Steve DeNeff | February 2021
“In true community, we do not choose our companions; we receive them as a gift . . . They come to us by grace.” (David Augsburger; Dissident Discipleship)
“Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Life Together)
“The command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival . . . (it is) the key to the solution of the problems of our world.” (Martin Luther King, Jr; Strength to Love)
“True community,” said Parker Palmer, “is the place where the person you least want to be with always is, and if they die or move away, a worse one takes their place.” The trouble is that these people are half of our community, whether we like them or not, and they have the power to shape us without trying because of the way we handle them. By avoiding them, or by overpowering them we are missing half of our community – half of our lives – and we’re forming behaviors that end up forming us.
What if they come to us sent by God? There’s a lot to be gained from having good friends, “sacred companions” or “kindred souls” as some have called them. In fact, that is how Christ presents himself: “I have called you friends.” But what about the others? The uninvited companions? The critic? The skeptic? The unfaithful? The needy? Like our friends, they are a big part of our lives and they’re not going anywhere, yet we haven’t invited them in. If Christian community is a place where we receive our companions, instead of choosing them, what can be gained from receiving these people? And how? What can we realistically hope for in terms of loving them, as Jesus commanded? What strategy do we have for dealing with them?
In the gospels are a cast of characters otherwise unnoticed except for the way they complement the character of Jesus. These characters appear along Jesus’ way to the cross, each one uninvited and unfriendly, yet each were welcomed by Jesus even though he didn’t invite them. Sometimes they came and went. Other times, they came and stayed. But each was an unwitting corroborator of the gospel. In spite of themselves, they proved the validity of his claims. But what claims? And what about the gospel helped him to frame them in a way that he could receive them?
At the center of genuine Christian community is a fierce and resilient love, especially for those who are hardest to love. The strategy for including them in our community involves the way we receive them (the way they occur to us), the way in which we talk about them (the language we use to frame them), the way we respond to them and the hope that we have for them. Love is always at the center, but what it means to love each person is particular to that person or circumstance. To love them, as Christ commanded, will lead to not only the sanctification of the individual – the stranger and ourselves – but to the sanctifying power of the community. This process of learning how to welcome people we did not invite into our journey is part of the way holy communities sanctify themselves.
In this (mini) series, we’ll identify four of the characters most common in Jesus’ journey toward the cross and show how the cross transforms the way we live with them.