Eight Characteristics of Christian Community
Former England football captain David Beckham recounts being sent off in the 1998 World Cup Finals: ‘It was probably the longest walk in my life… looking back I’m not sure what thoughts were going through my mind: it was a swirl of fear, guilt, anger, worry and confusion. My head was spinning… I walked into the dressing room. The rules stated that I had to stay in there for the remainder of the match.’ England lost. We were out of the World Cup.
‘When the England players came back into the dressing room, no one breathed a word to me. There was almost complete silence. I could feel my stomach tightening even more. I gulped, breathed in, and gulped again. I was in a packed changing room but I had never felt so lonely in my life. I was isolated and afraid... I was trapped in my own sense of guilt and anxiety.’
God does not intend for you to be lonely and isolated. God created you for community – calling you into relationship with him and with other human beings.
The Christian community, the church, is the community of our Lord Jesus, the ‘great Shepherd of the sheep’ (Hebrews 13:20). Each local church is called to be a community of the great Shepherd.
Proverbs 27:23, 28:1-5
23 Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
28 The wicked flee though no one pursues,
but the righteous are as bold as a lion.
2 When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers,
but a ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order.
3 A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like driving rain that leaves no crops.
5 Evildoers do not understand what is right,
but those who seek the Lord understand it fully.
A community of pastoral care
At the end of the day it is people that count. ‘Know your sheep by name; carefully attend to your flocks’ (Proverbs 27:23, MSG).
The Bible often uses this same image of a shepherd and their flock to describe God’s care of his people, and the role of leaders within the people of God (eg Psalm 78:70–71; 1 Peter 5:2–4). Take great care of those entrusted to you. Know their condition and give careful attention to them. In fact, we should be so proximate to the people that, as Pope Francis puts it, the shepherd should ‘smell of the sheep’.
These verses point to three characteristics of the kind of community we should build:
A bold community
Be bold in your faith: ‘The wicked are edgy with guilt, ready to run off even when no one’s after them; Honest people are relaxed and confident, bold as lions’ (28:1, MSG).
A well-led community
Where there is chaos everyone has a plan to fix it, ‘but it takes a leader of real understanding to straighten things out’ (v.2, MSG).
A just community
‘The wicked… oppress the poor… Justice makes no sense to the evil-minded; those who seek God know it inside and out’ (vv.3,5, MSG).
13 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering.
4 Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?’
7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way.
20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
24 Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people.
25 Grace be with you all.
A community of Jesus
The community of Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep (v.20), is the most wonderful community on earth. It is ‘held together by love’ (v.1, MSG). This love is not just about feelings. It makes a difference to the way you act. If you want to know what loving each other ‘as brothers and sisters’ (v.1) looks like in practice, the writer of Hebrews emphasises five further defining traits that should be characteristics of Christian community:
‘Be ready with a meal or a bed when it’s needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it!’ (v.2, MSG) – as did Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18).
Shared meals are central to hospitality and mission. When you eat together you let down your guard, welcome strangers and become friends.
Help those in need
‘Regard prisoners as if you were in prison with them. Look on victims of abuse as if what happened to them had happened to you’ (Hebrews 13:3, MSG). When you minister to those in prison, or to victims of abuse, you encounter Jesus (Matthew 25:40).
‘Honour marriage, and guard the sacredness of sexual intimacy between wife and husband. God draws a firm line against casual and illicit sex’ (Hebrews 13:4, MSG).
‘Don’t be obsessed with getting more material things. Be relaxed with what you have. Since God assured us, “I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you”’ (v.5, MSG). You don’t need to have your mind set on money, because God has promised that as you set your mind on him, he will take care of these things for you. He will never leave you nor forsake you (v.5).
‘Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased’ (vv.15–16). These three things please God: praying (especially praising), serving (doing good) and giving (sharing with others).
The writer also emphasises the importance of leadership in the Christian community. We are all under our Lord Jesus, ‘that great Shepherd of the sheep’ (v.20). However, there are human leaders as well. There are five things he says about leaders:
‘Appreciate’ all your leaders and especially those who first brought the good news to you and first looked after you (v.7a, MSG).
‘Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith’ (v.7b). This is a huge challenge for any involved in Christian leadership. Others are watching and are called to imitate. A good example is worth twice as much as good advice.
Be responsive to them
‘Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?’ (v.17, MSG).
Pray for them
The writer himself was presumably one of their leaders and he urges, ‘Pray for us. We have no doubts about what we’re doing or why, but it’s hard going and we need your prayers’ (v.18, MSG).
‘Greet all your leaders and all God’s people’ (v.24). Presumably they are to be greeted with the words with which the letter ends. ‘Grace be with you all’ (v.25). ‘Grace’ is the word that sums up the letter and the kind of community that we are to be. It is in the community of grace where all people will find love, meaning and hope.
26 ‘I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries. Then they will know that I am the LORD.’
A community that knows the Shepherd
God’s intention for his community is that we should be a place where the lost, the broken and the lonely find hope, healing and love.
Later on, Ezekiel speaks about the shepherd who is a national ruler (Ezekiel 34). In a prophecy about Jesus he says, ‘I will place over them one shepherd… he will tend them and be their shepherd’ (v.23).
However, in today’s passage, Ezekiel speaks of the community that does not know the Lord. He predicts the judgment day when ‘they will know that I am Lord’ (30:8,19,26). This passage is a warning about the kind of attitudes to avoid. They relied on their wealth (v.4) and their ‘proud strength’ (v.6). They were arrogant (v.10, MSG). They were complacent (v.9) and they displaced God with idols (v.13).
The cedar of Lebanon (chapter 31) contrasts with the kind of community Jesus describes. This great cedar started off towering higher than all the trees of the field, with all the birds of the air nesting in its boughs (vv.5–6). All the great nations lived in its shade. It was majestic and beautiful. Its roots went down to abundant waters (v.7). However, it was cut down and came to nothing (v.10 onwards).
The kingdom of God is the very opposite. It starts off ‘like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in \[our\] shade’ (Mark 4:31–32).
Let’s seek to be a community that grows like the mustard seed and becomes a place where the lost, the broken and the lonely can perch in its shade – a community that knows the Lord, where people really matter, and where we enjoy the leadership of our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep.
In Hebrews 13:5 it says:
‘... be content with what you have...’ or ‘… don’t be obsessed with getting more material things. Be relaxed with what you have’ (MSG).
I often look in my wardrobe and feel I haven't got anything to wear (although there's plenty there). Or I look at other people’s Instagram holidays and think their holiday looks sunnier and more fun than my holiday. But then, reading this verse again reminds me that it's so important to ‘be content' with what we have.
Verse of the Day
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid…”
Thought for the Day
The church is a place where the lost, the broken and the lonely find hope, healing and love.
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David Beckham, David Beckham (Headline, 2013), pp.40–41.
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.