We will fight for peace, but we will do no violence.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Finding God In Your Brother and Sister by Thomas Crisp

*(The following series is taken from a talk given at Simpson University in April of 2013.)
I’ve been spending time in the gospels the last several years, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the Jesus I’ve found there has, well, shaken me up: turned my life upside down. He offers some surprising answers to the questions how to draw near to God, how to move into ever-increasing, intimate knowledge of the living God, and I want to talk these next few days about some of them.

But beware: once they get hold of you, they’ll mess you up, turn your life upside down. Jesus is calling us; he’s calling us into something radical, something different, I think, than many of us have been hearing in church. And, to paraphrase Morpheus from that fantastic scene in the 1990’s movie, the Matrix: Once you’ve heard his call, there is no turning back. Dismiss it, ignore it, and the story ends: you go on with your life, believe whatever you want to believe. Accept the offer, become an apprentice of Jesus, a follower of the Way, and you stay in Wonderland, and he shows you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Join me and we’ll explore the rabbit-hole.

Decisionism vs. Discipleship

We start with an all-important distinction between two fundamentally different ways of thinking about the Christian life.

We live in a sector of Christianity (North American evangelicalism) that has a tendency to reduce the Christian life to something I’ll call decisionism (borrowing from the New Testament scholar and Christian activist Ched Myers): the idea that Christianity is fundamentally a matter of, first, having made a decision for Christ, where this is a matter of having decided to believe that a certain view of the atonement is true (the penal substitution view: Christ died to take the punishment due us and that thereby God is able to refrain from visiting on us our due punishment, to forgive, and to welcome us into heaven when we die), and, second, practicing certain works of personal piety aimed at cultivating an inner life of prayerful dependence on God: Bible study, worship, personal devotions.

There is much truth in all this, but you’d be hard pressed to find the Jesus of the gospels teaching it. Jesus did not invite his listeners to decide that a certain theory of the atonement was true (he hardly talked about atonement at all), and he had comparatively little to say about the practice of works of personal piety.

Jesus’s invitation to his listeners was not to decisionism. It was to something else, something quite radical.

To understand his invitation, we must remember that Jesus was a devout first-century Jew, steeped in the writings of the Hebrew prophets. He often quoted from the prophets to explain what he was up to, and the prophet he seems to have been most influenced by, the prophet he quoted from most often, was the prophet Isaiah.

The Book of Isaiah teaches that one day, God will be king–he will rule. (Later commentators on Isaiah, commentators Jesus would have been familiar with, called that future period of God’s rule the Kingdom of God.) And when that day comes, when God’s Rule comes, some deeply good things will happen. In the language of the prophets, when that day comes, shalom will flood the earth. Shalom: a communal state of well-being or wholeness in which:

There is forgiveness: God forgives us of our sins, heals us of its ravaging consequences, restores us to life-giving fellowship with Him and with each other, teaching us to forgive, heal, and restore one another.

In consequence:

There is peace: there is no more war, hatred or violence; people live together in mutual care and love, for each other and for creation.

There is justice: wherein the weak, the lowly, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized are restored to full participation in the community and its goods.

There is healing: God heals our infirmities, physical and psychological, and wipes away every tear of suffering from our eyes.

There is joy: we delight in the Lord and in each other, in our lives together, in our work, in the glories of creation. And

God is present: we feel his tender, sweet presence with such force and vivacity that doubting that there is a God is as difficult as doubting the existence of the sun in the sky.

These are some of the marks, then, of the Rule of God and its shalom - forgiveness,

peace, justice, healing, joy, God’s tender presence.

One day, says the prophet Isaiah, these will flood the earth.

Go back then to Jesus’s invitation to his hearers. Here is what he said: “Repent, for the rule of God is at hand”. In other words, it’s here! It’s beginning! It’s breaking in! The longawaited age of shalom, with its forgiveness, peace, justice, healing, joy, and divine presence is breaking into this world of strife, injustice, brokenness, mourning, hatred, and enmity with God and may be entered into now by anyone who wants it. “Free at last, free at least, thank God almighty we are free at last!” That was the good news of Jesus’ gospel.

