Sermon: Caring about Community

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, March 3rd 2024

1 Corinthians 12:14-27

Unfortunately this service was not recorded


So here we are at the mid-way point of a series of five services during Lent that follow a general theme: ‘Caring about …’ A set of services where we think about how different aspects of life are important enough for us to take care about them. Hence the theme of ‘caring about’. In previous weeks, we have looked at caring about time and caring about creation; in future weeks caring about work and caring about spiritual gifts. This week we are exploring ‘Caring about community.’

Community needs caring about because community does not arise out of nothing. Sometimes people talk about “creating community” where none exists. I think that’s a mistake. Instead, community arises and flows out of having a prior, shared experience. The form community takes then depends upon how people respond to their shared experience. For example, there’s a strong sense of community identity arising from living in the North East of England.

To go deeper, community identity is even more local than that: the town where you live; the team which you follow; the group or club to which you belong, whether that be for singing together, keeping an allotment, playing golf or bowls, or whatever. Your shared interest or experience is what then generates a sense of being a community.

And of course, there is religious community. Listen to these words from the Northern Synod online prayers during Lent: “We believe that God calls us to be a community, committed to one another, offering a welcome to everyone; old and young, rich and poor, strong and weak.” That certainly indicates a strong conviction that church is supposed to be a community.

Some Christians identify strongly with their denominational tradition – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Reformed or whatever – but most people I know identify most strongly with the congregation to which they belong. The congregation is their religious community because it is here in the shared life experience of that group that a sense of community arises.

The Apostle Paul, that early follower of Jesus and Church leader, wrote to Christians living in Corinth, including about community. He describes their church community as a living, breathing body: ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.’ (12:12-13)

So what sort of community should result from our shared experience of being a church congregation here in North Shields? This might sound like a statement of the obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true. A church community arises out of experiencing God through Jesus Christ.

Other communities arise out of different experiences. That’s not to say that these are bad things. They might be exceptionally fine communities, but church community arises from shared experience of God through Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul, writing about church community in terms of being a body, says, ‘But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.’ (12:18) The Corinthian local church community starts with God. It is God who has brought the Church into being. There is a paradox here – two things which appear contradictory, but which when held together leads you into a deeper truth. And that paradox is that God honours the local, honours that specific community, and so demonstrates that every community is important.

God takes the time to create these micro-cultures – congregations – where each individual member plays its or their part;  has their honoured place. To quote Paul: ‘there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.’ (12:2-23)

It feels as though the local congregational community is everything; a place where, ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.’ (12:26) And we would want to aspire to these sorts of relationships within our local church community, even though we know that we won’t always live up to this divine ideal. Still, the local church community is the place where we work to build strong, positive relationships.

But back to the paradox. God takes the time and trouble to relate to the local community. So that local community is affirmed as important, but because it is God who is doing this affirming then we must also look beyond our own local church community and  to other communities. That’s because the God who is interested in our local community is the God of the whole universe. God is the God of the community of creation. That suggests to me that although we are interested in and committed to our local church community – the congregation – because our church community has to do with God then we always have to be able to look beyond our local congregation – to act as members of other communities.

To take one example, that’s why we are interested in such issues as what happens to our recycling. Recycling relates to the community of creation here on earth. It’s about how the material resources of the planet are used, and then reused or discarded. How that works then has implications for human communities, both those whose living depends upon the manufacture of goods, and those communities which have to deal with what’s left of materials when they have been used. And there are, of course, a host of other significant social and economic settings and issues which claim our attention because we believe they claim the attention and concern of God.

And this leads me to my final point, which relates to how we think we might know what God thinks or knows about community. Just to talk about ‘God’ can be pretty abstract. How on earth can we know what’s on the mind of a God who is greater than the universe itself? We, however, want to attribute a name to God, one which carries with it convictions about God’s identity and character. We talk about Jesus.

Saint Paul worked his way through describing the local church community as a body. He emphasises the ways in which the different parts of the body function together. They depend upon each other. Sometimes, our own experience tells us that a whole body can be thrown out of kilter when small, previously little regarded part is not functioning properly. Paul, though, has one more thing to say in his description of this body: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’ (12:27)

The members of a local church community, like the one in Corinth two thousand years ago, or this one here in North Shields today, combine together to be the body of Christ. And note that Paul does not say ‘you are like the body of Christ.’ Paul says, ‘you are the body of Christ.’ Not ‘like’, but ‘are’ the body of Christ.

The title of our series during Lent is ‘Christians caring about …’ – time, creation, work, spiritual gifts, and community. Since as a community we embody Jesus Christ (which is a challenging thought) then we have to live out community in Christlike ways. We are looking to be a community that draws people in because Jesus lived a life that drew people to himself. We are called to be a community that has to look out beyond ourselves because Jesus was for ever going to other places and groups proclaiming good news. We have to be a community that is intentionally hospitable to others because Jesus was forever giving his time to others, including sitting down to eat with them. And since we believe that Jesus Christ came into the world for the sake of the world our church community needs to be looking out to the world community.

Yes, Christians are called to care about community our own church community, our local communities, and communities more widely. We do so because God cares about this church community, and the other communities. We do so because having encountered God in and through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that marks the ways in which we relate to others in community, whether that’s within this congregation or in relation to other communities.

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