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Friday, 12 September 2014

Community as Counter-culture

ORDINARY SUNDAY 24 (14th September) 2014

Readings:        Genesis 50:15-21
                        Psalm 103:8-13
                        Romans 14:1-12
                        Matthew 18:21-35

I was once told by a Catholic religious that the hardest dimension of the religious life was neither poverty nor chastity, but the brutal demands of obedience. By this he did not mean that the Fathers Abbot were constantly and unreasonably demanding that he shine their shoes, wash their dishes, or weed their gardens, like the traditional prefect demanding obedience from a fag, but that the demands of being answerable no longer just to himself but to the wisdom of a wider community as invested in a wise elder was utterly invasive and counter-intuitive. You may remember the banking advertisement – or was it insurance? Whatever! – of many years ago that solemnly proclaimed that the advertiser’s scheme existed for the benefit of “the most important person in the world: you.” My Catholic Religious friend was telling me that the life of religious community dismantled that near-universal assumption, that he was, I am, you are the most important person in the world, and flung him, me, you to the outer echelons of importance. It was however at the heart of the rule, and it had made the religious life a profound and demanding yet remarkably enriching option for 1500 years.

In the years since that conversation I have come to believe to the very depth my being that being community is the greatest evangelistic asset that the Community of Church possesses. It is close to being the pearl of great price of which Jesus speaks, though that phrase is in fact applied to the Good News of the reign of God. It is close to being that Good News precisely because it can serve as the best advertisement of that Good News that we can offer. See how Christians love each other, the first and secondary observers muttered in awe.

By community, though, I came to realise that we did not mean the glorious hippie communities, Christian or otherwise, of the 1960s and 1970s. The great and often drug-fuelled experiments in love-ins of that era degenerated into paroxysms of self-destruction, the most extreme example being, tragically, the decadent and evil commune of the Manson Family. That quasi-commune arose in the California desert in the late-1960s, and oversaw seven savage and counter-love, counter-peace murders including that of the eight month pregnant Sharon Tate, in 1969. Christian experiments in community living often descended into rancorous debacles of jealousy and metaphorical back-stabbing, and endless rounds of post-community legal wrangling over property. While the heart of the Manson Family’s degeneracy was an extraordinarily complex web of substance abuse and personality disorders, at the heart of many lesser breakdowns of the love-in experiment was simply a lack of the understanding Christianity holds dear, the understanding that we are sin-filled creatures, for who the perfection of eternity dwells not in the here and now but in the yet to come.

Nevertheless the ideal of community was a high and right one. In western society community is often only a chimera, a shadow that can be dreamed of but never grasped. T.S. Eliot amongst others saw it long before hippiedom, as he wrote of a wasteland of empty and meaningless lives, what he would memorably call the existence of “dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit.” Yet there is in our western society often desperate loneliness, and all the noise of electronic media and the internet has done nothing to heal the vast chasms that exist between isolated human beings. In this vast wasteland of loneliness the community of being-in-Christ has a powerful message of healing and redemption, of unity and togetherness. It cannot proclaim that message meaningfully however without self-discipline, and it was towards this that the demanding rules of religious orders were striving. The counterculture of Christian love is counterculture only when the blowtorch of discipline is applied, and the participants undergo the exacting work of transformation into the image of Christ.

At its best – and the great religious orders and the more modern communities such as Taizé and Iona can testify to this – Christian community can be a powerful rumour of the healing love of God. Faith communities – parishes, in our parlance – can be so, too. But at the heart, the dangerous and tricky heart of being a credible witness to the community of God, dwells the enormously risky, and sometimes exhausting demand of being a community not of the social norm of revenge, but of eternal, endless, and sometimes costly forgiveness. Only in forgiveness are cycles of revenge broken; only in forgiveness, which is not the same as cheap nonchalance (but more of that another time) is the rumour of God’s eternity made into tangible, death-transforming reality. It is to that hard task we are called as the community of Jesus.

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