At our block party this week, a new friend and I were laughing about how coming out as a Jesus-follower might be one of the weirder things to do these days. In her spiritual awakening, she was realizing that it might be more “normal” for her to choose from a variety of self-centered or even self-destructive hobbies than to become part of the church.
Our culture is selling a very privatized and individualistic religion these days. It might be OK to like Jesus privately—after all, he was a good teacher and philosopher, and you’re entitled to your own “spiritual path”—but to talk about it and become part of a group that lives it seems extreme. What’s the point of the church? Can’t I just be spiritual on my own?
I like how the German pastor & theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about the church and lived it’s purpose. As a citizen during the Nazi take-over, he could not reconcile complicity and silence and fear based on individualism with the call of Christ. He was executed by Hitler’s regime, but not before starting a truth-telling, corporate (as in “body”) movement. He described the church as the visible expression of Christ in the world. We make Jesus known not by our personal holiness, necessarily, but by having a life together in love that people can see and enter. Just as God came to us in Christ, demonstrating self-giving love, so we give ourselves to each other. We have an actual life together. To be a “spiritual free agent” is an oxymoron, because true spirituality binds people together in love. The evidence of being spiritual is actual, active, practical, tangible love—not just a feeling or a cosmic, mystical “other” reality that can stay in our minds or “hearts”. Love calls people together in real time and place. Love makes us an organic whole that is bigger than our individual selves.
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer explains more about the significance and preciousness of the church. God came to us in Christ in a physical body, vulnerable to death and brokenness and disconnection. In dying and rising, he overcomes what the Bible writers describe as “the old man”/old person/old body—a.k.a our nature bent toward disconnection from God—and gives everyone an opportunity to receive a “new body.” What is this new body? Bonhoeffer describes how our new body is the church! The “new body” Jesus rises in is all those who trust him. Faith in God is not just a chance for new life as an individual—it is an opportunity to live in oneness with others.
Circle of Hope is about exercising that oneness in real time and place, and I think that our block party at 1125 S. Broad this week was a glimpse of its goodness. The team had fun hanging out with neighbors and new friends all day, and we had trouble convincing some that the burgers, hotdogs, and water ice were indeed FREE. Listening to conversations and laughter over water games and face-painting and balloon popping, I felt joy in being a safe place to connect. In spite of our struggles, I hope we keep believing Jesus when he says: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5)
Being light doesn’t make us better than anyone else; it makes us who we were created to be: ordinary people who have peace with God and love to share. Together we are a “new body”—-the body of Christ. The trap of individualism comes from a materialist philosophy that holds that the physical world is all there is, so we’d all just better look out for ourselves. But love enables us to enter directly into the world’s suffering with the restorative power of God, and we become whole together.