Fellow-Disciples in the Diocese of Springfield,
I hope that blessed Dietrich Bonhoeffer might forgive me for borrowing the title of one of his important books. It’s just so apt for what I want to share with you briefly.
You have no doubt heard me talk (or write about) the three core spiritual practices that support our life in Christ: Sunday Eucharist, daily office, and personal meditation. These are laid out compellingly by the late English priest Martin Thornton in his classic Christian Proficiency. At the risk of seeming presumptuous, I would like to add a fourth such pillar: Christian community.
The strong emphasis that our culture places on individuality leads us, I fear, to look at our relationships within the Body of Christ, those with whom we regularly worship, as an optional extra, an add-on, something in the “would be nice” category, but not absolutely necessary,.
I beg to differ. Part of Christian discipleship is to allow ourselves to be formed, shaped, over the course of a lifetime, into the likeness of Jesus, to not even have to stop to ask, “What would Jesus do?” because our instinctive response to anything would naturally be what Jesus would do. The distilled wisdom of two thousand years of Christian experience is that this process of formation happens mainly in community. It happens as we pray together, eat together, laugh and cry together, work and serve together, and study together. Through all these things, we–almost literally–“rub off” on one another.
Christian community is an appealing concept to most Christians. It is when we try to put it seriously into practice that we run into problems! The church is made up of sinful human beings. Christians behave badly around one another. We hurt one another. It has even been so. When this happens, it is always tempting to retreat into a “me and God” shell. But, the way God has designed things, whether we like it or not, the way we relate to God is by relating to others who are relating to God. Darn. (Or so I often myself feel.)
Think of the one person in your congregation who annoys you the most, the one you would just as soon not have to exchange the Peace with. That person is essential to you, to your growth in holiness–ultimately, to your eternal destiny. You might not feel much love toward that person today, but if you cannot at least summon the desire to love that person, then you cannot love God, because God loves that person. And until we learn to love God, we cannot live in God’s eternal presence. It’s that simple.
So my pastoral challenge to your for 2019 is: keep it real. Understand that Christian community is not some hypothetical ideal. It happens with the actual flawed human beings who, with you, have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Start with them. Pray for them. Eat with them. Talk with them. Work and serve with them. Study and learn with them. They are vital to your spiritual health and welfare.