But you look around, and ask, Where is it? Where is shalom? Where is the Kingdom of God? Where is the peace, the justice, the healing, the joy, the forgiveness, the presence of God? “I don’t see it,” you say. “I see hatred, injustice, mourning, warfare—the opposite of the Rule of God.”

And here is what Jesus said about that. He said the Rule of God and its shalom, though it is breaking in, it is not breaking in in quite the way people expected. The thought among first-century Jews was that the coming of the rule of God would be a cataclysmic, earthshattering sort of event, in which God, in one fell swoop, would defeat evil and set up a new world order of peace, justice, healing, joy, etc.

But not so, said Jesus; it’s not going to work like that. The rule of God, rather, starts small, like mustard, a weed that sneaks into your garden slowly and quietly, starting off as a tiny little seed, infiltrating little by little. One day, it will bust out and take over everything.

But for now, it’s like an underground weed, subversively infiltrating everything. That’s what the rule of God is like.

But don’t underestimate the power and goodness of the mustard-seed rule of God. For though it is now small in our midst, and we enjoy but foretastes of its shalom, but foretastes of its blessings of peace, justice, healing, joy, forgiveness, and divine presence, the foretastes of these things are good, deeply precious, like a pearl you might find, said Jesus, which is so valuable you’d be willing to sell all that you possess to lay hold of that pearl.

Well, suppose so. Suppose the rule of God, with its shalom, its forgiveness, peace, justice, healing, joy, and experience of the divine presence is breaking into the world, may be tasted now by anyone who’d like, and is deeply good, like a pearl of great price. What must we do? How do we lay hold of this pearl of great price?

Here was Jesus’ answer. He said:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

He is employing an image from the agricultural world, where the way you train an animal to work is by yoking it to another who already knows the work. His invitation, then, is to be yoked to him: that is, to walk along side him, doing the things he does, following his teaching and his practice, apprenticing oneself to him. Those who do so, he said, will find rest for their souls, where the rest he speaks of here is the rest that comes from immersion in the presence of God, and the forgiveness, peace, justice, healing, and joy of his Rule. These things are available, said Jesus, to those who would apprentice themselves to him, take on his yoke, following him into his teachings and practices. And they are good, deeply good: worth selling all to lay of hold of.

Such, then, was his invitation. It was not an invitation to decisionism—to believe certain things about the atonement and practice certain works of personal piety. It was an invitation, rather, to a new way of life, to an utterly countercultural and subversive set of values and practices whose effect is to draw us into that shalom prophesied by the Old Testament prophets and teach us to minister it to the world around us.

For the rest of our times together, today and the next two days, I want to explore in some detail three of those practices.

First, the practice of familial community with brothers and sisters in the way of Jesus. I’ll talk about this for the rest of our time this morning.

Second, the practice of solidarity with the poor and marginalized. I’ll talk a bit about that now, and much more later.

And third, the practice of agapic enemy love, which I’ll talk about in the final section.

Familial community

Sociologists distinguish between group-oriented and individualist cultures. We live in a highly individualistic culture. This manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Here are three:

First, in our culture, the good of the individual takes precedence over the good of groups to which he or she belongs. On this way of thinking, all life decisions are made on the basis of calculation about what is best for me as an individual (my career, my fulfillment, my happiness).

Sometimes nuclear family gets into the picture, so that decisions are made on the basis of what’s best for me, my spouse, and our kids, though we’re trending in a direction where that is less and less the case: spouses more frequently now live separately from one another so that each can pursue what is best for his or her own career, fulfillment, and happiness.

Second, in our culture, the individual is the primary locus of decision making. I and no one else makes the important decisions in life: whom to marry, which vocation to pursue, where to live, etc.

And third, in our culture, people are increasingly relationally isolated. Interpersonal connection is shallow and episodic, mediated by technologies like Facebook and occasional face-to-face interaction as work and child-rearing demands permit.

In group-oriented cultures, things go differently.

First, in a group-oriented culture, the good of your group—typically your family or clan—takes precedence over your individual good. In Latino and Asian cultures, both group-oriented cultures, it is not uncommon for family members to emigrate to more prosperous areas and work menial jobs for years and years, forgoing the opportunity to go to college and move into more fulfilling work, sending moneys home so that others in the family can go to college and find their way into fulfilling work. The good of the group comes before the good of the individual.

