Psalm 133, Zechariah 10:8-9 and John 11:51-52 NRSV
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,
I will signal for them and gather them in,
for I have redeemed them,
and they shall be as numerous as they were before.
Though I scattered them among the nations,
yet in far countries they shall remember me,
and they shall rear their children and return.
[Caiaphas] did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God
One of our Christian discipleship's most distinctive qualities must be our call to share life together. Now, that may not sound all that distinctive until we reflect on how unique our faith community is. Think about it, in almost every other corner of our lives we are bound together by common interests, shared experiences, or the deep ties of family. For instance, if I decide to stop by the next gathering of the Hot Springs County Republicans, I can take a good guess at their shared interest. I would not join the Friends of the Library if I wanted to support school athletics, I would join the Bobcat Boosters instead! When you walk into church community, the people there are joined together by something altogether different. We are joined not by some shared interest or the bonds of family, instead, we are joined together in and through Jesus Christ. People with different backgrounds, interests, beliefs, and appearances are all joined by deep ties of spiritual love. We are called together into a community life bonded by the agapeic love of Christ, and we are called to practice this love with each other as part of our life together.
You might be thinking to yourself that of course the church is bound together by a shared interest: we’re all believers and followers of Christ! So before we go any further, we need to unpack what it means to say, “Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” Let me ask you, what does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What does it mean to follow Christ? Before you answer, think about this, what does it mean for your neighbor in the pew? The thing is if we asked everyone in this church today what they believe or how it looks for them to follow Christ, I think we would get a different answer from every person in this church. Let me ask you then, do we need to have a consensus on what we think, and what we believe before we can be a church? Not at all! Look at scripture to those letters of Paul to the early churches, they constantly disagree on what it means to believe in Christ and to follow him! They disagree on food, holidays, communion, resurrection, and spiritual gifts! Paul has to remind them, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 CEB). We are all one in Christ.
Look at the words of the psalmist today in Psalm 133, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” How has our unity come about? The word of the Lord through the prophet Zechariah answers, “I will signal for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them.” Redemption, to be redeemed, is to “‘buy back,’” that is what God through Jesus Christ has done for us. Christ has unified us in his own body, through his blood he has purchased us all. Those arms of our Lord stretched wide on the cross have gathered us all into himself. That is where our unity lies. In other words, I am a Christian not because of what I believe and feel but because of Jesus Christ. You are Christian not because you believe and feel the same but because of Jesus Christ. To say we have to have a consensus, that our unity rests on our own agreement, denies the grace of God which says that there is nothing we can do to be redeemed. The cost has been paid, and the unity purchased at high cost so that all of the children of God may be called home and live in community with each other.
For us, that means that we have everybody and anybody under the sun in our midst, and now we all have to live together in unity. When I hear the words of God from Zechariah, “Though I scattered them among the nations,” I think how true they are! We are scattered! So much so that I fear for us as a human race! We have scattered and divided ourselves over issues large and small. I think you all know what I mean. How many of you have family and friends you no longer talk to? Parents who no longer speak to their children, brothers who will have nothing to do with their sisters. Best of friends have become the most bitter of enemies! Families and friendships have been divided over politics, race, gender, sexuality, religion, and economics. Not to mention all those smaller scabbles, like who gets what when mom and dad die. Church communities can be the same with divisions between churches over things like how much water it takes before a baptism sticks. How about those scabbles within our churches? Like arguments about the color of the carpet, whether there should be female clergy, or even what scripture translations our churches choose to use. These arguments break up churches as easily as families because we make the mistake of assuming that we all have to agree, to even like each other to be a community.
When we are not arguing over big and small issues, we are often acting like families, in the other worst way possible. Tell me, how many families have secrets that never come up around the dinner table? Aunt so-and-so cheated on Uncle this-and-that, or how a cousin got arrested for drinking and driving. Those bits of news won’t be the topics of conversation around the dinner table. We hush those up and push those under the rug in families, only whispering about them in side rooms at Thanksgiving, saying, “Did you know? Have you heard?” Instead, in front of one another, we may try to pretend to be the ideal, trying to look like our family could have posed for a Norman Rockwell painting in the Saturday Evening Post. Churches do that too. We are full of people – real people – who make mistakes, have faults, and even still sin from time to time, and yet, don’t we all clean up nicely for Sunday? We have to look our best for each other! After all, if the Christian community relied on us getting along, being the ideal family, and liking each other, life together would fail before it ever gets started.
What can we do then? Is the Christian dream for community a doomed ideal? Yes, it is, as long as we depend on ourselves. We are not to be an ideal, we are to be a divine reality. The Lord says these words through Zechariah, “yet in far countries they shall remember me,” and again in John’s gospel, “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” It is God that shapes our community. It is God who draws us in and upon whom we rely to make all of this work. We are tied together by the Spirit, not by our emotions. We all won’t always get along. We may not even like each other! We will get into fights. We will make mistakes! We will wrong each other. In those moments, things like affection and friendship and that family feeling will be broken, and we will see that we can be just as ugly as the rest of humanity.
As I said, if we rely on our own efforts and our own emotions, things will always go wrong, so instead, we need to rely on Jesus. In particular, on the ways Christ equips us to live into community, namely through the agapeic love of God. Agape serves as the core of our divine reality, as this spiritual love, this love that seeks to serve rather than to get is the “bright love of Christian service,” and it “lives in the spiritual community.” We are called to serve each other. We are called to Christ’s example. We are called to love each other, not on the grounds of what we like about our neighbor. We are called to love them and see them through the eyes of Jesus Christ. If I only saw my neighbor with my own eyes, I would only see their faults. If I only loved with my own heart, conflicts in personality and opinions would turn that love into anger and resentment. Instead, I have to love you through Christ. I have to see you through Christ. That’s the only way that unity is possible. Otherwise, we are all too different, too scattered to ever have unity.
That’s the trick to a true Christian community, we can’t forget that every tie we have to every person in this church should always and forever be through Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book, Life Together, “Christ stands between me and others. I do not know in advance what love of others means [...] Only Christ in his Word tells me what love is. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for my brothers and sisters really looks like.” You all might remember the phrase WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?”, from back in the day. Think of this agapeic love as WDJS, “What Does Jesus See?” Perhaps even more literally, how will Jesus love? As we explore our life together in the coming weeks, we will explore our community life together, what it might mean, and what it might be like to live into this divine reality of real people living together with Christ, through Christ, and in Christ. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 5.
 Donald K. McKim, The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, 2nd ed.(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), s.v. “redemption.”
 Bonhoeffer 2015, 14.
Pastor Paul Grossman