Living as a contrasting/inspiring/beautiful Community (Romans 12:14-17)

Here’s my sermon from today.

It’s true that sometimes community doesn’t always work out right. Emily and I were a part of a small house church a few years back that used the word “community” as a kind of buzz word but it became rather oppressive because the leader want to maintain total control. So the word “community” can also be used to disguise for people out of step with what it really means. But then there are other times that it not only works, but everything flows just right, and the choreography of a community working together for a common cause turns out to be beautiful.

This is a video of what is known as a flash mob. “A flash mob (or flashmob) is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse.” It’s a picture of a group of people working together towards a common goal, in this instance it’s having fun with a dance in a large public area. Flash mobs are usually organized around social media, and viral emails. This is a good example of what some call “participatory culture,” which is characterized by, among other things, groups that are decentralized (like this flash mob). There are not hierarchical but rather everyone works on equal ground, coming together to do certain functions or to fulfill a goal (and to often make a statement). And in another way, it’s pretty obvious that someone put time and practice into this dance, choreography was essential to make this a beautiful display of art.

Now, I think we can draw some connections between what we see here and what it looks like for the church to work together as a community.

[Do you see any ways in which this group might have similar characteristics as the church?]

A. Here are some of my comparisons between the video and the church: It is an assembly or gathering of people working together under one common call. Looking into the story a bit I learned that there were 200 dancers, who rehearsed twice, as a part of a role call for the lead role in the musical “The Sound of Music.” They had a goal, to perform well, get the word out, find a lead, and obviously to have some fun! (Would you have done something like this?).

The word for ‘church’ in the NT is ekklesia, which means assembly. It is a combination of the word “ek” and “kaleo” which means to be called out. Thus, this ekklesia is an assembly that is called out, or set apart. More specifically, the word refers to a called out, political group (rather than a religious one). “In classical Greek “ekklesia” meant “an assembly of citizens summoned by the crier, the legislative assembly” (For more see here) Therefore you have those writing the NT consciously selected from among at least seven other possible words for assembly, one that holds a political connotation. The point was to say the ekklesia is the assembly of Jesus, our common call is to work out his politics.

In our video the assembly is a group of dancers, in the church the assembly is a more like a political assembly. Not politics in the Democratic or Republican sense, but in the sense that it is its own new society, a city on a hill, set apart, to be a light to the nations. To follow their king, Jesus Christ the Messiah, and his politics of love, of friendship, of forgiveness and mercy. This is a city who pledges allegiance only to God’s kingdom. It is a political assembly in that it answers the call of Jesus, “The sheep hear the good shepherd’s voice,” and follow him as the choreographer of life.

You can begin to see why emperor Nero might be threatened by and want to do away with the early church. To maintain this vision of the assembly is difficult [From Meetinghouses to “churches”]. Part of the problem as I see it is that the church often does not work together, nor we answer to one common call. We can too easily become entangled in the world’s politics, whether it is left or right, whether it is private or public.

I like Martin Luther King Jr’s reminder on this:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

B. Another thing: This flash mob is public and out in the open. This dance group is completely visible, it’s out in the open and easily seen (and heard). This public part of the group is the physical manifestation of their community, it’s the result of them working together, practicing, and planning. When they finally get together you get to see just what it means to be a part of that group.

It is as Paul says “present your bodies as living sacrifices” not simply to this or that cause, but to the way of Jesus (what is holy and acceptable). This “present your bodies” is the physical, materialist, aspect of the Gospel. Paul is saying that your convictions will get lived out in the material physical world.

The church can easily withdraw or surrender to the world. Because throughout our history we have had some really bad experiences with power (from the crusades, to those within the German church who joined Hitler’s Army) the alternative response can often be thought of as retreat. If we retreat from the world, then we won’t have to get dirty. [There is often a strong preference for private, individual spirituality in Evangelical Christianity (though this has been changing), a preference towards piety rather than witness.

One reason for this is that if Christianity is just about spiritual things, things that only effect the inside, then we can keep living and doing as we are in a way that doesn’t rub against the powers and principalities of this world (or cost us anything). And yet, as we saw in this video, when the church lives out its calling, what it has gathered to do, it will be noticed. It will be in done as much in private as it is in the open.

C. I think it is also a contrast with what else is happening in the central station in Antwerp. I mean, you can see the travelers going to and fro, from one place to another and everything looks normal. Our dancers even blend in (which is significant to the act), you can’t see where there are or even who they are until they join together to do the work for which they assembled (or to dance). An important parallel I see here is that their dance, their choreography exhibits itself in a way that is a stark contrast. They could do not their dance any other way.

Again, in Romans 12 Paul writes “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” that is, don’t be caught trying to blend into the world too much because the task to which you’re called is going to require an entire transformation of how you think, how you see, how you act, how you live, and who you interact with. You can’t “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” or follow Paul’s command to “Not repay anyone evil for evil” while still trying to blend into the world. Expect that there will be a rub, there will be chaffing. [And yet, interestingly, these contrasts may actually inspire others, cause laughter, prompt people taking videos, pictures, etc. because they are astounded.]

