One of the buzzwords going around today is "community." Supposedly, the "experts" tell us, this is what people want. It's hard to argue against it because that's like arguing against love, and people want that too, and it's a great thing. But usually when the social scientists tell us people want community, what they mean is something more like belonging. To belong is to be accepted, affirmed, loved and enjoined. Belonging gives rise to rest, satisfaction, the use of our talents and shared experiences. Belonging opens the door to vulnerability and increases our happiness because we become integral parts of something bigger than ourselves—we become a community.
The Church is also a community. But the Church is not like other communities. That probably sounds arrogant. Is the Church’s community really different from all other communities? Yes. And for reasons that hardly seem evident at first glance.
But lets back up. When people convert from unbelief to belief, they become part of the Church. To put this in the perspective of Jesus's teaching, when a person becomes a Christian they are called out of the world and into the Church. Jesus says, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”(1) This unique status of being called into Christ consequentially puts us at odds with the world. In other words, at some level, the world understands the uniqueness of Christian community, and they persecute it. That uniqueness is not, as many think, the Church’s position on worldly matters. When people hear the Church will be persecuted many think that it is because the Church is at odds with the values of the world, that it holds more conservative views on ethics and morals than what is popular, and therefore engenders the world’s wrath. But Jesus disagrees. That is not why the world hates the Church. The world hates the Church because the Church is one with Christ. Jesus says, “But all these things they will do to you [persecution] on account of my name.” and then adds, “They hated me without cause [That is, not based on Jesus’ teachings alone].”(2)
The world hates Christian community because it is called out of the world and into Christ. But that begs the question: What does being “one” with Christ mean? And why does Christ call us out of the world, into himself, only to throw us back into it? (3) Does this calling out, in & out again have a purpose?(4)
To answer this, we can go to Paul's letter to the Galatians. There in chapter 3, Paul makes a stunning statement about the uniqueness of Christian community. The church was undergoing problems, as Jewish converts taught the Gentile converts that they needed to keep the Jewish laws—like kosher and especially circumcision. But Christianity hasn't become entirely distinct of its Jewish roots yet, and many Gentile Christians saw Christianity as a sort of cult of Judaism. That means the Gentile converts were likely to look to the Jewish Christians for guidance. But if you’re an adult male and your religion requires you to get circumcised (no anesthesia!) you’ll want to make really sure that it’s a necessary procedure. After all, Paul never told you about this “requirement” when he preached the Gospel to you.
So, Paul is called in to adjudicate the controversy. And he spends a lot of time showing the purpose of the law. God's law is what God demands. It's things like the ten commandments, Kosher, and prohibitions. The law is what God says you have to do. The Gospel, in contrast, says what God will do. Paul wants it to be obvious that these things must remain separate, because when law mixes with Gospel who is responsible for what gets confused.
Paul tells the young little congregation that they should look at the Law as a teacher or mentor.(5) But the law is a mean teacher. The whole reason you even need this law-teacher is that it teaches you how you’re a problem child. The Law’s lesson has two major parts: to make you mad and then make you sad.(6)
The law makes you mad because it sets up an impossible system. It says, “Look, you can have eternal life and bliss, you can have God’s blessings and favors, His full bounty—even salvation from sin. All you have to do is what I say.” But you can’t do what the law demands you do. Sure, you can do someof it often but never consistently. The law says, “Don’t steal, don’t have idols, don’t lust, love everyone, always forgive, don’t covet.” But though you try really, really hard, you can’t meet the demands of this mean teacher. So you get mad. The system is rigged, you're working hard, but it's never good enough. It's like a Ponzi scheme, and the ringleader is God. So you get mad at God. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that unfair as all this is, you still have a serious problem: You are guilty before God. And that crushes you. Now you are sad.
