Over the last week or so I have been doing a fair amount of thinking and reflecting on the way in which, in the Christian worldview, the flourishing of the individual and the flourishing of the community are inextricably related. Yesterday morning was our All-In service. You can see the handiwork of our young people putting the pieces of the body together on this blackboard. There are quite a few Bible passages that talk about the body of Christ that this could have been taken from, but it was actually Ephesians 4, in which Paul talks about the different gifts that are given to individuals “so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith”
In this the way in which we exercise and use the gifts we have been given to build up the community, and in doing so are ourselves built up is clearly seen. Just like a body, we are meant to grow. We as individuals are meant to grow. We as a church are meant to grow. The church grows best when we as individuals use the gifts we have been given, with others, to build up the church. We grow best as individuals when we use our gifts in the way that God intended them to be used, in building up the church.
Yesterday evening was the Wellington Civic service. We hosted the Mayor and the councillors as we celebrated and prayed for the community life of Wellington. The theme of the service was, “Thy Kingdom Come.” As we reflected on those words from the Lord’s prayer we thought about what God’s kingdom actually looks like. We looked at the words from Isaiah, quoted by Jesus at the synagogue in the early stages of his ministry.
As God’s messenger and prophet to God’s people, Isaiah paints this word picture of how things work in a society in which God’s authority is acknowledged and which is shaped by it, both for individuals and for a community.
So, what does God’s kingdom look like? For individuals it looks like a place where those who are heart broken find emotional and spiritual healing and wholeness. A place where those who are kept captive by circumstances, life choices, or oppression find freedom and liberty. A place of light, where those who have been kept in the dark and feel shadowed and grey, see clearly the colours of a full life.
What does God’s kingdom look like? For a community it looks like a place where things that have fallen into ruin are rebuilt and restored. Long devastation does not have to be the end for a community. In the kingdom of God there is hope and a future. It looks like a place where justice is done, and seen to be done, and crime and violence are no more.
But here, again, there is no neat dividing line that runs down the middle between individuals and community. All communities are made up of individuals, and all individuals are part of the community. As individuals find themselves living in God’s kingdom, so they turn outwards, learn to love and support others and community is strengthened and built up. As a community takes on the characteristics of the Kingdom of God so the individuals within it are enabled to prosper and flourish.
As I was looking at the passage that Tim had chosen for this evening, this intertwining of the flourishing of individual and community came to my mind again. It is all about relationships. That is what the first verse we heard read says, “In your relationships with one another…” The previous four verses of the chapter have all been about compassion and love and unity and humility, of preferring others, of looking to the interests of others. And why do we do this Paul? How can we do this Paul?
We think like this because this is how Christ thought. We are able to think like this because this is what Christ did for us.
If we stop to think for just a moment. Think for a moment of the your best memory. The happiest time, the most secure place, the most loving relationship that you have ever known. Now think for a moment of a bad memory. A difficult time, a painful place, a wound that took a while to heal. Reflect for a moment on the gap between those memories.
Jesus was in that good place, the best place. Jesus, God in every way, secure in the mutual love and regard of the Trinity, complete and whole. He chose to give all that up. He chose to leave that all behind. Not to cling onto it, or stand on his rights, or to demand justice, but to leave his home to live among strangers, to live as a stranger, to obey his Father even though it took him to a traitor’s death, battered to a cross.
He did that because he preferred you and me, individually to himself. He thought of our interests before he thought of his own.
If he did this for us, how can we but do the same for others?
I know it’s not easy. We do tend to be selfish by nature. That’s a great word isn’t it: selfish. If you’re trying to describe the colour of something, and you say it’s reddish then it’s kind of red, it’s mostly red, you look at it and you think, “red”, it has the aura of “red” about it. If you’re describing the size of someone and you say they’re “biggish” than you might not have the exact dimensions but you know it’s someone pretty sizeable, perhaps a bit intimidating, definitely not small.
Human beings are, in general, self-ish. Most things we do have the flavour of “self”, our words and the way we speak suggest “self”, our thoughts tend to be centered on “self”. We are a bit self-ish.
The great news is that we do not have to be. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, because of his obedience to his Father, we are free to be “other-ish”. I know it’s not really a word, but I think that it’s more positive than unself-ish. We are free to prefer others, to want others to do better than we do, to hope that others to go beyond us in the things of God. To be truly other-ish.
The thing is that, as the second half of this hymn illustrates from Jesus example, it is one of the supreme paradoxes of the Christian faith that it as we do this that we receive all that we hope for others. It was because of Jesus’ willingness to be humiliated and because of his obedience that he received the highest glory. It is as we lose our lives that we find them, it is as we love others we discover ourselves to be beloved, and as we are other-ish that we become wholly ourselves.
Again we discover this intertwining of the flourishing of the individual and the community. As the individual promotes the good of others, building up others in the community, so they find the deepest good for themselves.
I would like to suggest this evening that there is another layer to this as well. It seems to me that what holds for individuals and the community of individuals holds also for individual congregations and communities of congregations.
I’d like to suggest that it is possible for a congregation to be self-ish or to be other-ish when it comes to how it relates to other congregations in its own church family, to its wider community, and to other churches in the area.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a congregation of other-ish people would automatically be an other-ish congregation. However, in my experience, it’s not always as simple as that. Something funny happens to people when you put them in a group, particularly a group that they enjoy being part of and really value. They can be very other-ish when it comes to people inside the group, whilst being pretty self-ish to those outside the group. This is when a community becomes a clique, a church becomes a club, and tragically, it ends up being toxic to the spiritual health of those inside.
Just as an individual’s selfishness damages their community and, in the end, themselves, so a group’s selfishness damages the wider community and, in the end, itself and its members. More positively, as a church becomes more other-ish with regard to its wider community so its own health improves and it flourishes.
It is the reality of this dynamic that makes institutions like Deanery Synod, and Churches Together, and other cross area opportunities for folk from different churches to meet together so critical to the health of the wider church in the community, and to the health of our own churches. It is at these places of meeting that we have the real opportunities to exercise other-ness. Opportunities to hear other church’s stories, to pray for other churches, to work with other churches, to put into practice our preference for other churches, to demonstrate that we put the interests of other churches above the interests of our own.
It is my prayer for this Synod that in our relationships with one another we would have the same attitude of mind as Christ Jesus, being obedient to our Father whatever the cost and coming through to the glory that is ours in Christ as we join together to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.