August 4

Faith in Community, Part II

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 28:16-20

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Faith in Community

Last Sunday we explored one interpretation of the title phrase for our Summer Preaching Series, “Faith in Community.” We considered belief and trust in the idea of community itself.  That is, broadly, belief in the idea of the unity of a body of people that share something in common: interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.  This week, as was said, we’ll explore “Faith in Community” – the ways in which faith is lived out in community both by the individuals in it and by the community altogether.  

Our English word “faith” comes from the Latin through Old French, and carries the connotations of trust in someone or something,   The Greek word “faith” in the New Testament, the noun, also carries the connotation of trust, and the verb “to have faith” means also “to trust, have confidence in, to be assured of.”   Perhaps the most well-known Christian definition of “faith” comes from the early church in today’s lesson from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith for the author of Hebrews is not some wishful thinking or pie in the sky. “Assurance” and “conviction” are solid words – you can get ahold of them, they are words that ground people. The Hebrews can have the confidence, can be assured that, can trust that what they hope for in the life of faith will come to pass.  In fact, even if they cannot yet see these things, they can be convicted that their faith will be shown to be warranted. This is because they have already suffered and endured challenges and been brought through them – their faith has developed through their very real struggles and God’s own trustworthiness in their lives.  In spite of the challenges they have and will continue to face, they can live as individuals and as a community full of faith, they acna be faith-ful.

So how do individuals and communities live out their faith?  For one thing, they live their faith as inextricably intertwined:  there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  Even appointed hermits or solitaries are connected not just to their communities but are engaged with the wider world as well, as was Thomas Merton with his writing and as is Anna Zilboorg with her knitting. 

The founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, John Wesley, describes the process of growth in faith as “there is no holiness but social holiness.”  “Social holiness” is often interpreted by present-day Methodists to refer solely to the works of social justice. It does in part have that connotation in the sense that all social relations have that component to consider.  But the term “social holiness” as used by Wesley means holiness practiced in a social context of the individual active in an active community. Other people are necessary to our growth in faith as we are necessary to their growth.  We make our own personal practices of prayer, study, and worship large in our own lives – we regularly set aside time, put post-it reminders on the bathroom mirror, and so on. And we do this not just so that we ourselves can become more faithful, but because as we bring our learnings and experiences to the group, we encourage each other and help to increase each other’s growth in faith.  Likewise, when as the community we pray, study, and worship together, and experience together the grace and nourishment of the Sacraments, we enjoy each other’s company, recognize that God loves each one of us and all of us together, realize that we are not alone in our joys and our challenges, and we have the opportunity to experience a reality that is greater than the sum of us its parts.

Going further, each Christian community is part of the great community of the Church.  The Church is the body of Christ. We ask to be this body for the world at every Communion.  Jesus and the early church saw both individuals and their local faith communities as engaged in a much larger context.  While there are many mentions of how this Church might be lived into by individuals and communities, I would like to focus of three this morning, that are seen to be common ways, and even expectations, as to how individuals and communities are to live out their faith in the world.

The first is something that we talked about last week:  Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples that they love one another as he has loved them, so that by this love everyone with know that they are his disciples.  Jesus loved his disciples through his example, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection. The kind of love that Jesus exemplifies empowers individuals, and the unity that the gathered body of Christ shares together in their shared interests and experiences.  And this kind of love is not just to help individuals and local communities grow in faith, but is also to empower change in the world in works of mercy and justice.

Jesus’ disciples are to become a world-wide movement.  He tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Now we have to be verycareful here. The history of Christianity is one of colonization, exploitation, religious and cultural destruction, and forced conversion, as well as of love. In light of this history, and in the context of Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us, a useful guideline to help interpret this passage comes from Prof. Daniel Jeyaraj, a theologian of world Christianity from India.  At a Costas Consultation on Global Christianity a number of years ago, he said that our job as Christians was not to convert others, but we are to welcome those who the Holy Spirit had invited to join us, and then we help them become mature disciples through baptism and teaching. In other words, disciples will come from all nations, and, not all nations nor all the people in them will become disciples. They will come as the Holy Spirit invites them, and as they see our love and our welcome.

Paul, writing to the church at Corinth – a city rather like Boston in its position in the Empire and diversity of population.  Paul puts all this in the context of a ministry of reconciliation. In love, God has reconciled Christians to God’s own self, and so to their own selves, and to their neighbors, in a new creation.  Individuals are no longer regarded from a human point of view but from God’s point of view. And the communities of which they are a part are no longer regarded from a human point of view, but as individuals and communities to be loved and reconciled as Christians and Christian communities were also loved and reconciled by God.  We live out our faith as individuals and communities as ambassadors for Christ to other people. We make God’s appeal to others through the love and hope we have experienced through our own reconciliation with God, self, and neighbor. Or, as D. T. Niles, the great evangelist from India described it, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

It is by our living out our faith as individuals and communities in love, in welcome and hospitality, and in reconciliation with God, self, and neighbor, that we have assurance that the things that we hope for will come about, that we have the conviction that the things that we cannot yet see will manifest.  Now sometimes this living out of faith is itself a challenge. Depending on the day, the pricks and frictions of living together even with those we love and respect can seem more than we can deal with. Sometimes our love, our welcome and hospitality, our ministry of reconciliation can seem weak and worn. This weekend is a case in point, when idolatry continues to ignore, or accept as a given, the increasing tragedies of mass gun violence such as occurred and is occurring in El Paso.  Sometimes greed and corruption seem overwhelming in the horrific consumption of other human beings and of the planet. Sometimes our pain and frustration tempt us to isolate ourselves, numb out, or choose other unwise ways to cope.  

The lives of Jesus and the early church acknowledge the challenges and trials of the life of faith.  And, paradoxically, they declare that it is in meeting and surviving the challenges and trials with faith that they are overcome.  Because as individuals in community, we do not meet and survive the challenges and trials alone.

In the life of faith, as individuals active in an active community, we grow in faith, and so grow in hope and confidence.   We live as though what we do actually matters, because it actually does. Faith changes us, and changes the communities of which we are a part, and changes the world.  Faith without works is dead, and the living out of our faith is the great work of all the Church. The great question of that work is, what matters to us enough that we love it, welcome it into our lives, do not regard it from a human point of view but from God’s point of view, want to bring the people or situations to reconciliation, want to see realized hope for it?  When we answer the question of what matters to us, individuals and communities, and begin to live out our faith as the Church with intention around the answer, then the world does change toward hope and new life. AMEN.

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

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