Saturday, February 2, 2008

On Communal Salvation

Anyone who knows me knows that in my life, the past several years have been traveling years. Like Abraham who was called to a land God would show him, in the fall of 2005, JD and I embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage from a familiar place to a place unknown, and certainly a place we never would have gone, had God not clearly told us to.

As the physical place we worship has changed, so have many of the ideas which undergird our worship. One of the most striking idealogic differences between the place we were and the place we are now is the idea of communal salvation.

Now, I know for some of my friends, this term may conjure up all kinds of negative images having to do with communism, socialism, and long-haired people in sandals working in gardens. Before you go too far with that, let me explain.

Several year ago, soon after we had started attending our new church, I was talking with my friend Mike, when he casually mentioned that salvation is not individual, but communal. He said it as though it was an unquestioned truth, not as though it was an idea he'd been kicking around. I was too surprised at the time to ask what he meant, but I thought to myself, These people are really humanistic! To think that not only my well-being, but also my salvation, could depend on other people? The idea struck me as not only unbiblical, but also frightening.

Now, Mike wasn't just anyone, he was the pastor of the church we'd started attending. So I set out to see if other people in the church also believed this preposterous idea. Several weeks later at the womens' Bible study, my friend Angie made the following statement: "There have been times that I was too unsure of the future even to pray, and then I have called a friend and they have prayed for me, and I was strengthened. We are all responsible for each other."

That statement blew my mind, and I thought about it all the way home. I had always believed that salvation was between me and God, and that others' influences, for good or evil, did not matter. To think that my salvation depends, in part, on others, and that theirs depends on me, was frightening because it involved so much responsibility on my part as well as theirs. It carried with it the very real risk that someone else would let me down, thereby endangering my salvation.

As we settled into our new church, I saw again and again that for these people, the communal salvation idea was real. When a member was facing a struggle of some kind, they rallied around that person - praying for them, empathizing with them, calling them. A lot of the discussions in my Sunday School class actually ended, if they did not begin, with an appeal to care more for others in the body, to bear each others' burdens as well as their joys. There was a sense that this was an integral part of being a Christian, and they took it seriously.

Before I give the idea that I had never seen this kind of Christian community before, let me say that our little Adventist church in Globe, AZ, was truly a body in which each member helped to support the others. Our new church at Bethpage reminded me a lot of Globe, but at Bethpage the church was bigger, so there were more people practicing this idea; also, at Bethpage, you got the sense that this was part of the church's DNA - a belief held so strongly and practiced so doggedly, that it was axiomatic.

JD and I flourished at the church in Bethpage. Time passed, and for awhile, I forgot about the struggle I had had with communal salvation. I just settled in and got involved in the church's work. And I found that my spiritual life was better than I could remember it ever being. The Holy Spirit became a real part of my everyday life; I was challenged and supported week by week in my pursuit of God; and my work for God bore fruit in a way it never had before.

Then, several months ago, the church hit hard times. Rifts occurred at the very heart of the group which put everyone under a dark cloud, and at times threatened the financial and spiritual viability of the organization.

And a strange thing happened. Suddenly, I felt strangely disconnected from God. It was often hard to pray. I had no doubt in God's sovereignty or my own salvation, but the spiritual well-being I had before was suffering. I felt lonely and sad. My regular times of study and prayer became times of tears, deep grief, and impassioned intercessory prayers for the other members of my church, as well as the church's future. I was hurting deeply, and it affected everything. I was surprised, in particular, how much it affected my spiritual strength. During this time, I often felt spiritually fatigued - for example, I would shrink away from praying with patients because I didn't feel that my connection with God was strong enough.

As the weeks and months went by, I started to think again about the idea of community. Could it be that my walk with God had become so closely connected to the other members of my church, that when the church suffered, so did my relationship?

Fortunately, the situation at the church was resolved by some creative and insightful changes instituted by the church's leadership. Since the beginning of 2008, the church at Bethpage has quickly regained its vitality and spirit. With the spiritual renewal has come a financial turnaround, and again, the church is on solid ground.

And so is my closeness with God. Once again, the times I worship at the church are times that I am filled with God's Spirit and Presence, strengthened to go out and face the problems that exist as I do God's work.

I still can't explain this phenomenon in theological terms. I would probably fail miserably if I were to get into a debate with some of you Bible scholars out there who were determined to prove me wrong. But I do know that, in some very integral way, my spiritual health is tied up with my church. Now, I have experienced communal salvation - the fact that each person in my particular body of believers is responsible for my spiritual health, and I am responsible for theirs - and I know that, whether I like it or not, it is a fact.

For those of you still not sure, consider that one of the most enduring New Testament images used to describe the church is a body. As a healer, I know how interconnected the human body is. Each part relies on all the other parts for its vitality and well-being. And so it is with the body of Christ.

Please understand that I am NOT saying that any human being can keep us from salvation. However, I AM saying that the things we do can have an effect on others' salvation (for both good and evil), and also on their spiritual health - that is, the quality of their spiritual life.

This has implications, too, for those leaving a church body. Often, people get fed up with the problems in the church and leave - only to find that they are more lost than before, struggling to find God again with no support from those who once constituted their spiritual support group.

Consider also pastors who are moved to other churches on a somewhat regular basis. When they leave, they are immediately responsible for the spiritual shepherding of a new flock - but they are also detached from a group of people with whom they have formed an interconnected body, sometimes for many years. Remembering how I felt when my church was not functioning enough to provide me with the spiritual support I was used to, I can only feel empathy for pastors who are responsible for providing spiritual leadership while trying to deal with the grief and disconnectedness of losing their spiritual home.

I will close with a familiar passage from John 17. Jesus is praying for us:

"I am praying not only for these disciples, but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one - as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so the world will know that you sent me.

"I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me."

I believe that these words, spoken hours before Jesus died, reveal his greatest wish for us - that we will live in community, in unity, caring for each other and thus proving that He is the Son of God who saves us.

Communal salvation doesn't sound so strange, after all.

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