The Purpose of Community

 

Introduction

Ecclesiastes is a unique book.  Most think it was written by Solomon near the end of his life, and it’s a book of perspectives and of insights about the purpose of life.  It’s a book of depression as Solomon tries to find pleasure in this world, only to find that eternal pleasure in this temporary, human world is not possible.  Nothing gives him meaning, everything is like chasing after the wind.

Solomon pondered many questions from his own perspective, and Solomon’s thoughts and actions were not always based on God’s principles.  From Solomon’s laments, we learn from his mistakes so we don’t spend our lives chasing after the wind.  Here are some key verses that sum up this book –

      • Ecclesiastes 1:2, “’Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’”.
      • Ecclesiastes 1:18, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
      • Ecclesiastes 2:11, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
      • Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.'”
      • Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

Two phrases, “vanity” and “under the sun,” are repeated often in Ecclesiastes. The word “vanity” (your version may say “meaningless”) is used to emphasize the temporary nature of worldly things.  In the end, all of our achievements and accomplishment will be left behind. And the phrase, “under the sun” occurs 28 times, and refers to our human world.  Everything under the sun is meaningless, the Preacher says.

Maybe the Preacher didn’t try everything, you may be thinking.  Solomon was the wisest and richest man who ever lived, and here is what he tried –

      • Scientific discovery (Ecc 1:10-11)
      • Wisdom and philosophy (Ecc 1:13-18)
      • Amusement / entertainment (Ecc 2:1)
      • Alcohol (Ecc 2:3)
      • Architecture (Ecc 2:4)
      • Property (Ecc 2:7-8)
      • Luxury (Ecc 2:8).
      • Materialism (Ecc 2:19-20)
      • And even different moral codes (Ecc chapters 8-9).

Everything was meaningless, a temporary diversion.  Without God, nothing had purpose or longevity.  The remaining chapters 8-12 of Ecclesiastes discuss the conclusion about how a worthwhile life should be lived.  Without God, there is no truth.  Without God, there is no meaning to life.  There are many evils in this world, and even the best of man’s achievements are worth nothing when compared to eternity.  So what should we do?

      • Acknowledge God from our youth (Ecc 12:1)
      • Follow God’s will (Ecc 12:13-14).

Slide4For all of the vanities described in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the answer is Christ.  Here are some examples –

Before After
Ecc 3:17 God judges the righteous and the wicked, 2 Cor 5:21 Only those who are in Christ are judged righteous.
Ecc 3:11 God has placed the desire for eternity in our hearts. John 3:16 God has provided the Way to eternal life through Christ.
Ecc 5:10 Striving after wealth is vanity and does not satisfy. Mark 8:36 if we could gain the whole world, what good is it if we do not have Christ and lose our souls.

Ultimately, every disappointment and vanity described in Ecclesiastes has its solution in Christ, the wisdom of God and the only true meaning to be found in life.

The Greeks gave this book the name ‘Ekklesiastes’ which means “assembly.” In essence, the writings of this book are based on community, an assembly of people.  In the New Testament, this same word is used to mean “church.”  The writings in this book are meant to teach and preach to the church, to teach us how to live in our community, and we’ll spend the rest of today’s lesson in Chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes and what it means to be in a community.

Our worldly culture is weird when it comes to history.  On one hand, we are pulling down statues left and right.  The original excuse may have had racial overtones, but now we are pulling down statues of Abraham Lincoln and the Virgin Mary.  Seems there are many people that want to eliminate the past and pretend it never existed.  At the same time, Ancestory.com and 23AndMe.com have surged in popularity, DNA testing is more available than ever before.  People want to know their heritage, their background, and their cultural makeup.  They want to know who they really are.

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And then we are weird when it comes to being categorized.  Have you taken a personality test like Myer’s Briggs or Strengths Finders?  We want to know our strengths and our uniqueness and how we best connect with others.

Whether it is ancestry or personality, people want to know who they are.  Our worldly culture begins the exploration of self-discovery by starting with ourselves.  That seems natural.  If we want to know ourselves, we should study ourselves, right?

But the Bible begins the exploration of self-discovery by starting not with us, but with God.  And the better we know and understand God, the more we understand who God made us to be.  And much of the purpose that God has for us can be found in the community God has placed us, to bloom where we are planted.

