Pastoral Perspectives

Engaging the Ecclesial Community

What is True Way Presbyterian Church – English Congregation and your Discipleship Group to you? Often we think of both as mere structures(the former more so than the latter), not as structures in a physical sense, but in an organisational and programmatic sense: the leaders organise the masses and churn out activities to keep us busy and happy. And when we think that way, our engagement with both will only go as far as the activities produced. We attend Sunday services, participate in Bible studies, and serve in ministries, but that may well be all we do. You may ask, is that not enough? These are important, but engaging with activities is different from engaging with community. Both aforementioned entities are not just structures, but a living flesh and blood community, the visible ecclesial community of Jesus Christ. Yet, sometimes, to our shame, it is easier for us to be part of the community but stop short of engagement.

Christians need to ensure there is no taking for granted of the community. When one is initiated into the church, either since childhood or since conversion, one is thrust into a community. In a local church, the Christian is surrounded by many others like him, and he hardly has to face the prospect of living life as a Christian alone. Yet this thought is a potential stumbling hazard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed this in his seminal treatment of the Christian community, ‘Life Together’. He wrote: “It is simply not to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God.” In his understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings, he saw the Christian life in a community as not one of a given, but one of the grace of God: “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”

Saint John was exiled on the island of Patmos, Saint Paul was twice imprisoned by the Roman authorities, and after writing ‘Life Together’, Bonhoeffer was jailed for subversive activities against the Nazis. In the eyes of these giants of faith and countless of other godly men and women who had to endure solitude for the sake of Christ, the earthly ecclesial community must have been a precious gift of God. One can see it from Saint Paul’s longing for visible fellowship with his spiritual son Timothy (2 Tim 1:4) during his last days of imprisonment before execution. Seeing the ecclesial community as a gift and not merely the default platform for the Christian life should prompt Christians to cherish and contribute richly to it.

While it is a gift of God, the ecclesial community may appear to many, within and without, as a manufactured community. However, a true ecclesial community is neither artificial nor contrived because it is founded on Jesus Christ and formed by the work of his Spirit. The Spirit renews and transforms each Christian’s innermost being, and brings us into conformity with the Authentic Human, Jesus. Thus we can love others freely as Jesus loves us, for his Spirit dwells in us and guides us to love and selflessly act for the other. This divine love is the mortar of the church that binds individual Christians together in true authentic human fellowship.

It is authentic because it is what human community should be like, had our first ancestors not fallen from their blessed state. Since then, our relationship with God and with each other has been irrevocably marred so that we are at odds with God and with each other. While the first fact may not be immediately perceptible, the second is obvious: a quick glance through the newspapers would be sufficient to dispel any doubts. Human relationships have been fraught with antagonisms ever since Cain rose against his brother. So Christ came to first restore our communion with God and subsequently with each other. Thus authentic human fellowship is the hallmark of the ecclesial community because it is the body of Christ and has within itself what the world does not have.

Nothing but the love within the community makes it that of Jesus Christ. Superficialities will never draw those in the world to Christ. It is only when the world sees the radical nature of Christ’s love shown in the community that it is provoked to wonder. When this love is present, it is the witness of Christ to the world. Where will people of the world see Christ today apart from the ecclesial community of Christ? If the local church shows itself to be less than the body of Christ, then Christ has no witness in the locale. Christ, cognisant of this, tells his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” A community founded on a God of love has to exhibit the same love within itself. By this true human fellowship, people will know the love of God.

The nascent Church grew in strength because of this love within the local communities. At the infancy of Christianity in the Roman empire, there were 0.0017 percent who were Christians. Then three hundred years later, it was about ten percent of the population. While the growth may not seem impressive, it is remarkable that a small and insignificant religious movement grew consistently in numbers in spite of an environment hostile to it. This growth is largely due to the radical nature of the Christian community. The pagans were so impressed by ordinary Christians living out their lives in accordance to the teaching of Christ, loving one another by their charitable giving and mutual support, that many joined the faith. Christ said: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The ecclesial community is the light of the world and the city on the hill because of the love of Christ which it abides in and which the world so earnestly pines for.

The picture painted thus far has been bright and cheery, but reality is not always a bed of roses. Because man is still in a fallen state, familiarity breeds contempt. The more one lives life with others in the local church, the more disillusioned one may get. Christians disappoint one another and sin against one another. Careless words and sensitive consciences stir up discontentment with one another. The precious gift of God soon appears to be no different from the goods peddled on waysides. But what else should we expect? Before our final blessed state at the end of time, we still remain under some influence of our sinful nature. It is inevitable that we will hurt others and get hurt by others even as everyone strives toward maturity of Christ-likeness with the Spirit’s aid. To expect otherwise is naiveté or quixotic.

The solution to this sobering reality is not to indulge in further idealism, but recognise that our fellowship is founded on Christ, and without Christ there is no community and thus no Christian fellowship. We are sinners forgiven by God through Christ and united in him, and the community is built on this reality. So as people freely forgiven by God for our wrongdoings, we can and must humble ourselves before God and freely forgive others for their offences against us. As many as seventy-seven times are we to forgive our fellow brethren who sin against us.

After Pentecost, Saint Luke recorded this for us that those who believed came together, and no distinctions amongst the early saints were noted. Whether young or old, they came together by the Spirit. In our contemporary church, there is much talk of group dynamics, personality conflicts, stages of life differences when Christians decide to form small groups or when leaders decide on groupings. If it did not matter to the nascent church, it should not matter to us. Or are we not walking by the Spirit? Whichever church group God has placed us, or whoever God gives to us as brethren, should we be too choosy? Are we so exposed to the myriad choices of fellowship in the local church that we no longer feel the need to get uncomfortable in loving those who may be much older or younger, may have odd personalities, or may have nothing much in common with us? These too are our family if they do the will of God.

Saint John puts it simply: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” If we are born again Christians and have the Spirit of Christ, and if we allow him to move us as we interact with others in our local church, we can overcome any barriers to fellowship. The community is a gift of God, it is where we grow as faithful Christians, and it is the main place of witness for Christ. May the Spirit help us to live not as mere participants of activities, but as a true community of God that is engaged with one another and loves one another.

Png Eng Keat (Intern)

August 16, 2015