The Essential Aspects of Community

Dr. Brian Allison

Lately, a number have said that they are perceiving a greater sense of connectedness, a greater sense of community. A number have testified that the Spirit is working, that there is a stirring of the Spirit, that the Spirit is moving, that change is occurring. There is a growing expectation that God will bless. I am reminded of the brochure that we hand out to the folk whom we visit in the community on Monday night. The brochure introduces the Church; and it consists of testimonies of those who are members of the Church. Interestingly enough, there is a particular theme that runs through these testimonies. One person says, "I also enjoy the fact that U.B.C. is a small church and the atmosphere is one of family. There is a real caring aspect. The warmth of the people drew me to make U.B.C. my home church." A couple writes, "Love and compassion are the first things that come to mind when thinking about U.B.C." Ron Sachse writes, "There is no perfect church on this side of heaven, but I have been welcomed into the most dedicated, Christ-centred group of people, all helping each other heal, and daily love Jesus." Another woman writes, "I have been a member of U.B.C. for the past eighteen years. We are like a family, and I have found the fellowship to be friendly, warm, and supportive." Do you catch the theme? – Community.

When you think of community, what comes to your mind? What is the picture you have? Perhaps you think of a group of believers coming together for a Bible study and delving into the Word of God to discover nuggets of truth that are empowering and transforming. Perhaps you think of a group of believers that get together and share their concerns and needs with one another, and partner to pray for one another; each one being willing to agonize in prayer, and to storm the throne of grace, bearing the burdens of each other. Or perhaps you think of believers spontaneously deciding to pool some of their funds together in order to address and meet the financial needs of someone else. Or perhaps you think of people keeping in personal contact with others, giving them a call in order to encourage them, and to tell them to press on, saying, "It is going to be okay, the Lord will strengthen you; the Lord will be there for you." What do you think about when you think about community? I am sure different things come to your mind.

Christians comprise a family

As the apostle Paul concludes his first epistle to the Thessalonians, he focuses on and emphasizes this matter of community. As he closes off, he is concerned about connectedness. 1 Thessalonians 5:25-27 reads, "Brethren, pray for us. Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren." Do you notice a term that occurs a number of times in these verses? It is the word 'brethren'. Paul uses this term about twenty times in this epistle, but it is only in this section that the term is used in consecutive verses – verses 25, 26, and 27. Even the style of the language of this Scripture, apart from the actual directives, breathes the air of community. The very tenor of the language is one of community – 'brethren'.

When I was in seminary, I had a classmate from Ethiopia, with whom I eventually pastored. When I first met this delightful young man, he addressed me as 'brother'. I had not been a Christian for very long. I had been saved for only six months. Being a new Christian, I admit that I found the address somewhat awkward. I felt that he was being too familiar. I thought, "What do you mean 'brother'? Why are you calling me 'brother'?" But I finally realized, and gladly accepted, the fact that he was calling me 'brother' because that is exactly the nature of the relationship. We, as believers, are brethren (a generic term). We are family.

The apostle Paul emphasizes this truth of familial relations repeatedly. We are not simply neighbours, we are not simply associates, we are not simply affiliates, we are family, we are brothers and sisters; and God is our heavenly Father. Now, families are not perfect. All you have to do is look at your own family and you will realize that families are not perfect, but they are to be together, connected. In families you will have disagreements, you will have differences, you will even have squabbles, but you ought always to have love, and mutual support. Family members should 'be there' for one another; and thus, it should be the case in the Church.

Community involves prayer

In each of these three verses (25-27), we have exhortations. Each of these exhortations involves an essential aspect of community. The first aspect concerns prayer – "Brethren, pray for us" (25). We ought never to underestimate or undervalue the place, importance, and significance of prayer. We hear much about prayer; and as a result, it may 'go in one ear and out the other'. We know that we are to pray, but that is the one thing many believers do not do. We talk much about prayer, but we just do not see many people praying. How was your prayer life this past week? Was it a priority?

The apostle Paul recognized the necessity of prayer. He knew that, in a very real sense, prayer is our spiritual survival. If we do not pray, we will sink; if we do not pray, we will be lost. If we do not pray, we will be overwhelmed and crushed; we will have no strength and no power to overcome. And Paul says, "Pray for us." He knew that he stood in the need of prayer. Now, remember, this was the great apostle Paul who – whether in the body or out of the body, he did not know – was taken up to the third heaven and beheld wonderful and unutterable revelation. He entreats, "Family, pray for us, pray for me."

