[This following is the second part of the series of posts about the community Paul envisioned. The last post can be found here.]
Modern and ancient perspectives
Reading this passage from our perspective in Australia can be misleading, because the majority of us are not poor. Many of us have sufficient resources (in terms of income, skill set and intellectual ability) to flourish in life. The reverse was true for Paul’s audience. Those with ample resources were the minority. Often we don’t have to spend time with the poor. But it was highly likely that in every house church in Rome there were slaves, unskilled workers and homeless people.
For us, showing honour to people living in poverty would mean something like not looking down on those living in the slums in Asia or Africa. To put into practice “crying with them” would be to give financially, like sponsoring a child through a Christian organisation. But for Paul’s audience it would be totally different. If they were to love without pretence, those with better financial resources would find themselves sharing their wealth sacrificially with the community. If they want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, they would be compelled to help someone on the verge of selling himself/herself into slavery. For them, to associate with people with no status meant to eat with them, allow their children to play with them, and share their menial tasks whenever they gathered together.
What does a Jesus-community look like in Melbourne?
What would this Jesus-community look like in Australia? I live in a suburb in Melbourne about 20km east of CBD. But God led me to a little inner-city Christian community some years ago. It is there that I have come to realise that a measure of Paul’s vision can be realised in Australia.
I have been immensely blessed by people whose circumstances are exceedingly difficult. I have met asylum seekers who have spent months or years in detention centres. Their stories break my heart. I have come to know refugees who were persecuted because of their Christian faith. But their determination to overcome obstacles is amazing. I have heard stories of people living with a disability when they are bullied at work or treated unjustly by the society at large. But I have come to understand that they are people full of dignity. Their tenacity is inspiring. Their ability to look to God in the worst of times is extraordinary.
I now know that Paul’s command to honour one another is a mutually enriching experience for everyone. Both the rich and the poor benefit from it. Those at the lower end of the social ladder receive the rare honour that they would not otherwise get. But it is in honouring others that those at the upper end of the social hierarchy learn that indeed everyone deserves their respect. The faith and resilience of the marginalised and disadvantaged are profound.
In fact, there is no such a thing as the rich helping the poor in the Christian community that we are part of. It is true that the well-to-do may assist others financially in private. But we all know that this community is about mutual giving, for the haves and have-nots are equally generous. Some years ago we provided accommodation for about a dozen asylum seekers. These folks held temporary visas that did not allow them to work, even though they wanted to. They did not have their families with them and would not know when they would be reunited with their loved ones. Then Victoria experienced the worst bush fire in memory a few years ago. On hearing this, these socially disadvantaged and financially poor people showed us their exceptional generosity. They ran a fund-raising dinner to support our church’s effort to assist the victims of the bush fire. Those who suffer are often the ones who love most.
My experience in our community has convinced me that sharing lives with the poor and marginalised will help us come to a better understanding of the Scripture and God’s heart. Paul’s vision is that we will associate with the lowly – the outcast, the poor and needy (Romans 12:16). It is not about the rich reaching down to the poor. Instead, it is about learning from them and realising the grace of God that has been poured out into their lives. It is about crying with them and standing in solidarity with them.
Paul’s mission and ours
I wonder what a Jesus-community in Taiwan would look like? Without being there myself I hesitate to comment. But here is my imagination of what a church in my home country looks like. People from all walks life gather regularly to worship God. Both the educated and unlearned partake in discussing the biblical stories when the Scripture is read aloud in their gatherings. Outreach programs are organised to welcome new migrants from rural areas. The elderly do not feel lonely or abandoned. The factory workers do not feel that they are second-class members of the church because of their lack of education or economic resources.
Where did Paul get his vision of the church from? I suspect that he has been inspired by the love of God that is found in the sacrificial death of his Son (Romans 8:3, 31-39). In his letters Paul repeatedly talks about the grace of God that has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ (e.g. Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24; 15:1-8). He urges us to participate in his suffering, death, resurrection and glorification, so that we may be conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 6:1-11; 8:17, 29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The outworking of this renewed image-bearing is that we, as a Jesus-community, should love one another (Romans 12:1-15:13). Likewise, in the Book of Acts we find that Paul proclaims Christ with great perseverance despite immense persecution and danger (e.g. Acts 26:19-23). Importantly, wherever the gospel is preached, he establishes Jesus-communities and exhorts them to follow Christ wholeheartedly (e.g. Acts 20:13-38).
I believe that Paul reckons that his mission is to proclaim Christ and form Christ-centred, love-filled and life-transforming communities everywhere in the Roman Empire, for that is God’s way of turning the world upside-down. May our lives be so transformed by the life-giving gospel that we will give our lives totally to participating in God’s community-forming project. [e]
[e] Parts of this article appeared previously in Sight Magazine. See http://www.sightmagazine.com.au/stories/sight-seeing/community11.5.12.php.