“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when people bowl together in unity!” That is not exactly what Psalms 133:1 says, but it is a good paraphrase. What Psalm 133:1 exactly says is, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when people live together in unity,” but what prompted my slight change was a famous essay written some years ago by Robert Putnam, a Harvard University sociologist, an essay entitled, “Bowling Alone.” Robert Putnam noted that in 1994, 80 million people went bowling. This might sound like a trivial piece of data, but, as Putnam noted, this was far more people than voted in the 1994 congressional elections, and was as many people who claimed to go to church regularly in the U.S.. In fact, says Putnam, since the 1980s, the number of people in the U.S. who have gone bowling has increased dramatically. But coupled with that dramatic increase in the number of bowlers has been a dramatic decrease in the number of bowling leagues. Putnam noted than more people than ever before were bowling alone. He argued that the trend toward individualism in bowling is symptomatic of a larger trend within our culture. Less people than ever before are involved in the political process. Less people than ever before are involved in labor unions. Less people are involved than ever before in civic organizations like the PTA, the Rotarians, the Kiwanis. Less people than ever before are involved in churches. Putnam concluded that though America has been historically characterized as a nation of joiners, we now live in a culture that is rapidly becoming a nation of disjoiners. Fewer people are involved in larger community enterprises. Fewer people than ever are committing to a communal identity. We are bowling alone. Which is another way of saying that more people are living dangerously disconnected from other people.
I think that the last time I went bowling was with Melissa’s youth group in Rome, when we held a lock-in. I can tell you that as a group that night we certainly were not bowling league material. We ranged in skill from the mediocre (like Melissa) to the really bad (like me), but we were doing the exact opposite of bowling alone. We were definitely bowling together. It mattered not how many gutter balls we threw, we were teasing each other, encouraging each other, laughing at each other, and caring less for the result of each bowl than the style with which we did it. Watching those young people interact with other, I realized that they were unconsciously relishing the benefits of community. They were, in a sense, engaged in church, strengthening friendships, forging relationships, widening their circle of acquaintance, as youth of all ages engaged in the communal exercise of bowling together. They were becoming a more united family. In “bowling together” they symbolized what a spiritual community is supposed to be and do. They confirmed the Psalmist’s insight, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when people bowl together in unity.”
I think our Lord would disapprove of bowling alone. Certainly, he did not practice his spirituality in solitary asceticism out in the wilderness. Mark 3:13ff testifies that one of our Lord’s first acts was to go up on the mountain and call to him twelve men whom he intended to recruit as his inner circle. He called unto himself Simon, James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother. He called Andrew and Philip and Bartholomew and Thomas and Matthew, and James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot. They were an incredibly diverse group. Simon was so cocksure that Jesus nicknamed him “Peter,” – Rock. James and John were so hot-tempered that Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” Matthew had made his living defrauding people. Simon the Cananaean was probably an insurrectionist, possibly an assassin in his past. Thomas would doubt Jesus’s resurrection. Judas would betray him. Yet Jesus gathered these men unto him as an inner core, not so they could remain an inner core, but so they could be empowered to go out into the world to preach God’s Good News and be a healing force that could recruit others to enlarge their inner core, so that these scores of committed men and women could be empowered to recruit yet others to take part in the enterprise of making manifest the Kingdom of God. The movement started with Jesus, but instantly he started recruiting unto himself an ever-enlarging human family that could constitute the people of God committed to the task of doing God’s will on earth.
We as Baptists believe in the priesthood of each believer. We believe that the Spirit of God has endowed each of us with the competency of soul to interpret Scripture and make decisions of conscience for ourselves. No ecclesiastical authority can tell us what to believe. Each of us under the leadership of God’s Spirt decides for ourselves what is true and real. Even so, our faith balances individualized belief with communal participation. Each of those twelve disciples received an individualized call that required them to make an individual decision. But having answered Jesus’ call, their individual decision entailed a willingness to blend their lives and faith in with the lives and faith of others. There are no “Lone Ranger Christians.” To follow Christ entails a willingness to become part of the family of God. Even the famous individualized experiences of God in the Scripture have communal implications. Sure, Moses hears the call of God out of a burning bush, but that call moves him to go and be a catalyst of liberation for an entire spiritual community. Isaiah beholds the transcendent majesty of God in the Temple, but that experience moves him to serve as a spokesman for God amidst the people of his nation. Saul, persecutor of Christians, experiences the reality of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and shortly thereafter is enveloped by the Christian community and sent out as an apostle to the Gentiles. Individual experiences of God have universal, communal implications. We are called to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a family of God.
I stand before you this morning as a representative of institutional religion. (I would say that I stand as a representative of “organized religion,” but that would probably be hyperbole, an overstatement of reality.) My very role is to urge people to come together, to call people to abandon disjoining in behalf of joining, to encourage co-operation, to encourage people to leave individualism behind and blend their talents and pool their resources so that we might accomplish far more together than ever we could do individually. It is my role to call people to come together and unify their efforts to serve as the people of God. But I don’t perform this role simply in behalf of one particular institution. I fulfill this role to articulate a fundamental theme of our Gospel. Christianity is irreducibly social. Every encounter that Jesus has eventuates in communal implications. Zacchaeus climbs down out of his tree to invite Jesus into his home, and upon giving his life to Christ, he immediately promises to give restitution to the community he has defrauded. When the Gerasene demoniac is healed by our Lord, he declares his willingness to be a disciple of Christ. What does Jesus say? Go home to your own family, go home to your own community, go home to your own people and testify as to what God has done for you. Individualized experiences of Christ’s redemptive power eventuate in communal implications. We are meant to recruit people to join our movement and live as a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen people — a family of God.
