A different kind of community

June 28, 2016

This post is an edited version of a message I gave on 6/26/16. You can listen to the audio here

I read something recently that busted me, see if it gets you too. It’s a typical day in the life of a fictitious family named the Johnson’s, see if you can relate:

Bob and Karen Johnson both rise at 6:00 a.m. On this day, Bob hurries to leave the house at 7:00. He opens the door to the garage, gets in his car, and pulls out of the driveway. He spots his new neighbor taking out the trash and waves to him with a forced smile. As Bob drives down the road, he reminds himself that this neighbor has been in the neighborhood now for 2 years and he still can’t remember his name.

Karen has worked out an arrangement to be at work at 9:00 a.m. so she can drop off her two children at school on time. As Karen is making her way out of the driveway, her son announces that he left his lunch inside.

The easiest move for Karen would be to go back in through the front door, but she sees her next door neighbor, who is retired, beginning her yard work for the day. While Karen would love to catch up with her, she’s afraid if they engage in a conversation the children will be late for school, and then she’ll be late for work.

So, rather than risk being late, Karen makes her way back to the rear-entry garage, opens the door, and goes inside. She grabs the lunch, and off they go.

Fast forward to 6:30. Bob and Karen arrive home after getting the kids from school and heat up dinner. After dinner, the dishes are cleaned up, homework papers are checked, and the children get ready for bed. It is now 9:00 p.m.

At 9:15, Bob and Karen finally sit down. They are too exhausted to talk, so they turn on the TV and watch it until the news is over. Finally, at 11:30, they crawl into bed. A couple of words are exchanged, mostly business-like talk concerning tomorrow’s details.

Sound familiar?

But what busted me more was what came next, which was this:

The Johnsons appear to have a wonderful life. They own a house in a nice suburb with a two-car garage. Their house is surrounded by a six-foot high fence for privacy for their patio and grill. Bob and Karen have two children – a boy and a girl. They each have jobs and everyone is in good health.

Yet, if you could enter the hearts and thoughts of Bob and Karen Johnson, you would discover that they have dreams and fears no one else knows about. While they’ve never voiced it to anyone, there’s an increasing sense of isolation, distress, and powerlessness growing inside them. In a nutshell, the Johnson’s have done a fine job at keeping up with the Jones’s, but they still aren’t happy.

1. Why we need a different kind of community

I think what surprised me most about that was realizing how isolated I can be on a daily basis – how easy it is to go through an entire day without having any meaningful social interactions with people.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote about the same topic recently, saying that he believes social isolation to be THE central challenge facing our era.

Listen to what he wrote:

“Maybe with the rise of TV and the Internet people are happier staying in the private world of home.

Maybe it’s the loss of community leaders. Every town used to have its small-business owners and bankers. But now those businesses and banks are owned by investment funds far away.

Either way, social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression and alienation.”

Ring any bells?

And none of us is exempt from feeling like that.

Married couples with and without kids, single adults, and even students these days all live highly connected lives that make it possible to be around people all day without ever really talking to the them. And single parents’ lives are doubly as busy, practically eliminating any free time for developing personal relationships.

Our lives are busier and busier, and if Brooks and others are right, those feelings of isolation are quietly eating away at us.

Those feelings may surprise us, but they’re no surprise to sociologists and pollsters, especially when it comes to how we live in America.

George Gallup, Jr. concluded from his studies and polls that Americans are among the loneliest people in the world.

That seems unbelievable when you think of the easy access to transportation, the number of entertainment options that surround us, the ease of connection ushered in by the smartphone era, and that fact that we are surrounded by more people than ever before in the history of our country.

An article in The Atlantic, put it this way:

“We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment.

…Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

But it’s not just about technology. It’s about how we live our lives.

That same article said today,

“We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy.

The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years… By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

If that’s true, then only 1 out of every 4 of us has someone we can talk to about those things that are most important to us.

