The Gift of Christian Community
The Spirit Draws Us Together in Christ
The streets of Jerusalem are crowded with people who have arrived to celebrate the feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. As a resident of the holy city, you’re used to the excitement and the jostling of people that are common on these special days. But today is different. A large crowd is gathering around a Galilean man who is boldly proclaiming that Jesus, the man who many thought might be the Messiah, has risen from the dead!
Everyone in the city has been talking about the crucifixion of this man, who healed the sick and even raised a man, Lazarus, from the grave. Even you had begun to suspect that he might actually be the Messiah. But after he was crucified, you thought he was probably just another false prophet, one of many who showed up in Jerusalem from time to time. Now, however, one of Jesus’ followers, Simon Peter, is telling the crowd to repent and be baptized in Jesus’ name so that they can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
You listen closely to Peter, and something stirs in your heart. Could this be true? Suddenly you are sure that Jesus is not only the Messiah but the risen Lord and Savior. You are baptized that very day, and your life is never the same.
Now you want to spend your time with all the others who have accepted Peter’s message. Because you have been baptized in Jesus, you feel a strong bond with them. You begin to gather together each day at the Temple to worship the Lord. You meet in one another’s homes and break bread together. You even sell some of your possessions so that there is enough for the people in need (Acts 2:43-47). You are living a new, shared life with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
This month, as we celebrate the Easter season, we want to look at what life was like for “the community of believers” (Acts 4:32) who came together after Pentecost to form small Christian churches. What can their shared life teach us? How can we support one another as a community of believers, whether in our homes, our neighborhoods, or our parishes? And why is it so important that we do so?
The Movement of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it remarkable that as soon as Peter proclaimed the good news at Pentecost, the people who were baptized began living “the communal life” (Acts 2:42)? Why did this happen? It’s because they received the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who works in us to desire Christian community, who leads us to brothers and sisters who can support us in our walk with God and with whom we can gather to worship the Lord.
Think of what it must have been like for these first believers. They still considered themselves Jews, but now they were calling Jesus their Lord and Savior—a man who had been rejected as a fraud by much of the religious establishment. The faith of these men and women was setting them apart from many of their fellow Jews in a fundamental way. They needed the support of a community of believers, and so the Spirit led them to come together and share their lives on many levels. From this base of support, they could do what Jesus had commanded: to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Jesus and His Band of Disciples. Of course, God created us as social beings who depend on one another and need a community to survive and thrive. The Jewish culture of Jesus’ time was much more communal than it is today; for the most part, people lived in some family unit and often in large groups of extended households.
So it’s not surprising that when Jesus launched his public ministry, he desired followers who would join him. He would form these disciples to preach the good news and build his Church after he had risen from the dead. But he would also need them for their support and companionship. Imagine how many miles they walked together and how many meals they shared! Imagine how often they prayed together!
After Jesus had died and risen, these followers continued their life together and brought many more converts into their fold. Let’s look at some passages from Acts to see what we can learn from them.
The Power of Communal Prayer. Shortly after Pentecost, Peter and John were going up to the Temple when they saw a man who had been paralyzed from birth. After healing the man “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 3:6), Peter preached to the people who had gathered around him. This angered the religious leaders, who promptly seized Peter and John and held them in custody overnight. But because many people had witnessed the healing, the Sanhedrin decided to release them.
So Peter and John “went back to their own people” and told them what had happened (Acts 4:23). Together they “raised their voices to God” (4:24). Their prayer was so powerful that “the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:31). The power came from the united prayer of these believers, who asked the Spirit to enable the apostles to continue to “speak your word with all boldness” (4:29). How encouraging this must have been to Peter and John!
This is the gift that we can give one another. Whenever we gather to pray together, we can feel the Spirit moving among us. He builds up our faith as we witness the faith of our fellow disciples. And when others pray with us, we are strengthened, comforted, encouraged, or healed. We might even receive a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We can ask the Lord for these graces on our own, but how much more powerful our prayer becomes when we join with other disciples!
Caring for One Another. Right from the beginning, the early Christians took care of one another, especially with their material needs. As the community in Jerusalem grew, the apostles appointed seven men—including Stephen, who would become the first Christian martyr—to distribute food and other necessities to widows and those in need (Acts 6:1-5).
The disciples also cared for one another on a more personal level. Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, was a disciple from Joppa who “was completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving” (Acts 9:36). After she became sick and died, the disciples sent for Peter. When he arrived, “all the widows came to him weeping and showing him the tunics and cloaks that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (9:39). What joy they must have felt when Peter raised their sister in the Lord and returned her to them, very much alive!
Making a cloak or a tunic might seem like a small thing, but it meant a lot to Dorcas’ sisters in the Lord. We might think that making a meal, providing a ride, or reaching out with a phone call or text is also a small thing. But for the person on the receiving end, it can mean the world. It shows them that we care enough about them to notice their need and make the time and effort to provide it. Every such action builds up not just the people involved but the entire community.
Learning from One Another. The believers in Damascus were ready for Paul when he was led into the city, blinded by his encounter with Jesus on the way. The Lord had told Ananias where to find Paul, and when he did, he prayed with Paul to be filled with the Holy Spirit. After Paul regained his sight, “he stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus” (Acts 9:19). We can imagine them answering all his questions about Jesus and teaching him what it meant to follow Christ. Paul was a fast learner, because shortly afterwards, he began to preach the gospel in the synagogues.
This is another blessing of community: we learn from one another. More seasoned disciples can teach us how to walk with Jesus. Their example can be a powerful witness to the life of Christ in them. Then we grow in our own faith and become examples to our families and to other Christians. How the Lord must delight in this—in his people helping one another draw closer to him!
The Family of God. Just think: every time you enter the doors of your parish church, you are entering not just a building but a sacred space set apart for a community of believers. You pray together at Mass to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and at other times, you may break bread over shared meals. You gather in Bible studies and small groups. You intercede for one another, and perhaps gather at special times to pray the Rosary or to pray for people with immediate needs. From the first community of believers in Jerusalem, we now have countless groups of believers, both large and small, across the globe today. How blessed we are!
But the community of believers is more than a group of people who share similar beliefs and practices. Through Baptism, we have become a family. And with that kinship comes the call to stay united in the Lord. In our next article, we’ll look at the blessings as well as the challenges to unity that the early Christian communities faced, and what they can teach us about living as one in Christ today.