Facebook was 11 in February, half of the world’s online population use it at least once a month, 65% of those access it daily. Why? Because it offers connection; a way to catch up with friends who live elsewhere, a way to touch and be touched by the lives of others, a safe controllable cost free connection. But, just like any other virtual relationship, it’s limited in what it can offer. I’m not knocking Facebook or any other social media app. They’re great tools provided we use them for what they were designed for, they make connections but they can’t create community. Partly because you filter how other people perceive you by offering only what you want to share, when you want to share it.
The rise of social media highlights the same need Mother Teresa identified. A longing for connection, for friendship, for community but it can’t meet that need. Here’s a facebook post from someone expressing that.
For all social medias language of friends, followers, circles, connections it can only go so far. It highlights a longing but can’t meet it. And it’s not just a problem for those who use technology. 20% of adults, in a UK survey, admitted to feeling lonely at any time, 20% also said they didn’t have a friend they could discuss a personal problem with. 1 in 5 adults. That shouldn’t surprise us because the Bible tells us we were made for community, for friendship rather than connectedness but also why we struggle with that same thing. We long for it but also fear it, but God provides hope for our longing.
The battle for Community not just Connectedness
Turn to Genesis 1, first chapter of the first book in the Bible. There we see that we’re made in God’s image(27). Part of that is being made to relate to others, to know and be known, that’s part of what makes us human. Just like God who is Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit knowing, loving, delighting in and enjoying one another, we’re made to be in community. Genesis 2 zooms in on Day 6 of creation and we see this even more clearly. The one “not good” in the whole of creation wasn’t slugs, spiders or rats, it was that man was alone. None of the animals can fulfil that desire for community. So God makes Eve because man is designed to be in community. And notice community is the focus because Adam and Eve are to reproduce, to fill the earth, to populate it, to grow community. This picture is much bigger than a couple, much bigger than marriage. Marriage is an important picture in the bible but it’s not the answer to loneliness. God’s vision is of a community that knows God and knows one another.
In Genesis 3 we see that twisted at the fall, what was a perfect society is now a broken ruin. When Adam and Eve rebel against God, when they question his character and love and reject his word as good sin enters creation. The catastrophic consequences of sin cascade down through every relationship. Man’s relationship with God is destroyed, his relationship with the world is damaged, and sin now makes community, friendship and intimacy hard. It makes relationships a minefield. (16)Now instead of unhindered intimacy, openness and trust there’s suspicion and competition, fear of rejection and a hiding of parts of self from others.
But God’s plan is still to gather people it’s still community. Sin scatters but God gathers. Even though sin means we both long for community and fear it God works to overcome that. God’s promises to Abraham of people, place, protection and plan see that expressed. God’s plan begins with an individual but it’s goal is community, a people gathered in right relationship with him and one another. But the story of the Old Testament is of gathering frustrated by sin. God’s law is designed to guard and protect his people gathered in community but sin continues to undermine that and to scatter.
If there was one person who could go it alone it was Jesus. Yet what’s one of the first things Jesus does? Gather a new community around himself, a new people who form the foundations of the church. And in Acts as the church is scattered, it is by God’s sovereign design, in order to create lots of little communities of God’s grace. As individuals and families carry the gospel to new towns and share it with others we see new communities of grace formed. The MO of the gospel is to create community. Overcoming sins scattering effects and gathering people as they trust Jesus. Community is woven into the DNA of the gospel, as man is reconciled to God he’s reconciled to his fellow man and community grows.
And God’s ultimate plan is community, people gathered together. It’s glimpsed in Revelation 7:4-10(p.1171). People from every ethnicity, tribe and language gathered and united by Jesus enjoying relationship with God and one another.
Our longing for community, for friendship, to know and be known is God given. We all share it in common. The loneliness in the world is a gospel opportunity for us to grasp as we help people make sense of their longing but also of their fear of rejection, of sins twisting of that desire. The Bible tells us loneliness is painful because it’s not what we were made for. And God in Jesus has and will do away with loneliness one day. He creates a new community with his new people who know Jesus now and will do for eternity.
But we also need to recognise the reality of sins impact on our desire for friendship and community. It means that, at times, we’ll find ourselves wanting to hide away parts of ourselves, only revealing what we think others will like or respect. It means we’ll want friendship to be easy and feel like giving up when it is hard.
I wonder if one of the unique ways sin has affected us as Christians has been for us to think of marriage wrongly. Marriage is not the antidote to loneliness, marriage doesn’t replace friendship. Our spouse should be our best friend, yes, but not our only friend. We mustn’t withdraw from friendship when we get married or have a family.
As those who have been redeemed by Jesus, we’re reconciled not just with God but with our church family. That’s the theological reality but we need to put it into practice. Community doesn’t just happen it requires deliberate investment of time, energy, and self. The church is a unique community in the world. The worlds version of community is based on clustering around shared interests, likes and dislikes; wealth, race, class, hobbies. God’s community is different it’s very different people gathered together in Jesus. Doing life together not just clustered when their interests meet, but even when they don’t. It isn’t a consumer connection but a committed community.
But how do we do that when we’re so very different? What stops it combusting?