But then Paul announces, “Now before faith came we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”(7)
Paul releases us from the grip of the mean teacher by giving us the Gospel. The system may be rigged, but God will break into it like a thief in the night and rescue and ransom those under its rule. The Gospel is what God will do: God will save based on faith, his gift to us through his word, and no longer accept the demands of the law as the basis for union.(8)
Then Paul begins to talk about community. And what he says is astonishing: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”(9)
We are all sons of God through faith; we are Abraham's offspring. What an offense to Jews! They showed they were Abraham's offspring by physically marking their bodies with circumcision. That set them apart from everyone else and showed their lineage. But Paul dismisses this. That was a demand of the law, and even if you kept that aspect, you can’t keep the rest. Instead, those who receive Abraham’s blessings (his inheritance) are those in Jesus. That is, by gift, by Gospel, by God’s work we are adopted into his family. We are called out of the world and into this community of Abraham.(10)
But what a community it is! In this community there are no standard categories. They are put away. All the other communities in the world are based on varying hierarchies and interests. People form communities based on geography, shared interests, marriage, blood, hobbies, mutual goals, and politics. People gravitate towards their own, Jews with Jews, Gentiles with Gentiles, slaves, freedman, male and female. These identities give status and responsibility, they create boundaries and attract and repel people. In all the world's communities what brings people together is identity, status, and place. Not so the Church.
The Church’s unique community is that these categories no longer matter to form and flourish the community. Think of the Church, people from all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, differing cultures, and experiences. People don't become Christians because they want a shared experience, like a hobby, nor do they convert because of political views or other reasons. The ragtag boggle of churchgoers are those who have crossed from darkness to light because they have fallen in love with Jesus through his grace. And maybe this is why the Church at its worse is judgmental, and careless and graceless to others? Perhaps it's because those people would never be together for any other reason. But the fact they are together, called out of their different communities, identities, statuses, and places, means they themselves caught up in Christ who binds them together in Himself. We are, “in him” as “sons of God.”
How are we in him? What does this mean? Do we become subsumed into Christ so that our differences dissolve? Yes and no. Paul teaches the Galatians that we become one with Christ and each other through faith. But this faith is enacted through the gift of baptism. Paul says, “For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ is to wear him, like a jacket or in a blanket. A blanket hides the individual contours of your body, masking its features in a swaddle of cloth. So too, Christ is put over us, we are covered in his blanket. Baptism is the blanket in which Christ is found. For you are baptized into Christ.
To make sense of this, imagine we board a ship and sail far out into the Atlantic Ocean where we can no longer see land and the waters are dark and deep. The captain goes below deck and later emerges with an enormous chest which is full of smooth rocks. He tells each of us to grab some rocks and some paint, and depict how we see ourselves, our identities, statuses or failures on those rocks. One lady puts, “mother” and a guy in boat shoes with a popped collar puts, “CEO.” The little girl with the red hair paints, “daddy’s girl” and Tony in the wheelchair writes, “handicapped.” On and on the passengers go, some writing, some drawing who they think they are, and some, still burdened by their past mistakes which have come to define them, paint those. They could go on forever but the chest runs out of rocks, and the captain tells everyone to throw them overboard. The people look confused. “Why?” one asks, “we’ve just worked so hard on them.” But the captain insists. So one by one, they give them up. It doesn’t matter what’s painted on those rocks because they all sink. The waters, deep and dark, take them in and plunge them into the blue-black shadows where they disappear. The rocks have become part of the vastness of the ocean, pebbles in the belly of the sea.
That, we can imagine Paul saying, is baptism. In the waters of baptism, we are drowned in Christ. In Christ, the distinctions that rule human relationships and define their communities render moot, "for you are all one in Christ Jesus." That is to say, we are called out of that land of self-making and into the waters of God-giving. In baptism the storied stones still exist but are hidden in the waters. Now part of something that holds them all together, that covers the narratives painted on their stony skins.
Does this mean our individuality doesn’t matter? No. Of course not. God uses our unique talents and skills for his work. But that’s what rises out ofthe depths. To continue the analogy, the stones come out of the water covered in wetness. Their paint, obscured by the aqueous covering that forever binds them.
By teaching us that we have put on Christ through faith in baptism, Paul wants us to see the community of the Church as the place where we truly find ourselves and our Lord. For the Church gathers around the Word and Sacrament in order to receive Christ and each other.
Practically, this shapes the way the Church relates to the world. Why are we called out and then sent back into the world? Because the calling-out grounds us in Christ, in promise, in Gospel, in a community that He establishes not based on human attraction. And that empowers and prepares us for the mission, as the gates of Hell contend (futilely) against it.
It is the called, gathered and baptized Church that is sent. For that Church is in Christ. And the stones that sank in the waters will be drawn out and cast to the earth, and they will shimmer-shine as they catch the morning light; stones as hard as mountains, but glazed in the waters of life. Storied-stones once covered in self-making, and pining; stones now radiantly enwrapped in grace's pure light, mirrors of the One in whom the Father is well pleased. Living stones.