellowship.

It has been said of modern evangelicalism that it is weak on ecclesiology, i.e. the doctrine of the church, and I think I largely agree. At least, it seems weak at "being church", especially if we remember that church = people = followers of Christ. I remember that at least one book which focused on evangelical distinctives (it could have been Packer and Oden's One Faith, but I could be wrong) didn't even have a chapter devoted to the nature of the church, and skimming through Grudem/Purswell's abridged systematic theology handbook Bible Doctrine on the church left me strangely dissatisfied. I'll say one thing, whatever you think of the emerging church conversation, it has at least brought ecclesiology firmly back on the discussion table. This is a good development, for I think, it will at the very least help force us evangelicals to think through more carefully what a church is and should be like biblically.

To that end, over the past 2 days, I've been reading a little book by Graham Beynon called God's New Community(IVP). Each chapter is simply an exposition of a Scriptural passage that focuses on an aspect of church, eg. what is a church? What does it mean to belong? In that sense, it's very basic, and I think many of us might be tempted to skip such a book because it covers very familiar ground - "Oh, of course I know that church is more than a building, it's about people!" etc. Why not move on to the meatier stuff of ecclesiology, such as Protestant-Catholic relations, or debate over church government models and the role of deacons?

That was how I was tempted to think. But the more I've had the chance to reflect, the more I think that although we think we've got the basics nailed down, in practice, we actually don't. Let's see if I can demonstrate this.

Over the past few decades in evangelicalism, we've seen an emphasis in the nature of our personal relationship with God, to the detriment of a more corporate understanding. I think of the paucity of modern worship songs that stresses the nature of life together as Christians as an example.

Yet biblical religion is inescapably corporate. "For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free..." (1 Cor. 12:13, emphasis mine). Paul doesn't write to individuals, he writes to churches! I think we all hear the argument from time to time about how being a Christian doesn't necessarily mean we have to go to church. But I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. Such a person has completely missed the point about "church". If a person is a Christian, then he is automatically part of the church (which if we remember, = people). Then, the question is no longer about whether the person should go to a church or not, but whether he wants to grow in Christ (which should be the aim of every Christian.) And we have to be among other believers for that to happen (Col. 1:28).

Having struggled to be a good and loving brother-in-Christ to other Christians, as well as a good friend to non-Christians, I am more than aware how tough it is to live in relationship and community. Especially when we have such a range and diversity of believers in the family. We usually refer to the "new birth" when we talk about becoming Christians. Jesus' point in John 3 was that being born again is the prerogative of the Spirit, and that we don't have any say in the matter of our salvation. Similarly, when we become children of God, and we don't get to choose who our brothers and sisters are in Christ!

But we are called to love them all the same. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: "People love the idea of community more than the experience of community." It's true. It'd cost us in terms of our time, our energy, our privacy even, as we allow other Christians to take part in our lives and we in theirs. How often do we look to serve one another, give to one another, encourage another when we gather together? How often are we dependent on one another? How often do we see service as getting ready the after-service drinks and kuih-muih but not the kind words that a discouraged brother really needs to hear? Or after praying for a person in a small group, follow up on that prayer point the following week?

Not easy, is it? No, I certainly don't think we've got even the basics of "church" down at all. Oh, how I long for the day when we really do live as God's new community, but I have to admit, one of the real downers of the past month was that the reality is so different at the moment (and I shouldn't exclude myself from blame).

By no means have I worked this all out for myself. And for now, I'll leave you with the words of sifu Schaeffer: "Love - and the unity it attests to - is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father."

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