Community – April 8, 2018
Let us pray.
Thou, who at thy first Eucharist didst pray
that all thy church might be for ever one,
grant us at every Eucharist to say
with longing heart and soul, “Thy will be done”:
O may we all one bread, one body be,
through this blest sacrament of unity.
When I moved into my current apartment almost three years ago, I was fairly optimistic about my chances of making friends in my building. I live in one of those trendy buildings that feels like an upgraded college dorm and is filled with people my age, and I was naïve enough to think that somehow, magically, over time, I would get to know my neighbors, simply by being in proximity to them. I had fantasies that my life would turn into an episode of Seinfeld or Friends, with a whole collection of new acquaintances entering and exiting my apartment at every time of the day and night.
Alas, this was not to be. While I love spending time with people and am naturally an extravert, I also have a strong fear of awkwardness. I might have thought that I wanted to interact with my fellow residents, but in practice I have consistently gone out of my way to avoid them. I recently noticed that I am so afraid of being alone with a stranger in an elevator, so uncomfortable with making small talk or standing in silence, that I will make a mad dash for the stairs anytime I am waiting for the elevator and see someone approaching to join me. The few times I do ride the elevator with someone else, I stare down at my phone or take comfort in knowing that my headphones are firmly entrenched in my ears. I have even been known to wear my headphones while shopping in Stew Leonard’s.
In other words, I am your typical millennial. My generation has grown up with the unprecedented ability to connect with people from all over the world through the click of a button, and yet as a cohort we have proven ourselves largely incapable of connecting effectively with the people right in front of us. I have intentionally sought out a living situation that offers me a multitude of opportunities to reach out to and connect with others, but I just can’t seem to do it. I could be developing relationships and living life in community, but I’m not. Instead, I’m living life on my own.
Truth be told, I don’t think this problem began with millennials. Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone, which documented the “collapse…of American community,” was released when I was ten, four years before the founding of Facebook and seven years before the release of the first iPhone. In the nineteenth century, many of the leading thinkers in the United States glamorized the individual self at the expense of the larger community. “I celebrate myself and sing myself” Whitman proclaimed; “trust thyself,” Emerson advised, “every heart vibrates to that iron string…insist on yourself…nothing brings you peace but yourself.” Individualism has always been present in a country that owes its birth to a desire to be independent. So why wouldn’t we, who still celebrate Independence Day two hundred and forty two years later, seek to be independent from one another?
Independence may be an undisputed American virtue, but it is not always a Christian virtue. When Thomas refuses to believe his fellow disciples’ claim that Jesus has risen, he refuses to accept the prevailing narrative, to go along with the status quo. Many distinguished critics and skeptics have followed in his footsteps and contributed much good to society in their challenges to the powers-that-be. But Thomas’ independence is also his Achilles’ heel—the quality that gets him in trouble with Jesus.
It would be a mistake to read the story we heard this morning as an attack against rationalism or scientific thought or even doubt. Thomas errs not in his reluctance to believe in the unlikely possibility that someone might rise from the dead—after all, he is perfectly willing to accept the resurrection as soon as Jesus appears to him. Rather, Thomas errs in his failure to consider the legitimacy of others’ perspectives. He stubbornly requires firsthand experience of something in order to acknowledge its truth; he does not trust what his fellow human beings, his friends, have to tell him. Jesus admonishes him to believe—not in a random fantastical story but in the testimony of good people whom he knows very well.
In the Passion narrative of John, only a chapter before the passage we heard this morning, there is a profoundly touching moment in which Jesus gives one of his disciples to his mother and his mother to the disciple. On Good Friday, the distinguished preacher Fleming Rutledge reflected on this moment as part of the traditional Seven Last Words service at Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In giving two unrelated disciples to one another, Rutledge pointed out, Jesus was creating a new family or community of believers—the community that would become the Church. At a key moment towards the end of his life, a moment in which Jesus could have been focused only on his own suffering and the death that was about to envelop him, Jesus remained intent on connecting people to one another and building community, thus demonstrating how central community was to the essence of his life and mission. If we are to follow Jesus, Rutledge claimed, we must be willing to share in community with others.
“There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus,” she said. “Why do you suppose the Lord didn’t separate us out, each one, one by one, stand us up by ourselves, pronounce us each a unique individual and bid us go off and create ourselves? Why didn’t he do that? He did the opposite. Instead of making us independent and self-centered, he makes us mutually interdependent and other-directed….the love that Christ enacts and commands in his followers cannot be enacted in isolation. I’ve heard many young people say things like ‘Jesus and me—we have our own thing going on.’ This is sadly lacking in understanding of what it means to be abiding in Jesus. Dorothy Day said many times, ‘You can’t practice love without community.’”
At the end of Rutledge’s meditation, she added this: “The Church can break your heart with its sin. It’s broken my heart a few times. It’s so easy to dismiss the Church out of hand. Every day brings some new revelation about the awful things that have been done by the Church. It’s much easier to say—as many do—‘I can be a Christian without the Church.’ But this is to renounce the most basic and fundamental message of Jesus in his ministry, but most of all from his cross in his death. He is giving you to me, and me to you. The disciples of Christ today, as two thousand years ago, are drawn together in mutual love of our Lord. For all its sins—which are many—the Church is still the body of Christ.”
“If we say have no sin we deceive ourselves,” the 1st letter of John says, “and the truth is not in us.” We should name and repent for the sins of the Church, which has caused real pain over the centuries, including, I know, to many of us. The book of Acts depicts the early Church in unrealistically glowing terms—“no one claimed private ownership of any possessions…there was not a needy person among them”—but I am not sure any Christian community has ever been that perfect, even the very early Church. Almost immediately after those initial rosy verses, the book of Acts complicates the picture.
Whatever our legitimate issues with the Church, however, I think it is important for us to continue wrestling with it. Thomas did not have access to the full revelation of Jesus by himself; his fellow disciples had the additional information and experiences needed in order to complete the picture. And we do not have access to the full revelation of Jesus by ourselves as individuals; we need additional information and experiences from others in order to complete the picture; we cannot believe in Jesus alone. The rest of the Church may be wrong some of the time; the rest of the Church may be wrong a lot of the time. Even still, the rest of the Church may have something to teach us every now and then.
Almost every Sunday, we recite the words of the Nicene Creed, a foundational statement of Christian belief composed in the fourth century. We also use a smorgasbord of hymns and prayers, some of which date back hundreds of years themselves. It is not always easy to relate to the words that we say or sing; they can seem distant from us, outdated, maybe even false. But we keep on saying and singing them anyway because we suspect that, whatever their faults, they have some connection to a larger, more timeless truth, and we know that, if we relied only on our own judgment and on the assumptions and mores of our time, our vision of God—indeed, our vision of reality—would be limited, distorted, and incomplete.
I wonder if you are trying to go it alone this morning. I wonder if you are trying to talk to and decipher God all by yourself. How are you resistant to the witness of the past? How are you resistant to the witness of the present, the witness that might be sitting in the pew right in front of you or in the pew across the aisle?
I’m under no illusion that the Church is perfect—this one or any other or the Church as a whole. I’m not even sure, sometimes, that the Church is necessary. I know many people who don’t go to Church and seem to be doing just fine.
But I am sure that we can’t do this business of living and believing on our own—that we can’t really, at the end of the day, be independent. We have to find community somewhere. So why not start here?