“Trust and Mutuality: the Bedrock of Christian Fellowship”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
19 January, 2020
Week 3 of Holy Habits-Koinonia/Fellowship
Acts 2:41-47
1 Corinthians 12:14-27

 

You may have heard this ancient parable from India: A group of six blind men, having heard that a strange animal they’d not encountered before, called an elephant, had been brought to town.  They were curious, and wanted to be introduced to it.  As they encircled the elephant, each of them began to describe the creature.  The first one touched the side of the elephant and declared, “Why, it’s like a wall, though warm and rather fleshy!”  The second man, landing on a tusk, said, “No, it’s hard and smooth, and rather sharp, like a spear.”  A third one, whose hand reached the elephant’s ear countered, “I say, it’s like a fan!”  The fourth, whose hand grasped the tail responded, “How can that be? It’s just like a rope.” A fifth man, his hand upon its leg, said, “This elephant is a pillar, like a tree-trunk.” And the final blind man, touching the trunk of the elephant, declared, “Not at all; it is like a thick snake.”

The men began arguing loudly, insisting on the priority of their experience.  They prevailed upon a respected teacher who was passing by, to reveal who was telling the truth.  Of course, the teacher told them that they were each only partly correct; the reality of the elephant was greater than any one of them was able to perceive on their own.  It wasn’t until the men took the time to listen to each other, even to open themselves to the possibility of encountering the elephant differently, that they grew to trust one another’s perception and description of their reality.

The apostle Paul offered a similar, but in many ways richer and more explicitly theological explanation of our human experience of spiritual truth.  “For we know only in part, and we prophesy in part,” he wrote, “but when the compete comes, the partial will come to an end. … Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”[1]  He was writing to the newly-establishing Christian community in Corinth.

Like the community in Jerusalem that Luke described in our reading from Acts chapter 2, Paul’s church was a mixture of people from different backgrounds, traditions, cultures, and sets of underlying assumptions.  It was a group of people who were newly learning to trust each other – which meant setting aside some of the notions they’d had instilled in them since before they could formulate independent thoughts.  It meant re-habituating themselves in relationships, un-doing old habits of thinking and establishing new habits of thought and behavior.

In Acts chapter 9, Luke tells a story about how Paul was temporarily blinded on the road to Damascus prior to his conversion from persecutor of Christians to the first great evangelist.  But as we heard in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul doesn’t depict believers as disconnected entities describing various experiences, like so many blind men gathered around an elephant.  No, Paul declares even more dramatically that we’re all part of the same body.  “The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does,”[2] he wrote.  Just as the eye experiences the world differently than the foot does, or the hand or the lungs or the stomach, the various parts with their different experiences all contribute to the overall purpose and functioning of the body: “Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles,” he continued.  “Some of us are slaves, and others are free.  But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ.  Now we each drink from that same Spirit.”[3]

The early Christians were learning to trust one another.  Not only were there Jews who were coming to grips with the disruptive and painful truth that they understood reality very differently from their families and close friends who could not accept that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.  There now were Gentiles identifying with the truth claims the Christian Jews were making, and becoming part of their fledgling religious communities.  For as far back as memory held, Gentiles had been understood to be “off limits” to the Jews with regard to close relationships.  And the Gentiles had theologies and worldviews of their own that were quite different to what the truths and teachings they found themselves resonating with from those following the Jesus Way.  Now, as Paul writes, they’re all “members of the same body”?

Obviously, the Jewish Christians were having to re-habituate their thinking, to understand that God welcomed these Gentile individuals into special relationship right alongside themselves, and indeed God yearned for them to live in covenant community with one another, recognizing the unifying and single Holy Spirit that lived and breathed in all of them.

But as Luke described the churches of the first converts, people were practicing community in dramatic new ways.  Ways that required some vulnerability and trust at first, but as it grew, the members felt stronger, filled with joy and purpose, more fully alive.  They ate together and worshiped together, they shared things without restraint so that no one experienced any kind of need.  He described the members of the gathered community as having “glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”[4]

Most of us can think of a few people who are yearning for salvation from a life characterized by fear, suspicion, loneliness, and isolation.  Most of us long for a deeper sense of the sort of communion and koinonia fellowship, of the courageous Christian community that’s described by Luke and by Paul.

