Challenge and Witness of Community Life – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

“An idolatrous love of money, the selfish pursuit of profit without regard to ethics, risk, or consequence.” That is how the Archbishop of York recently described what has been going on in our financial institutions. Selfishness, greed, rampant individualism. No surprise that the Rule of our Society describes the culture in which we live like this: our culture “defines human beings as consumers, and gives prestige to those who have power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.” Is that the model to which we aspire as men and women made ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ in the image of God? Born to be nothing more than individual, grasping consumers in one great market place?

There could be no greater contrast to this chilling and dehumanizing model than the one presented in the New Testament. And that is of men and women living together in community. Community is a gift given us by a loving God as the way both to achieve the deepest contentment, and to fully become the men and women whom God called us to be. In short, we cannot grow into the full stature of children of God on our own: we need each other! “What if the eye said to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ Or the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’.”

We need one another, not just practically, but at a much deeper level. And it is at this deeper level that we brothers of SSJE try to live the life of community. It is this deeper level which our Rule attempts to describe. By living in community, with all its difficulties and challenges, we are trying to witness to our Christian belief that every person is called to live in some form of community, whatever that social unit might look like. And that is because we are made in the image of God, and that God is in essence, a community. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson had an intensely Trinitarian theology, and believed that God is in his very being, a community of love; that as our Rule puts it, “there is a ceaseless interchange of mutual love which unites the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Orthodox have a beautiful image: they call it ‘perichoresis’, an eternal dance of love between the three persons of the Trinity. God calls each of us to join in this community of love. And so Fr Benson believed passionately that the way to grow into our full stature as children of God was not through competitive individualism, but through sharing in a community, in a fellowship, or what the New Testament calls a ‘koinonia’ of love. Each of us bears the image of the triune God and we are not meant to be separate and isolated. We are called, rather, as our Rule puts it, “to belong to communities of personal cooperation and interdependence, where every person’s gifts are nurtured and valued.”

And yet it is so hard for us to live like this. Our Rule describes how again and again we are challenged by our pride, our fears, our ‘competitiveness and jealousies’. The tendency to look at another member who is very different from you and, like the eye in St Paul’s metaphor to say, “You are not like me: I don’t need you”. Our prevailing culture makes us prone to self-seeking, egoism, and competitiveness.

I think that on our own, we would be powerless to break out of its insidious grasp. But our Gospel reading today gives us a word of life. In this great passage from St John’s Gospel, Jesus, at the Last Supper, washes his disciples’ feet. Earlier in the story we hear how Peter remonstrates and says, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus says to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” We too need to be washed by God. Our individuality, our distinctive gifts, our uniqueness – all wonderful gifts from God – to stop them from turning against us and filling us with pride and self-centeredness – they have to be washed, sanctified, by our intimate participation in the life of God. Otherwise we would have no share in that life. To grow as children of God we need to be washed by the divine life.

What’s that like in practice? The writer William Golding wrote, “People cannot move without hurting each other.” When we live with others in community we do sometimes hurt them and they can hurt us. We don’t always mean it, but it’s part of our fallen human condition. We need to be constantly washed and cleansed by God; to say sorry, to forgive each other and to hear God’s gracious words of forgiveness. We can then start again, make a new beginning and grow together as a family, a community. That’s how communities work.

So in our life of prayer, in our regular participation in the Eucharist and the sacramental life, we allow the dynamic community of love which is God the Holy Trinity, the dance of love between the Father, Son and Holy spirit, to graciously spill over, forgive us, wash over us, and draw us in so that we can participate in that life. As our Rule puts it, “we are caught up in the communion of the divine persons as they flow to one another in self-giving and reciprocal love.” And this can change us – dramatically. Instead of being stunted and isolated by fear and competitiveness, we can delight in each others’ gifts and achievements; we can celebrate them, and not feel jealous or resentful or threatened by them.

So the challenge for us as Christians is to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the community to which we belong, to acknowledge what binds us together, what we share in common, what is our essential unity, our ‘koinonia’. It is only from that place that I am able to delight in what distinguishes me, and what makes you delightfully different. It is the eye saying to the foot, ‘you are different to me, but I NEED you.’ Again from our Rule: “We can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctiveness as persons.” Now that is very different from competitive individualism.

And it is something that is very attractive. Others are drawn to it. At the heart of our founder Richard Meux Benson’s vision for SSJE was that we be a ‘community of love,’ reflecting, however imperfectly, that divine community of love which is God the Holy Trinity. Father Benson believed that if we lived like this, others would be drawn to God through us. And I guess that is at the heart of what we hope is our witness by living the community life. In Benson’s wonderful words, “If we let people see we are living upon a truth, and loving it, they will soon catch the life!”

I believe that the financial and economic crisis of these past months has brought into sharp relief two very different ways of living life. There is the self-centered and greedy grasping after personal gain and prestige, which Scripture warns us, leads only to death. And then there is life lived in community, in ‘koinonia’. Life which sees the other not as a competitor in some grim ‘zero-sum’ game, but as a brother or sister, without whom my own life is diminished. And this way, Scripture assures us, leads to life. It leads to life because it is modeled on the very life of God who is in essence community, a dynamic community of love.

So we have a choice. We can push our way through life, selfishly and roughly jostling and elbowing and shoving people out of the way. That leads to death. Or we can dance our way through life, delighting in those with whom we share the movements. That leads to life.

As you come up to receive Holy Communion with your brothers and sisters, to share in the very life of God, hear again God’s gracious invitation to you: “Come, join the dance!”

© 2009

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