In Mark 3:13–19 we find Jesus bringing his disciples together and appointing 12 to be his apostles. The text, while seemingly a straightforward list of names, gives many important insights into the nature of Christian community.
13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
I know this seems like a list of names and not at all relevant to what we’re talking about, but there’s actually 5 things embedded in this passage that should radically challenge our understanding of Christian community:
1. Christian community is Jesus-centred. This might seem like a no-brainer, but a lot that is named Christian community isn’t centred on Jesus and his gospel. Jesus centres the community around himself, so we should be leering of any other expression of community that is grounded in something other than the person and work of Jesus.
If Jesus isn’t the centre of our gatherings, an idol of our own making–even a well intended one–will take his place. And that move will spell certain doom from the outset. Bonhoeffer, commenting on the temptation to centre our quest for community on an idealized vision of what could/should be instead of the person of Jesus is dynamite here:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.” Life Together
2. Christian community is based on comraderie, not chemistry. Jesus gathered together people who had little common affinity. Scratch that: Jesus actually gathered people who were natural enemies! A tax collector and a zealot!? There would have been no love lost between a collaborator with Rome (Matthew) and a zealot (Simon) who is seeking to overthrow Rome and use violent means if necessary!
What is Jesus doing?! He’s showing us a different expression of community; one that speaks to the heart of God’s intentions for the world and the gospel itself. Jesus does not expect this group to like each other, but he gathers them together to learn to love–starting with loving those you honest wished weren’t part of the group.
That means we shouldn’t expect Christian community to be founded on chemistry and sympatico. Sure, we will develop friendships within our churches, small groups, etc., but when Jesus forms communities he does so on the basis of camaraderie. Camaraderie is a feeling of trust, a bond created by a shared goal or experience. It runs deepen than chemistry. It goes beyond a convenient collection of complimentary personality types. When a group is grounded in comraderie, you don’t have to be best friends with everyone in the group to know you have their support. Therefore, genuine Christian community doesn’t mean you’re best friends with everyone and the group never expereinces any friction or conflict. What it does mean is that there is a driving experience (Jesus’ call, salvation, and Lordship) that holds the group together and teaches the group to value and love each other.
3. Christian community is a means, not an end. Jesus calls many disciples to himself, but he appoints twelve as apostles. Why? He’s rebooting Israel. “I’ve called you together…for a (re)newed mission! You are blessed to be a blessing!” (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). Christian community is always a means to a greater end (i.e. glorifying God and forwarding his mission). When the experience of community becomes the end we’re chasing, it poisons and rots things from the inside out.
4. Christian community is a commitment to “one another.” Christian community isn’t driven by the question, “what’s in it for me?” but “how can I be a blessing to others?” This means a radical commitment to what much of the later epistles spell out in the “one another’s”:
- Love one another (John 13:34, 15:12)
- Outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10)
- Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
- Serve one another (John 13:1-20; Galatians 5:13)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
- Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32)
- Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21)
- Be honest with one another (Colossians 3:9)
- Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
- Confess to one another (James 5:16)
- Pray for one another (James 5:16)
On a later occassion Jesus gave his disciples a new command:
John 13:34 “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Christian community comes into being when a critical mass of people in a church/group/fellowship begin asking “how can I creatively love and serve these brothers and sisters?” instead of, “when will this group meet my wants and needs?”
5. Christian Community is consistent. One characteristic that should define Christian community is that it is consistent. Jesus called his disciples together into a new way of life where they were committed to doing life together as they learned under him.
Today, my sense is that far too many Christians do not take seriously their communal responsibilities to one another. The first believers met daily for encouragement, prayer, support, study, etc., and while I acknowledge that model isn’t doable for most of us in our contexts, I don’t think our default position should be, “I’m committed until something better comes along.” More and more of us are rationalizing going to church every 2nd or 3rd week. We show up at youth group if/when we want. We sign up for a small group but attend sporadically.
And after weeks/months/years living inside of this lifestyle of casual commitment, we wonder why our experience of Christian community is so thin–or even non-existent?
I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being a legalist, but I think it’s important to recognize that it’s become very easy to place gathering together with other Christians consistently far down the priority ladder. Which makes sense if church is something you fit into your agenda. But it doesn’t make sense if through gatherings like Sunday worship, small groups, bible studies, etc., Jesus is seeking to reshape your life around his agenda.