Second, in group-oriented cultures, decision making is a group affair. Major life decisions about whom to marry, which vocation to pursue, where to live, and so forth, are either made for one by elders in the group—parents, for example—or are made in serious consultation with others in the group.

And third, in group-oriented cultures, there is a high premium placed on relational connection. Large family meals, time on porches, days playing soccer together at the park. Regular and lengthy face-to-face time together and shared life is a priority in group-oriented cultures.

Jesus’s culture was a group-oriented culture. The primary social unit in his culture was clan, or extended family. The good of this group took priority over the individual’s good; decision making was either made by family elders or in serious conversation with family elders; and families prized regular and sustained time together: eating together, working together, playing together, worshiping together.

These are important things to know about Jesus’s culture, because one of the very radical practices he called his followers to was the practice of familial community with one another.

We read in Mark chapter 3:

“Then His mother and His brothers came, and standing outside, they sent word to Him and called Him. A crowd was sitting around Him and told Him, “Look, Your mother, Your brothers, and Your sisters are outside asking for You.” He replied to them, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking about at those who were sitting in a circle around Him, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! Whoever  does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother.”” — Mark 3:31–35

Jesus’s words here would have utterly scandalized those witnessing them. As oldest male in his family, he would have been expected to defend his family honor and fall into line with his mother’s request, but he declines to do so in a very public way, putting loyalty to a new faith family, “whoever does the will of God” above loyalty to his biological family.

We see the same thing at work in Mark, Chapter 10:

"Peter began to tell Him, “Look, we have left everything and followed You.” “I assure you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of Me and the gospel, who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time— houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and eternal life in the age to come.” — Mark 10:28–30

The suggestion here is that Jesus’s followers would relate to each other as brother, sister, mother, and child: that they would enjoy family-like relationship to one another. Talk of ‘houses’ and ‘fields’ is important here as it suggested that members of these new faith families were engaging in a deep sort of family life, one that moved beyond just emotional closeness but included economic sharing of a sort that would have been common in first century, Mediterranean family life.

Given what we know about family life in the Mediterranean world, and its group orientation, we see that Jesus was calling his followers to a close-knit group life, in which the good of the group is weighed more heavily than individual needs, and in which decision making over important life matters is a shared affair, and in which relational closeness and sustained time together are prized: eating together, working together, playing together, worshiping together, sharing possessions together.

That the early church got Jesus’s message is clear from Luke’s description of their common life in Acts, Chapter 2:

[Here, and throughout this part of my talk, I am indebted to Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church was Family (B&H Publishing, 2009), pp. 55ff.]

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

I said we’d be exploring three practices taught by Jesus for moving into the in-breaking shalom of the rule of God, practices aimed at helping them to appropriate it for their own lives and minister it to others.

Here’s the first: the practice of familial community with other Jesus followers, where this would have been a matter of relating to a group of Jesus follows as to a family: putting the needs of the group above one’s individual needs, submitting oneself to the group, giving them authority to speak into one’s life and decisions, and practicing relational closeness and sustained time together with the group: regularly eating together, worshiping together, studying together, praying together, playing together, laughing together, working together, sharing together.

This kind of shared life doesn’t come easy to us as individualistic Westerners; it might even seem scandalous, weird, extreme. Not to worry: it seemed that way to Jesus’s contemporaries as well. The early Christians were replacing the primary ties of biological familial loyalty with loyalty to the family of faith, and this was deeply scandalous.

But it was a central practice of Jesus’s Kingdom vision, and though we won’t have time to explore it here, there is evidence of its central importance to the early Jesus movement throughout the gospels, Acts, and in Paul’s letters. New Testament Christianity is, at its heart, participation in a familial group.

In the time that remains to me, let me say a bit about, first, why Jesus might have set things up this way: Why is this practice important for entry into the inbreaking shalom of the rule of God?

And secondly, let me say a bit about how Jesus thought such communities would look; what they were to be like.

And thirdly, let me give some practical suggestions about how to move into this sort of life today.

Why this practice?

So why did Jesus teach this to his followers? Why would he have deemed important the practice of familial community with other practitioners of the way?

