Living Wholly in Christian Community

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The sermon was delivered, hands had been shaken, and the church doors were locked for the day. Now, it was time for the pastor’s favorite part of the week – Sunday afternoon.

Note: This is the ninth post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.

August 29, 2010
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 • Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

The sermon was delivered, hands had been shaken, and the church doors were locked for the day. Now, it was time for the pastor’s favorite part of the week – Sunday afternoon. The family lingered over lunch, and then, ah, a glorious nap.

Five o’clock rolled around all too quickly. The young adult group from church would be arriving soon. They were in the midst of a six-week study on holistic health.

They trickled in, chit-chatting about their latest projects, weekend trips, and job interviews. Then after an opening prayer, they turned to the sermon for the day, which had focused on Hebrews 13, a particularly apt scripture for this group. One of them looked at the pastor. “I liked your message this morning. But I wondered if you have thoughts about how to put it into practice.”

This is exactly the kind of question the author of Hebrews was responding to in chapter 13. As Tom Long has noted in his book Interpretation: Hebrews, the stylistic shift of this chapter indicates the formal part of the preacher’s sermon is over. Now it is on to the announcements, joys, and concerns – the point where teachings are put into practice.

This passage indicates what it means to be embodied Christians living faithfully in community. Hebrews 13 is a marker of what the Bible has to say about holistically living out the Christian faith. The formula in this passage is profuse, including mutual love, hospitality, empathy, simplicity, honoring relationships, praising God, giving thanks, doing good, and sharing. Overall, it is a reminder of the importance of Christian community in our ability to live wholly. None of the  hings the author exhorts us to do can be accomplished alone. We need to have others in our lives with whom to share mutual love, support, and accountability. As embodied members of Christ, it is our duty and privilege to care for, nurture, and help others, fully empathizing with their circumstances.

Though we’re not imprisoned in jail or tortured like some of the early Christians this letter addresses, we are each imprisoned and tortured by our own vices. Living in Christian community, the author of Hebrews recognizes that we must try to understand the pain and struggles of others and to be vulnerable with one another, sharing even our most shameful challenges. And it isn’t easy. The obstacles that prevent us from living holistically – whether they include overeating, avoiding exercise, working too many hours, or becoming impatient with our families – often seem like things we should be able to manage ourselves. However, this passage reminds us that the Lord is our helper, and that it is grace that strengthens the heart. The grace to live wholly is found in true Christian communities. As we run the race with perseverance, Christ is our anchor and our community is our coach. Though it’s not easy to run or stay on track when pursuing balance, the good news is that the race is not run alone.

Living as embodied members of Christian community is extremely helpful in times of transition, which is the one thing most young adults have in common (as do United Methodist pastors.) Change is the norm: young adults are often living in a liminal space – betwixt and between towns, jobs, serious relationships, kids. It is challenging to live holistically when nothing seems grounded or stable. This is why the mutual love and hospitality that the author of Hebrews mentions as present in a Christian community are so important. It is via the love and encouragement of others that all of us are able to press on toward living our lives as fully and faithfully as possible. In our times of discouragement, it is helpful to remember that even the author of Hebrews asks for prayer in order to pursue the goal of acting honorably. This act demonstrates the need for Christian community, where we most strongly experience the prayer, support, and grace we need to fully live.

The Rev. Christi O. Brown is managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she serves as parish associate for young adult ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C.


Questions to Consider

  • The Bible recounts numerous stories of God’s calling folk individually – Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple at Jerusalem, Saul on the Damascus Road, Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism – but in each case, the call is to equip them to be sent back into the community of God’s people. How might the struggle to be healthier – mentally, physically, spiritually – be God’s summons to be shaped for a more powerful ministry in the church?
  • In the self-help section of any bookstore are hundreds of titles: diets, self-esteem guides, toolkits for a happier marriage, and manuals to more effective management of every imaginable topic. Is the cry for self-help a lament that community has been lost?

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