There Are Communities And Then There Are Communities


There Are Communities And Then There Are Communities

A sermon by Dr. Robert Mason on Jesus, itinerancy, and community preached on June 2nd at Mission Hills.

This morning I want to pick up on something that Ryan discussed at some length a couple of weeks ago regarding community. What communities are you involved in? Of course there are communities and then there are communities, right? Some are necessary but peripheral. But most of us have a special group, an intimate community of friends or family that is not peripheral but vital. And for that group, what does it take to gain entrance and what does it take to get excluded?

There’s a lot of things happening around here and since Ryan is doing minister stuff out of town this weekend I wanted to take the opportunity to put what is happening in a certain context as I see it—the community garden, solar panels, the parsonage for community ministry, Wednesday evening discussions of community issues and now summer firesides.

I want to start by looking at a question about the means Jesus used to conduct his ministry as a way to poke at how we in our own contexts and lifestyles envision the sense of community here at MHCC. The biblical term for community is koinonia and it is used to describe our connections with one another, and in this regard it can be extended to mean financial assistance as well. When I was growing up, I was taught that the form or the way that Jesus carried out his traveling ministry (the technical term is itinerancy) was his creation from the ‘get go’.

But is that the way it went down? Did Jesus have this plan of traveling ministry that he had been mulling over, or was he given this plan from above? Was this plan just something that was assumed that people like him (one of the prophets) did and so he began traveling from the beginning like the Cynic sages? Or possibly was he given it when he received his validation at his baptism or some other moment of intimate relations with God? Or was this plan B? Or better, a plan devised in the midst of crisis and of necessity?

Let’s start our exploration and we will use Luke’s account to search for some clues to point us in the right direction. Jesus is baptized by his cousin in chapter 3 (BTW who is his cousin?), and upon returning from the Jordon River, he has an intense encounter with the devil, who tries to tempt his resolve, but instead Jesus comes back through the Galilee and to Nazareth, his hometown, even more energized by the Spirit. He comes back at the top of his game, acquiring an increasing position of honor as he goes through the Galilee. His teaching and healings are so phenomenal that the crowds are lauding him with praise. But it must be more than this as well because the crowds are not just thanking him for curing their ailments but they are following him as well. It seems to me that part of his appeal includes creating an environment or microcosm of shalom, peace, wellness and harmony and a sense that all are welcome to participate. And so Luke picks up the story as Jesus comes back home to Nazareth on the Sabbath at the synagogue service where he creatively recites several passages from Isaiah to the effect of linking his ministry with the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, which by this time had become a minority report. The Judaism of Jesus’s day revolved around the Temple apparatus and its long fingers of participation. But Jesus chooses to recite from the prophet Isaiah. He sits down with all eyes upon him and concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Now the exchange that immediately follows is lost on readers who do not understand an honor/shame society. Without the honor/shame context, we readers put in our own cultural cues, as indeed have the biblical translators as well. Look at Luke 4: 22:

And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words, which proceeded out of his mouth.” Notice the next word, ‘and’…they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

Almost like, “look what that son of Joseph has made of himself.” But Roman Palestine was a part of a larger Mediterranean honor/shame culture where there was only so much honor to go around. So if someone acquired honor, it was at the expense of someone else. So almost every interpersonal interaction especially amongst males, was a tacit struggle for honor. So let’s look at this from an honor/shame perspective. The word, ‘and’, can just as well mean ‘but’ depending on the context. The context here is that Jesus has just taken all the honor. Those at that service acknowledged his performance and message. (Like a winning hand in Vegas, he just grabbed all the honor chips that were on the table). And remember for someone to get more honor, if comes from someone else. So those in the synagogue are not going down without a fight; they challenge his position of honor. Let’s read again from an honor/shame perspective: “They spoke well of him, but they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” You can see this makes much more sense of Jesus’ next challenge (riposte). And ultimately of the Nazareth towns’ people’s response, they “put him out of the city” and even try to kill him.

Nazareth is Jesus’ hometown and to get a sense of how tight the village probably was it would help to have some idea of how big the village was. (From all the lessons about Jesus and Nazareth any feelings about the size?) Archeologists are now comfortable with a number of no more than 400 people and to put that in perspective, that is less than 15 extended families. We must realize this is where Jesus grew up; these people were his kin-folk, his clan, those with which he had a history, those from which he drew his identity, and they have just shown him the door with a big fat ‘don’t return’ sign on the other side. So it is at this point that his only option or the option he chooses is to exercise his prophetic ministry in other towns. He has lost his access to his home and community so an integral part of his message revolves around establishing bonds of community wherever he finds himself. In fact, he comes to realize that this is integral to his ministry.