He didn’t say, so here we must be speculative. But I think it’s like this: The shalom life of the rule of God is a deeply countercultural life. Its values are utterly different from the values of the world.

Success in the world is a matter of attaining fame, status, wealth, luxury, power over others, defeat of your enemies, and friends who’ve done the same.

Success in the shalom life of the rule of God is a matter of being the servant of all and eschewing power over others, of being low in status, surrendering one’s possessions and wealth for the good of others, seeking the good of your enemies, and practicing community with the poor, the broken, the lonely, and the outcast.

All of this is deeply and fundamentally countercultural, contrary to the ordinary way of things. Here, I think, is the reason Jesus teaches his followers the practice of familial community. For we are deeply social beings. We naturally and involuntarily imbibe the values, the habits, and the ways of being of those with whom we live and work. This is why we need familial shalom community: community living by the values of the in-breaking shalom of the rule of God. By immersing ourselves in a close knit community practicing these alternative values, we imbibe these values and are thereby enabled to practice a form of life which is deeply at odds with the dominant culture. By immersing ourselves in a close knit community practicing servant hood, economic simplicity, enemy love, community with the poor and marginalized, and so forth, we are enabled to live in these deeply countercultural ways.

Here’s a second reason Jesus might have enjoined the practice of familial community on his followers.

The way of Jesus, the shalom life, requires practice!! Living in the flow of the in-breaking shalom, appropriating its forgiveness, justice, peace, healing, joy, and divine presence: all of this requires practice. One must practice receiving the forgiveness of God from others and extending it to others. One must practice justice: practice restoring dignity and well-being to the hitherto disenfranchised. One must practice peace: loving instead of hating one’s enemies. One must practice healing: receiving and extending physical and psychological healing from and to others. One must practice joy: receiving it from others; nurturing it in others. One must practice the presence of God: individually and communally.

Living into the in-breaking shalom of the rule of God and appropriating and ministering its blessings to others requires practice. And that’s what familial communities provide one: daily opportunity to practice appropriating and ministering these blessings. These communities are, as we might put it, schools of eternal living, whereby one practices daily the skills of living under the rule of God. One can’t do this well alone; we need brothers and sisters to help us practice these skills.

So that’s a bit on why Jesus may have thought the practice of familial shalom community of crucial importance for life under the rule of God. Let’s look more closely next at what they looked like: what it looked like for the early Jesus communities to do this kind of familial shalom community.

What life in these familial shalom communities looks like:

A key text here is Acts 2:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his disciples continued in the practice of familial community they’d learned from their master. Note these three main marks of their common life:

First: They ate together, in one another’s homes, frequently. And this wasn’t just a practice of the early Acts community, living in the euphoria of Jesus’s recent resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit. It’s a practice mentioned all throughout the New Testament and the writings of the late first and early second-century church. These people ate together, in one another’s homes, regularly.

Nothing builds familial bonds of love and mutual affection like regular meals together. We now know the neurophysiological basis of this: the same brain chemistry underlying feelings of attachment between mother and child, and lover and beloved, is triggered merely by eating with someone. Eating together, regularly, in one another’s homes, in joyous thankfulness and celebration of God’s goodness, creates bonded community.

Second: They studied together—the apostle’s teaching, and no doubt the Scriptures as well—and they prayed and worshipped together. Studying together, worshipping together, praying together: these are central activities of shalom communities. (As is, by the way, praying apart, praying alone. Jesus was always stealing away for times of extended solitude and prayer, and this must also be a part of the prayer life of a Jesus community.)

If we are to appropriate, to really lay hold of, the forgiveness and healing available to us in the rule of God and its in-breaking shalom, if we are to understand and appropriate the peace and justice of the rule of God and its in-breaking shalom, and if we are be sensitive to the divine presence, we must diligently study together, worship together, and pray together.

Third: They shared wealth and possessions with one another, the rich sharing with the poor and with “any who had need,” so that, as Acts 4:34 puts it, there was no one needy among them.

This is an important theme which will occupy the whole of my talk tomorrow evening.

For now, let me make some brief, preliminary remarks about it.

As I noted a moment ago, a primary element of the eschatological shalom foretold by the prophets of the age to come was that there would be justice, wherein the weak, the lowly, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized are restored to full participation in the community and its goods.

