What did Jesus intend for the church to be? Over the years I have asked myself this question over and over again (a hazard of the job, I guess), and have come to focus my best answer to that question around “authentic community.” From experiences as a parish pastor and from grappling with the Scriptures and from living in swirling joy of congregational life over these many (almost 34) years, my best guess for what Jesus intended the church to be is a true community of people, in all their similarities and differences, gathered together to create and maintain authentic community with each other. I understand the Augsburg Confession’s definition that the church is the gathering of people in which the Word of God is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered according to that Word and find it helpful and important. I hear Jesus tell Peter that he is the rock, and upon this rock Jesus will build the church, and that whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and I appreciate the significance of that passage. However, I am swayed more in my understanding of the identity and mission of the church by the interactions of Jesus with the disciples, especially on that last evening he spends with them. He gives them a meal by which to remember and feel the joy of his presence (Synoptic Gospels). He washes their feet to impress upon them the expectation that they remain above all committed to serving one another (John’s Gospel). Then, in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives the disciples a “new commandment,” that they love one another as Jesus has loved them. It is in this commandment, and the similar commandments in the Synoptic Gospels that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves, that I see this desire that Jesus has for his followers to form community which is authentically tied to the good news God brings into the world through Jesus.
Living in authentic community is difficult. No individual person or congregation will fulfill this call perfectly all the time. Yet, I believe, this is the aspiration Jesus has for those who would follow him. Within this community we learn of God’s unending love for us as community and as individuals, we hear the Scriptures read and the Word of God proclaimed, we worship the one who created and who redeems us, we learn what it means to be a child of God, we live in fellowship with one another, we actively seek to serve the needs of our siblings in Christ and the needs of the world God has created. Authentic community does not diminish all the other ways the church has been described and defined over the years, including in the Scriptures, but rather, I believe, enables the church to best live its mission to be the body of Christ in the world. Authentic community does not mean we have to be best friends with those who are part of our congregation, nor does it mean we must agree on everything and support every decision made within the congregation. It doesn’t even mean that you must agree with everything the pastor says in the sermon. What it does mean, at least in my mind, is that we return again and again to God’s graceful gift of life given through Jesus, in which we are able to live life in its fullest expression, which leads to our working to build authentic community in our congregation in this part of the world where God has placed us. The foundation for this is our understanding that we are called to love one another (each and every one another) as Christ has loved us. Personalities might get in the way, feelings might get hurt from time to time, we will make mistakes and miss this mark as individuals and as a congregation, but blessed by God’s promises, we get up the next day, dust ourselves off, forgive and receive forgiveness, and go back to loving as Christ loved us for the sake of our congregation, the people who gather here for worship and fellowship, the community in which we live and the world with which God has blessed us.