It is interesting that when the apostle requests prayer from his family members in his epistles, he does not ask for prayer concerning his own personal needs, but he asks for prayer concerning his ministry – kingdom needs. He knew that ministerial success and spiritual fruit are the outcome of prayer. He knew that he could not rely on his own gifts, talents, and abilities, and much less on his own training, experience, and age. He recognized that if he were to do a work for God, if the Church were to be built, if he were to minister in an effective way, then he needed, and thus he coveted, the prayers of God's people. He says, "Brethren, pray for us [as we serve]." Notice the language in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, which spells out more fully what he actually requested when he exhorted his family to pray for him. We read, "Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you." Paul says, in effect, "If God does not bless, if God does not move, then it does not matter how much I preach. It does not matter how articulate I am. It does not matter how much theological acumen I possess. Unless the Spirit of God is present, energizing the Word of God, working through the human personality, which is the vehicle of God, there will be absolutely no spiritual fruit."

W. Ian Thomas was used mightily of the Lord in the mid-twentieth century. He fought in World War II, and God used him to bring numerous souls to a saving knowledge of Christ and to lead numerous souls into a deeper experience of God. But that effectiveness did not happen until after he experienced a spiritual crisis in his life. For seven long years, Thomas served the Lord in his own strength. He was zealous and energetic. He helped organize many evangelistic meetings and campaigns. He witnessed incessantly. And after seven years, he came up spiritually empty-handed. He had very few converts. He became frustrated and discouraged. He came to a point, when he was on his knees praying, that he said to the Lord that he was finished, that he had come to 'the end of his rope', and that he did not want to do it any more. For all his zeal, for all his earnestness, for all his eagerness, he saw no spiritual fruit. But then, in prayer, like a flash of lightning, it came to his heart – "Christ is your life." God revealed to him that it is not what you do, but it is what Christ does in you and through you; and that all one needs to do is make himself available. That truth revolutionized his life. In a moment of time, while in prayer, Thomas recognized that it is all of Jesus, and what Jesus is pleased to do, and that it is absolutely nothing of him – nothing of zeal, eloquence, or energy. When Thomas realized, by faith, that it is the Christ-life that is the crucial issue, and that what Christ wants to do is the primary matter, then circumstances changed radically. He preached throughout Europe, the British Isles, and in North America; and he saw converts and many lives changed. The day after this extraordinary spiritual experience, he led a Bible study meeting, and met with about ninety boys. He said, "Lord, I do not know what You are going to do, but You need to do it. I have come to the point in my life where it does not depend on me, but on You. I wait upon You, and I trust in You." He brought a simple word to these boys, and he said at the end of the message, "If anyone wants to talk about this afterwards, I am available." About thirty boys came to know the Lord; and that happened the next week, and the following weeks. Thomas experienced the Spirit's fulness. After this act of consecration – surrender – the Lord continued to bring people to him. He did not have to do anything. He simply opened his mouth and blessing flowed because he had come to the point of realizing that all glory was to go to God, and that he was simply to be a humble vessel that God could use. The Spirit's power comes through prayer.

Paul knew the necessity of the Spirit, and so he requests, "Pray for us." Notice Ephesians 6:18, "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit [that is to be a lifestyle], and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints [do not simply pray for yourself, but pray for your family], and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel." Some one may retort, "But Paul you have been preaching for years. You are skilled in the Word. You know what you are talking about. And yet you want us to pray that you might have boldness?" Yes. And notice that he did not ask for eloquence, he did not ask for cleverness; he asked for boldness. He wanted grace in order to make absolutely clear the truth of the Gospel. Notice Colossians 4:2-3, "Devote yourselves to prayer [make it a lifestyle, be addicted to it], keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well [and what do you want us to pray, Paul?], that God may open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned." Again, Paul knew that unless God gives us the opportunity to preach, unless God changes hearts, we are simply 'knocking our heads against the wall'. We need to pray. But further, you need to pray especially for the servants of the Lord, those who minister the Word, those who witness, those who share the Gospel. The Gospel becomes effective through the prayers of God's people.

