A Third Way to Follow Jesus Week 7: Belief in Church as Covenant Community

This past Tuesday Garret, Jeff and Myself traveled to Plymouth Meeting Mall to gather with some of our Ecclesia Network family.  At least 2 times per year we have a regional get together for the morning, and then we eat lunch together following the conversation and theme of the morning.  The theme for the morning fit perfectly in between our conversation from last week and our conversation for this week.  It was on diversity within the church.  

So last week we talked about insisting on church without class or division and this week we are talking about belief in church as a covenant community.  Let me explain what happened on Tuesday and why it was the perfect fit between last week and this week.  The leaders of our discussion on Tuesday were two Pastors of a church in Bethlehem.  The Senior Pastor was caucasian while his associate Pastor was African American.  They shared what it was like to be a church that is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, seeking to be a church without class or division.  And how them being in relationship was transforming them both, as well as their church.  But what really struck me was the times that they had very hard conversations, yet stayed in relationship.  Many times the associate had to challenge the Sr. Pastor in his view of things and sometimes his assumptions that he brought to the table.  But each time they worked through the issue and refused to run the other way, ignore the problem, or dive into anger, hate, and frustration.  They were committed to their relationship, their leadership within the church, and the church as well.  They covenantedtogether to be in relationship with each other and the church.  Sure it probably would be a lot easier to go their separate ways, develop mono-cultural and mono-ethnic churches, or let the tone of the conversation in the world to creep into the church and into their conversations.  But they didn’t.  They are a beautiful picture of our conversation from last week and our conversation from this week.  

So let’s explore together what it means and what it looks like to believe in church as a covenant community and what it has to say to us about a third way to follow Jesus.  

To look at church as covenant community we need to first look at Scripture to show us examples of covenant community as well as define what I mean by covenant community.  

There are many places within the pages of Scripture that we could look at when we are talking about covenant community, but for me the most obvious and most beautiful people of the people of God living into covenant community is found in Acts 2:42-47.

Acts 2:42-47 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

To put it succinctly, covenant community, in this Scripture and I believe flowing out of this text into the early church, and throughout the 2,000 years of church history (as we celebrate Pentecost- the birthday of the church today), is about corporate worship (apostles teaching, prayer, breaking of bread), mutual care (had everything in common and shared to anyone who had need), fellowship, and mutual accountability.  An individualistic or self-centered (self-driven) third way follower of Jesus is a contradiction in terms.  Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship, and mission.  Places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship.  

Let’s unpack a little bit from Acts 2:42-47 and then let’s look at our own time in regards to the church.  

The first thing that struck me when reading Acts 2 this time around was the second word in the entire passage, the word devoted.  The word devoted, as many of us know, means to be constant, steadfast, loyal, committed and dedicated.  These early followers of Jesus were devoted not only to the 4 marks of the church (apostles teaching, common life, breaking of bread, prayer) but they were by definition devoted to one another.  They were committed to one another- they were family. The good, the bad, and the ugly- come what may, they were together.  I am not one who doesn’t believe that the early church didn't have any problems, as I mentioned last week much of the New Testament letters were written because there were problems.  But one thing that I really appreciate about the early church was this fact- that they were devoted to one another and that they saw each other as family.  And you can’t leave family- you are “stuck” with them though the good times, the bad times, and the times where you would rather not be in the family.  

The early church was a family who not only were committed to Christ (which is I believe the source of the covenant in a covenant community), but also individually and voluntarily to each other.  They lived out being in covenant community in three different ways.  First, forgiveness is essential.  The early believers no doubt struggled with each other.  I mean in the 12 disciples (which was probably one of the first Christian covenant communities) you had a tax collector (Matthew), viewed by many as a traitor to his own people, who probably ripped off his own people and Simon, who was a zealot, who had probably killed a tax collector or two.  A zealot was a band of Jewish people who called their own people to stand up, rebel and fight against the Roman Empire and expel it from their land, and they used violence and force to fight against Rome.  But they were both in the 12 disciples who followed Jesus.  No doubt there were heated exchanges between the two.  No doubt that there were probably arguments.  But they both stayed in relationship with each other, begin committed first to Jesus, second to his mission and his rule and reign in the world, and thirdly to each other.  If you want to live out a life and faith in a covenant community, then forgiveness is absolutely crucial and essential.  Because when you live face-to-face with people, you will disagree, you will struggle, you will rub against each other, you’ll sin against each other…and that is why forgiveness is so crucial, valuable and important in a covenant community.  

