The first week we moved into the small town where I served as pastor, my wife Jane and I decided to take a walk down Main Street. We immediately noticed something different from the large suburban communities in which we had lived previously: when we passed strangers on the street, they nodded their heads and said hello to us. The drivers of oncoming cars gave a little wave as they came into view. Everybody seemed to know everybody else, epitomized by the little girl we saw standing in her front yard near her mother. Wide eyed, she began to back away as we drew near. "Mommy," she said in amazement, "I don't know them." This must be a really friendly town, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, the days that followed proved otherwise. Oh, people knew who we were all right, but that didn't mean they were friendly. The same people who waved at us as they drove past or greeted us on the street also treated us to cold stares when we walked into the local diner.
For most, the word "community" immediately brings to mind images of friendliness and intimacy. The same can often be true in the church. Pastors speak of community as if it were the "Holy Grail" of church life. What that looks like in the company of the believers is portrayed in rose tinted hues with the sound of violins swelling in the background. But often our experience in the church reflects a different reality.
What is true community? And how do we achieve it? We get an idea from the Psalmist's description of his experience in Psalm 133.
Community is a derivative experience.
Community is what you get when you are focusing on something else. Community is the result of living together. The Psalmist begins in verse 1 with a statement that seems too obvious to mention: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" Well, yeah David, who doesn't believe that? But the Psalm writer isn't telling us this because he thinks we are ignorant of this fact. He is telling us because he knows that we know that it's true. This is a statement of affirmation not information. In this affirmation David also provides us with a basic definition of community. The notion of unity comes from the phrase, "the dwelling of brothers together"—with particular stress on the word "together." Community is a result of living together.
In one of his songs, John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." In the same way, community is what happens when you're focusing on something else. Community is a byproduct of life together, not an end in itself. Maybe that's why our efforts to create community so often fail. We focus on community instead of on life. Or rather, we focus on our personal experience of community instead of concentrating on the difficult task of living together. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of the danger of confusing Christian community with an ideal of "some extraordinary social experience" not to be found elsewhere. Instead of creating true Christian community, this kind of idealism actually poisons the attempt, because it is an imaginary construct. It results in a model of Christian community that is based on mostly wishful thinking and rhetoric. God, on the other hand, has designed the Christian community to function in the real world. That means that before we can experience it, God often has to shatter our illusions.
"The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it," Bonhoeffer writes. "But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves."
So what is Christian Community? Not some ideal out there to which we aspire, but the experience we are having right here, right now. Life in pilgrimage. Life together. This place. These people. Perhaps that's why David uses the metaphor of family in this verse. At first glance, it may seem a little surprising, especially in view of David's own family history. David didn't always get along with his own brothers. The tension is palpable in the exchange between David and Eliab as David tries to find out what Saul will do to reward the man who defeats Goliath. First Samuel 17:28-29 says, "When Eliab, David's oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, 'Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.' 'Now what have I done?" said David. 'Can't I even speak?'" David's relationship with his sons was hardly an improvement.
Families provide us with a sense of belonging, but our families—at least most of the families I know—are not like the ones I see in Hallmark commercials. They are more like those described in the Bible—an unruly bunch that doesn't seem to know how to behave.
The same is true of the church, which is often more like our real families than we care to admit. But that really is the essence of community, isn't it? Not just a place "where everybody knows your name," but that place where "when you go there, they have to take you in," to quote a Robert Frost poem. A family is those people from whom you can never really disassociate yourself. A family is the place where you belong and the people who, like it or not, belong to you.
For many of us, this probably comes as something of a disappointment, because frankly, we were hoping for something better. That's why it's important to notice the second assertion David makes about community.
Community is a sacred experience.
There is something singular about the community of God's people. As messy as the experience of community can be, there is something holy about it. The Psalmist underscores this in verse 2 when he says: "It is like precious oil poured on the head running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes." In our culture we don't usually pour olive oil on someone's head, but in biblical times it was a common practice. In everyday life perfumed oil was used for cosmetic purposes, similar to the way we use cologne today.
