In an earlier post, I made a string of observations about our understanding of Christian community. There, my concern was that while we need and want a place to feel like we belong, to feel loved and accepted, the desire is not enough in itself. We have habits of thought–or more fundamentally, of imagination–that may be more conducive to competition, selfishness, or indifference than to community. That is, after all, the undercurrent of many of Paul’s letters: churches filled with enthusiastic new believers still had trouble preserving unity because they needed an internal transformation, itself a work of the Holy Spirit.
That doesn’t mean we get to sit around waiting for God to change the way we feel. We don’t wait to see our brothers and sisters fully through the eyes of Jesus, hearts filled with supernatural love, before we act. I’ve often heard it said, in fact, that we should show love to one another because we are commanded to do so (e.g., John 13:34-35; Rom 13:8), whether we actually feel like it or not.
But that doesn’t quite get it either, not completely; there is too much of religious compulsion, too little of freedom in grace. It would be better, I think, to say that we obey the commandment to love not because we have to but because we can. It’s not simply that we must act against our nature; rather, in faith we discover who we already are in Christ–indeed, who we are becoming over a lifetime of sanctification that comes through obedience.
We are commanded to love one another. What does that mean? I take Paul as playing it out through a number of other verbs, scattered across his letters: to love one another, for example, also means to honor, greet, encourage, forgive, serve, and to submit to one another. An impressive list, despite in incompleteness. This is a picture of true Christian community.
But as theologians and biblical scholars like to say (and at the risk of reactivating the trauma of studying grammar as a child!), “the imperative is based on the indicative.” Put simply: the commands telling us what to do (the imperative) are based on a factual statement of the way things are (the indicative), namely, what God has done and who we are in Christ because of it. This is what God has done; this is who you really are; therefore, act like it, and become more and more the person God desires you to be, more and more like Jesus, through the work of his Spirit in and through you.
Sometimes, we are fortunate enough to stumble into the kind of community we’ve been searching for, even if we didn’t know we needed it at the time. But even then, we can’t be passive participants, as if the command to love only applied to some and not others.
True, there will be times in which some will be nearly incapacitated by need, and they will have to depend on others to hold them up. But this thing we call “community” requires the participation, the effort, the obedience of all.
It is the product of a love that stands with one foot firmly planted on faith, the other on hope.