The First Thing: an understanding of salvation, church, and God.
The Narrative of Salvation
The biblical narrative goes something like this: God created the world out of his love and goodness and he made mankind in his image so that we might exercise his rule over creation, stewarding both the world and our souls into greater goodness, beauty and truth. If we fulfilled this purpose then God would be glorified and the world would be whole. Humanity did not fulfill this purpose, however. We sinned against God, through the temptation of Satan, so that we are now afflicted with corruption, decay, and death. Evil is now present at every level of creation: our individual souls, our community of humanity, and even the whole cosmos.
God’s purpose for us and for creation having been thwarted by sin, death, and Satan, He decided to launch a rescue operation. He set out to reverse the evil effects of sin, death, and Satan, and restore creation to its proper order, under his Kingly rule. This is what salvation means. God is redeeming us from evil, and bringing us into his Kingdom–a creation that is rightly ordered under his rule. This is why the bible often speaks about salvation in terms of new creation. The promise and hope is that God is going to make everything that has been marred new again. God set his plan for salvation in motion through Israel. God’s call and promise to Abraham was that through Israel he would restore the world and bring all of humanity back to himself. This was Israel’s vocation and mission in the world–a mission it found impossible to fulfill since it too was under the evil effects of sin, death, and Satan. Thus, the would be rescuers themselves needed rescuing.
Jesus is that rescuer. Jesus is the Messiah: the one who can finally fulfill Israel’s vocation in the world, and the one who can thus bring God’s salvation to all of humanity. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation through the Cross, and through his resurrection he begins to realize God’s promise of new creation. Jesus has inaugurated the rule of God; he has set in motion the new creation and the redemption of all humanity. In Christ, we are being restored into the image of God, being created into the humanity God intended us to be. The spectacular thing about this is that God has accomplished this by sharing his own life with us: we have become “participants in the divine nature.” The ancient Christians put it this way, “He became like us, so that we might become like him.” What they meant is that through the Incarnation Jesus has saved us so that we can take on the character of God. The ancient Christians, particularly in the East, considered this to be the ultimate goal of salvation. We are saved f rom sin, death and Satan; we are saved for transformation into God’s likeness. They believed that this was the original intent for humanity: an infinite process of becoming more like God, become even deeper participants in his goodness, beauty, and truth.
A very condensed way of talking about all of this is to say that salvation has to do with the arrival of the Kingdom of God. God is acting for our salvation by replacing the Kingdom of Sin/Death/Satan with His Kingdom of Goodness, Love, Unity and Peace. Importantly, this Kingdom is one that has begun to arrive but has yet to be fully realized. Jesus says the Kingdom of God is near and that it is among us. It is both “now” and “not yet.”
In modern times, scholars have come to call this now/not yet dimension of the Kingdom of God inaugurated eschatology. The biblical picture is not of a salvation that will occur merely at the end of time in one grand judgement scene. Neither is the biblical picture one in which salvation occurs merely now, in this life. Instead, it is always both. In and through Jesus, God has begun His work of salvation and has inaugurated His Kingdom. Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father and his rule and reign has already begun. This is especially marked by the advent of the Spirit, whom the Scriptures say Christ has poured out on His Church. All of the gifts of salvation that Scripture envisions will be present in God’s new creation have in fact already begun to be made real.
Biblically speaking, the l ocus for God’s salvation work is the Church. The Church is the People of God, the place where God’s Spirit has been poured out so that we are being delivered from Sin/Death/Satan and beginning to be renewed in the image of Christ. It is in and through the Church that God is making the future reality of His Kingdom a presently enacted and embodied presence in the world. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of God’s Kingdom in his life, and as Christian we are called to follow him by becoming embodiments of God’s Kingdom–God’s salvation–in the world. It is by faithfully (while imperfectly) embodying God’s Kingdom that the Church is a faithful witness to God’s salvation for the world. We live in light of Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, living into a new identity as the People of God, becoming active participants in God’s goodness, beauty, and truth by pursuing the transformation of our character.
The essence of the Church, then, is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. We are called to manifest God’s salvation for the world by our participation in that salvation. Furthermore, this call to embody the Kingdom extends to both our individual and corporate lives.
The salvation that God is accomplishing is one that happens at an individual level: in our own life we are brought out from the kingdom of sin/death/Satan, and transformed into the likeness of Christ. We are called to become like Jesus, progressing in the virtues, and putting on God’s character. We are called to deeper participation in God’s goodness, and since that Goodness is infinite, we will forever be growing into further participation in that Goodness.
At the same time, God’s salvation is one that happens at a corporate level as well. Not only are we being individually renewed, but we as a community are being made new. The community of humanity is meant to reflect the life of the Trinity, where we live with one another in an infinite dance of love and submission. Thus, we are called to embody the Kingdom of God not only privately, but also corporately. The communal life of the Church is supposed to reflect the communal life we see pictured in the prophets: where peace prevails among all, where there is no more war or crying or pain, where the community worships God and stewards his creation.
