When we read the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the New Testament, we are tempted to read it in a WEIRD way, as individuals who are getting personal instructions. As a result of reading it that way, many of us stopped taking Jesus seriously a long time ago because we know we cannot follow those instructions! In the middle of our fragmented daily routine we lose hope of ever really following Jesus.
That’s one of the reasons we named ourselves a circle of hope. Because the teachings handed down to us are not meant primarily for us as individuals, they offer a vision of what maturity in Christ looks like for Christian communities. God’s work of redeeming the world is always about gathering a people. Sometimes when I refer to that basic fact, or just use the term “a people,” it seems like an odd thing to say. I have to explain, “Our church is a people. We are forming a culture centered on Jesus.” It seems like a foreign concept.
But forming a circle has always been God’s way. He started with calling Abraham and eventually formed the people, Israel. Jesus, the ultimate expression of what Israel was to embody, gathered a community with his twelve disciples at the core. After Pentecost, those disciples were sent out to gather in anyone in the whole world who would be a part of the people of God, formed where they lived. In light of this community-building mission of God, the Sermon on the Mount, in particular, is not a new law that judges individual merit, it is a vision of how to embody Christ. It describes the ongoing incarnation of God. It describes the slow, relentless transforming work of God in a people that spreads from where it is planted.
In his book Slow Church, Christopher Smith highlights three important practices that are essential to forming a people in Christ. They are also elemental to what has formed Circle of Hope as a people
It is astounding, actually, that a church which twentysomethings began, is characterized by people who have stuck around. The lifespan of a Philadelphia-dweller is often brief; and we have experienced our share of people being among us for a short time. We don’t judge people who are moving around; they’ll probably find their place. But we know that the work of redemption is best done by people who stay. I decided to stay for nearly twenty years now; and our other pastors and many other leaders have done the same. Many of us even bought houses and made a commitment to stick around. Rootedness in a church community and in a place makes a huge difference in what God can do.
Monks have always modeled this for me well. Some contemporary Benedictines in Iowa talk about their vow to remain with their community this way:
We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledge one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.
The way of Jesus needs to be planted in a place to grow. We don’t carry it around in our imaginations; we can’t just search for it virtually. We have to grow it as it grows in us in our bodies in a place.
It is also amazing that we can stand the amount of conversation we rely on to form our community: all those cell meetings, team meetings, Mapping meetings, email, etc! It makes a few of us more than a little irritated. One woman told me she was leaving the church — not because she didn’t feel loved and did not love everyone, she just wanted less ; she wanted to go to church, not be required to do all that relating! But if we are the body of Christ (and we are) our dialogue is like the communication of neurons in a physical body’s nervous system guiding the movement of all the organs and limbs. We need it to be real.
Speaking the truth in love and having healthy conflict are fundamental to forming a people. Otherwise, faith is just a philosophy like all the others. So we work on it. Our cells are great at giving people a chance to speak the truth in love, not only because they create lasting relationships, but because they welcome in the next person to disturb the homeostasis and force new loving. We actually invite conflict with our annual mapping, our talk back times in the Sunday meetings, our doing theology times (like talking about sexuality last year) and in many other ways. We risk acknowledging our disagreement, believing that Jesus will be our agreement
3. Hard work and hard rest
The world makes no apologies for demanding total allegiance to the workplace these days, making the workplace an all-encompassing community. In contrast, we keep insisting that allegiance to the kingdom of God is before all others and our primary vocation is found as part of the body of Christ, not as a worker in some enterprise run by someone else. Being graced with such great purpose means we are hard workers spending our lives extending God’s kingdom. Flourishing as the community we have become took work; it has been a lot of fun, even joy, but it still takes work. To keep up the good work means surrendering to the fact that life is in Christ. Sharing love, time, tasks and money like we do sounds like the Sermon on the Mount, but it does not always seem practical to apply the teaching unless we truly find our life in Jesus. It takes concentration and energy! I love building cells, compassion teams, businesses and congregations; I love mattering, but no one should say mattering does not feel costly at times.
That’s why we need “hard rest” too. It could be called “hard” because we have to discipline ourselves to meditate, retreat and enjoy times of Sabbath. I am not talking about the dreaded idea of “work/life balance” that makes an individual the monitor of how all the hours are spent. I am talking about nurturing a culture of trust in God and others, anxiety free. We need to stop working so we can rest, play, dream, reflect, study and just be ourselves and be a people. Israel had the Sabbath day built into their culture. There is really no good work unless there is good rest, no realized ambitions unless there is dream time, few commissions unless there is prayer.
It is hard to imagine how we would apply the Sermon on the Mount and other scriptures that lay out the way of Jesus unless these three practices, among others, are at the heart of our life together. I think they have been at our heart and that is why we are still around. But 2015 will test them again. I hope we will stay, keep in the dialogue, work hard and rest hard. We are more necessary than ever in a megalopolis that needs to experience the people of God.