Secondly, a covenant community interprets Scripture together.  The Bible is a book written to a community, in a community, and through a community and best understood in a community.  Just a for example regarding the Bible as a community book, is something that I have mentioned plenty of times before, and many of us know it.  But when the Bible writers mention the word You, they most of the time don’t mean the individual you, but the plural you.  You as a community.  The early followers of Jesus understood that and lived that out.  We see it in that they were devoted to the Apostles Teaching.  They read it, taught it, lived it, and spread it all in community.  This value, of interpreting Scripture together, along with forgiveness and the next one, and the call to live in covenant community with each flies so much in the face of what our, especially western world tells us.  We are enamored with individualism, the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, the I am not dependent upon anyone, and the fear of commitment that we see that is rampant in our culture.  Being a follower of Jesus confronts that tendency within us all, and calls us into covenant community with each other, based on our relationship with Christ.  

Lastly a covenant community is a community that is experienced in face-to-face groups.  Healthy communities of faith are structured for community.  They are structured to build relationships and belonging in ever space of belonging, from Public to Social to Personal to Intimate and even to Divine.  (If you want to know more about the 5 contexts for belonging and discipleship, talk with me as this is the basis for our missional discipleship plan that is being worked on and looks to launch hopefully by theFall)

All three of these values (face to face groups, interpreting Scripture in community, and forgiveness is crucial) challenges our own individualism and our desire to be self-centered and self-driven.  Being in a covenant community means committing to a people.  Covenant community challenges the way we so often practice our faith and the concept of church.  You see all too often we see the church, especially today in the consumer culture in which we swim and breathe, as a purveyor of religious goods and services designed to make us happy, and keep us from church shopping elsewhere for better good, services and programs.  All too often however that is what we believe and practice, even if we don’t say it in those crass terms.  But so often we move around to satisfy our own supposed needs. But when we do that we sacrifice so muchWe sacrifice the opportunity to be in relationship with each other, especially those who we might struggle to love, agree with, or who are different from us.  If church is about meeting our needs, we will never truly commit to being a part of a covenant community, because we will always wonder if there is a better “church” or program out there.  A person who sees church as a place of goods and services ask the question, “What is in it for me?”  A person who sees church as a covenant community says, “Where might I use my gifts, passions, and talents in this community and how can I be a part of what God is doing in and wants to do here?”  

Part of the amazing growth of the early church is because they saw church that way, and they saw church as family.  And when your family is in need, you act.  It reminds me of a story told in the book Saturate by Jeff Vanderstelt tells of his next door neighbor, a recluse named Nicki, whose house was falling down around her, and was difficult to love.  But Jeff felt God calling him to love on her.  He felt God asking him, “If Nicki were our mother, sister or daughter, how would we love her?  If we were to see Nicki as our mother, sister, or daughter, how patient would we be with her?  Would we give up on her?  What kinds of things might we do for her?  How would we express love for her?”  We are family, under God as Father, as Jesus as Brother.  We are sisters and brothers and we are family.  And when family is in need, we act.  It is called mutual aid.  Acts 2 puts it this way,  “All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”  A covenant community sees each other as family, and then helps each other out as family.  

As a covenant community, as a family, as we eat together, sharing bread and wine (or grape juice) we sustain hope together as we seek the Kingdom of God together.  As a covenant community we are committed to nurturing and developing such a church, in which young and old are valued, leadership is communal, roles are related to gifts and not the gender, and baptism is for believers.  For us being a part of a covenant community means living our our vision and rule of life together.  It means seeking to bless the world individually and corporately.  It means growing deeper in our journey with Jesus through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, fasting.  And it means sharing life together not as friends (though we are that) but more importantly as family, as brothers and sisters.  Part of being a covenant community together means fighting against the individualism that keeps us apart, and fighting against the habit to not commit to anything.  One thing that we can do together it to commit to each other as a community, as a family.  If you are interested in learning more what that looks like for Veritas, there are, what we call Community Commitment sheets on the back table, that explores living as a covenant community together.  

So let’s do some communal unpacking of the Scripture together.  Let’s talk about what pushes us away from covenant community and what draws us towards it.  Let’s talk about how we can better live as family, as brothers and sisters together as Veritas.  And let’s see what God might be saying to us together about being in covenant community together. 

1.  Take time to read Acts 2:42-47.  What stands out to you in this passage?  What questions, insights, comments, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture, the idea of church as covenant community and/or the message?

2.  What draws you away from covenant community?  What draws you towards covenant community?

3.  What might we do as Veritas to live more like family?  How can we better live out covenant community together and how can we better live out forgiveness as essential, interpreting Scripture in Community, and being a face-to-face community?

4.  What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it?  What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?