It is this aspect of communal embodiment that so particularly relates to intentional community. Intentional Christian Community is about embodying the rule and reign of God as a corporate body. The mystery of the Incarnation is that through Jesus the life of God took on flesh and dwelled with men; the mystery of the Church is that now the life of God is to take on flesh through God’s people. Through the Incarnation, God moved into the neighborhood. Through intentional community, we too move into the neighborhood, and in doing so we become a symbol for God’s Kingdom. As the Church embodies the Way of Jesus in the textures of everyday life together, we become a visible sign for the salvation we are proclaiming.
Intentional Community, America, and Jesus
Delimiters on Community: American Forms
We believe that the practice of intentional Christian community is especially important for our particular time and place in American society. American society is highly advanced in many areas, but corporate embodiment isn’t one of them. Quite the opposite: we are a highly individualized society, where almost everything we do in society is based around the autonomous individual. American culture, by its very nature, puts severe restrictions on the form our corporate embodiment of the Gospel can take. Often times our practice of Christian community is limited to a small group meeting for two hours a week. This is, practically speaking, all we can manage, since we lead such disparate lives. The f orm of America’s highly individualized culture means that our gathering as Christians and our corporate embodiment of the Way of Jesus are always exceptions to the rule. We have to leave the normal patterns of our life in order to gather as Christians–we take a break from our normal hectic schedules and busy lives, have a short breather of community, and then get back to everyday life. This pattern is so ingrained into us that it is even how our Church’s function at a macroscopic level. Many people literally commute to church, leaving their normal neighborhood and life in order to participate in the gathering of Christians. Hence, for example, many modern megachurches function as highly sophisticated social organizations, providing as many programmatic access points for their commuter/consumer audience so that the absurdly varied schedules of our individual lives can find areas of overlap. Now, all of this is merely to say that when it comes to corporate embodiment American society simply doesn’t have sufficient or robust forms widely available. In effect, then, we are severely handicapped when it comes to fulfilling the mission of the Church to embody the Kingdom.
The Early Church and Communal Embodiment
It can be easy to dismiss our problems with communally embodying the Gospel. The reason for this is twofold. First, since we are an individualistic culture, it is quite naturally difficult for us to see our problems with corporate life. These issues just aren’t on our cultural radar. Second, the New Testament is not written to an individualistic 21st century American culture, but to a highlycommunal 1st century Mediterranean one. The New Testament thus takes for granted the communal life of the Church. The writers of the New Testament were more concerned with the c haracter of the Church’s communal life, not arguing that it should have a robustly embodied communal life.
While we struggle to find cultural forms to embody the Gospel, the early Church did not have this problem. They lived in a highly communal society, with forms readily available to them for the corporate embodiment of the Gospel. The first century functioned through a network of patron/client relationships and kinship groups. It was within these groups that one found identity economically, socially, religiously, and existentially. The early church picked up these forms and radically centered them around Christ: Jesus was the truly gracious Lord (patron) to whom we owe allegiance, and Jesus was the center of a new kinship identity that extended across all classes and races. This means that the early Church was countercultural in the w ay it existed communally, not t hat it existed communally. The first century was a different sociological milieu that allowed the early church to corporately embody the Gospel in robust and holistic ways.
All of this means that as we turn to American society and consider our call to embody God’s Kingdom, we must begin to look for ways to follow Jesus outside of our sociological norms. A holistic and consistent context for corporate embodiment will, almost by definition, be something on the margins of our society, distinctly different from the current way we live our lives.
Intentional Community and the Call of Jesus
We believe intentional Christian Community is one way of addressing these issues and following Jesus in a communal setting. Through living with/near each other and practicing a common community life, we can provide a communal context where the salvation of God can be made manifest. It is through a located, committed, community that the life of God can “take on flesh.” For us, this is a way of obeying Jesus’ call to leave everything and follow him, as the early disciples did. Through a different, communal way of life we can begin to embody the “one another” life the New Testament admonishes us towards, and our souls might be transformed.
Thus, for us, we believe that community isn’t firstly valuable because of what we will do for the neighborhood. The communal embodiment of the life of the Church isn’t measured first by our results, but is considered inherently valuable in itself. This needs to be said because of our prevailing American obsession with “getting things done,” but we don’t draw a sharp distinction between community life and mission in the world. No, it’s as we embody the Gospel together that we live with one another in love, and live with love for the world. When we are living faithfully with one another, then we can love faithfully in our neighborhood. It is through the life of the Church, expressed in intentional community, that the Gospel is visibly proclaimed–a gospel you can see, touch, taste, and feel–and we become a sign and symbol for the great act of salvation God is accomplishing through Jesus Christ our Lord. May He forever receive the glory. Amen.