D. I also see that there is the level of participation from everyone involved. Lily’s has a little “Leap Frog” toy, it’s an ABC learning game called the “Word Whammer,” when you turn it on professor Quigley says, “every letter makes a sound.” Every letter has a part. Every person in the group has a part, they’ve done their work and are now using their gift.The Apostle Paul says:

“For as in one body we have many members…so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:4–5)

Everyone has a part, every part is essential for the dance to go off properly. This is exactly how it is in the church. It’s not up to one person to lead every bible study, or to create every group. On the one hand, If you don’t show up, if you don’t help keep this community alive by sharing what you have who will? On the other hand, If you are inspired by God to do something then take that as a leading to do it, you can create anything you want in this community (so long as it follows the common call of the ekklesia).

In modernity the church has often not been very participatory. We can certainly see this with the advent of seeker churches – you know the churches with 25,000 people in them — my sense is that in many of these faith communities Christianity is something to be consumed rather than participated in. Come to the worship service of your choice, select the programs you are interested in, that serve your interests, consume the songs, the teaching, and go on your way. You don’t have to do anything other than sit back and consume to your liking. But you don’t have to be a mega-church to give into this level of passivity. Small communities can easily become dominated by one personality, be it the pastor or a church member. It is easy enough to allow one person to go through the motions for us.

What I think we are all hungry for is the kind of faith that moves from consumer to producer. One where we are each participating in the production of the culture of our faith community. This is our invitation, to always be on guard for ways in which we are caught in consumption rather than production. Participation is investment, an authentic expression of an authentic experience. An embodied, working out of the convictions we hold to.

So these are some of my observations [along with yours]: It’s an assembly of people working under a common call, it is public, out in the open, it is contrasts with the normal flow of things, and it is highly participative. [Surely we can also observe dissimilarities as well, but we’ll skip that for now, I hope that’s okay!]

But there’s one last thing: I think it’s beautiful because everyone played their part and followed the choreography. And this is where I see our passage in Romans 12 coming in. Paul is offering something similar to our flash mob. “When you join together, do these things.” It seems to me that Paul is outlining the choreography for our ekklesia, our contrast community. He might be saying: “Okay, here’s your part, you do this step, okay, now you take this step. Great! Altogether now…” In Chapter 12 you can go through and list out the practices of the Jesus community. Here are some:

Rejoice and Weep. He could have said: “Be rich with those who are rich, be crushed with those who are crushed, be cast out cast out with those who are cast out, be alien…, be homeless…, be voiceless…” The emphasis here is on empathy as a practice within this community.
Live in harmony
Be willing to change your mind
Associate with those on the fringes
Recognize you don’t have it all figured out
Forget tit for tat, eye for eye.
Reflect (and act) on what is morally beautiful

When I read it this way I feel inspired. I want to live this way. I want to live with people living this way. This is the kind of Christianity I believe in. This is the choreography of our community. It’s the shape, the form, it’s what we’re working for (even if we don’t always get it right – one of the dance steps is mercy, and another forgiveness).

I read this list as something inspiring as much as it is different or contrasting. I know Christians can have an allergy to being seen as different in the world. We want to fit in, we want to look good and we want to be successful in the eyes of the world. But in the same breath are we letting the world set the agenda, or the Gospel? The contrast community, is the community that chooses the narrow path, rather than the path of the many. So when we hear these practices (Rom 12), we have to hear them from the stand point of Jesus Christ (and how he lived them) and interpret them in that direction. What matters is that we are moving closer to Christ, not fitting in better with the world. The goal here is a working out of faithfulness, not relevance.

However, different or contrast doesn’t have to be taken negatively: faithfulness doesn’t mean irrelevance. The church is never to try and be out of touch, off base or so peculiar that the community becomes abnormal.2 For me, Jesus’ teachings aren’t so much “upside-down” as the popular saying goes, but are “right side-up.” It’s everything else that is strange and off kilter. Living out Jesus’ way is in fact the way all of life is meant to be [Yes, on the one hand eating with tax collectors, forgiving prostitutes and turning the other cheek does look different, but from another perspective, this is exactly how the world was and is meant to work]. And so when you hear the word contrast, don’t think otherworldly, but rather inspiring, compelling and beautiful.

I think when we follow in Christ’s footsteps, when we rejoice with the rejoicing ones, and weep with the weeping ones, this isn’t otherworldly or abnormal, it is beautiful. Paul writes: “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (v. 17) That little word noble in the original text means morally good, but it also means beautiful. Our community should be one that lives in such a way that the beauty of God’s love, mercy and grace are inspiring to those who look in on us. We don’t have to set out to transform the world, this isn’t our goal. Our goal is to be a beautiful/inspiring/contrasting Jesus community and in doing so the world will in fact experience God in the world.

Let’s dream together what living out this kind of communal dance looks like for us here and maybe we can be kind of like a flash mob.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

One thought on “Living as a contrasting/inspiring/beautiful Community (Romans 12:14-17)”

Comments are closed.