 

God in Community

What is the purpose for community?  It’s obviously related to people, but not all people are, well, people persons.  Some are extroverts or naturally ‘social butterflies’ or those who are exuberant extroverts.  Others are more introverted, preferring quiet time or very small groups.  Is one better than the other?

Whether extrovert or introvert, our personality type does not depend on community.  If community determined who we are, then how we relate to our community would either boost our pride or deepen our despair, based on wherever we fell on the personality spectrum.

The purpose for community is not some sort of competition that God has set before us.  Community is his demonstration to us on how to experience more of Him and how we are to experience the life we were meant to live.  Our ideal community doesn’t have to be large or small or deep or wide or every day or twice a week.  There’s no formula except the book of Hebrews says it ought to be frequently.  Hebrews 10:24-25,

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We mentioned earlier that the Greek root word for Ecclesiastes means “assembly or “church.”  What “Ecclesiastes” doesn’t mean is music.  Or tithes.  Or a sermon.  Or even a mid-week bible study.  What makes church “church,” our “ecclesiates,” is the people, the gathering of the body of Christ, to make a covenant with one another, and meet together frequently.

Meeting together as a church and maintaining a level of biblical community is for our soul.  But perhaps the greatest of all reasons is that God models community, and we are made in His image.  Community helps reveal who God is.  God exists in community, and He has done so for eternity.  Even before time, space, and matter were created, God existed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God exists as one in three, and three in one.

In other words, if God exists in community Himself, and if we are designed in His image, this means that God wired the need for community deep within our souls.

When we neglect community, we become less of what God designed us to be.  To be made in the image of a triune God means fundamentally to be in community.  Jesus Himself surrounded Himself with the larger community of His twelve disciples and we would be foolish to think that fullness of life can happen without the Christian community.

 

Purpose in Community

Since creation started with a triune God who exists in community past, present and future, and since God created us in His image and all of life, this means the purpose of community is woven throughout the very purpose of our lives.  To really live, and to really experience the life God designed us to have, we weave our lives into the lives of others, reflecting the perfect, good, and communal nature of God Himself.  Let’s look at Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 for the purpose of this community –

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.   For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.  But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.  Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?  And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

Three ideas here –

  • When we fall, community can pull us up

King Solomon also wrote in Proverbs 24:16,

“For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.”

In the times of the Old Testament, the number seven represented the number of completion.  Solomon is saying that the righteous person falls completely, the righteous person falls frequently.  But righteousness is not determined by whether we fall, but what we do after.  We get up, we rise again.

So how can a righteous person get up and rise again after falling?  Ecclesiastes 4 says it is by living in a community where others can help them back onto their feet.

Living life in community is a safeguard from calamity, from being broken by our circumstances or by our own sin. The Bible does not promise that living in community means that we will not stumble or fall; in fact, we know that everyone stumbles and falls at some time, and Christians are not spared.  But living in a community will provide help from others around us.  If we cannot help ourselves, others can.

  • When you are spiritually cold, community can warm you up.

Ecclesiastes 4:11 says, “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?”

Did you know over 600 people in the US die from hypothermia each year.  Stuck in the cold, the body begins to shut down.  Decades ago, might have been in the early 1800’s when I was in the Boy Scouts – when they were still the Boy Scouts – I remember taking my First Air merit badge courses.  In mild hypothermia, one can warm themselves back up.  But as hypothermia progresses, the body loses it’s ability to warm itself.  One of the solutions was to crawl into a sleeping bag with another person and use the heat of somebody else.

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When we face the coldness of life through pain or grief or hardship, it is a temptation to isolate.  We think that we do not want to be a burden to other people.  Somebody offers to help, and we say no.

But when we reverse the roles, and somebody else is in pain, we offer to help.  And then we’re disappointed when they don’t take us up on our offer.  As a community, we want to help.  It’s receiving help we often struggle with.  And if we’re not helping one another, we become indifferent.  Callous.  Even cold.

It is easy to slip into a pattern of callousness towards the person of God, the Word of God, and the mission of God when we are not a community of helping hands.  Hebrews 3:13 says –

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

I’ve always loved that line, because it is always called “Today.”  The key is that the people of God and the Word of God move and act together in encouragement.  We stay warm when we are together; we grow cold when we keep each other distant.