As an example, Luke says that Jesus left Nazareth and went to the hamlet of Capernaum on the lake of Galilee, which was a couple of days away on foot. Luke picks up the story on the Sabbath with Jesus preaching and healing—this time for a man with a spirit of an unclean demon and all are amazed. This display of authority establishes enough trust to allow him access to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house where he eliminates her fever, and spends the rest of the day healing the sick in the town. What does this have to do with community? I would argue that he is investing time and energy, which results in forming interpersonal relationships that lead to community building. It seems that at least one person embraced Jesus’ call to community since someone provided him a place to stay the night (v.42). The building of relationships effectively produces other consequences as well because the next day, Jesus addresses a crowd so large that he has to get into a boat so all can hear. And after speaking he gives Simon some advice on fishing—a non-fisherman giving advice to a seasoned fisherman. (How do you think that should have gone over?) But Peter trusts him because of his initial overtures of help his family. In fact I would say that the way that Jesus practices community actually leads to Peter’s decision to follow him.

More could be said here but due to time, let me say that Jesus moves from one village to another, making connections through healing and preaching and finding a place to stay with those new friends and contacts he makes. So by chapter 8 he has moved throughout many of the villages in the area of upper Galilee, as far as the Lake of Gennesaret (what is another name for this sea? Sea of Galilee). In Luke’s narrative Jesus and his disciples make the circuit by the end of chapter 9 and it’s at that point that he sets his eyes on Jerusalem. Now let’s recap and revisit our questions and see if there is anything here that we can hold onto for our own reflections.

First, did the itinerancy of Jesus come prepackaged for him? I don’t think so and here is one reason why. Because his homelessness is something he carried with him throughout his ministry and it was this mindset that probably urged him to redefine his understanding of community. Look at 9: 58, “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has no where to lay his head.” Luke places this saying in the context of people’s misunderstanding of what it means to live as one of his disciples.

Second, in this context is it any wonder that redefining what community means was a major part of what Jesus was preaching and practicing?

Community was not necessarily a place, but a dynamic interpersonal space that provided the environment for kingdom practices to occur. A space for personal and interpersonal healing that could lead to physical cures but certainly psycho-social healing that put people on the road to recovery. A safe space for creative thinking about difficult and entrenched religio-social traditions. A space for one to work through the difficult issues that accompany attempts at forgiveness, a nurturing space where arms are used to pick people up when they fall rather than as weapons for protection.

Jesus’ community is where there is an infinitely deep pool of grace.

It is a space where a Syro-Pheoncian woman can school Jesus on how broad the umbrella of the kingdom of God should be, which is as counter-cultural today as it was back then. Yet it is also important to note that while Jesus spent time creating a community where the life-affirming character of the relationships, he established with his followers was not tied to a place (what I call trans-local), his preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God were invitations to participate with other Jesus followers in alternative ethical practices (Jesus’ movement was not trans-somatic). Christian community at its best is like a fully functional extended family that is based on participation. When Jesus’ family comes to find him, he is told that his family is asking for him, he rhetorically asks, “Who is my mother and brothers? Now he looked around on those who sat about him as replied, “Here is my family. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.”

On his way to Jerusalem Jesus answers a question posed by a rich ruler about eternal life. You know the story… Jesus responds by pointing to what the commandments dictate. The ruler acknowledges that he has done all that is required, but Jesus says that one thing is missing, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. Hearing this the ruler leaves sorrowful because he had riches. Then Jesus looks at him and says, “How hard it will be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Now this comment catches those, who were listening and they question then who can be saved? Luke records Peter’s desperate follow up, “we have left our homes and followed you!” And Jesus responds, “Listen intently right now, there is no one who has left spouse, or siblings, or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in the age.” The Spirit infused sense of living in the reign of God is not a future hope but is to be a present reality.

But institutional religion’s default setting has been in the process of resetting for the last several decades. ‘Belongers but not believers’ and the vague ‘believers but not belongers’ are properly self-identifying as ‘nones’. Younger people are finding religion less pertinent to their self-identity, but the most encompassing fact is that those between 18-30 do not readily identify with any institutions—political, civic, academic or religious. This helps explain the sharp difference between younger and older today. The older historical selves are built on concentric circles of family, neighborhood, school, etc. This is in contrast to younger selves, who have been socialized to focus on personal choices as autonomous individuals. There are studies that find most young Americans follow a different social script that imagines, discovers and nurtures an inwardly derived, original and authentic self, independent of institutionally structured relationships with others. Personal ethics evolves into self-authorization, self-fulfillment, and personal choice that lacks a social history that includes a lack of self-criticism and self-restraint. Yet in conjunction with this there is a heavy dependence on recognition and affirmation. So it seems that the church’s mission overall and MHCC’s mission as a small microcosm has its work cut out for the foreseeable future. We will have to think deeply and creatively on what we want focus on.

So what do you think? How would you rate MHCC on the community scale?

Part of the concept of community involves interpersonal relationship and some level of involvement. Could we think about that? And could we spend a moment reflecting on how we as those struggling to follow Jesus might participate in that journey together?