So let me give you some background and unpacking of the piece of art by Van Gogh that we just looked at called “The Yellow House”. Like many artist Vincent Van Gogh felt misunderstood. It seemed like every community that he entered (church, fine arts academy, etc..) eventually found his passion intolerable (or maybe his mental illness contributed to that as well). Vincent longed for a community where his passions could be expressed and encouraged (don’t we honestly all long for that as well?) From 1886-1888 he experienced some of what he longed for, in relation to community and freedom to pursue his passion for art, while living in Paris with his brother Theo van Gogh. Theo was one of the few members of his family who encouraged him and helped foster Vincent’s artistic endeavors. During his time in Paris Vincent began to formulate the idea of starting a studio, a place where fringe artists might live and paint together. With the help, encouragement and financial support from his brother Theo, he moved to the town of Arles in Southern France, and rented a vacant house on the square….the Yellow House in the painting. It was a 4 room house with no gas for cooking, the bathroom was next door and it was in poor condition. But for Vincent it was a base for his dream of the “Studio of the South.” His dream, he felt, was becoming a reality. A dream to start a studio with live artists, who he would call, in religious terms, “Apostles of Art”.
His house, the bright yellow house, on the square of Arles, was to him a symbol of unity, community and mission. His brother than paid an artist by the name of Gauguin a stipend to relocate to Arles and help Vincent start this refuge for many. This refuge for many as he called it was also to be a place of healing for progressive artists who suffered from alienation and the stigma of being unconventional. But as Gauguin and Vincent began to prepare the house and begin working towards the dream, they couldn’t seem to ever get along. They were like oil and water. And so two months after Gauguin moved in, the two artists were at a cafe and begin to argue. Gauguin went to stay at a hotel refusing to return to the Yellow House and Vincent returned to the house, picked up the blade and put it to his ear. Van Gogh’s dream of living in community with other artists, and being a refuge for many ended.
The idea of community always appears more beautiful than the reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his more famous work Life Together says this about community, and more specifically Christian community, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” The gift of Christian community is a resource and a spiritual practice that can help liberate us as we live as Christ’s people in the midst of the consumer culture in which we live which is directly opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God. But what does true community look like and how can community help liberate us from consumerism? Let’s look at a prayer that Jesus prayed 2,000 years ago, when he prayed for us and see what it might have to say to us about community, consumerism, and what the purpose of community is.
John 17:20-23 says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
So right off the bat we see Jesus, in the garden, about to face the excruciating pain of the cross, the humiliation of the cross, the shame of the cross, as well as taking the sins of the world upon his shoulders. And what is he doing? Praying. Is he praying mostly for himself, for God, for others? He does pray for himself but not to help him get through the next few hours. No, it is so that his life, death and his resurrection would glorify his Heavenly Father. Then he prays for his disciples. And lastly, believe it or not, he prays for each and everyone of us, who are seeking to follow Him. He is on the eve of his judgment. The eve of his flogging. The eve of him being stripped naked, beaten, and hung on the cross and his death…and he is praying for you, and me. Do you feel the weight of that? Do you understand the love that must beat in the heart of Jesus for each and everyone of us that he would take the time, at his hour of need, when he would be totally deserted by his disciples, to pray for us. What was his prayer? That we may be one as he and his Father are one.
This idea that we may be one as the Father and the Son are one is about unity. And unity (community) is based on, not artificial things like ages, interest, social-economic status, etc.. As followers of Jesus our unity (community) needs to be based on and must mirror nothing less than the unity between Father & Son. Just as God the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, we are to live into that unity. Henri Nouwen put it this way, “Community is grounded in God, who calls us together and not in the attractiveness of people to each other.” Our unity and our community come about because and as a result of his prayer for us.