When some semblance of normalcy returns, and we are able to have baby presentations again, how profoundly we will underscore the point that we mature in fellowship with each other. In every baby presentation we observe at this church we enter into a covenant relationship between parents, grandparents and congregation, committing ourselves to nurturing each baby brought before us. That event says something vital about our understanding of the family of faith. We are affirming that socialization within the family of God is essential to our growth as a Christian. Indeed, we believe that socialization is essential to growth as a human being. My grandson Sam, born about three months ago, was more aware from his first breath of those around him than he was of himself. Before he realized, ‘I am me,’ he realized, ‘There are people who care about me.’ He realized instinctively, ‘If I fear, or hunger, or thirst, or wet myself, I can cry, and someone who loves me will come tend to my need.’ That basic realization will be essential to Sam’s healthy development. A famous biologist once observed, “One chimpanzee is not a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee becomes a chimpanzee only in community with other chimpanzees.” Likewise, a Christian is not a Christian simply by himself or herself. A Christian becomes a mature Christian believer through the nurture of other Christians, by serving within a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen race, a member of the family of God.
Of course, we are all aware that living amidst a community of believers is not easy. I well understand why the great French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.” I vividly remember a person whom I was counseling saying to me in a session, “Dr. Kremer, I feel called by God to work with people. But working with people is giving me ulcers.” Even the Bible offers numerous examples where the people of God behave in a dishonorable, destructive, discordant, disgusting fashion. I think of that extraordinary passage in Numbers 13 where God has become so frustrated and fed up with the people of Israel’s disobedience and ingratitude that he says to Moses, ‘I am going to wipe them all from the face of the earth, and we are going to start over, just you and me,’ and Moses says, ‘No, Lord, you cannot do this. We are in this together – you, me, and these people. We are in this together. Your name is tied to the fate of these people. You are a God of hesed, of steadfast love, and you live in covenant relationship with your people. Your very name and reputation is tied to how you provide for these people. You cannot give up on this community.’ Jesus knew that the twelve whom he had called to form his inner circle, to whom he imparted truth and nurtured throughout his earthly ministry, they would fail him miserably. One of them would betray him. The others would abandon him under pressure. Even so, what does he say? On the evening he is turned over to his enemies he confesses, “I have earnestly desired to eat the Passover meal with you.” As he faced his life’s great trial, he wants to draw strength from his fellowship of close friends, his most intimate family of faith, even though he knew well their flaws and spiritual immaturity.
II Peter summons us to remember who we are – we are not just called merely as individuals of God. We are destined to live as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” II Peter reminds us that as a group we have been called as God’s own people, called out of darkness into marvelous light, and we are summoned to call others from darkness into that marvelous light. I think of a British nobleman who once observed, “Before I had children, I had six theories about children. Now I have six children and no theories.” What that wise man was saying was, we cannot know anything from the outside. To understand anything you have to be on the inside. There are people who think they know a lot about parenting until they become parents. They are a lot of people who think they know about faith by judging it from the outside, but you can’t know faith from the outside, only from the inside. There are people who think they know a lot about what church means by looking at it from the outside, but they can’t. You can only really know what church means and what it means to live as the family of God from the inside. The Bible is a book about God, but it is just as much a book about the people of God, not as a theory, but as the people of God striving to do the will of God, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. The Bible offers us a picture of the family of God, warts and all, in victory and in defeat, yet ever striving to be a royal priesthood as we bond together in an effort to do God’s will.
As you might imagine, I don’t spend much time watching music videos. But a few years ago, as I was engaged in that time-honored male activity of “channel surfing,” I came upon a video of Katy Perry singing “Roar” – on CNN. For you see, this was a special video, shot in a children’s oncology ward. All of these bald, gaunt, thin, weak children were singing bravely, “You held me down, but I got up, already brushing off the dust.” And not just these brave children were singing, but their families were singing with them, along with their nurses, their nurses’ aides, and their doctors, the entire hospital staff. They were all joining these children in singing along: “I’ve got the eye of the tiger, dancing through the fire . . . I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar!” I looked at those courageous, hopeful children singing, “You’re gonna hear me roar,” and I realized, ‘This is church. This is what church is meant to be.’ For these children weren’t singing on the basis of their own strength. They weren’t singing alone. They knew that their hope for healing rested upon the power of an entire healing community dedicating their lives to bringing them back to wholeness and health. That’s church. We are meant to be a healing community that heals each other and seeks to heal our world, not by our own individual strength, but by blending our faith together as the people of God. And when we fulfill that mission we make manifest the Psalmist’s observation: “How good and pleasant it is for people to live together in unity.”