Exodus: When God Builds Community (Psalm 133)

We haven't figured out yet how to be the church.

I know that goes against the understanding some people have of the history of the Church of Christ. In a book Randy Harris and I did together a few years ago,[1] we wrote about what we dubbed the Golden Age-Great Pit Theory of Church History. On this grossly inaccurate and horribly self-serving view of things, the church described in the Book of Acts corresponds perfectly to God's ideal. The church had a "golden age" of unity, doctrinal purity, and successful evangelism. When the apostolic era came to an end, however, the church departed from the divine plan and plunged into the "great pit" of apostasy. At a point in time roughly equivalent to the work of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and others in the history of the Church of Christ, the church returned to its "golden age" of unity, doctrinal purity, and successful evangelism.

One problem with this view of church history is that practically every denomination has its own version of it with only the names and dates for the return (i.e., reformation, restoration, rediscovery) of the "golden age." Another problem is that it is terribly judgmental and divisive to the body of Christ, allowing each group with this view of history to judge all other denominations as (minimally) inferior attempts to recapture the church of the New Testament or (maximally) false human systems in which people can only delude themselves into thinking they are Christian. But the fundamental problem with the Golden Age-Great Pit Theory is simply that it is historical fiction.

For one thing, the church in its concrete existence has never fully embodied the ideal of God. The church of the apostolic age was beset by every type of sin still current among believers. Social, moral, doctrinal, and familial failures were all there. Leaders were sometimes beset by greed or lust for power, and a lamentable lack of commitment to Christ marked any number of those early congregations. I repeat for emphasis: There has never been a single perfect congregation nor has there ever been a period during which the collective church of that time accomplished God's will with absolute fidelity. There is no such church today. There will be no such church ever until Jesus returns and consummates his redemptive work by presenting his bride to God for her glorification in his presence.

In the meanwhile, the most God can do with us and the best we can have with one another is an authentic experience of community as the body of Christ in the world. And that is no small thing.

The Quest for Community

The concern of modern man has been self-discovery, individuation, and to use the term of Robert Bellah "radical individualism." I will allow no infringements on my personal goals and desires. Nobody will tell me what to do. I've gotta be me! Frank, Elvis, and I are each gonna do it "my way" even if it destroys us, our families, and takes all of us straight to hell! And the most scandalous thing about all this is that it describes not just the plight of the world but also the broken, fragmented, and divided state of the church.

Yet there is something deep inside us that cries out for community. We created the League of Nations and later the United Nations to pursue political community among nations. We lament the need for someone to show us how to create social community among people divided by race, culture, and geography. We are so lonely for community that we try to find meaningful relationships through bridge, football, or literature.

What the world needs and what the church is supposed to offer as counter-culture to the world is community. Call it fellowship or simply a place to belong. But it is a place where the walls get torn down and people are permitted to embrace one another as kindred in the family of God.

Long before the church was created, this longing was already being expressed by a writer in Israel. He wanted the nation to be a genuine community. He longed for the benefits that would come from such a fellowship among the children of Israel.

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life forevermore (Psalm 133).
The Hallmarks of Community

Such a community is safe for everyone in it. That is, nobody has to be defensive with the others there. Nobody tries to fix you or change you. You are allowed to become your free and redeemed self by the power of the Holy Spirit living in you. Any change in you is his doing not yours to please the rest nor theirs as manipulation of you.

Community is a connected place. That is, everyone is affirmed and included rather than ignored, tolerated, or resented. You don't have to be like everyone else, for one of the things most appreciated about each person connected to the group is his or her distinctiveness. Nobody needs to be a "rugged individualist" for the simple reason that your peculiarities are known, appreciated, and to whatever degree necessary for your spiritual health moderated and corrected by your presence in the community.

Community is a developmental environment and experience. Children need safe and connected places called families in which to develop. They are allowed to find and nurture their gifts and passions. They are encouraged to experiment both with new ways of doing old things and new types of behavior. In either families or churches (which are supposed to be the family of God) where development is stymied by an authoritarian father, mother, or leader who bullies everyone else, people feel threatened, grow resentful, and refuse to trust. They eventually do one of two equally disastrous things: conform or run away. In a developmentally productive environment, people experiment first with trivial things such as musical tastes or organizational forms and eventually with truly significant things like love and trust.

And, yes, there is joy in community. You can't keep it out! It is so contagious that others are drawn into that community by the deep-seated happiness and contentment they see among its members.

May We Have Such an Experience?