But all too often we are confused about this prayer in two different ways. First we misunderstand what Jesus is getting at in this prayer that we would be one as he and his Father are one. When we hear the word unity we think this is great, and we tend to think about sitting around a fire, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya. We think it will conflict free because we will all just get along and we will be uniform. But unity is not uniformity. His prayer is not that they all may be uniform in belief, theology, values, look, political affiliation, socio-economic status, race, etc.. In fact, truly unity is not uniformity but unity in the midst of differences. My dream, especially for this Christian community, is and has always been that our community would be one, based around Jesus, and that we would be able to hold differing beliefs around lots of issues, but still stay in relationship with each other. My dream has always been with this community that we could have dialogue on Sundays and at other times around theological and social issues, even strong disagreement but still stay in relationship with each other. I want to see a community made up of those who are conservative theologically, those who are middle of the road theologically, and those who are more progressive theologically. I want to see a community made of up Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents. I want to see a community that have different takes on social issues of our time. I want to see a community that is able to disagree with each other, in love of course, but buck the trend that so many Christians over the years have fallen into, that as soon as we disagree with each other about something, we split and tend to start new communities or even new denominations.
Look, here it is. This community is not perfect. We will disagree. We will have conflict. We will not all believe the same thing about every issue. But we don’t have to, to be community and to be unified. In fact, I truly believe it is better when we don’t all agree. True Biblical community and unity, is when we can love each other despite our conflicts, disagreements and differences. The Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 put it this way, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The early church was the only place in all society where male and females where together in public, with children in the midst. It was the only place slave and free interacted in a Kingdom way. It was the only place where Jew and Gentile were in relationship with one another. The Gospel broke down (and breaks down) all walls that we put up between ourselves. Republican/Democrat, Conservative/Liberal, American/Iraqi, Rich/Poor, White/Black, etc.. That doesn’t mean they alway got it right but that is the ideal that we should all long for. The mystery of community is precisely that it embraces all people, whatever their individual differences may be, and allows them to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and as sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father. That is what true unity, true community is. That is Jesus’ answer to prayer.
But true unity and true Biblical community isn’t just about inward relationships with other followers of Jesus. Unity and community isn’t just about loving each other and staying in relationships in the midst of differences. There is an outward and missional part to Jesus prayer for his church to be unified. Look at verse 21 which says, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” and also verse 23, “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me.” When we live out Kingdom community and unity, it isn’t just about us four and no more. When we love each other the way Jesus wants, the world sees Jesus. When we love despite differences, and refuse to pull away from each other, the world truly sees that Jesus is in our midst. What does John 13:35 say? By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” When we are united under the King and are living out the Kingdom in the world, the world sees this amazing group of people who, for all intended purposes, shouldn’t be together. Shouldn’t be able to get along. Shouldn’t be able to anything be in relationship. When the world sees a group of people who shouldn’t be together, loving each other in the midst of differences, there can only be one answer. Jesus. But what this means is that we need to put aside our consumer tendencies and actually commit to a community. We are fickle people when it comes to community. When things are going well, we are eager to jump into the community and join the fun. But when community requires sacrifice, perseverance, and hard work, which is what community is really, we often bail. But this is a value of consumerism and the individual and not a value of the King, the Kingdom and true community. The result however of our unity and community is that people will see and know that this kind of human community can only come from the hand of God. And when they see a community that truly loves each other in the midst of disagreement, conflict, etc.. it is highly attractive. And people want to be in a community where they can be themselves, and be truly loved. They want to be a part of a refuge for many.
Van Gogh wanted to create a refuge for many but it didn’t happen. Van Gogh and Gauguin weren’t unified despite their differences. And so the the vision behind the Yellow House never came to fruition. Jesus prayer for us is that we would be a refuge for many, both ourselves and all people. He prayed for it during his last day on earth. And he is calling us to put flesh to his prayers. To put his prayer into action by loving each other, serving each other, and living out the 59 one anthers in the Bible. And living in such unity and community that others will see Jesus living in and through us.
So let’s unpack what it would look like if we actually lived out the prayer of Jesus in our world today and in our community. What stands in the way of this prayer from becoming a reality? What steps can we take as individuals and as a community to actually live out Jesus’ prayer? And what is God saying to you and what should you do about it? And what is God saying to us and what should we do about it?
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions etc.. do you have regarding the text and/or the message?
2. What stands in the way of this prayer actually being answered? What things divide us?
3. What steps/things can we do as individuals and as a community to actually live out Jesus’ prayer?
4What 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?