America is the pinnacle of western society, an ideology founded by the ancient Greeks. I do not mean in any way that America is superior to other nations traditionally considered “western” (as opposed to “eastern society”). What I mean is that as a culture and society, we have completely bought into humanism and materialism. We are obsessed with everything the ancients were: education, entertainment, sports, media, and religion. And in a culture where people are made into icons because of their achievements (or in the case of President Obama winning to Nobel, for intentions), naturally the society begins to turns inwards. It’s all about me, what I’ve accomplished, and how much attention I can bring onto myself. “I wanna be somebody!” people say. I don’t think there’s any doubt that in our culture, “it’s all about me. Me. Me. Me!”
Eastern culture has traditionally been the complete opposite, focusing all about the community. This is of course changing as the west influences the east more and more. But eastern culture, and especially Jewish culture, is focused on the good of the community. This is seen throughout the Bible and is something we tend to forget or overlook.
There’s too many examples to hit them all, so I have picked a few to look at.
In Joshua 7 God is in the process of establishing his new community of Israel in the Promised Land. He has taken them through the wilderness and has crossed them over the Jordan River to begin conquering. Part of what makes a community dedicated to God is that they dedicate themselves and their possessions willingly to God. As the Israelites crossed over and attacked the first big city, God asked them to give all the spoils to Him as a sign of their dedication. But a man named Achan decided to keep some for himself, and therefore not wholly dedicating everything to God. He and his whole family were stoned to death for the crime. Ever wonder why God was so incredibly harsh with not only the perpetrator, but his entire family? From a Jewish perspective, and from the perspective of God’s community, Achan and his family were not punished because Achan was a thief when he wasn’t supposed to be, but rather because what he did struck at the very heart of what made that community belong to God. It was a much more serious offense than mere theft and then trying to hide it (which is lying), and if left unpunished, it would have spread like a cancer starting with Achan’s family.
Obviously, community is a big deal to God, and the “man after God’s own heart” follows in His footsteps. In 1 Samuel 30, David and his men return home to Ziklag to find the town burnt down and all their women and children carried off by a raiding party. They pursue the raiders, but during the pursuit some of the men have to stop and cannot go on, so they leave them behind with the supplies. David and the rest go on and overtake the raiders, taking back all they had lost and lots more. When they come back to those who had stayed behind, the victorious men want to keep the plunder and not share with those who did not go. It’s a reasonable idea: only those who risked their lives for the plunder should get a share in it. But David values community over all else, and so he orders them to share the plunder, regardless of who went to the battle. It was a risky move on his part but he does it anyway.
Finally, even into the New Testament we find God’s community is still of utmost importance. In Acts 5, God is once again establishing His new community of believers but this time in the Second Covenant. We read that this new community shared everything and had everything in common, and it’s easy to see just how important community was in those people’s lives. But then Ananias and Sapphira come in and lie about the sale of their property and subsequent giving of the revenue to the church and God strikes them dead. I find this amazingly similar to the story of Achan. Both times you have God trying to set up his community and both times the offender is lying about what should be God’s. If Ananias and Sapphira had told the truth all along, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but as soon as they claimed it was dedicated to God, it was God’s. And so they were not killed for lying, rather they were killed for threatening what made that community belong to God, which is the people’s devotion. If that sin had gone unpunished then it would have jeopardized everything they stood for. God would not allow anything to threaten His community because that’s where He lives.
Community is incredibly important to God! It’s apparent that a threat to the community is not giving to God what is God’s. But the biggest threat against the community of God is brothers and sisters not living in unity. If the community fractures and splinters, the original purpose behind it is lost. There is a great amount of emphasis placed on unity in the New Testament and even Jesus, mere hours before he is going to die a brutal death (and well aware of it), takes time to pray for the unity of the believers in the garden. Years later Paul wrote these words to a struggling church in Ephesus:
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
God’s community is #1. Don’t try and cheat your way into it, or take advantage of it, and make every effort to keep the community together. The community of God’s people is where God lives. Therefore, take the focus off of yourself (“What did I get out of church today?”) and instead put the focus on the community as a whole (“What are we doing to further God’s Kingdom? How can I work with and help others achieve this goal?”) Too many people, when they are “church shopping”, judge a congregation on the entertainment value (“Was the sermon good? Was the worship good?”) and not on the effectiveness of the community (“Do these people help each other? Is there love and forgiveness between them? What are they doing to help non-believers?”). I used to be one of those shallow church shoppers. For me, it was all about whether the sermon was any good, and if not then I didn’t want to go there because I was afraid of being bored during church. Once I left those notions behind and started focusing on the community, I fell in love with church in a way I’d never experienced before.
Peace to you,