Oil was especially important in religious life, where the practice of anointing priests and kings signified consecration to God and to special service. But the oil David speaks of in this verse was especially sacred, because it was used to anoint the High Priest—Aaron. This oil was not to be used for ordinary purposes, nor was it to be duplicated. In fact, it was so sacred that anyone who copied it or used it for common purposes was to be put to death. The elements used to make this sacred anointing oil were common elements—they might be used everyday for other purposes—but when you put them together this way for this purpose, they took on a sacred character.
One lesson we can learn from this comparison is that in this common experience of community there is something uncommon going on. On the one hand, the experience of Christian community is much like the kind of community we experience in other settings—on the job, at the gym, sharing a meal at a restaurant, talking over the fence in your backyard. The kind of people we meet with and the conversations we have are not all that different from those we have in church. They sound the same and often feel the same. And I suppose a case could be made for arguing that our fellowship is too common; certainly, there ought to be something besides yesterday's game or last week's stock market numbers that focuses our attention when we gather together as God's people. But I think we need to be on our guard lest we slip into the kind of idealizing of Christian community that Bonhoeffer warns about.
It is not unusual today for theologians to use the analogy of the Trinity to describe Christian community. In the Trinity you have a unity of three persons in constant fellowship with one another. But I think there is another analogy we could use: the analogy of the union of Christ's human and divine nature. Christian doctrine teaches that in the person of Christ, there is a union of two natures—divine and human. The divine does not make the human less human, and the human doesn't detract from the divine. Jesus Christ is fully God; he is also fully human.
In the same way, there is a union between the sacred and the ordinary in our experience of Christian community. Christian community is "sacred" not because we adopt a different persona when we walk through the church doors. Christian community isn't sacred because we leave our secular experiences and everyday interests behind us when we come into the sanctuary. The thing that makes Christian community sacred is not even the fact that we all like each other, or because we always treat one another the way Christians ought to treat each other. The truth is that we don't usually treat one other the way we are called to.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns, "There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of Genuine Christian community at least once in his life. But in this world such experiences can be no more than a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim upon such experiences and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of acquiring them."
But I think this begs an obvious question. Is Bonhoeffer really saying that the experiential dimension of community is irrelevant to the life of the church? Is it really true that the best advice we have to offer to those who have been disillusioned with their experience of life together in the church is "Lower your expectations?" That doesn't seem to be the Psalmist's perspective. In fact, his main point seems to be about the experience. But his point is quite clear: the secret to real community is not a matter of methodology; it's a matter of God.
Community is a God given experience.
David is clear about the source of this experience. God is the only one who can enable us to "dwell together in peace." In verse 3, David changes his analogy: "It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion." This image has special significance in view of the inscription which identifies this as a "Song of degrees" or "Psalm of ascent." This was one of the pilgrim Psalms, sung by worshipers as they made the ascent to Jerusalem. Those who made the pilgrimage to Mount Zion sometimes did so during the arid season. Possibly David has in mind the difficulty of such a journey and how their discomfort was relieved by the experience of traveling together.
But his analogy suggests that the dew of Mount Hermon did not usually fall on Mount Zion. The same is true of our spiritual journey. We do not always skip along the pilgrim path. Sometimes we "toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow." So what makes the difference? Some have suggested that community just happens. That it is a consequence of random factors beyond our control—that there is no key; one group clicks and another doesn't, depending on the mix of people who happen to show up. Others think the secret is a matter of leadership or group process.
But the Psalmist offers a theological explanation in verse 3: "It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore." He does not ascribe this experience to random forces or to methodology; he ascribes the experience to God. More specifically, he ascribes it to a shared experience of eternal life. Literally, the text says the Lord "commands the blessing."
But notice how the Psalmist has moved from community to "the blessing." One question we ought to ask about verse 3 has to do with the word "there." Is "there" a reference to the community or to Mount Zion? Does the Lord bestow this blessing "where brothers dwell together in unity" or "on Mount Zion"? The context of the Psalm suggests that it is Mount Zion—not because of the geography, but because Jerusalem was the place where God manifested his presence.