Jesus taught that this long-awaited justice of the age to come was now breaking into history:

“Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and at down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.”

Good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom for those who have been oppressed: the justice of the Rule of God is breaking into this present age. The early Jesus communities lived into this idea in two main ways: they practiced radical inclusivity, drawing the poor and marginalized into their familial communities; and they practiced radical sharing with anyone in need.

Their radical inclusivity meant at least three things:

First: Eating together with those not normally thought of as appropriate candidates for table fellowship: Here they were following the teaching and practice of their master:

(Mark 2: 15) “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.”

(Luke 14: 12) “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

In first century Jewish Palestine, this signaled a powerful solidarity with the poor and marginalized; it was a prophetic act, announcing, in effect, “we are with you and for you; you are our people; you are our family.”

Second: Hospitality to those in need: welcoming the the poor, the homeless, the lonely, the excluded into their homes and caring for them there, as if caring for Christ. This was a main way of following Jesus’s exhortation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. John Chrysostom, the great Christian orator and bishop of Constantinople, urged his parishioners to set aside rooms in their homes as “Christ rooms”, wherein “the maimed, the beggars, the homeless” could be received into one’s home as Christ.

Among the most beautiful examples of this sort of life in the contemporary scene is the Catholic Worker movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin the 1930s. These Catholic brothers and sisters live together in familial communities, in voluntary poverty, welcoming the homeless, the dying, and others on the margins to live and eat with them. I have spent much time in the last couple of years at a Catholic Worker House in Southern California in which over 80 homeless women live and literally thousands of homeless men and women are fed each week. There is no furniture on the first floor of this large house, and each night mats are spread out with blankets and sleeping bags for women who need housing and can find it nowhere else. All eat together each morning and evening, in shared family life. No woman in need of shelter is ever turned away. The presence of the Rule of God is palpable in that place; it’s beautiful and powerful.

Inviting the destitute to one’s table and into one’s home to be cared for (in a culture in which destitution was a pervasive problem) was a costly endeavor for the first-century believers (as it is now, for the Catholic Workers). To finance it, early believers practiced:

Economic sharing: selling lands and possessions as there was need, living simply, eschewing luxury. There is record in the early church of churches fasting for several days so that all could have enough to eat.

No doubt all of this occasioned anxiety, but they were emboldened and strengthened by their master’s teaching that they should be unafraid because the blessings of the Rule of God and its inbreaking shalom far outweighed whatever costs it entailed:

(Luke 12:32) “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide yourselves purses that do not wear out—a treasure in heaven that never decreases, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

So: radical inclusivity—eating together, welcoming the needy into their homes—and financing it with radical sharing, selling lands and possessions, fasting if necessary, so that no one in their reach suffered need: these were the marks of early Christian family life.

Let me conclude by summarizing where we have got to and saying a bit about what it might look to live into this vision today.

Jesus’s invitation to his original hearers, I suggested, was not to decisionism: it was not an invitation to decide to believe a certain theory of the atonement so that one goes to heaven when one dies, or to practice certain works of personal piety, or even to have a personal relationship with Jesus. It was an invitation, rather, to live under the rule of God and its in-breaking shalom, long promised by the prophets and now available to those who would follow Jesus and live in his way. Jesus invited his listeners to become his students, his disciples, his apprentices in living under the rule of God and appropriating its shalom, and  a main practice he taught them was to practice familial community; to be family with one another. And that meant doing the the things that families in the group-oriented, first century Mediterranean Jewish world did: eating together regularly in one another’s homes, sharing possessions with one another, studying together, worshipping and praying together, sharing possessions with one another. More, it meant doing all of this in radical solidarity with and inclusivity of the poor and marginalized. Such were the marks of the family life he enjoined on his apprentices.

On living this today, imagine with me, now, what it might be like to live this out today (for many of you, I recognize, this won’t take much imagination: you’re already living it).

It’s Friday at 6, your weekly meeting night, and people begin arriving at John’s apartment. His apartment isn’t large so he’s pushed furniture to the sides of the room.

