I have long been impressed by the way the Gospels tell the story of the formation of the circle of Jesus’ followers: those who became disciples are depicted as going about their daily work when Jesus comes along and says something like, “Come, follow me.” And immediately, the stories say, the would-be disciples drop what they are doing and follow Jesus. They seem to make their decision with very little thought. They don’t ask questions about who Jesus is or what he’s about – they just go with him.
I have tended mostly to focus on the individuals in these stories: that the decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him is made so quickly because somehow, the hearing of Jesus’ voice resonates with them in a way that allows them to recognize that he has something they have been longing for deep within themselves.
But these stories also say something about the community that Jesus is forming. His invitation to them comes without any conditions. He doesn’t hand them a tract that presents his doctrinal emphases. He doesn’t tell them that if they fail to follow him, they will go to hell. He doesn’t inquire about whether they might meet certain membership criteria. He simply invites them to come and spend time with him, to get to know him, to see what he’s about. Jesus begins by creating a small community. And everything else proceeds from there.
Within this small community, Jesus’ first followers spend a lot of time together. They form relationships with Jesus and with one another. They pray together, they listen to Jesus’ teaching, they ask questions. They eat together. They share one another’s lives. And out of this experience of community, out of a shared spiritual practice and a shared common life, they begin to understand more about who Jesus is and what he represents. Their relationship with God is deepened. They gradually come to believe certain things, discover certain commitments, realize their vocations. Within this first Jesus community, the power of belonging to the community is revealed in relationships, both divine and human, that become transformative.
This pattern is almost exactly the opposite of the way in which most churches work. We might do some inviting in, but mostly we wait for people to show up. Whether they come through invitation or curiosity, most people are then introduced to an array of conditions for belonging to the church. Churches want to make sure that people coming to them believe the right things, understand the essential doctrinal points that the particular church holds dear, have experienced baptism in the right way, have the right take on who Jesus is. Only when churches are sure of these things do they then allow a person to fully belong to the community.
Churches would do well, I think, to appreciate the implications of the way in which Jesus created community. Remarkably, he did not care much what people thought or believed. He simply invited them in and gave them a place to belong. It was that experience of belonging that opened up the first disciples to a transformative relationship with God in Christ. And it is that same experience of belonging that will open up people today.