What is sacred community? Galatians 3: 28-29
Preached at Renaissance Community Church by Rev. Brian Merritt
I grew up in a very conservative church and town in Lincoln, Nebraska. It is a place that prides itself in the simple life and that sometimes is equated with a simple minded ethic. I only knew an ethic of black and white with no shades of grey. That is what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ, to do the right thing and avoid sin. Sin was often something that equated with being culturally good and less to do with following Jesus.
Once we had asked Jesus into their hearts it was common for us to drastically change relations with the friends, family and neighbors who once had been so close. They were now not simply equals, but those who were in need of individual salvation. We would be filled with selfishness if we did not witness and care about the eternal damnation of the lost. So, those friends, family and neighbors now became a moral duty.
One of the many church splits I endured as a child revolved around these issues. We had a younger minister at the house church I attended. He was trying to bring in younger members and had invited one of the instructors from the health club across the street to attend church. This woman was very dynamic and seemed to fit right in with the community. She was personable and honest and had a very vibrant faith.
After time the pastor decided to put this energy to good use and made her one of the Sunday School teachers. She was really good at this. Yet, there seemed to be a rumbling problem amongst the faithful. There was discontent that bubbled to the surface and some of the matriarchs and patriarchs were showing open disdain, mainly for the pastor.
It turns out that this woman was a lesbian and the pastor refused to dismiss her on knowledge of that fact. So, the shunning began. There was no official policy of shunning at the church, but the unofficial one was clear. The woman soon left the congregation and because the pastor’s salary was tied to the offering plate the pastor was forced to leave as well.
Mission accomplished! That congregation was pure! Even though Jesus never said a word about lesbianism to be a good follower of him, the gatekeepers knew better. Now no one would be foolish enough to share anything of any consequence in their midst in the future. They built a shallow spiritual framework that included the lie that some of them were spiritually better than others for whatever arbitrary reason they might proof text in scripture. Following Christ then became about what it is you do, how it is you look and how good you are at hiding who you truly are to each other.
This is certainly the dilemma that Paul uncovers in the earliest iteration of the community of friends which became the institution called the visible church. Paul knows that there can be no hard and fast rules to this grace that is undeserved and that it is definitely not by works or righteousness that make us a part of community. Paul realizes that the Spirit of Christ is left amongst and in us. It is clear to him that freedom means that there is no law or restriction except those the Spirit imparts upon us so that we will function faithfully in community.
Imagine if you will the great threat that the early community of faith experienced from direct disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem. Being first made them the de facto institutional center. Paul was bringing in new fellowships all around the Roman empire. There were soldiers, washer women, blind, prisoners, slave owners and slaves. This sounds vaguely familiar to the diversity that Jesus sought. Yet, many of these people were Gentiles.
We love making movements into institutions as quickly as possible. This is so that there will be uniformity and power consolidated. Well, the Jerusalem institution made the determination that circumcision was an essential part of being a follower of Christ. This would mean that all of those uncircumcised gentiles Paul brought into the community would have their penis put under the knife to show that they were truly serious about this Christ movement.
Um….what!!?? Paul knew that Jesus never talked about circumcision as a requirement for salvation, inclusion or spirituality. So, Paul rejects it soundly, loudly, crudely and vociferously.
Now hear the radical message that Paul is writing so that the institution in Jerusalem can overhear. All are one in Christ! Can you imagine the shock when the church’s top evangelist and theologian states that there are no differences between Jew and Greek? He is telling them that circumcision does not matter. Then he breaks down the distinctive walls between systems of ownership, systems of oppression and patriarchy in true Christian community.
This must have been amazingly shocking, frightening for some and also incredibly freeing. Freeing being the optimum word. Paul knew that these nascent communities were ones that needed to cling to each other and not the institution for their salvation. They would have their own problems and challenges and did not need impediments that had absolutely nothing to do with following Christ.
To me Church consists of the Church visible and the Church invisible. We are participating this morning in the church visible. As Augustine said we are gathering together as a hospital ward for the sinner. This is the place where we must build trust and hope so that we can understand what salvation means for our society.
When we tell each other our burdens, celebrations and trials we are walking together on a sacred journey. It is not merely so that we will find healing, wholeness and a miracle. It is so that we can dissipate and share these things so that our isolation and loneliness will be destroyed. We share here as an example of the freedom that the Spirit wants for our world. The freedom from the bondage that we exhibit here is what can be carried into the world. It can transform that world. There is no such thing as individual salvation. Our environment, our capitalistic structures of oppression, our violent racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and ageism need salvation. Salvation is synonymous with freedom. This is where we get to visibly practice freedom in the invisible church of the world. When we are honest with each other and carry each other’s burdens we begin to understand the answer to the question: What is Sacred Community?