It seems to me that all these readings are about community. Exodus: a community meal--if your household is too small to consume the lamb, you eat with your neighbors. Corinth: Paul reminding his church community of Jesus’ last meal-in community--before his crucifixion. And, that meal itself in John--everyone was included, even the betrayers, in the meal and the foot washing.
In the March edition of Sojourners, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who is the former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, wrote an article about American individualism and community. “Modern Western culture is sick from individualism.” In our society, advertisers encourage us to think only of ourselves. When Jesus knelt down to clean the street-filthy feet of his followers, he was exhibiting the importance of community. When we wash one another’s feet, we giggle and we consider it kind of weird because our feet are very clean in comparison. Yet, what we are doing for one another is saying we are part of the same community. When Pat Gordon and her friends cut and wash the hair of the homeless and other folks in our community who can’t afford such luxuries, they are saying, “You are a part of us, you are my community.”
If Jesus saw himself as an individual without community, he would have demanded that someone wash his feet instead of taking on the role himself. He was modeling how community should work. Not me first, but how can I serve my community.
Wesley, in his article, noted the simple contrast: me for the community vs. the community for me. Jesus knew his followers would need to take care of one another and the others who would follow in the future--that they would need to consider that they were there for the community, not that the community was there for them. Wesley wrote that individuals don’t have a meaningful identity apart from their belonging to a community.
On Sunday we celebrated two people who have served their communities faithfully through illness, family crises, and most likely, fatigue because they are part of a community. Wesley asks this: “Does society find its moral foundation in the rights of its individual members, who then make agreements and social contracts for how best to preserve these rights? Or does society begin by recognizing we are social beings, and collectively we decide--through various political processes--how best to secure the rights of all who belong to a shared community? Normally this becomes a healthy political dialogue between the primacy of individual freedom and the responsibility of upholding the common good of society.”
Both of these ideas can be pushed to extremes. A collective state can trounce on individual freedoms to the point of terrorism. Individualism can be idolized to the point of crashing stock markets and the poorest being no more than serfs in a society intent on individuals dying with the most wealth and the most toys to show off that wealth. How many yachts and houses does one person need? In the individualistic culture, selfishness is considered a virtue.
At the Exodus, Moses was meant to liberate God’s people. Wesley notes that, “They are then led as a community seeking a place, a new land, together where their community could blossom. Prophets call the people of God back to their true identity, forsaking corporate loyalties. … When Jesus calls those to follow him, he calls them into community, and not to private, individualistic fulfillment. …
At Pentecost, the Spirit of God was poured out to create a new community, the church. This community, together, crosses and reconciles the divisive boundaries in society--Jew/Greek, Slave/Free, Male/Female. All this happens in and through belonging to a new community of God’s people.”
Jesus comes to us as individuals, as he washed each of the disciples’ feet. And, that relationship is personal and often, intimate. There is an inward as well as outward dimension to Christianity. “We no longer live unto ourselves. It’s not about me. Called and claimed by God’s love, we enter … into the community of God’s people.”
And, yet, the American brand of Christianity is an animal unto itself based on American individualism. We have raised rugged individualism to a religion and it isn’t pretty. Many ministries place psychological fulfillment and material success of the individual at the center of the faith experience. Followers see material wealth as evidence of Godly blessing. I have never found anything in Jesus’ ministry that would support this concept. “… simple wisdom prevails as most believers realize that Jesus didn’t come to earth to give people Gulfstream jets.”
We have a thirst for community. It is why these followers of Jesus dropped what they were doing and followed him. Jesus wanted them to understand that they needed to take care of one another in community even after he was gone. He wanted them and us to “walk faithfully, with others, in response to God’s self-giving love.” Me for the community.