There is a battle going on in the west. It is a battle between culture and nature – between the world’s values and our inner values. The battle is between individualism and community.
Individualism is something that our culture bombards us with. To be an individual is a sign of growth and maturity. In the last 50 to 100 years the tradition of the father teaching his son his trade in order to pass has almost disappeared. Close-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else are coming to an end. For many our families are scattered around the country and even the world Our schools educate our children towards the goal of independence – helping decide what they want to do, what college they want to go to, and what career they want to pursue and helping them to become ‘individuals.’
All this fits nicely into the definition of Individualism that stresses independence and self-reliance and the promotion and exercise of ones goals and desires while opposing external interference upon ones choices.
Many would not have too much of a problem with this definition. Surely it’s grown up to be independent, self reliant, pursuing our own goals and desires for life.
But our hearts are different. There is something within us – deep down in our spirits – that longs to belong to something. To be part of a community – to have companionship – to love and be loved.
A passion Kitty and I have is reading about Tudor History, Henry VIII etc. Recently I bought the HBO version of Elizabeth I that stars Helen Mirrem and Jeremy Irons. It is a wonderful and mostly accurate account of the middle and latter years of Elizabeth.
One of the things that struck us as we watched was that Elizabeth would use the plural when referring to herself – “Please leave us now.” Or, “We loved England with our whole life.”
Why would she do this? Because for Elizabeth she was not a woman, an individual, who happened to be the Queen – she WAS the Queen of England – that was her identity – that was her purpose – that was her life – she was inseparable from England – England was Elizabeth and Elizabeth was England.
How often do we refer to our work as “we”. I remember coming home from my first day at Lloyds Bank in London and Kitty saying “How was your day dear” and I said “It was great, we doing this and that”. Even after a day I was associating myself with Lloyds – I had become a we.
So what about Christianity and individualism?
Surely Christianity has individualism in it – do we not have to come to Christ individually – don’t we have to make the commitment to follow Jesus ourselves?
Yes. Each of us has to make an individual response to the message of God – but what we tend to forget is that this response is into a corporate body – at conversion our individual confession leads us into being part of one body – the of Christ.
It is this tension that we sometimes lose in the church.
Individualistic language and thinking is in the church. Phrases like “My church” or “I give MY money to my church” – or “My theology” or “my Bible” can indicate our individualistic thinking about God. We might even champion own agendas when it comes to the church under the guise of change.
But here is the problem. Individualism is not biblical.
It’s not biblical because firstly God is not an individualist and secondly individualism cannot embrace the love which scripture calls us to practice.
Foundationally God cannot be an individualist because God himself is Trinitarian – he has spent eternity in relationship with the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. That is why he says to Adam in Gen 2 “It is not good for man to be alone.” To be created in God’s image is to be created to relational, not individualistic.
Jesus was not an individualist. One of the very first things he does at the beginning of his ministry is to draw and group around him. I am sure Jesus could have accomplished his mission more efficiently and faster if he had worked alone – imagine all the time and effort he would have saved not having to stop and explain everything he did or to correct his disciples.
Yet He teaches and lives with and nurtures this small group – even allowing them to see and experience the intimacy of his relationship with the father – inviting three disciples to be present during the transfiguration.
Everything Jesus said, taught and did through his miracles and signs all pointed to a corporate message.
Jesus’ miracles were not primarily about what Jesus has done for the individual – although that is part of it – primarily Jesus’ miracles show what he has come to do for the Israel and for the whole world. John 3:16, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His •One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”.
Paul was not an individualist either. Our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians 8 shows this. Some of the Corinthian Christians were living in a liberty and freedom that was damaging others. They had knowledge of God – they knew that idols were nothing but wood or metal that could not talk or do anything. So, eating meat offered to non-existent idols and even eating in these non-existent idols temples was fine because they knew it had no power.
And Paul does agree with them in theory. But as Paul points out to them – not every one in the church in Corinth had this ‘Knowledge’ – and that those who were saved out of idol worship – who still felt guilty eating any meat offered to idols (and getting hold of meat not offered to idols was tough to do) – these members would see the stronger ones eating in the temple and it would cause problems for the weaker believer. It would like having a permanent bar in the parish hall, with church members drinking alcohol while an AA meeting s happening in the panel room. Paul tells the Corinthians to exercise their knowledge with love – in other words exercise your knowledge UNDER the teachings of Jesus.
So the right response for the Corinthian believer who knows there are no idols is to think corporately about how his knowledge and actions will affect others in the body of Christ.
The Knowledge of God does not lead to individualistic freedom – it should lead to love – the love of God and of others and this love will lead us to coming UNDER Christ’s commands and living as Jesus would have us live. Not living as you or I see fit, but in the context Jesus’ teachings– Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
The knowledge of God that leads to this type of love means we no longer set our own agenda.
We are called to live under the one, true, eternal agenda of the one, true, eternal God.
Our reading from Deuteronomy 18 this morning is a wonderful example. The people realize that for them to hear the voice of God or to see his fire puts them in extreme danger. A holy God reveals himself and all that is unholy will burn up in his presence. The people understand this. So God promises to provide a mediator – a prophet – one like Moses who will speak with God and mediate between God and his people. But just because they do not have direct communion with god does not let the people off the hook – it does not mean they can set their own agendas. God says that the people are to do what this mediator – this prophet – says. They are to obey him and any who do not obey him and do what he says; God will hold such a person to account. Of course, Jesus is the fulfiment of this prophet – the ultimate mediator between man and God.
The Knowledge of God leads us to the love of God and of others which in turn leads us to become part of the body which leads us…. to come UNDER Christ and to obey the teachings of the one to whom even the demons obey and flee at his word – the second person of the trinity – God incarnate.
This is wonderful news for us. Its wonderful because when we came to Christ – when we join the body of Christ and came under his Lordship, we are accepted . Regardless of what the world thought of us; whether we were successful or a failure, whether we were rich or poor, whether we were popular or unpopular, whether we were educated or uneducated, in Christ, we are loved and we are part of the body.
We will NEVER hear the words “We don’t need you.” All who accept Christ and come under his teaching have a role, a purpose, and a place, which is GIVEN to us by God. We will never be alone because Christ has promised never to forsake us.
Paul’s teachings else were confirms this – 1 Cor 12 is all about how each of us is part of one body – we were baptized into one body. Paul says, there are many parts but ONE body, so the eye cannot say to the hand “I don’t need you”. Paul says in 1 Cor 12 v18 but now God has placed the parts, each one of them, in the body JUST AS HE WANTED. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? Now there are many parts, yet one body.
By obeying the teachings of the Lord of all Creation – the Messiah – Jesus Christ, we will find ourselves truly free – we will not need to be under the bondage of trying to be individuals, making our own decisions and messing up, but following the true, radical, powerful ways of our God who has placed us as part of his body – each with a role, each as important as the other, each working for the glory and worship of our God.