So how do we create such a community? We cannot create it. We can only consent to be in the process of community-formation in God's hands as Israel was put in that process 3,500 years ago. The Old Testament book of Exodus recounts the story of Yahweh attempting to build community among the sons and daughters of Israel. And those experiences can teach us: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope" (Rom.15:4).

As we work through Exodus over the next dozen or so weeks, here are five things we will learn.

First, the beginning of true community is almost always in crisis. Have you ever been a member of a family in a hospital's ICU waiting room? People in the pain of anguish for someone they love form a community of support naturally and easily rich and poor, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, believer and atheist. These communities seldom last long after the crisis subsides. The experience that made a nation of slaves into a community was oppression by Pharaoh countered by grace from God. So the first movement of Exodus is a movement of grace, when the community was rescued through Moses (1:112:28).

Second, the rescued community immediately began a pilgrimage and followed their prophet-redeemer into a strange new place called "wilderness" to be disciplined and formed as God's people (12:2918:27).

Third, the community was given a covenant to instruct them in the ways of God and to frame the life they were to live as God's chosen and beloved people (18:2824:18).

Fourth, Israel was instructed carefully and extensively in the matter of worship. They would discern over time that worship not only reminded them of God's redemptive work in the past, his sustaining work in the present, and his promises for the future but actually served to form them as his people (25:140:33).

Fifth, the book closes with Yahweh's glory coming into the midst of the community and abiding among the people (40:34-38).

These five themes of grace, pilgrimage, covenant, worship, and glory are the central elements of community for God's people in any age or setting. They define our identity as a church so far removed in time and circumstance from Pharaoh, Moses, and Miriam. Their story has become our story! Grace has redeemed us from the crisis of our personal bondage to sin. But there are no private, secret deals for redemption; the same process that has saved us has put us into the family of God, the church. Now we are part of a pilgrimage with Jesus and with one another. You influence me to make my journey easier or harder, and I affect your travel toward the Promised Land. So we must receive covenant instruction, encourage one another in understanding, and support one another in obedience. Worship is one of the primary things that stimulates our desire for and forms us into a community of safety and connectedness, development and joy. And we experience the Spirit-presence of God through one another as a prelude to the fulness of his presence when we reach our final destination.

Conclusion

Allow me to end this sermon of invitation into Exodus with a story. A myth. But not a lie. It is an old and often-told tale. It is called "The Rabbi's Gift" and is told by Scott Peck in the prologue to a book he wrote several years ago on community-making.[2]

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a wave of antimonastic sentiment in Europe caused a monastery to fall upon hard times. Eventually there were only five monks left in the decaying place, all over age 70. Deep in the woods surrounding the monastery was a residence where an old rabbi occasionally went for solitude. Once when he was there, the abbot in charge of the monastery sought him out and asked if he could offer any advice that might save his dying group.

The two men commiserated with one another, with the rabbi admitting that things were little different in his synagogue. The young had lost interest, and hardly anyone came to Sabbath gatherings anymore. "No, I am sorry," the rabbi told him. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

When the abbot returned to his little group, he reported on his visit. "He couldn't help," said the abbot. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving it was something cryptic was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks that followed, the old men pondered the words and puzzled over what they could mean. The Messiah is here among us? How could that be? They had known each other for years, for decades. Could this person or that one be Messiah in our midst? As they thought about such a possibility, the old men began treating one another with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of their number just might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each one might himself be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest and grounds around the monastery were beautiful and peaceful, people still came occasionally to visit though typically with no higher intent than to picnic in a serene place. They would walk the narrow paths. A few would even wander into the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, without really being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that had begun to surround the five old men of the place. Something seemed to radiate from them and permeated the atmosphere. Something was strangely attractive even compelling about it. Hardly knowing why, they came back more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Finally it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit started talking more and more with the old men of the place. One asked to join them. Then another. And another. With a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

When God builds community, a similar thing happens. For people who have never experienced it, it cannot be described in words. But you know it when you experience it. And that community becomes a vibrant center of light and spirituality.

Is Christ among us? Does a stranger in our midst sense his presence? Do we treat one another with the "extraordinary respect" that flows from the belief that this is truly and authentically the body of Christ? If not, how are we different from the world? If not, can we call ourselves a community of faith? If so, who would not want to be part of the experience?

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[1] Rubel Shelly and Randall J. Harris, The Second Incarnation (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co., 1992).
[2] Scott Peck, The Different Drum (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), pp.1- 3.

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