I’ve been writing about the topic of “discipleship.” Some have asked, “How do you become a disciple? Are there practical ways to become a stronger follower of Jesus?” In his book, Becoming A Fervent Disciple, Deacon John Lozano says that disciples are “intentional” about their relationship with Christ. They do things “on purpose” to accomplish Christ’s mission for them in their lives. To do this, they have a plan. Near the end of the book, he mentions three parts of making this “discipleship thing” happen concretely. Last week we looked at the first one which was service. This week we examine the second component which is community.
Let’s start with Sacred Scripture. In the Gospel of John, 1:38-39, we read, “Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day.”
Being a follower of Christ is not easy. In ancient times (like.. when I received Confirmation), part of the ritual included a slight slap across the cheek by the bishop. It was a reminder that being an adult follower of Jesus Christ would always include the Cross. In living out our faith, we will encounter challenges. The seeds of faith that we receive when we are young need to be watered, fed, and cared for if those seeds are to grow. Prayer, service and community provide that water and nourishment in an ongoing way.
“Friends” and community and connections are so important to today’s millennials and other young people today. What is ironic, is that these same young people would never consider the idea of “community” in a religious context, much less consider joining one. One way that we see this played out is their insistence that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Spiritual people do their spiritual thing on their own. Religious people know that they need regular contact with others in the community in order to thrive. Community is the context in which intentional discipleship and fervent faith develop. It is also the place that sustains the life of a disciple of Christ.
There are two things that we cannot do alone in this life: marriage and Christian faith. Christian community is simply the gathering of the people of the faith. It is an intentional gathering. The purpose is to connect with and experience the power of the risen Lord. We touch the power of the Holy Spirit. Together we engage in the common mission, we share our human life with all of its complexities, sorrows, joys. We join with others in common service to others. Over and over again in the bible, we read about the importance of “gathering and sharing” of the people of faith.
Community is the place where we encounter Christ and tell the stories about those encounters. In Luke 24:13-35, we see the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. The disciples encounter Christ in three places in this story: in the Eucharist and in the Scriptures and also in the community. What do they do immediately afterward? They run back to the community and tell the story! In John 20:24-29 we read the story about someone who ran away from the community. Thomas didn’t believe that Christ had risen. He was away from the community for that initial encounter with Christ. It wasn’t until Thomas returned to the community that he finally had that personal encounter with the risen Jesus.
The reason we have Christian community is NOT primarily to attend “religious activities.” The reason we have resources and buildings at St. Monica is NOT primarily to hold “religious activities.” The reason is to walk in discipleship with other disciples. We do not gather primarily to acknowledge and celebrate our success, achievements, professional and personal power. We share our human lives and human faith. We share our joys, sorrows, darkness and light with one another along the way. It is within this context of Christian community that Jesus Christ shows up in the room. The primary reason we come together as a community of faith is that we’re broken. We need someone to fix it. We need a savior. If we don’t why bother coming? Christ was crucified in weakness and failure. We all understand weakness and failure. But Christ invites us to join with one another in this weakness and failure to meet him. This shared brokenness is the very dimension of our humanity that must unite our community.
Let me close with a story about Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay, Wisconsin. A fellow bishop, Archbishop Murphy, had been diagnosed with an unusually aggressive form of leukemia. Archbishop Murphy spent 28 days in the ICU. Many thought he would die. During his hospital stay, he received thousands of letters, but two of them really sustained him. The two letters were from Sammy, who was 10 years old and Sally who was 9.
Sammy wrote: “Dear Archbishop. You are very sick. And you are probably going to die. But you are going to go to heaven. And I have heard that heaven is a very nice place. You are going to like it there. Love Sammy.”
Sally wrote, “Dear Archbishop. My name is Sally. I am 9 years old. I have already had 39 surgeries in my life. So just hang in there. P.S. I’m writing this from home, not CCD class.”
You only get that in community.
When we refuse this kind of shared life, our gatherings as people of faith miss out on the transformative power of the risen Jesus among us. Saint John Newman once said: “So much holiness is lost to the church because brothers and sisters refuse to share the contents of their hearts to one another. We fear intimacy and sharing our weakness.” It’s interesting that John Neumann is the Patron Saint of college and university Neumann Centers. Their motto is “Cor Ad Cor Loquituor” or Heart Speaks to Heart.
You only get that in community.
Henri Nouwen writes a similar reflection of community: “Community is first and foremost, a gift of the Holy Spirit, not built upon mutual compatibility, shared affection, or common interests, but upon having received the same divine breath, having been given a heart set aflame by the same divine fire, and having been embraced by the same divine love.”
You only get that in community.