Last week, we talked in small groups about trust, which is a key component of the Holy Habit of Koinonia Fellowship.  In looking over the written responses submitted, I was struck by the number of people who, in defining trust, noted that it entails a sense of “hope”, even “confidence and security”, in the reliability of another.  There were several others who noted that trust requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to surrender control.  Several of you said that among the criteria required for trust is genuine listening, and understanding of others.  One person wrote the words, “open-minded” and “self-less”.  Another echoed a different part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, identifying “faith, hope, and love” as requirements for trust to flourish.

Of course, all of us have experienced the ways in which our trust has been disappointed, or even shattered on occasion.  And so we talked, too, a little bit about how trust and mutuality might be restored.  “Repentance then forgiveness can restore trust,” wrote one wise soul, and another one like it said: “Both sides working at rebuilding trust – one forgiving, offering another chance; the other demonstrating a trust-worthiness.”  Someone else observed, “Trust can only be rebuilt with a lot of effort, and it takes time and faith.”  “Trust in God enables us to trust in others,” wrote another insightful person.  To that, I would add that God’s trust in us enables us to trust in others.   When we have confidence in God’s reliable forgiveness and enduring willingness to give us another try (and another and another), as we strive to become more conformed to God’s own heart, we will more likely voluntarily, even if vulnerably, practice renewing and restoring our trust in others.  Even those who have disappointed us.  (Sometimes, including even ourselves!)

Still, as I thought about these reflections against the backdrop of a community endeavoring to live into a deeper experience of God’s presence and power, it was impossible not to recognize the challenge.  First, as I thought about the churches that Luke and Paul were describing—where the early Christians were striving to weave together very different customs and cultures in their new churches, attempting to understand different foundational storylines while also trying to establish a new, collective narrative that bound them together: it was no easy task!

And then, as I thought about our own community here in Hollis, I began to see the variety of ways we, too, have competing customs and cultures, foundational storylines and definitive components to our individual identities.  Although there are some among us who have lived in Hollis all their life, most of us have been shaped by life elsewhere at least for a time … and we’ve brought what we value from our time spent elsewhere with us, whether the long-established folks like it or not.  Many of us did not grow up as Congregationalists or in the United Church of Christ, and this congregation is unique even among UCC’s.  Churches across this country have been wrestling with the ways in which social norms, practices, and preferences are shifting, often along generational lines, regarding what expresses our faith and convictions about God, or about what it means to be a Christian.  That’s been unsettling and uncomfortable at best, and sometimes it’s downright painful when one group or another feels dismissed, unappreciated, misunderstood, or diminished.

Furthermore, because our small-town congregation is a bit of a microcosm of our wider community, our membership spans the spectrum of political views.  And because the politics of this country are inflected with religious rhetoric of varying sorts, and because our national political climate has become so toxically polarized, so utterly devoid of trust and mutuality, it’s been impossible not to feel the impact on this spiritual body, this community of faith.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people say, essentially, they don’t feel safe discussing much beyond whether the sun is shining, because it’s “too dangerous.”  There is no question that this lack of trust and mutuality even in our sanctuary grieves the heart of God.

Because, while the world’s way of dealing with conflicting perspectives at the moment seems to be to dismiss, diminish, and dehumanize, the covenant fellowship koinonia community of Jesus Christ believes: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the 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.’ But God has so arranged the body, … [that] the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”[5]

Trust and mutuality are the bedrock of fellowship and community, if we are following the example of Jesus Christ.  His example is the embodiment of God’s own design.  Jesus taught with his words and with his life that trust in God is full of hope; it is confident and secure in God’s reliability and faithfulness.  And, as the incarnation of divine love, Christ demonstrated that God’s love cannot, will not, be severed or withdrawn – not even from those who disappoint or betray him.  He reached out, without fear or force, to those unlike himself – even to those whom his peers and elders counseled him to avoid.  He reached out with love and trust, with faith and hope, displaying a mutual humanity and willingness to meet the other as they were.  Fearlessly vulnerable, and therefore redemptively powerful, he reached out with saving grace to sinners and outcasts, to the unlovely and the despised of the world, and to the likes of you and me.

Friends, now we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.  How will we practice the power of trust and mutuality as we further develop the Holy Habit of Fellowship in our community and in the wider world to which we’re called?

[1] 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12b

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:12, CEV

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:13, CEV

[4] Acts 2:46-47

[5] 1 Corinthians 12:15, 21, 24-27

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC