Margaret called me from the hospital. Her daughter, only 34, had just had a large cancer removed from her uterus. Margaret didn’t know me. I had been to her house each week for several months to work with her daughter and grandson, but I had only talked with Margaret once. She called, because in this crisis, this woman without other family, faith, or community, could think of no one else with whom she could share this very disturbing news.
In contrast, I spent this past week with several refugees to the US. Each is a leader within his or her community here. They came from Congo, Kenya, Syria, and Bhutan. As I listened to their stories of coming to America, my eyes filled with tears at their courage and resiliency. One was a doctor before he came. He had had to leave everything in the night to save his family and his life. One had come alone at age 17. All had been victims of both war and ethnic or religious persecution. I was training them to provide a family strengthening program for a refugee agency. It was a 3-day training. By the third day most had already applied what they had learned to the needs of their extended families and their communities.
Christianity was never meant to be an individual religion. Jesus formed his disciples by living in community with them for three years. When he began to prepare them for their eventual apostolate, he sent them out two by two. Christianity was from the beginning a faith in community.
One way to look at today’s Scripture readings is through the lens of what they tell us about Christian community. The selection from Acts today describes the latter part of Paul’s first missionary journey and its ending, probably in 49 CE. It is a piece of glue-the-story together history of the places Paul and Barnabas went and what they did. In the midst of the history, however, are some points about Christian community that are worth noting.
1. Christian community is where we come for strength and healing when we are worn or troubled.
In the very beginning of today’s reading from Acts we hear, “In those days, some Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived and won over the crowds. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered around him, he got up and entered the city. On the following day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.” Wow! I’ve never been stoned, but surely the stones left major bruises. Yet “when the disciples gathered around him” he got up, went into the city, and left on another journey the next day! There must have been some powerful Holy Spirit strengthening and healing in that gathering of community.
2. By sharing our faith stories in Christian community we strengthen each other.
The larger community strengthened Paul and Barnabas. They went to Derbe and made new converts. Then they returned to Christian communities already established where they “strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.’” Paul had been ministered to; now he returned to minister. As Paul and Barnabas shared the stories of their adventures, they let their stories be exhortations to others: there are crosses inherent in Christianity; Christianity is spread as we give ourselves up to them; God uses difficulties to spread the faith. There tough realities of Christianity are more easily lived in community.
3. Prayer, fasting, authority, and need form the structures of Christian communities to keep them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Reading between the lines, it would seem that when Paul and Barnabas returned from Derbe they saw a need for more structure in the Christian communities. So they “chose Presbyters for them in each Church.” Then “with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.” This was not a full “ordination,” but it was the emergence of a structure that would in time become ordination for leadership within the Church. It was done with prayer, fasting, and authority. It was done from need.
Christian communities emerge within parishes, dioceses, and from events or particular charisms. There is usually a time when they function under one leader. But, as members mature in their guidance by the Holy Spirit, the time comes when leadership is not based on a person, but on the authority of the Holy Spirit as discerned and implemented through emergence of leaders and offices of leadership from within the group.
4. Christian communities spend time together.
At the end of today’s selection we read of when Paul and Barnabas returned to the community at Antioch, “And when they arrived, they called the Church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. They spent no little time with the disciples.”
Time in community is not just for ministry and strengthening of each other. Being together is important. Time together creates cohesion, flexibility, trust, and joy. Whether a Christian community is a large family, a parish prayer group, or the priests of a diocese, there is a real need for resting with each other, being together.
In today’s Gospel, continuing his Farewell Discourse, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” The peace of the world is an imposed peace that depends on the exercise of powerful leadership which is commanding. The picture we get in Acts today is a different kind of peace. It is a peace which emerges from the strength of community. This peace is not without struggles or conflicts (as we will see in tomorrow’s selection from Acts!). It is a peace that lives in tension because it is based on community which uses the needs and gifts of all to meet the needs of all.
Are you like Margaret in the opening story of this reflection? Margaret was outside community.
Are you like the refugee leaders I met last week? They found and created community, even in a new land.
Or are you somewhere in between? I have been with Margaret some of my life. I am currently part of a strong Christian community. Most of my life I have been in between.
Where is your Christian community? If you can answer that question readily, thank God for it! If you do not feel a part of a Christian community, spend some time in prayer now asking God to lead you to one.
Lord, let me always be in Christian community. Give me Your Peace by placing me with others who can strengthen me when I’m down, give me opportunities to in turn strengthen them, and provide a structure that gives practical form to how I live out my faith. Anchor me with friends I can count on. Lord, let me always see Christian community as the Kingdom of God present here and now. Let it keep me safely wrapped in leadership by the Holy Spirit. Amen.