Community involves fellowship

A second essential aspect of community concerns personal interaction – "Greet all the brethren with a holy [not a fleshly] kiss" (26). It is interesting that Paul gives this exhortation. He exhorts us to greet or salute our family members, to acknowledge our spiritual brothers and sisters. We are not to ignore other believers. We are not to neglect one another. We are not to avoid one another. We are not to pass by one another. We are not to pretend that we do not see one another. Rather, we are to salute one another. Do you notice that the exhortation is in the active, and not in the passive, voice? It does not say, "Welcome [though we are to also do that];" but it says, "Greet." We are to take the initiative; we are to extend a welcome. And do you notice that it says greet 'all the brethren'; not simply the ones with whom you feel comfortable. We are to salute all the brethren indiscriminately. We are not to be selective, and avoid those who look a bit odd or different or awkward. We are not to avoid believers because we feel uncomfortable interacting with them (and, of course, our comfort level is the priority, isn't it? Please excuse the sarcasm). That is not love. We are to greet all the brethren simply because they are family.

Now, notice how we are to greet all the brethren – "with a holy kiss" (26b). (I can imagine that some eyebrows are rising, and even some smiles are appearing, at this point.) What do you think about that? In Near Eastern cultures, that was, and is, a practice. In fact, this is a current practice in various cultures. In Luke 22:47, we have an example of this practice, "While He [Jesus] was still speaking, behold, a multitude came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve was preceding them; and he approached Jesus to kiss Him. But Jesus said to him, 'Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?'" In the parallel account in Matthew 26:48-50, with this kiss given by Judas, Jesus addresses Judas as 'friend'. A kiss symbolizes friendship. It signifies acceptance and love. It is an expression of affection.

The exchange of kisses was the standard practice in the early Church. So, Romans 16:16 reads, "Greet one another with a holy kiss." 1 Corinthians 16:20 reads, "All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss." 1 Peter 5:14 reads, "Greet one another with a kiss of love." During the time of Justin Martyr, in the second century A.D., the exchange of kisses was a vital part of the Church liturgy. It was performed after prayers and before the observance of communion. During the time of Hippolytus, the early part of the third century, this practice was called the kiss of peace. In the fourth century, we read in the Apostolic Constitutions that this practice had become regulated – men were to kiss men and women were to kiss women. By the thirteenth century the practice had been abandoned.

Now, I am not opposed to giving a holy kiss, but it seems that in our day and culture, it is more acceptable to show friendship, to signify love and acceptance, and to express affection by a handshake or by a hug. These acts of greeting seem to be the standard practice in the West (given our more conservative approach). Notwithstanding, the critical point is that there should be a visible, demonstrable expression of affection, intimacy, acceptance, and friendship – because we are brothers and sisters, that is, a family. A family should clearly communicate love. Last week I went to a wedding reception of a relative. I entered the reception hall and saw a number of family members sitting at one table. What was my natural response? What did I do? I went up and kissed my cousin, shook the hand of another one, kissed and hugged my aunts; I 'made the rounds' – it was a natural response. Would you have considered such behaviour offensive and immoral? I do not think so. There is power – strength and comfort – in healthy touch. Healthy touch is healing.

Community involves the Word

Briefly, the third essential aspect of community deals with the Word of God – "I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren." Paul was concerned that the Word of God be heard, received, understood, and put into practice so that the lives of God's people would be characterized by righteousness and holiness. Paul uses pretty strong language here. In effect, he says, "I solemnly charge you;" which is the language of an oath. And no one was to be excluded from hearing the Word. These believers were to take pains in making sure that all the believers heard the Word. For Paul, all the brethren need to be instructed. It is a matter of spiritual life and death. The spiritual welfare and safety of believers hinge on this.

Reading was a necessary means of communicating truth because the printing press was not invented until some fourteen hundred years later. There weren't many individual copies available; and so, people had to be read to. The Word of God was very sacred back then. Thank the Lord that you have your own copy of the Scriptures. Sometimes we take it for granted. Years ago people did not have the luxury or the privilege of having their own personal copy; and what do we do with ours? In Colossians 4:16, again we have the emphasis on the necessity of the Word of God being read, "And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea." Reading was a vital means of instruction, underscoring the centrality and priority of the Word of God. Through hearing and doing the Word of God, we live and thrive.

So, these are three essential aspects of community, given here in the form of exhortations, and given to us as family – prayer, fellowship, and the Word of God. Are you living in true community?