Since Christ has come, of course, things have changed. We no longer look to Jerusalem. We look to Jesus Christ. In John 4:23-24, Jesus told the woman of Samaria: "… a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." The focal point of God's grace is no longer the altar at Jerusalem but the cross of Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that the Father bestows the blessing of eternal life. What the temple in Jerusalem only pictured, Jesus Christ made a reality.
It's not community that's "the blessing." Life forevermore is the blessing. Community is the byproduct. Here, then, is our problem: we have reversed the order. We thought the problem was that we didn't know how to experience community. We thought the secret to finding community was to perfect our methodology—perfected the music we used for worship or the way we organized ourselves. But the real difficulty is something entirely different. Our mistake has been to set community as the primary focus, rather than the Lord himself. Christ is the key to community.
The thing that makes a group of Christians a community is the mutual bond we share in Jesus Christ. That is really the only explanation for our life together as the people of God. We are a community not because we share the same tastes and interests outside the church. We are a community because we have had a common experience of an uncommon grace. It is the blood of Christ shed on the cross that binds us together.
John Calvin said, "Live in peace and the God of peace will be with you." This is true enough, perhaps. But the Psalmist teaches us to look at it from a different angle. The Psalmist says, "Live in the presence of the God of peace, and the peace of God will be with you." Dwell together in the presence of God, and the presence of god will dwell with you.
A few months ago I had a painful conversation with a young man about his faith. Of college age, he grew up in a Christian home where his parents tried to raise him in the "nurture and admonition of the Lord." His mother prayed for him every morning and whispered a benediction in his ear when she tucked him into bed at night. The son of a pastor, he practically grew up in church. He prayed a sinner's prayer when he was four years old and went to Sunday school on Sunday mornings. He attended Vacation Bible School every summer during the first week of August and memorized enough Bible verses in the children's club on Wednesday nights to win a trophy. But somewhere along the way he began to question the beliefs his parents taught him. When I asked him why he now doubted the faith he once professed to believe, he replied: "If God was really who Christians say he is, church people would be different."
I don't think this young man is the only one who feels this way. If the church is the gospel's greatest proponent, the church is also the gospel's greatest stumbling block. Beyond any questions he may have about the reliability of the Bible or the reasonableness of the standards by which God will judge humanity is a simpler, and perhaps more disturbing, question. He is asking, in essence, "If the gospel has the power you Christians claim it does, why don't you behave better?"
I am not sure I know how to answer him on this score. After all, Jesus did say, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Love, as Francis Schaeffer observed, is "the mark of a Christian." Love is not the only apologetic argument for the truth of the gospel, but it is the most compelling.
I suppose I could have accused this young man of exaggerating or whining, except I know that what he says is true, because he is my son. I have attended the same churches that he has attended and in many cases the experience has been as painful for me as it has been for him. So why don't I feel the same degree of bitterness? Why haven't I turned my back on Christ?
When I am tempted to throw in the towel—to turn my back on Jesus and everyone who is associated with him—the same question always stops me in my tracks. It is the question asked by Simon Peter in reply to Jesus, when many disciples turned their backs on the Lord. According to John 6:67-68, Jesus asked the Twelve, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
If I cast my lot with Christ, as Simon Peter did, then I cast my lot with Christ's church, because that's where Christ has cast his lot. If I cast my lot with Christ, I cast my lot with Christ's church, because it was for the church that Christ shed his blood.
The root problem with our experience of community is that we don't value the experience of community we have. Like it or not, if we belong to Christ, we have already been bound together with an unbreakable chord. It is only a question of what that union will be like. This is what Paul means when he commands the church: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Unity is a given for those who have been joined into one body by the Spirit of God. Unfortunately, peace is not.
You have bound us together, Lord, with chords that cannot be broken. Now, bind us together with love.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.