That’s concerning.

Even more concerning is the conclusion that article came to, which is that,

“We have made ourselves lonely.”

And what the author means is that we spend more time in front of screens and less time in front of people; that we live further and further from where we work and spend our time; that we’re further and further removed from real community; and all the while, we’re unknowingly isolating ourselves.

And when you add all of that up – the social isolation, distress, and lack of real friendships – what it means is that the way we’re trying to be social isn’t working. The way we’re trying to do community isn’t working.

The reason the Johnson’s experience those feelings of isolation, distress and powerlessness is the same reason many of us do – we all need to belong.

We need to relate to one another in meaningful ways – to be social in a way that goes beyond 140 characters or a picture on Instagram.

We need to experience real connection – real community.

The kind of community where you can count on someone to be there for you. Where you know people who will sacrifice for you and allow you to be your true self. Where you can know and be known, love and be loved.

 

Because somewhere deep down, we feel like it’s possible, don’t we?

But we don’t know what that looks like – we have no vision for that kind of community.

Well the Bible offers a vision for community just like that.

And that vision is painted in breathtaking ways throughout the Book of Acts in the New Testament, which records the history of the early Christian church.

And it starts with a passage that gives us an incredible vision of what community was meant to be like – a vision for a different kind of community.

Here’s the scene: It was right after what is known in history as the day of Pentecost, when the first Christians experienced the power and presence of the Holy Spirit following Christ’s return to heaven.

Jesus had been crucified, buried, and then on the third day, He rose again.

For forty days He walked and talked and made His resurrection known.

Then He said to His disciples, “My time with you, like this – in human form, is now over. But before you think this as the ending – it’s really the beginning.

“The start of everything I came to set in motion. God’s great redemptive drama to call the world back to Himself.”

“And the heart of it all is the community I came to found.”

And with that, Jesus returned to heaven.

Before they knew it, thousands were coming to faith in Christ – and a different kind of community began to form.

Here’s what it looked like:

42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47 NLT

That passage gives us one of the clearest pictures imaginable of what the community Jesus envisioned looks like – what a different kind of community looks like.

2. Why this kind of community is different

And let’s talk about why that is, about why this kind of community is so different.

Within a few hundred years after the passage we just read, Christianity exploded across the known world, displacing the Greco-Roman culture and religions that had existed for generations before it.

How did that happen?

There’s an interesting anecdote in the passage we just read that tells us – look back at verse 47, it says that the early Christians were,

…enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

Acts 2:47 NLT

People outside of this new community were taking notice – and they liked what they saw.

This new Christian community was building goodwill, building social capital, with the people around it.

They were devoted to one another in ways that were unusual – sharing meals and meeting in homes and caring for each other’s needs.

This community was different – attractively different.

The broader culture might not have believed the same thing or come to the same conclusions – but they liked what this community was doing.

And before long, many of those people did come to believe the same things and come to the same conclusions – and they’re the ones who the Lord was adding to the community every day.

But what were these people seeing in this new community? What was it that made them flock to this fledgling movement? What was it that made this community attractively different?

The key to understanding it is in just three words: “They devoted themselves.”

The early Christians devoted themselves to things like learning and worshiping and meeting others’ needs and living life with each other.

And they had a relational unity, a relational love, for others. But this was about more than a relational love – it was a functional love.

Look back at the passage one more time, it said,

44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

Acts 2:44-46 NLT

This was a hands-on love. If someone had a need, they met it. If someone needed money, they gave it to them. Even if it meant sacrifice or hard work. Even if it meant doing without something for yourself.

Because their interest was not in hoarding, but sharing.

And that’s what the word “fellowship” is about here in the passage.

The Greek word that we translate as “fellowship” is koinonia. It’s a rich word with connotations of the shared life, or participating in life together.

So this was about the life that they were sharing with one another. They devoted themselves to that kind of living.

And what does it mean to devote yourself to something?