Christ is our Peace (Ephesians 2v14-18)
The first century world was as divided as ours. Multiple faiths, races and languages, a huge wealth gap, class divides, gender stereotypes all alive and well and constantly dividing society. The danger was believers carrying those everyday divisions into the church. One of the biggest divides was between Jew and Gentile. This division was so extreme that if a Jewish man married a Gentile woman his family would hold a funeral for him. The Jews were a people of immense privilege when it came to God; temple, Torah, sacrifice, covenant, history. And the Gentiles weren’t. The danger as the gospel spread from Jerusalem through Samaria and Judea and to the ends of the earth was carrying that over into the church. Either by having a Gentile church and separate Jewish church or having a two tier church, where the Jew was smugly superior and the Gentile the late coming inferior with a chip on their shoulder. A church full of tensions over law, circumcision, food offered to idols, bacon and so on. The potential for friction was high.
In Ephesians Paul writes spelling out the unique call of the church to be a community of peace, totally different from the city around it. Notice that word “peace” appears 4 times in these verses. (11-12)This divide between Jew and Gentile is overcome “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” But how? (14-18)explain.
Jesus is our peace because he’s deconstructed the things that divide and built something new in their place. (14)Christ has destroyed the barrier between Jew and Gentile. In the temple in Jerusalem there was an inscription on the outer courtyard wall of the temple warning Gentiles that they were responsible for their own death if they passed it into the inner courts where Jews alone could go. Paul may or may not have that wall in mind, but it serves as a good illustration of the change Jesus brings. He has taken the barrier down that separates Jew and Gentile in coming to God. He has “destroyed the barrier”.
The second thing Jesus deconstructs is the hostility the law created with its commands and regulation separating Israel from the nations around it. It led Jews to see Gentiles as unclean, and the Gentile to see the Jew as superior. It created hostility. But Jesus has set it aside, how? By fulfilling it. Neither Jew nor Gentile is reconciled to God by law, sacrifice, or access to the temple. The only way to be reconciled with God was by faith in Jesus fulfilment of the law and his sacrificial death in the believers place whether that believer was Jew or Gentile.
In it’s place Jesus creates a new humanity, the two have been made one(14, 15). The same gospel reconciles both to God by the cross, where he ended the hostility. Jesus brings and preaches that same peace to both(17), and both Jew and Gentile now enjoy access to the Father through the Spirit Jesus poured out on his people. Jesus deconstructs the barriers and constructs a new creation – the church saved by his death on the cross, reconciled to God and one another and full of the Spirit.
This is a total identity change. They aren’t Jewish Christians and Gentiles Christians in uneasy partnership, they’re a new people in Christ. When we trust Jesus every barrier is destroyed. We are in Christ. What unites the church, what creates this distinctive community is that the cross destroys the divisions and makes us one.
Think of the church as like an engine. What happens to your car if you forget to put oil in the engine? Friction, heat, damage and destruction as the different pieces rub against one another. It needs oil to lubricate the parts as they move against one another. In the church friction is a very real possibility if we forget the grace of God to us, grace is the oil that enables us to function. We must constantly remember that it’s at the cross by faith we’re reconciled to God and united to one another. Undeservedly forgiven and loved.
Turn to Ephesians 4v1-6. Sin means that there is the potential for old divisions to resurface in the church. We’re all in God’s sight made just-as-if-I’d never sinned, but we’re still being changed as we listen to the Spirit and fight sin so that we live out that reality. But there will be times when we see and cause friction in church. Paul exhorts the church practically that just as grace creates this new community so grace applied enables us to keep living as that gospel community. Divisions and hurts are a real possibility but we must apply grace, what will that look like? “Be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bear with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
None of us is perfect, we all experience each others imperfections but grace enables us to love as we’ve been loved and forgive as we’re forgiven, and grace saves us from becoming puffed up and arrogant. Grace allows us to open up, to be authentically us, because we know we’ll be met by grace. Grace allows us to confess our sin because we know we’ll receive mercy and forgiveness. Grace allows us listen as people speak the truth in love to us because we trust they have prayed long and hard before speaking to us and have our best at heart, even if they express it clumsily. It means we don’t expect perfection in others but long for progress. We persevere, we work hard to listen then to understand, we invest in one another, we commit to one another. And when we get it wrong we ask for forgiveness from others.
We’re a church from different backgrounds, we make different assumptions, think about things differently. Grace means we won’t assume we know best, but we’ll listen and love and respect others point of view. It means we’ll want to commit to being with one another even if it’s doing something we don’t necessarily love doing. We’ll want to make the most of time together, be it Sunday morning, lunches, gospel group, or picnics at the park. It means we’ll be looking round and caring for one another and seeking ways to live out our oneness, being intentional about getting to those we don’t know already. It means we value and love everyone equally.
It means we’ll put people and community before technology and connectedness. Turn off the phone, get off Facebook or twitter when we’re with others, because we commit to real community not a shallow connectedness.
It means when we share the gospel we’ll want our friends to see the wonder of the church, what the gospel can do, the community it creates which we’re made for. Because whilst they won’t see a perfect community they will see a grace filled one.
Society pressures us time wise, it seek to shape us ideal wise. But for God’s people the call is to community, that must shape our priorities because we know it’s what we were made for and redeemed to enjoy.