Sometimes we use words that are so ripe with meaning, we know what they mean to us, but we have a hard time explaining them to others. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about church, and I used one of those “ripe” words. As we talked about the church, I described it as a redemptive community. My friend heard the words, but her face revealed an internal wrestling. So we paused. In our pause, my friend and I wrestled with how to define a redemptive community. Then she asked a rhetorical question..."I wonder if I have ever actually seen that kind of community."
The question, in different forms, has lingered with me this week. What is a redemptive community? What should it look like, and how do we make it look that way (if that’s even possible)?
WHAT IS IT?
I guess the simplest definition of a redemptive community would be that it is a community centered on redemption. Simple enough, but what do we mean by redemption? We speak of movies as being stories of redemption when an athlete overcomes some adversity to win…or an individual overcomes some particular hardship to become "successful" in the professional world. Maybe those are forms of redemption, but that can't be what we mean when we speak of the church as redemptive.
The Christian understanding of redemption is something we don't do for ourselves. In fact, the Christian understanding of redemption is based on our being utterly hopeless and helpless in our own sin, so we are in desperate need of being redeemed by Another. The very idea of being redeemed implies that the person being redeemed is passive in that redemption. So, who is active in redemption? That "Another" is Jesus. He came to love the broken, and to make them whole. His wholeness is one that we receive only when we come to grips with our own brokenness, and then turn to him in faith and repentance.
That is, or should be, the Christian understanding of redemption. It is the Biblical understanding of the gospel. A redemptive community, then, should be one that is focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ...it is focused on Jesus' name, and not on redeeming our own.
WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE
I guess this really is the heart of the question. A redemptive community is probably easier to define it, and more difficult to identify. As I think about what this community looks like, the best short answer I can come up with is that it would look blessedly messy. Is that your picture of the church? Or, do you just see the church as a mess?
Without thinking too much about it, we often portray the church as a mess with lipstick on it. Think about it. What do we so often do? We ignore that argument we had on the way to worship, or the nasty comment we made to our friend, and we put a smile on our face. We act like nothing is wrong. We pretend that we know all the answers in Sunday School. Then, we lip sync to the music, because we don't want people to know that we really can't sing in the first place. The bottom line is that we hold back the real truth. We fake it.
But, if the church really was a redemptive community, then we would understand we are all a mess. We all have those arguments. We are all selfish with our time and resources. We all have insecurities. And, all of us sing off tune. That's right, the common denominator in the church is that none of us is qualified, or at least not in the way we normally think about qualification. In fact, the first question we ask in our membership vows is essentially, "Do you know you are a mess?" We ask that question, and then we live as if it weren't true. We live as if we are kind of a mess, but we don't want anyone to really know it. So we try and clean up.
Yet our understanding of redemption tells us that it is only Jesus who cleans up the mess, so a redemptive community should look like a place where it is ok to be a blessed mess. It should be a place where we are honest with each other, because we don't find our identity in what the world (or the person next to us) thinks about us. That identity is only found in our relationship to Jesus...a relationship initiated, and secured, by him alone. This doesn't mean werevel in our messiness, but it does mean that we’re not alone in it. So together, we look to Jesus.
SO HOW DO WE GET THERE?
Maybe we need to redefine “getting there.” A redemptive community is not one that is free of conflict or trouble. Instead, a redemptive community must be one that has settled in for the long journey ahead, trusting in the gospel as our road map.
Understanding that the common denominator in the church is sin, we stay focused on the gospel. After all, the gospel is God’s message of redemption. Romans 1:17 says “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” This gospel message is the message we live by…each and everyday.
We don’t get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan. We don’t get surprised by conflict and suffering. We understand that those are elements of relationship in a fallen world. So we commit to one another, as we commit to Jesus. And then we live in relationship with each other, knowing that if Jesus has forgiven us, then we can forgive, and be forgiven, by others.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every wight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”