“It is far easier to be a Christian in isolation than it is to live out one’s faith in the context of all those other imperfect people who make up God’s church.” – Gordon Fee in Paul, The Spirit and The People of God.
That’s what I think when I read that quote.
I think “ouch” because I’m one of those imperfect people who make up God’s church and so I know that I am bringing my weaknesses and sins with me every time I join my community of faith. In other words, I’m part of the problem.
And I think “ouch” because I know that when I participate in community I am exposing myself to the imperfections of others. In other words, I might get hurt.
To live out my faith in community, with other imperfect people, means that I must lower my mask and be honest about myself. And it means I must, in the proper context, lower my defenses and let others share their own imperfections. I must be both honest (about myself) and open (to hearing from and helping others).
The beautiful thing is that in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are set free to be both honest and open.
Writing to a young pastor, the Apostle Paul says: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but faccording to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” Titus 3:3-5 (ESV)
That is an honest list of sin and imperfection! Paul wasn’t ashamed to talk about his past because he knew it was completely covered by the work of Jesus on the cross. And we know from other parts of scripture that God is still at work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, freeing us from sin and imperfection as we go through life. So through the gospel, I am set free from sin, and set from from the shame of sin, empowering me to be honest.
Writing to the Corinthian church (an infamously imperfect church) Paul not only encourages honesty, but openness as well. He says “[love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Cor 13:6-7 (ESV) Because of Jesus’ love for me, I can now love others with a love that is vulnerable but not weak. I can open myself up to hear from others and help them in their imperfections, speaking the truth to them and believing the best about them. And if I am somehow hurt by them, I can forgive, knowing that Christ has forgiven me of so much more. So, through the gospel, I am empowered to love others, being open to serve and help them, even in spite of being hurt by them.
Now, we should never become gluttons for punishment. A safe, healthy community is not a community where everyone is hurting each other constantly. But a safe, healthy community is a community that will risk hurt, in order to become the men and women God has called us to be, taking the good news of God’s reconciliation to a broken, isolated, shame-filled world.