Sermon Ideas For 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Part 3
The coming of Jesus Christ and his saints is the restoration of order to the cosmos, but it is also the restoration of community in the human realm. The issue of community is perhaps the most difficult one for modern human beings to confront. Modern life emphasizes the development of the individual, and with advances in technology and with the mobility of the population, community is difficult to establish and to maintain. Even in our spiritual lives, we often are oriented towards development of the individual relationship to the divine, forgetting the importance of what Bonhoeffer called "life together." In 1 Thessalonians 3:11, Paul asks that both God and Jesus Christ direct us toward the formation of community. Paul's message reminds us that true community is formed by and oriented toward something outside itself.
Saint-Exupery said that "love does not exist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction." Martin Luther King, in Strength to Love, reminds us that the Christian community must follow that definition of love. The Christian must be a citizen of two worlds. Thus, though we are oriented to the sacred, we must learn to live harmoniously with others, looking both toward God and toward the neighbor. Most modern literature is concerned with the breakdown of community and with the alienation of the individual. Writers like Samuel Beckett show us the individual in crisis, becoming reduced by both choices and circumstances to a heap of unrelated thoughts. In Krapp's Last Tape, for example, Beckett shows us a character who has forsaken community, forsaken love. Every year, he makes a tape on his birthday, but as the short play shows us, little has happened in his life since he lost the woman he loved. He spends every birthday listening to the tape he made the year that he left her. That tape shows his longing to "be again," to enter life in an essential way. But Krapp, giving up human love, has lost that capacity for being. His choice has taken him out of human life, and we see, at the end of the play, a man who has lost everything.
Community in the modern novel is often formed under extreme situations, as it is in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, in which the oppressed and poverty-stricken mid-western families seeking a life in the west come together in government camps to rebuild their lives. In Albert Camus' The Plague, a number of unrelated characters come together to fight the deadly bubonic plague that is sweeping their city. This novel is a parable of the Holocaust, and in it, Camus shows us that, as his character Tarrou puts it, we must be on the side of community against all violence that destroys human lives. That understanding is the basis, as well, of the work of the Latin American, like Gustavo Gutierrez, African-Americans, like James Cone and Cornel West, and feminist, like Letty Russell, "liberation" theologians. These "new" theologies call us to the essential message of Christianity that is expressed in Paul's admonition that we love one another in community and love all human beings (1 Th 3:12). That message is freedom. It calls us to come to a conception of the human as a full and equal person participating in a community of faith while acting as a full citizen of the world. These new theologies ask us to see that we are all interrelated and interdependent.
That concept is beautifully illustrated in an episode of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. A Civil War photographer, who is losing his eyesight, wants to photograph the town. The members of the community begin a debate about who constitutes "the town." Some members of the community want only the white citizens, who are property owners, in the photograph. They want to exclude most of the women and all of the Native Americans, African-Americans, and immigrant families who live in and around the town and who contribute to its daily life. After much negotiation, everyone is included. The photographer assembles the company, and since the photography of his day takes several seconds, he insists that everyone stand still, looking into the camera. In that moment, the film camera pans the crowd. We see families, individuals, and couples of all colors, conflicts left behind for the goal of standing together in an image of perfect community.
Within vital community, we can be our best selves. Communion with others allows an intimacy with the self and with God that brings us into full spiritual wholeness. That wholeness means knowing one's own story and being able to narrate the meaning of what happens to us within the story of the particular community and the larger Christian community. Only then can we come to feel worthy to see Christ face to face. In the final poem of The Temple, "Love" III, George Herbert gives an image of communion and community in the divine realm. The soul, coming to face God as Love feels unworthy and holds back. But Love calls the soul forward, reminding the soul that Love as God created it, that Love as Jesus Christ died to make it free and pure, and now Love in all three persons has called it home. Love draws the soul to that concrete image of community and communion: the table, and Love serves Love's self to the soul:
My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.1
This image of the soul's coming home, of heavenly communion and community with God, is the ultimate promise of Christ's call: to establish our hearts unblamable in holiness before God (1 The 3:13).
1. George Herbert, "Love" III in The Country Parson and The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 316.