  • When you are weak, community can strengthen you.

Next, our scripture says, “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him.”  A third truth about the purpose of community is that in our weakness, community will make us strong.  We may try to go it alone, but going it alone isn’t a sign of strength.  It’s a sign of weakness.

Our pride hides our own weakness from us and deludes us with overconfidence in our own abilities.  This is the nature of sin in our lives: underestimating our weaknesses, overestimating our strengths.  And the solution isn’t, “Memorize more Scripture!” Even though that is important.  The solution isn’t, “Pray more!” or “Get more sleep!” or “Listen to more sermons!”  Although all those things are beneficial, but alone, we are still weak.  We have strength in community.

I think it’s because when we live in community and get to know one another, others will truly see us, know us, and can help us where we need it most.  Darkness of sin loses its hold over us.  When we live in community, things that are hidden are brought into the light, and it cleans us up.

Community can pull us up when we fall; it can warm us up when we grow spiritually cold, and it strengthens us against the power of sin.

 

Three in Community

Then the last phrase in our scripture always seems peculiar to me.  It begins with “Two are better than one” and then describes what you do better when there is a second person.  But then, the end of verse 12 says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.”

Maybe it’s a typo.  Maybe the author meant to say, “A twofold cord is not quickly broken?”  Or maybe it is because in a biblical community, there are never only two parties involved, but three.  God is also present.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, 18:20 –

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

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There are always three parties involved in the body of Christ: you, your community, and God.  If it is your spouse and you, your cord is not quickly broken with God in the middle.  If it is an accountability partner and you, your cord is not quickly broken with God in the middle.  If it is your church community, Bible study class, small group and you, your cord is not quickly broken with God in the middle.

In a biblical community, there are always three parties at work. The Apostle Paul gives us a picture of how this works in 1 Corinthians 12 –

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

Paul writes that God has given each of us unique passions and abilities so that we work with one another, minister to one another, and be nourished by one another.

If we cut ourselves off from the community of the church, we are fundamentally cutting ourselves off from the primary method God uses to minister to us through others.  And it also means the reverse.  If we cut ourselves off from the community of the church, we are also cutting ourselves off from the main means through which God is trying to minister through us to others.

In other words, whenever we think we are reducing our threefold cord down to two strands, we actually reduce our threefold cord down to one strand. Because when we remove one strand from the equation (such as God or community), we actually lose both strands in the process. God ministers to us through community.

Biblical community, therefore, always happens in three.  Even in the Gospel, you see all three persons of the Godhead working together, ministering together, and accomplishing together. The Father planned our salvation, the Son accomplished our salvation, and the Spirit applies our salvation.  And now, we have access to the Father because of the Son and through the Spirit.

Truly, a threefold cord is not easily broken. It is modeled in our salvation and also in our community.

 

Conclusion

This year, 2020, is certainly one for the history books.  The impact on our lives has been staggering.  And the effects are almost entirely negative.  And quarantined, we feel isolated, depressed, angry.  We aren’t meant to live like this.  From the time of Adam and Eve until now, God has wanted us to be part of community.

Community is not our idea, it is God’s idea.  Christian community is simply sharing a common life in Christ.  It moves us beyond the self-interested isolation of private lives and beyond the superficial social contacts that pass for “Christian fellowship.”  The biblical ideal of community challenges us instead to commit ourselves to life together as the people of God.

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We need each other.  We need to be connected to the body of Christ – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of others as well.  So that we can be a blessing to them, and so that they can be a blessing to us.  It is God’s plan for us, to live in community with one another.

Ecclesiastes offers Christians an opportunity to understand the emptiness and despair that those who do not know God grapple with. Those who do not know Christ are faced with a life that will ultimately end and become irrelevant.  If there is no salvation, and no God, then not only is there no point to life, but no purpose or direction to it, either. The world “under the sun,” apart from God, is frustrating, cruel, unfair, brief, and “utterly meaningless.”

But with Christ, life is but a shadow of the glories to come in a heaven that is only accessible through Him.  We need each other, so let us meet one another, talk to one another, encourage one another in our community, as long as it is called today.

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To God be the glory.

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