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Restored for Community

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up

– Ephesians 4:11-12

There are times in life where the flow of life demands that we re-define, re-shape, and re-form our view and definition of community. As children, community changes when we start school or whenever we change schools. It becomes less and less defined by family and more defined by friends, interests, and activities. Eventually we leave our parents’ home to go to college, get our own place, get married, and/or start a family of our own. Again, our community significantly shifts, changes, and expands during those life transitions. Often times as adults, where we live and work play primary roles in how we define community.

Most of the time, the changes are such a natural part of life that, if we notice them, they aren’t traumatic. There is always sadness when those changes mean we leave close friends or family behind but there is also almost always joy and excitement in looking forward to the adventures the change will bring. But what about the times when that shift in community is a surprise, when we don’t see if coming.

For most of us, we didn’t see the shift coming in early 2020. We were caught off guard when schools and sports were cancelled. We have been so cautious and careful about gathering with older relatives and other at-risk family members, worried we might unknowingly get them sick. Churches have embraced technology and streaming services in unprecedented ways in an attempt to stay connected with those who have been unable to worship in person. We have had to figure out how to not feel alone and isolated when we aren’t supposed to be around other people. It’s a challenge which, if we are honest, virtually no one was prepared to tackle.

In John 21, the disciples have been through a lot of re-defining community in recent days. They watched Jesus triumphantly ride into Jerusalem, greeting by cheering crowds of people waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks for him to walk upon. Within days they watched that same crowd turn on Jesus and demand his crucifixion. They saw Jesus, the person they had followed for years at this point, die a horrible death on a Roman cross. They wondered what it all meant.

They then received the impossibly good news from a couple of women who went to finish preparing Jesus’ body for final burial, Jesus had risen from the dead! How did this happen? When did this happen? They ran to the tomb to be sure it had happened. Once again, they had to wonder what it all meant.

In John 21 in particular, several of the disciples were out fishing. Not like we think of fishing here on West Lake Okoboji with rods, reels, and hook at the end of a line but with nets tossed in the water designed to catch as many fish as possible as efficiently as possible. We don’t know why for sure they were fishing. Perhaps they were hungry or short on funds. Perhaps they were just longing to do something they had spent most of their life doing as a way to make sense of the world around them. Whatever the reason, they had gone fishing during the night, had caught nothing, and were exhausted.

One of the most important lessons for me from this story happens next. Jesus gets breakfast going for them. After telling them to cast their nets out one more time, he gets a fire going, gets what fish are available started cooking, and waits for them to haul in a record setting catch. It isn’t complicated. It isn’t super showy. It isn’t a big crowd. But it is exactly what those disciples needed in that moment. In making them breakfast, in getting a fire going, he lets them know that they aren’t just cogs in a machine designed to set the world right again but that they are his friends and he cares about them first and foremost as friends, not followers.

True, authentic communities aren’t worried about the quantity of relationships. No, instead they focus on the quality of the relationships. Authentic communities might be big or they might be small but they all focus on making sure each member feels welcome, safe, heard, and loved. The church, at its best, is a model example of an authentic community. Part of my job at camp, especially in the first part of the year, is to visit as many of our member and partner congregations as possible in the hopes of connecting with people about camp. This past year I’ve been in churches who wear masks and those who don’t. I’ve been in churches who sing and those who have taken music out of their worship service. I have been in churches which are scrambling to fit everyone and still maintain social distancing and I have been in churches where they don’t even bother marking the pews because the number of people there naturally lends itself to providing space. I’ve even preached to a largely empty church hearing the faint sounds of the car horns drifting in as they listened drive-in style. All of these churches, for their many ways of doing church at the moment, are simply trying to do their best to provide a sense of community while keeping people safe, making them feel welcome, and letting them know they are loved.

The theme verse for this final day of camp in 2011 was Ephesians 4:11-12. Why? Because it reminded us that Jesus provides various leadership roles within the community of the church to help it function as he has called the church to function at all levels. Apostles are given to the church to establish new congregations and communities. Prophets are called in a unique way to speak God’s truth. Teachers are called to help us understand on an ever deepening level what God’s word has to say. Evangelists are called to proclaim the basics of faith to those who have none. Pastors are called to care for the tangible needs of those who are trying to walk in faith.

In today’s church, especially our smaller congregations, we have a bad tendency to take each of those similar but still distinct callings and role them all into one person with the title of Senior Pastor. Personally, I don’t think that is fair to the senior pastors out there. God has called each one serving in such a role to primarily work out of one of these five leadership callings. But these leadership callings aren’t limited to pastors or even the leadership team at your church. God can call anyone to lead in any of these ways. A truly healthy, authentic community will see and embrace these roles in the lives of their members regardless of their official role, title, position, or length of church membership. Because a truly healthy and authentic community with know that asking one person to fill all of those roles is an unrealistic expectation.

Increasingly in this world it seems to be getting harder and harder to find community. To find a group of people who accept you for who you are right in this moment but who are also able to lovingly challenge you to always be striving to become more like Jesus. To find a group of people who gauge their success not on numbers, power, status, influence, or money but on the hearts of their members. But when we have the grace to acknowledge that no one, including ourselves, is perfect, finding the community to is aware of their shortcomings and making an honest effort to be the community God has called them to be in spite of those shortcomings, it is possible to find a community who has the power to remind of how much God loves each and every person.

Follow Up:

- Have you been feeling disconnected? Especially after this past year with all the unexpected interruptions COVID-19 has brought into our lives? Stop waiting for someone to reach out to you to bring you connection and community, take the first step and reach out. Try a new Bible study group or hobby-based club of some sort. Strike up a conversation the next time you are waiting in line for anything. Find a place accepting volunteers and donate some time. Set up an old-fashioned phone date with a friend with plenty of time for both of you to share what’s happening in your lives.

- Apostle. Prophet. Evangelist. Pastor. Teacher. Which of these roles do you feel you do best in? Worse? How can you exercise one of these roles in your local faith community?

- Who haven’t you heard from in a long time? Who has seemed to just “drop off the radar”? Reach out to them today to let them know you are thinking about them and praying for them.


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