Ahil and Eshai arrive with kids and toe and two large platters of lasagna. Soon comes Esther and her daughter with the bread; then Jose with an armful of bottles of wine and soda. And so on, until thirty or so are spread around the room in groups of three or four, laughing, catching each other up on the week.

It’s an odd mix: some are old, some are college students, some are very shabbily dressed, looking like they’d been living on the streets not long ago (because they had been living the streets not long ago). It’s a mix of races—black, white, and brown—and a mix of ages, old and young.

When the last person arrives, Ahil calls everyone to crowd toward the kitchen. The laughing and conversation dies down as Ahil holds up a round of bread, and breaking it, says, “Welcome beloved. We meet tonight as the family of God, in the name of Jesus, who gave himself for us that we might learn to give ourselves to one another and to a hurting world.

Thank you, Lord, for each other, for this meal, and for the shalom you are drawing us into. Knit our hearts together, Lord; teach us to love. In Jesus name, Amen.”

After all have got food and found a spot of floor or couch to sit on, attention turns to the children. “Tell us about your game!! How’d it go? Did you score?” someone shouts. As the kids relate the week’s goings on at school, there is alternating laughing, applause, silence, as all listen in rapt attention to the kids. In a lull, John says to Esther’s daughter, a 12-yearold in the community, “Your mom told us how you took care of her when she was down with the flu last week. We’re proud of you and the person you’re becoming. “Thanks Uncle John,” in reply.

Soon someone has the guitar out, and things transition to a time of worship. Then an update on the grocery ministry the community has been running at a local motel, feeding a dozen or so families living week to week, struggling with food insecurity. It’s going well: here are the number of families fed in the last several months; the money left in the common account; etc. Then an hour or so of discussing the Bonhoeffer book they’ve all been reading.

(The kids have mercifully been dismissed to a back room for a movie.)

This transitions into some painful sharing by Mark, who has been struggling with joblessness and consequent depression and financial hardship. He shares how it’s destroying him. Long silence as people listen deeply. Slowly, carefully, people begin to ask questions, share thoughts, offer suggestions. Before long the entire room is standing around Mark, laying hands on him and is praying for healing, help, wholeness. Silent weeping. The group covenants to redirect a portion of their common purse toward helping with his mortgage until he can find a job. Silent tears.

Cindy shares how her job search has been going. She was homeless until she met some of your people at the motel you run your grocery ministry at. Soon thereafter, she moved into a spare room at Esther’s house. The community gives part of their monthly giving to Esther to cover the extra food and utilities. It’s been hard on Esther: she and Cindy don’t get along very well. The group asks how that’s been going. Frank sharing from each about the tensions. More silence, listening, gentle questions, laying on of hands, praying for peace.

More of this sort of thing until it’s one a.m.; several have nodded off, lots of yawning. The kids, by now asleep, are retrieved and all head home. Such are your weekly shared meals.

You live near enough to one another that you see each other frequently throughout the week. There is time during the week to sit together on porches, have a beer and laugh at the day’s events, to share deeply, to play together. You support each other when life is difficult, when tragedy strikes. Cooking for each other, watching each other’s kids, doing one another’s laundry. You weep together at life’s tragedies, laugh together at life’s comedies, exhort one another, rebuke one another when necessary, bear with one another’s weaknesses and foibles. Together you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.

The spirit is palpable in your midst: there is a powerful love and a powerful sense of God’s presence that pervades your common meals, your celebrations, and your common work, that can only be attributed to the spirit of God in your midst. In consequence, you are finding yourselves a city on a hill, a light in a world of darkness: your common life is magnetic; people are drawn to you, and to Jesus as a result.

This, I want to suggest, is in the vicinity of what Jesus envisioned when he spoke of the in-breaking shalom of the rule of God and urged his followers to enter into it, to lay hold of it, by practicing familial community.

It’s a main way of drawing near to God, moving into ever-increasing, intimate experience of his sweet and tender presence.

And it’s for us today. It’s doable today. It’s being done by Jesus communities around the world. It doesn’t take many people: Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” Two or three can live in this practice of familial shalom community: eating together, worshiping and praying together, practicing radical sharing with and hospitality to those in need.

In my next talk we’ll explore the latter practices—radical sharing and hospitality—in more depth.

May he bless and keep you until then.
Dr. Thomas Crisp

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