Christianity is Community
“Praise be to God…the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
If you were able to wander into any village in Greece on any Sunday afternoon, you would see a beautiful sight.
The bells have rung. Mass has concluded. An aroma clings around the village church of coffee and fresh bread. Sitting around tables in the parish hall, or gathered about trees and benches, are all the Christians who have just shared the Eucharist. Orthodox Christians worship in many different styles. But there’s one thing that’s common about them all, whether in Greece, Russia, Romania, Egypt, England, or America. Wherever Orthodox Christians have just met to pray, you can be sure you’ll find them eating together.
I remember visiting these villages while I lived in Greece. My friends were always eager to give me tours of their churches. First, they’d show me the sanctuary. “This is where we drink from the common cup.” Then they’d take me outside. “This is where we share bread and eat Loukoumia after Mass.” “This is where we roast our goats.” “This is where we all dance after the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin and our favorite saints.” You could say the most indicative sign of an Orthodox Christian community is the people’s happiness to eat and talk together.
Christianity is community.
When you think about the letters of Paul, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
You might call him the patron of grace, because he writes about it again and again. But that’s not the only common thread in Paul’s letters. In nearly ever page of every book, he writes about community.
“Let us consider,” Paul urges, “how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Philippians 2:1-3).
But we really can’t give Paul all the credit. In fact, the entire New Testament is about community. Jesus Christ tells us, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And the Book of Acts describes the Church as the body of believers who pray together, study together, and break bread together” (Acts 2: 42-47).
Every sacrament reinforces this. It’s forbidden to take the Eucharist alone. You always have to share it with someone else. No one is baptized alone. You’re baptized with godparents. In our tradition, whether you’re chrismated, ordained or even married, you’re always sponsored by members of the community.
A theologian named Christos Yannaras points out that a loss of community is the greatest illness of Western Christianity. He explains, “Historically, Christianity was not a new religion but the proclamation of a new mode of existence. It was…a way for people to exist in a relation of love…The sense of the Church primarily as a body in which we share in life and existence was [largely] lost in the West… [when] Christianity became an individualistic “religion” dominated by private convictions [and] the acquisition of individual merit…”
Individualism is the death of Christianity. In the words of another theologian, George Florovsky, “Christianity means a 'common life,' a life in common.”
Let’s step back for a moment now and look at our Sunday Gospel.
“[Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’” (Luke 7:11-17).
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.”
In Greek, the word for compassion is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη. It stems from the word σπλαγχα which quite literally means the body’s entrails and organs. It refers to the heart, lungs, kidney and the sum of a person’s physical body. Another translation of σπλαγχα might suggest, ‘the bowels.’ We’ve all gone through an event that moved us in this gut way, whether a young love gave us butterflies in our stomach, or a deep loss caused our gut to clench up, so that we couldn’t eat until the emotion had passed. This is the meaning of the word ἐσπλαγχνίσθη. This is the depth of compassion that Christ had for the suffering widow.
Christ sees the woman.
We can pass by a hundred people in one day without ever really seeing a single person. Christ saw her. He saw her heart. He felt her suffering as God always feels our suffering.
Then Christ says to her, “Weep not, dear woman.” There’s nothing shameful about crying. In fact, it’s a blessed thing, and even Jesus Christ Himself cried. I think we can only understand this passage as an expression of compassion. He wipes her tears. We’re speaking about God. Can you imagine this scene? This is the God who created the entire universe – who holds together every particle of creation. Yet despite His bigness, God is moved and comforts the tears of one small widow. It’s only after all this that Christ raises the boy from the dead.
So what does this have to do with community?
As Christ did for the widow, so we must do for one another.
In his first epistle, St. Peter writes, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded and sympathetic, love as brothers, be tender-hearted” (3:8). The word for ‘tender-hearted’ is the same that we saw just now in Christ: εὔσπλαγχνος – ‘moved in the gut for one another’. It isn’t an option for us Christians; it’s an obligation. We are here, in this small room, with a responsibility to be compassionate and tender-hearted for one another. This is what it means to be a Christian.
I’ll end with one more story.
I remember vividly a conversation I had as a young boy with a grownup. He told me that he didn’t get much out of church and so didn’t feel it necessary to go too often. This was the first time I’d heard a Christian say that, and I was shocked. I went home and asked my dad, and he gave me very good advice. “Son, its all too often that you hear people say this, that they’re not getting much out of church. The problem is that they aren’t asking how much they could be giving in church. People come to church wanting to get, when they should be going to church wanting to give.” This, indeed, was wise advice.
A Church community is full of suffering. A Church community is full of needs. Everyone here is struggling through something. That’s what it means to be human. In this situation, it’s true that we need something from church. We’re looking for help and solace. But the irony is that it’s in giving that we’re given. If you want God to pour out His grace to you, then first pour out your grace to another.
So rather then waking up on Sunday morning and wondering what we can get at church, we should ask ourselves what we can give. Who is going through a hard time? Who needs a friend? Who needs encouragement? Who needs compassion?
Paul writes to the Church, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.