Choosing Community Over Isolation

John 20:19-23 (Common English Bible)

Jesus appears to the disciples

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”


Thoughts on the passage:

Our story today takes place on Easter evening.  Several of the disciples have been to the empty tomb and they are now left to wonder what is going to happen next to them.  What is striking to me about this is that despite of everything that Jesus has said and everything that they have born witness to, the doors of their gathering are still locked.  They are not filled with the joy that we associate with Easter, instead they are filled with fear.  In spite of all that God has done in their lives, they are still giving into fear.

Who they are afraid of varies by translation.  The text above mentions the Jewish authorities but other translations simple say, “For fear of the Jews.”  Whatever version you read, what can easily be lost is that the people they are afraid of are not that different from themselves.  For those of us who grew up as Christians in what is largely a Christian nation, the Jews can feel like a different people.  Certainly here in out-state Minnesota we do not encounter many of them.  The Jews however were not uncommon for the disciples, they were not even different.  Those that arrested Jesus were Jews, Judas was a Jew, Peter was a Jew, but so too was Jesus.  They had closed the door in fear, not of those who were unlike them, but in fear of those that were just like them.

When we think about being a church of life we need to think about who that life is meant for.  There are times the Bible is not very clear, but one thing that is very clear is who the message of the resurrection is meant for.  It is meant for everyone.  Not just the women who first come to the tomb.  Not just the disciples gathered together later that night.  Not just for faithful Christians centuries later.  It is meant for everyone.  How we choose to share that message says a lot about whether we want to be a church of life or not.  Do we lock the doors and huddle together with those who we know and trust or do we throw them open and go forth into the community?

Isolation has its benefits.  When we draw clear lines between us and them it is easier to stay safe.  We know who we can trust and who we can turn to.  We don’t have to worry as much about what might cause us harm.  Community is built around risks.  It means trusting others and being dependent and instead of independent.  Isolation can help us avoid those costs.

Community has costs but it also has benefits.  Anyone who buys insurance benefits from a community of others who also buy insurance in the belief that collectively our money will be enough when we have needs.  When we pay taxes we buy into the benefits of community as well.  My money goes towards schools whether or not I have kids and it goes towards parks whether or not I like the outdoors.  The strength of community is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

God does not wish us to be alone.  It is clear in Genesis with the story of Adam and Eve.  It is also clear here in John when Jesus pass through the locked door and calls the disciples forth.  They are given a choice: forgive those who have caused this harm or not.  They get to choose community or isolation.  In the end they choose community and go forth to share the peace of Christ with others, even those that continue to hate and revile them.

The Methodist movement began around this same idea of choosing community over isolation.  It took place both on a micro level but also a macro level.  Wesley knew that people were not meant to be in isolation so he organized people into groups and classes so that together we could help each other grown in our faith.  Through groups we would be strengthened against the challenges before us.  At the same time he practiced the idea of community over isolation at a macro level.  One of Wesley’s famous lines is, “The world is my parish.”  At that time, churches divided communities into parishes, each church had its own turf, its own area of control.  These parishes were the bounds of who a church was supposed to reach out to.  Wesley turned this on its head.  “The world is my parish,” is a bold declaration to not be bound by lines of us and them, to choose community over isolation and life over death.

Sadly, after Wesley we have fallen back into that same trap of isolation.  We draw up lines. Sometimes it is by neighborhood, other times it is Christian vs non-Christian, and in the worst instances it is things like United Methodist vs Baptist or even distinctions between two local churches of the same denomination.  Several years ago we started to change how we thought about this as an Annual Conference.  When the bishop made appointments he or she would not just appoint a pastor to a church, instead they would be appointed to a community.  When I was sent to Willmar I was appointed to serve our church but also our community.  It was a deliberate act to help me, to help us remember that the world, not the congregation, is our parish.

I believe that Jesus wants us to be a church of life and to serve not just ourselves but our community.  I believe he breathes his spirit into each of us and sends us forth.  We have the choice to choose community or isolation for ourselves.  When we open our doors and offer food to whoever comes next week we are choosing community.  When we open our doors on Tuesdays and Saturdays to Pastor Joshua and our Hispanic brothers and sisters we are choosing community over isolation.   When we open our Sunday school rooms for Family Promise we are choosing community over isolation.  In each of these moments we are offering the peace of Christ to others.  We are passing on the peace, the grace, we have been given by God to those who need it too.

Questions to Ponder:

When we do choose isolation it is usually based on fear.  What is something that you are afraid of?

When is a time you have been hurt by reaching out to others?

Who is someone you know who is always offering community, peace, and grace to others?

Where is God calling our church to reach out to others and offer community to people in need?

Prayer: God, you call us into a loving relationship: with you, with Jesus, and with each other.  Bless us with your grace and peace as we seek the courage to overcome our fears and reach out to others.  Help us to trust in your power of new life and to trust that even as we are afraid and alone, that you are with us.  Forgive us when we turn within and help us to see others, not for how they are different but for how like us, they are children of God.  AMEN