It means you give yourself to it – or you give yourself away to it.

If I devote myself to learning a new language, for instance, it means I’ve given myself over to learning it, maybe in the form of giving away some of my time or money.

But the early Christians were devoting themselves – they were giving themselves away.

And that’s what made their community so attractive – that they were the first group of people to give themselves away the way they were. Because that was the complete opposite of everything the world at that time told you to do.

The world in the first century said that power and strength working through fear is what brought order to society.

So if you were poor, sorry, but only the strong and wealthy survive, so you just got all you could get and stored it up for yourself. If your enemy threatened you, you subdued them with force. Because that kept the power and order in the society.

And into that world and culture comes this new community suggesting that you forgive your enemies and give your money to the poor and hold your possessions with open hands.

It’s very difficult for us to understand just how different this kind of community was when it started, because we live in the world that community created.

To get a better sense of just how different it was, here’s part of a play written in the early second century by a guy named Lucian. The quote is actually from a satire where the lead character takes advantage of the generosity of Christians – which tells us that their generosity was both strange and potent. Here’s a snippet:

“These misguided creatures (referring to Christians) start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains their contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them;

And then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship [Jesus], and live after his laws.

All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”

The irony is that what he’s mocking there are the very things that has come to be accepted as the basis for humanitarianism today.

We live in a world where universal human rights, relief for the poor, orphanages, hospitals, and the pursuit of education are all assumed to be good things for society.

Before Christianity came on the scene, none of that existed, at least not in the organized forms in which we know them today.

If you’re not a Christian, that’s something to think about.

You may disagree with Christianity or you’re not sure you can believe it yet, but you probably hold to the importance of at least one of those things.

They didn’t come out of vacuum – they came out of a Christian worldview.

They came out of a different kind of community full of people that were relating to one another by giving themselves away – including their money, their time, their energy, and even their lives.

And no matter what culture it is – no what what century it is – that’s attractive.

For those of you who are Christians, does this vision of community reflect how you’re living? Are you really being social in a way that’s life-giving, are you really living well with others – really giving yourself away?

Because if you’re truly giving yourself away like Jesus, you’ll find that you’re becoming unselfish with your time and money.

You’ll find that you’re more likely to be involved in serving the poor and giving to the cause of Christ.

You’ll find that you’re not being condescending to people around you because of their background or social status.

You’ll be forgiving of people that oppose you or that wrong you, even when your complaints would be warranted.

And you’re not worried about saving face when you have a conflict with someone else, because you’re not trying to hold onto your glory.

Does that describe how you’re living?

If not, then it’s time to start giving yourself away to those around you.

 

The church is at its best when those inside it are giving themselves away.

Which means the people inside it are being radically unselfish. Because in order to give away your time, your money, and your life to other people – it means you have to live in a way that’s radically unselfish.

It means you have to be focused more on others’ needs than your own.

And that’s how the community in Acts was living. But why were they living that way?

That brings us to the Source of the difference.

3. The Source of the difference

We just saw that the key to understanding this community is that they gave themselves away.

Why did this group of people start doing that – especially in a time where no one was living this way?

Well, because it’s what the community’s Founder did. It’s what Jesus did.

Chapter 17 in the book of John, one of the four biographical accounts of the life of Jesus, records a heart-rending prayer that Jesus prayed for his followers the night before he was killed.

It’s a long and stirring prayer, and right in the middle of it Jesus says this:

“And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.”

‭‭John‬ ‭17:19‬ ‭NLT

Jesus says he gave himself for them – those who would follow in his footsteps. And he didn’t mean that figuratively.

Earlier I mentioned that Jesus had already died and resurrected and ascended back to heaven before our scene in Acts – this prayer precedes that death – his death by crucifixion.

That’s what he gave himself up to. And what does it mean that Jesus gave himself up?

It means that he went to that death voluntarily.

But if you know anything about Jesus, then that makes sense, because his whole life was marked by giving himself away.

The Bible teaches that Jesus laid down his glory by coming to earth – that he descended from heaven – that God himself moved into the neighborhood.

You know the show Undercover Boss, where the boss of a company, usually a CEO, goes “undercover,” disguising themselves as a new employee somewhere way down the ladder?

They always learn things they didn’t know and hear stories of the people that work for them that they wouldn’t otherwise hear. And at the end of the show they always reveal that their identity to the employees they worked and talked with. The employees are usually overwhelmed and thankful to the boss that they would take the time to work alongside them and hear from them and respond to them.

Now, why are the employees so overwhelmed? Why do people like the show – why does it even exist?

Because there is something incredibly appealing about the idea of someone laying aside their prestige, their status – their glory.

Christianity teaches that not only did Jesus do just that, but that he didn’t disguise himself – that he came and walked and talked and suffered with people face-to-face, in the flesh.

No other religion has dared to say that – before or since – that God would debase himself by coming down to earth as a lowly man. That God would dare empty himself of his glory like that.

But that’s exactly what the Bible teaches God did in sending Jesus in the form of a human.

And why did He do that?

Well in his prayer, Jesus said he was giving himself away “so they can be made holy” (John‬ ‭17:19‬ ‭NLT‬‬).

In other words, he was giving himself away so that they could be saved – so that WE could be saved.

And that’s the most radically unselfish thing anyone can do.

See, the first Christians gave themselves away because Jesus gave himself away. They were just following his lead.

Because they saw that if Jesus laid aside his glory and even his life, and could forgive everything they had done – if he could look past their mistakes and screw ups and moral failures – then they could look past anyone else’s.

They could look past someone’s pedigree, or cultural status, or background and just love them because they’re a person.

Giving themselves away was nothing compared to what Jesus gave away for them.

That’s the source of why this community is different – that’s the source of its strength and power.

If you’re not a Christian, do you find yourself resonating with this? Do you have a nagging sense of isolation and distress?

And if you do – are you tired of it? Do you want a different kind of community?

If so, then you’ve got to determine where you are with the source of the different community – you’ve got to find out where you are with God.

That’s got to be first because the kind of community we talked about is made possible and sustained through God.

Radical unselfishness in the lives of those early Christians didn’t just happen. The different way of living with each other didn’t just happen.

They were giving themselves away because they had seen and heard about Jesus giving himself away.

And that drove them to search for and study the truth.

That’s what it means when it says “they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.” They were devoting themselves to learning the truth – to truth itself.

And it was the discovery of that truth that led them to jump into this different kind of community.

It was a two-step progression: decide if it’s true, then get involved in the community.

But the truth came first.

Have you done that? Have you gone to the Bible and the claims of Christianity to see if it’s really true?

If you haven’t, then maybe it’s time you do that.

If that’s you, that way to get started is simple: start reading through the Bible.

 

If you don’t know where to start, just open it up to the book of John and keep going.

Whatever it takes though, get your questions answered.

Because those answers might just change your mind, like they did with so many in the passage in Acts.

Because when you get that God gave himself away – and that He did that for you – your entire worldview changes.

And when a group of people get that, you have a whole new kind of community.

 

As I’ve reflected on this passage, I’ve wondered why giving ourselves away sounds so good in theory, but in reality so few of us, including myself, do it in practice.

Why the contradiction?

C.S. Lewis explained it this way in The Weight of Glory:

“If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.

But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love – You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive [one]…

The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.”

Somewhere along the way, we stopped thinking of unselfishness as an act of love for others, and started thinking of it as depriving ourselves of something.

What if we recovered that positive view of unselfishness? Of seeing it as an act of love for others instead of depriving ourselves of something we want?

What would our families, what would our relationships, what would our community – look like?

Well it doesn’t have to be a dream. But if we want to make it a reality, it starts with giving ourselves away.