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27 June 2018

Welcomed into divine community

Welcomed into divine community

Derek Burnside, principal of Capernwray Bible School, Lancashire, and a trustee of Keswick Ministries, explains that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has provided a way for humanity to return to Himself.

On 8 July 2013, 29,000 Californian prisoners launched a hunger strike, the largest jail protest the state had ever seen. Their cause? California's use of solitary confinement, which saw some inmates held for decades with almost no human contact. Psychologists deemed it tantamount to torture.

Last October Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, Britain's chief GP, warned fellow doctors that loneliness can harm health just as much as high blood pressure or smoking. According to the Royal College of General Practitioners, there are an estimated 1.1 million lonely Brits. They are 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those who have good social networks. That makes loneliness as dangerous as diabetes. Three quarters of GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day.

The dangers of sustained solitude should come as no surprise. The first thing God declares "not good" is Adam's isolation (Genesis 2:18). As humanity is conceived, our Triune Creator is in conversation within the community of the Godhead: "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). So, it makes absolute sense that belonging to others is a health essential for humans bearing the image of the God whose very essence is loving community. 

God is three 

This is a deep stream in Trinitarian theology. As theologian Mike Reeves so compellingly puts it: "It is only when you grasp what it means for God to be a Trinity that you really sense the beauty, the overflowing kindness, the heart-grabbing loveliness of God. The irony could not be thicker: what we assume would be a dull or peculiar irrelevance turns out to be the source of all that is good in Christianity."2

The church, above all humanity, should know the deep joy of belonging. We are the people who have been welcomed into divine community, who in Christ belong to God and to one another. If any group holds the antidote to the loneliness epidemic, it should be the church, "the gospel made visible"3

We of course have an enemy who loathes this truth and who longs to isolate. The Good Shepherd gathers one flock to enjoy abundant life together, but the wolf snatches and scatters. He seeks only to steal, kill and destroy; and one of his early targets is loving community. The Gerasene demoniac had been driven by the demon into solitary places, and lived where Satan planned soon to bury him, in the tombs. Jesus rescues then restores him to the community, to which he belongs: "Return home and tell how much God has done for you" (Luke 8: 27, 29 and 39).

In Christ 

The New Testament's most common description of a Christian is soaked in the language of intimate belonging: to be a believer is to be 'in Christ'. On that day, Jesus says, "You will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you" (John 14:20).  For us to be in Christ is to be where He is, and He is in the Father. The Son belongs to the Father, and we belong to the Son. To be in Christ is to be the ultimate insider, enveloped in the secure, loving, eternal embrace of the Trinity. 

Rory Shiner illustrates this beautifully: What relationship do we need with an airliner to get to our destination? The key relationship you need with the plane is not to be under it, behind it, or inspired by it. You need to be in it. Why? Because, by being in the plane, what happens to the plane will also happen to you. To be in Christ is to say that, by union with Him, whatever is true of Him is now true of us. He died, we died. He is raised, we are (and will be) raised. He is vindicated, we are vindicated. He is loved, we are loved. And so on, all because we are in Him.4 

So much flows from this beautiful truth. To be that secure liberates us to love others selflessly and generously. The forgiveness and reconciliation that births our union with Christ patterns our loving unity with each other. To be in Christ together makes us part of His body: we don't just need one another, we belong to one another (Romans 12:5). And we have the ultimate help in strengthening these bonds of peace: the Spirit of unity Himself (Ephesians 4:3). 

The statistics on loneliness, as mentioned above, indicate that our neighbours long to belong. Isolation kills. We can welcome them to where we live, the very epicentre of belonging, the one under whom the Father is bringing together all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10). It will be the depth and sincerity of our belonging together that will point people to Him: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13: 35).

1 www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/12/loneliness-as-bad-for-health-as-long-term-illness-says-gps-chief, accessed 4/5/18 

2 Reeves, Michael, The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit (Carlisle: Paternoster 2012), pp vii, xvi 

3 Dever, Mark, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group 2012) 

4 Shiner, Rory, One Forever, The Transforming Power of Being in Christ (Kingsford, Matthias Media, 2012), pp.34-35 

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