Anne Lamott once said that the Gulf Stream can pass through a drinking straw. On the face of it that just seems ridiculous. After all, the Gulf Stream stretches across for miles, and drinking straws fit easily between our lips.
Nevertheless, if you turn a straw in the direction that the Gulf Stream flows, the straw becomes a conduit for its surging power and warmth. Turned agains the current, the straw simply tumbles along.
Lamott used this image to describe the Christian life. We are recipients of grace. Grace flows from God into us. Moreover, God shares his grace with us so that it will flow through us into the world.
|Thomas Cole’s “Distant View of Niagara Falls”|
The challenge and the thrill of following Jesus is to get the hang of going with the flow of grace in the life that actually presents itself to us every day. And the incalculable payoff for going with the flow of grace is not only the healing of our own souls, but also the healing of this wounded, broken creation.
This is precisely the sort of thing James was getting at when he said, “Faith without works is dead.”
God has chosen to continue the work of Jesus’ reconciling, redeeming work through his faithful followers. But what might come as a surprise to many of us in the West is that God chooses to do this not just through individuals, but through how we as followers of Jesus live together as grace-besotted communities.
Congregations are not just places where groups of individual believers gather. They are corners of the fallen creation in which the Kingdom of God has gotten a foothold. And God’s plan is to work through our congregations to change the world.
I want to help us let James, and in fact Jesus himself, teach us about the redeeming power of Christian community by addressing three questions:
What need does Christian community meet?
How does Christian community meet this need?
How do Christian communities change the world?
Let’s turn first to the need that Christian community meets. Put plainly, we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness. This may seem counterintuitive.
After all, we live in the age of social media. Facebook and Twitter are only the two most famous examples of electronic platforms designed to weave us into virtual communities, and millions of people use them. So much energy devoted to making a connection with other people suggests that something is missing. Namely, a satisfying sense of connection.
Loneliness comes in many forms. But I will reduce them to this common denominator. Loneliness is our felt experience of an unmet desire to belong.
Belonging means more than occupying an adjacent space, receiving membership status, matriculating in a school, or becoming a citizen. The mere presence of other people does not of itself satisfy our desire to belong.
|Edward Hopper’s “Room in New York City”|
God created us to desire and to need recognition and to grow by recognizing others; to enjoy shared experience instead of merely private, solitary memories; to give and to receive understanding; to offer and to benefit from the gift of nurture; to feel needed by and to be able to rely upon others to accomplish meaningful things.
Loneliness is not our failure to be self-sufficient. On the contrary, self-sufficiency is a distortion of our desire to be competent. But being competent hasn’t the first thing to do with being radically independent.
Instead, the height of competence is to learn how to contribute to the Body to which we belong. So, loneliness is the felt experience of disconnect, a disconnect that makes us less than God has designed us to be. We can feel unwanted, unloved, unappreciated, unimportant, and insignificant.
To put it another way, loneliness is a yearning for home, and home is not just where they have to take you in. It’s where you share the story of who you are because who you are is a part of everyone else’s story.
We know that when those others tell the stories of their lives, we will be one of the characters. And we cannot relate the story of our own lives fully without weaving all of these characters into it.
Home is where you return to be reaffirmed in your value and reminded about your identity, and it is where others others count on you for the same. Home is where we know we belong.
And that brings us to our second question. How do Christian communities meet our need to belong? They make us feel at home by responding to us as one who belongs to Jesus. They say, “If you belong to Jesus, you belong to us.”
For the most part, the world decides who belongs and who does not belong someplace on the basis of their credentials, background, accomplishments, abilities, looks, connections, status, or usefulness.
Not so with Christ-following communities. Listen to what James says:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
James is not just instructing us about our personal attitudes toward the poor. He is teaching us about the defining characteristic of Christian community. We approach everyone who comes to us through our belief in Jesus Christ. We turn ourselves in the direction that God’s grace is flowing.
Each of us belongs to Jesus because Jesus chose us. Neither our spiritual depth nor our moral record entitles us to be Jesus’ beloved. Even at our very best, we are a mixed bag of compassion and judgment, forgiveness and resentment, kindness and irritability. In other words, we all fall short of the glory of God.
All that any of us can offer Jesus is our unmitigated need for mercy. And as it turns out, that is the only requirement for belonging in the community of Jesus-followers. As the old Prayer of Humble Access puts it, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
The same grace that Jesus shows us, we now extend to anyone who comes to us. Whether they are black or white, rich or poor, male or female, young or old, coifed or tattooed, wearing a bow tie or sporting a new piercing, grace-saturated communities welcome the stranger home.
Jesus knows that we are all strangers wandering in a desert waste, looking urgently for the place that will let us in and provide us shelter for our souls and nourishment for our hearts. We are all looking for home.
And while our home, our final destination, is the new heaven and the new earth that the Lord himself will one day accomplish, Jesus calls our congregations to offer a foretaste of that perfect sense of belonging today. Right now.
And this leads us to our final question. How do Christian communities change the world?
Jesus-following communities–by being grace-formed and grace-imparting communities–are conduits for the transforming grace of God. The world we inhabit is torn by strife, violence, selfishness, and indifference.
By contrast, God envisions a peaceable kingdom–his kingdom–where the wolf and the lamb lie together and the child plays fearlessly at the adder’s nest.
God not only envisions this kingdom. He is actively working to make it a reality. And the very congregations that we call our church homes–those ordinary Jesus-following communities we inhabit–are God’s principal means for injecting his Kingdom DNA into the fallen world.
Those who come into our communities find healing. Consider the deaf man with a speech impediment in today’s Gospel. His garbled communication prevented him from full participation in the life of the community. He could neither understand others nor express himself adequately. And yet the community gathered together to bring him to Jesus, having already embraced him as one of their own before Jesus was finished with him.
But the Christian community does not seal itself off from the world and turn its gaze only inward. In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. Neither the woman nor her daughter followed Jesus. For that matter, they were not even Israelites. Nevertheless, Jesus healed the child.
|Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters”|
And so the church reaches out to heal the wounds of our surrounding community by feeding the poor, confronting racism, providing school supplies, offering music camps, teaching adults to read, and thousands of other works of mercy.
We hear so much from some today about the culture infecting the church. And maybe there is some truth in that. But the deeper truth is that Jesus instituted the church to be permeable. He pours his grace into us so that it will overflow not only our individual hearts but the boundaries of our congregational campuses.
You see, Jesus himself has woven his communities into the very heart of society and culture and the economy so that his grace will flow into the world in all its messiness and glory. By being true to Jesus’ calling to us, we are the leaven by which he is changing the entire loaf, the grain of salt that flavors the entire bowl of soup.
Jesus assures us that God’s grace can pass through us. On the face of it, that just seems ridiculous. After all, God’s grace is infinite and unconditional. We are finite and very accustomed to placing conditions and limits on our love.
But Jesus does not ask us to love as God loves, only to let the love that he is already giving to us flow through us to those around us. We are not the source of grace. But we can be its conduit. Our challenge is to go with the flow.
This sermon was preached at St. Columba’s in Winnsboro, Louisiana, on September 9, 2012.