Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
On Tuesday the Queen’s baton relay arrived in Hereford as part of its journey round the country in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games. There are some wonderful stories of the people chosen to carry it for the various stages of the route. Some had raised huge amounts for charity, others were disability campaigners who’s work had made a big difference in the lives of many people. Others had overcome huge challenges in their own lives and inspired others. I was supposed to be leading part of it on my motorbike but in an epic fail didn’t co-ordinate with the stewards properly so watched it run past me by Victoria Bridge!
The crowd came together to cheer people on and celebrate. It was a celebration not just of the participants and joy of sport but the power of community. These great sporting events draw people together with a shared passion to support our athletes. But these events are fleeting. The shared bonhomie of the moment produces an adrenalin rush. Music festivals can produce the same effect – an endorphin rush from sharing the moment, which just about allows you to endure the squalor of the toilets for a few days. These things are enjoyable (if you like that sort of thing) but it isn’t quite the same as the community the scriptures envisage.
The word is overused. People talk about online communities. They aren’t really. They are usually gatherings of people who share a common interest. They require little commitment and break up and reform as the members fall out with each other – which, as the connections are online and thus miss out most of the nuances of communication - happens frequently.
Real community is a hard-won thing, and requires both difference and the social and emotional skills to deal with conflict. Paul described the church as the body of Christ and used pictures of parts of the body to emphasise both the necessity of the individual parts and the reality of interdependence for all to function properly. A dear friend was once the chaplain of a well-known Christian community. The young people who joined often did so with rose tinted spectacles. They expected a group of Christians sharing life together would be a wonderful experience. A few weeks in they discovered that real community exposes the weak spots and foibles that you can conceal in fleeting social interactions on your own terms. There were joys in the shared life but real struggle and pain as well. At the end of a year they were different people, and had moved a long way in their Christian journey. They discovered new sins they didn’t even know they had to confess. As Proverbs 27: 17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
This is why the New Testament makes so many references to ‘one another’. Jesus says it all the time in John’s Gospel. Loving one another deeply presumes a deep relationship of trust, where we move beyond superficial relating and colluding with one another’s faults for fear of seeming judgemental. It is a love that offers unconditional positive regard, but in that context allows the possibility of mutual challenge as well. And that challenge is often not through mutual critique but through seeing the holiness of others. In my own journey the greatest ‘aha’ moments have been when I’ve seen a fellow Christian doing or saying something in a way I knew I should have said or done it. The example drove me to God in deeper prayer to ask for his help to change. Such communities recognise that we are all created in the image of God, and therefore uniquely precious and valued, but also broken in manifold ways that we are often blind to. There is no fear in the exposure of faults through the convicting of the Holy Spirit. God brings things to our attention for repentance; not to condemn, but to heal and redeem.
Such community is rare and difficult to create, but it is part of the mission of the Church, not just in monastic communities but in little local churches as well. I think Jesus envisaged we would be not just communities of worship and mission, but of spiritual formation as well. I dare to believe that such communities combining unconditional love with challenge and exhortation would be attractive to a culture starved of real connection. Fleeting online communities, or endorphin generating cultural or musical experiences do draw people together. They are wonderful and to be celebrated, just like Tuesday’s baton relay, but they aren’t what we were really made for. They are just signposts to something deeper.