There were seven of us. It was last Saturday evening, the night before the Council of Bishop meeting began, and we decided to get Chicago pizza at Giordano’s Restaurant. Because we didn’t want to wait a half hour, we sat at the bar. No one ordered a drink, but the bartenders weren’t upset, so we had a good old time catching up with each other.
The only empty spaces at the bar were to my left, and when the next group of three was seated, I struck up a conversation. An older couple was taking their granddaughter out to eat before dropping her off at O’Hare Airport, where she was headed to Madrid. Tiffany was going to spend a few weeks with friends, after which she was taking a four-week course as part of her engineering major in college.
As we chatted, I told Tiffany’s grandmother that our group was from The United Methodist Church, and she replied that she was the volunteer treasurer of her local church. We had a wonderful conversation about church finances and learned that we both knew a United Methodist pastor from Michigan who was a relative of her husband. In this very public place, we all huddled together and asked God’s blessing upon Tiffany in her big adventure. The ten of us, sitting at a bar in Chicago, became the body of Christ at the heavenly banquet, inescapable community.
Community. It’s a word I hear a lot, especially as I travel the state leading gatherings around the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. Some United Methodists are convinced that we are better apart than together and believe we should bless each other and part amicably. Others believe that our differences make us stronger and more effective in our witness to the world. Some are not able to accept same-sex marriage and self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy while others are not able to embrace a denomination that denies full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church.
How can we stay in community with each other when we do not agree on human sexuality? What does it mean to say that United Methodists are connected to each other, anyway? In our cabinet worship last week, we read these words from Ralph Morton, who wrote them in 1951.
For we are not trying to build community.
We can never do that.
God sets us in community.
God has set us in inescapable community,
In our family,
In our neighborhood,
In all the relationships with others that life brings.
And all the time we rebel….
When we are enlivened by the Spirit of Christ
We accept community and begin to live
According to the laws of our being.
(Ralph Morton, This is the Day; Readings and Meditations from the Iona Community, Month 1, Day 15, Wild Goose Publications)
Morton’s words were startling and provocative. For we are not trying to build community. We can never do that. We can never build community? I thought the church was supposed to be a community!
I discovered that Ralph Morton was deeply involved in the early formation of the Iona Community, which is located on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. In 2011, I had the privilege of living for a week in the Iona Community, which describes itself as “an ecumenical Christian community of women and men who seek to live out the Gospel in a way that is radical, inclusive, and relevant to life in the 21st century.”
As I participated in the rhythm of life on Iona through worship, chores, food preparation, and Bible study, I learned that I cannot “build community.” That’s because God has already set us in inescapable community. Community is a given: inescapable, just like yesterday’s lectionary lesson from the gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.”
Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “I hope you’ll choose to be a branch on my tree.” No, he says, “I am the vine, and you are the inescapable branches. If you want to be part of my work on this earth, you need to remain in me. If you want to bear fruit, you will need to welcome and accept that there are not only other branches but that those branches are also inescapable community.”
Did you know that community and communion both share the same root: common? Think about it. There is no community if we do not hold certain things in common, such as loving our neighbors, sharing what we have with others, and deepening our faith through study, prayer, and mission. In the same way, partaking of holy communion is at the heart of our common experience of community in the Christian church.
There is another twist to Morton’s quote, however. God has set us in inescapable community, In our family, In our neighborhood, In all the relationships with others that life brings. When I first read the quote, I mistakenly switched the last two words, so that it read, “God has set us in inescapable community … In all the relationships that bring life.”
Isn’t that our preferred default mode as humans? We experience community when our relationships bring life to us. We just love our friends and family. But, wait! Morton says that we achieve community when we enter into relationships with others that life itself brings. In other words, community becomes real when we do not choose relationships that are easy or comfortable. Inescapable community becomes real when we intentionally enter into the relationships that life brings to us, such as a homeless family unexpectedly knocking on our door, or several refugee children arriving for church school one Sunday, or the opportunity to advocate for racial justice when a shooting takes place down the street from the church, or when a gay couple visits the church and asks, “Are we welcome to worship here?”
Then Morton gives us a reality check. And all the time we rebel. It’s the human condition. You and I rebel against inescapable community. In Thomas Merton’s book, The Hidden Ground of Love; The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, he writes, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear Brothers [and Sisters], we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
Community. Communion. Communication. Common. As brothers and sisters in The United Methodist church, we are already one. We are not searching today for a new unity but for an older inescapable unity that empowered the early church to spread contextually throughout the Mediterranean world like wildfire. When we are enlivened by the Spirit of Christ, we accept community and begin to live according to the laws of our being.
We cannot escape community because we are all common branches on the same vine, rooted in the grace of God. Every day you and I discover a new unity in all the relationships that life brings. Just as communion is beyond words, and speech, and concept, so we hold in common a need for Jesus that goes far deeper than the faith, hope, and love we could ever communicate.
Life brought Tiffany and her grandparents to sit at the bar with us last Saturday, and by eating pizza together, God set us (and the bartenders!) in inescapable community. Is it time to admit that the unity we seek is beyond speech and beyond concept? Could we possibly acknowledge that we are already one? Dare we confess that at times we succumb to the temptation to imagine that we are not one? Are we willing to recover our original unity by giving up whatever separates us from bearing fruit in escapable community? Can we become what we already are?