It’s just too easy to use the word ‘community’ without much idea of what it really means. Bonhoeffer wrote about it with the title Life Together. Perhaps we also need to re-order the words, to say together-life.
I read this week that geese in a flock have a seventy percent greater range than a single bird flying alone. Together they can just keep going. Furthermore they can fly faster, up to seventy five percent faster, when flying together.
As I reflect on that, I am forced to think about whether there is something inherent in our ‘nature’ here. In some ways that is a silly question. Inherently, we are all born into relationships. We have biological parents—even if we may never have had the opportunity to know them. We grow up with some ‘significant others’. We are not just individuals, for all the emphasis that our culture may place on our individual rights and potential. The experiences of love and grief make this plain. With grief, we sense something that we have lost. I remember when my father died it felt like one of my arms had been torn from my body.
But together life is more than just being together. Two interesting incidents in my day, yesterday, throw some light on what I mean here. In the morning, I was on a fairly crowded train where lots of people were reading, listening to music and so on, when one passenger began speaking very loudly on her mobile phone. She was very annoyed with one of her children, it soon appeared to us all. She insisted that each of them come to the phone, as she berated them for not getting up early enough and not cleaning up the house adequately: the cleaners were coming today! (People have this strange habit of needing to clean up the house in preparation for the coming of their cleaners!) Other passengers in the train simply could not help hearing all this. The person sitting opposite me smiled and laughed, raising her eyebrows to me … bemused. This was a shared experience we did not choose to have, did not want to know about, and really did not in any sense evoke a sense of ‘life together’.
Later in the day I was on a tram which was unexpectedly terminated halfway along our journey. The rush-hour crowd seemed quite lost. People did not know know what to do, even though the fairly obvious thing to do was wait for the next tram, which in fact was in sight. Numerous people had to be told what to do, by companions. The ‘herd’ movement of humans was really very evident and it was as if most people were just following the herd and now did not know what to do.
Life together, or better together-life, has a dimension of choice or intentionality about it. True, a sense of community can emerge from experiences we did not choose. Often people thrown together by some disaster or adversity report that it somehow brought them very close to each other. Many of us can testify to this. But not all experiences bring us together. In a sense, the experience on the train drove us into ourselves, as if we were trying not to hear and trying not to be ‘present’ to this little family dispute.
Together life requires a commitment to be with, to face and respond to each other. And that takes work, time, and a desire to discover more than we know, more than we want to ‘get’ from each other. There is something of mystery, openness, even adventure, in genuine community. And therefore there is something of risk.
All of this requires love. That may arise from affection and desire to be with each other, but sometimes these emotional dimensions are not as evident or not the driving forces. Love may emerge through time, as people live and work together, sharing together-life. In a sense, the commitment that makes community possible is not always so direct. We may not know exactly what it means and what it will be like, any more than a couple who start out on a life together know, really, what it will be like. Romance will only get them so far.
So then, together-life, which I want to suggest is more what we ought to mean when we use the word ‘church’, is really much more of a mystery and an adventure than we might have recognised. It’s about getting on the tram together, but not as a herd and not each of us in our own space, somehow trying to avoid or not hear what is going on next door.
Together life involves a willingness to be part of something more than ‘my life’—and expression we use that seems to imply ownership, a kind of territorial marker, a possession I not only own but try to control. The New Testament has a really good work for this together life: it’s koinonia and it inherently means participation. The really important idea here is that we don’t create koinonia, community: we participate in it. We engage with it. We receive it and become part of it. It has much more of a gift quality than a creation or achievement. We don’t make community, we participate in it. It’s together-life. Sure, we have to do our part, in part-icipation. We have to commit and engage. But as we do that we discover the gift of life, together.
To conclude, I’d like to quote two paragraphs from a reflection on the character of the Iona community, written by Ronald Ferguson:
Christianity is a communal faith. The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are products of a faith community and can only be understood as such. When Jesus began his ministry, he immediately gathered disciples around him. Right from the beginning, conversion means a call to discipleship within the context of a community of faith. The New Testament is full of the struggles of the early Christian community as it sought to live out the faith which bound it together.
A key New Testament concept is represented by the Greek word koinonia, meaning communion or fellowship. Communion, community, communicate—these words of shared derivation speak of a shared experience and are at the heart of the Christian message. The church is intended to be such a community of participation, yet the actual experience of being in church is often one of isolation.
Yes, it is often more like the episode on the train or the tram. But by the grace of God, sometimes we participate in together-life. May it be so.