How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)
Because people are imperfect, there will always be conflict whenever they gather together to do anything. The same is true of the church. The realization that this is true is not enough; we Christians are called to form communities of forgiveness and reconciliation that are markedly different from others in the world in which we live.
In every letter St. Paul wrote, he offers advice and counsel to his fellow Christians on how are to behave towards one another. He continually reminds all members of the body of Christ of the danger of dissension and exhorts them to practice love and respect for all members of the church. Paul’s zeal is unflagging on this topic because he was keenly aware of how jealousies, passions, divisions, anger, lust, and all other sorts of human failings could weaken, and even destroy genuine Christian community.
In the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom, read at the end of Morning Prayer (BCP 102), we are consoled by the promise from the Gospel of Matthew “that when two or three are gathered together in his Name,” the Lord “will be in the midst of them.” The original citation from Matthew does not directly concern the presence of God at our corporate worship services but rather concerns the process by which disputes were to be settled within the early Christian community to which the gospel writer belonged.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone… But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses…. Again truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Mt. 18:15-17; 19-20).
Similarly, in the sixth century Rule of St. Benedict, St. Benedict outlines how monks, who live day in and day out in close quarters, should behave towards one another:
The monks are to bear with patience the frailties of others, whether in body or behavior. Let them strive with one other in obedience to one other. Let them not follow their own good, but the good of others. Let them be charitable toward their brothers with pure affection (Chapter 72: 5-8).
This is one of the best descriptions that I know concerning what it means to love our neighbor, particularly the members of our own church community. Although Benedict wrote for a monastic community, his words apply to life together in any Christian community. Let’s examine each point.
- To bear with patience with the frailties of others
In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the “Lord’s Prayer,” we are reminded that if we ourselves want to be forgiven, we have to learn to forgive others. That is because, as Jesus reminds us, we most often are troubled most by the faults in others that closely match our own faults. “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” (Mt. 7: 4-5).
The path towards Christian maturity is long and arduous. We cannot expect to be perfect all at once. As we practice Christian charity and patience with others, we slowly begin to grow and mature ourselves. We, then, must learn first to be patient with our own faults and frailties and not to focus too soon on identifying and criticizing the faults of others.
- To live in obedience to one another
In the Rule of Benedict, obedience to the authority of the abbot, the spiritual leader of the monastic community, was a foundation to the stability of the monastic community. In earlier monastic rules, the authority of the abbot was absolute. Benedict softened this by reminding the monks that they were to live in obedience to one another because “by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God” (71). In Christian community we can learn from the advice, and even the loving admonitions, of others. Benedict realized that sometimes we are not our own best guides. We can become lost and in need of the direction that others can offer us.
- To seek the good of others above our own good
Here Benedict reaffirms the witness of St. Paul who wrote, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor ” (1 Corinthians 10:24). In Christian community our life together should always center around our efforts to “edify,” one another, that is, to build up and support them and not to destroy them by our selfish attempts to draw attention to ourselves and our own needs.
- To be charitable with pure affection towards one another
When we read the Epistle to the Ephesians, alongside the Rule, we can see that Benedict’s ideas are thoroughly infused with the spirit of the writings of St. Paul.
I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4: 1-3).
Where other forms of community, including much of our present-day business culture, thrive on competition and killer instincts, we in the church are called to form communities of forgiveness and reconciliation that are markedly different from others in the world in which we live. In genuine Christian community we are not to live in competition with one another but rather are called to form a community of mutual support and ministry. What can you do to make that happen?