He wasn’t there – again! Despite otherwise full pews, the empty space just seemed to glare at him. Perhaps it was because the man who usually sat there had done so faithfully every week for as many years as the pastor could remember. How many weeks had it been empty now – two or three? He decided there and then that he must pay the man a visit that afternoon. He lived alone in a small cottage and as the pastor knocked on the door, it was opened almost immediately, as if the occupant were expecting a visit. After exchanging pleasantries they both sat down beside the open fire in the living room, which brought a welcome warmth to the situation. Nothing was said. They both just sat there, gazing into the vivid amber glow of the fire. It didn’t even feel as awkward as the pastor had feared. After a few more minutes, he reached forward and took the tongs from the fireplace set and with them carefully removed a glowing, red hot ember and placed it on the hearth stone. Both men fixed their gaze on it, watching as its glow faded so that all that was left was a charred black coal. The pastor took the tongs and placed the coal back into the fire, where it immediately began to glow again, until it was once more red hot. Another minute or two passed, and then the pastor got up and made his way to the door. The other man also got up and helped the pastor on with his coat. Not a word had been said since they sat down in front of the fire. As he was going out the door the pastor turned around to say goodbye, but, with tears in his eyes, the man simply looked at him and said, ‘Thank you so much for visiting and thank you for your fiery sermon. I’ll see you back at church again next Sunday.’ (Author unknown)
Paul Simon, of folk pop duo ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ fame, wrote a song in 1965 called ‘I Am a Rock’ and, for many fans of the duo, it is amongst their finest productions.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
Clearly written from some painful personal experience, the lyrics nevertheless have resonated with many people through the years, giving expression, some would say, to the increasingly insular, selfish, ‘me-centred’ attitude that characterises many societies, leading to a breakdown in community values. Comparison – or rather, contrast – is often made with the work of the Elizabethan poet John Donne, who wrote the following in 1624:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … (1)
From a biblical perspective, John Donne is much nearer the mark than Paul Simon, in giving expression to an essential aspect of human nature. The fact of the matter is, we were created by God to be inter-dependent, not independent. It’s a foundational principle of human relationships, which was expressed way back in the Garden of Eden when God observed, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). This sense of the need for companionship, and the value of being together’, is a theme that is central to God’s dealings with mankind. All His revealed purposes through Abraham to Moses were centred on the establishment of a community of believers who would come together in unity of heart and purpose – and in obedience to what God had said about how they should achieve that – in order to serve Him, in close relationship with Him and with each other. That community of believers was known as ‘the people of God’ and their direct relationship with God was clearly and repeatedly expressed in the Old Testament, when God referred to them as ‘My people’.
It’s not in the least bit surprising, then, to find that same value and importance of ‘community’ given renewed emphasis in the New Testament, amongst those who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus went to great lengths to get that point across to His disciples in the hours just before His crucifixion, showing us the value He Himself placed upon it. In that upper room, He spoke about what those men would have to face after He was gone – the challenges, the trials, the heartache (John ch. 13 to 17). He also revealed to them that they wouldn’t be alone in it, that they would have His presence with them, through the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:18,26; 16:7, 13-14). And He also gave them a new commandment, which was to be a defining characteristic of this new community of believers, and which expresses the most basic unifying power that would achieve the Lord’s vision; ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you … By this all men will know that you are My disciples” (John 13:34-35). Those first disciples, and therefore those who subsequently believe through them, were called to be a ‘community’ of believers, actively living out the things taught to them by the Lord, as they bore witness to His saving grace – and the underpinning of that community was a mutual love, a quality of love which is divine in origin and which found practical expression in their inter-dependence (John 17:20). They certainly took that new commandment to heart, as we observe them coming together for mutual support and encouragement in those days immediately following the Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:14; 2:1). Out of love, they provided for each others’ practical needs: ‘All those who had believed were together and had all things in common … sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind … taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God … And the Lord was adding to their number …’ (Acts 2:44-47; see also 4:32-35). When the expected persecution came, they supported each other in prayer (Acts 12:5). When problems came that threatened their treasured unity, they looked to one another for the answers (Acts 6:1-6; 15:1-31). The love of the Lord – both in terms of its origin and their sharing of it – was key to it all. Paul, Peter, James and John all highlighted its vital importance in their writings (1 Cor. 13:1-13; 1 Pet. 1:22, 4:8; Jas. 2:8; 1 John 4:7-21).
You and I need each other. In our love for the Lord, in our faith, in our striving to live for Him, we need each other’s support and encouragement – and that of our other brothers and sisters in the Lord. When we try to ‘go it alone’, or when we don’t give priority to being with fellow-believers, the glow of our love, enthusiasm and commitment to the Lord will rapidly fade and grow cold. How often have you been encouraged by a fellow-disciple’s joy in the Lord? How often have you received the sound, wise advice of an older Christian? How many times have you been helped and comforted through some difficult situation by the shared experience of another Christian? These examples, and many more besides, show how our inter-dependence is essential to our spiritual growth and development. A loving, supportive community is what the Lord has called us to – a unity of heart and purpose, which, following Christ’s own example, does not merely look out for our own personal interests, but those of others as well (Phil. 2:4). And there is no room for a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to achieving this all-important oneness, which is the Lord’s expressed desire for all His disciples: ‘… that they may all be one …’ (John 17:20-23). It cannot be achieved on the basis of our own set of ground-rules or guidelines. It can only successfully be achieved by a sincere commitment to obediently following the pattern that the Lord has laid out in His Word (Rom. 6:17; 2 Tim. 1:13). When the Lord calls us to Himself, He calls us as individuals and opens our heart to receive His precious gift of forgiveness through Christ. But that’s not the end of it – not at all! He then shows us how we should come together with other believers who have the same love and the same desire to follow obediently (Acts 2:41,42). This unity is so important to the Lord, and therefore it must also be important for us to make sure we are giving effect to it by being in a community with those who are already obediently putting it into practice, according to God’s Word.
(1) For Whom the Bell Tolls, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, (1624)
Bible quotations from NASB