Individuality and Community
In the US we have a very strong sense of individuality and individual responsibility in justice. This is also true in other parts of the modern world, but it is very pronounced in the west. For the most part, we tend to believe that individuals have the freedom to make choices and when they make the right choices, they should enjoy the rewards of those choices. Likewise, when they make the wrong choices, they should face the consequences of those choices. I should not have to pay for the goods you stole. I should not have to suffer because of your malpractice.
While there are exceptions we make for loved ones, as well as for those we consider to be “in need” because of situations outside of their control, in general we take the stance: I’m responsible for me and my actions, but I’m not responsible for you and your actions.
But, the letter to the church of Pergammum indicates that Jesus sees us both individually and communally. The letter is to the church, not the city, so there are some boundaries in that this is to a joint body of people who participate with each other in a community representing the body of believers of Jesus Christ. But Jesus is clearly addressing responsibility for both individuals and the group as a whole within that body.
“You have remained true to my name. You do not renounce your faith in me.” These are commendations for the individuals and acknowledgement of their individual performance.
“There are some among you who… Likewise, you also have those who…” These are reprimands to the community.
In our communities, in our times, our response would likely be to argue for division of accountability. “That is them not me.” “It is not fair to hold me responsible for what they choose to do.” But that is, clearly, not how Jesus sees things.
The church is referred to as the body of Christ. Another way of looking at this is to consider these reprimands of Jesus as the physician pointing out infections or cancers within that body. You don’t leave it to the cancer or the infection to treat itself. You don’t try to separate the parts of your body from the whole and say, you can’t hold me responsible for the infection that is in my lung.
Jesus, the physician to the church of Pergammum, prescribes the appropriate treatment in verse 16: Repent. He warns that if they do not repent, then He will come as a surgeon with a double edge sword that penetrates.
This is hard. This goes against so much of how we like to define responsibility. It is messy. It takes time and effort. It takes patience and perseverance. It takes a commitment to stay true to His name and to not renounce faith in Him.
It is particularly hard because He doesn’t say to remove those individuals from the community. But He also doesn’t say it is acceptable for the infection or cancer to continue. The infection, though, is not the individual, it is what the individuals “hold to”. It is the holding to false beliefs. It is the holding to false teachings.
Repenting means that the body removes the infection, not the lung. It means taking in collectively more of the right stuff and eliminating the junk food. It means exercising faith daily together, consistently and accurately. It means not turning a blind eye to needs in the community. It means not being superior to others, but also not ignoring the wrong-doings of others.
We can be handicapped because we misunderstand the words, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” That does not mean we are to ignore the infection, it simply means that surgery should not be our first treatment.
If surgery were the first and only treatment, then there would be no body. There is bacteria and infection on every part of our bodies. If that were our method, every cell would be cut off from every other cell and we would no longer be a body. Instead, the treatment Jesus prescribes is, with His power, with His Word, to get off the wrong path of living as a body and get back on the right path of living as a body.
There are rewards in changing path. It is called victory. And for the victorious church: It will be accepted as God’s chosen people (the ones fed manna in the wilderness). It will be saved from slavery to be with God (as the Jews were freed from Egypt) and in His presence every day (living in the shekhinah glory of the Lord – shekhinah mean “dwelling place”). It will be acquitted of all wrong doing by He who is the Judge. (black stone = guilty, white stone=innocent). It will be given a new heavenly name (now known by the name of the earthly city of its members, but they won’t be dwelling in that city any more so it (the church) will have a new name that only has meaning to those who know Jesus).
But we don’t reach victory alone, we reach it as a team – as a church – as the church.
You remain true to my name, you do not renounce your faith in me (not even when witnesses are put to death)
Moabites enticed the Israelite men with their women who then encouraged the men to sacrifice and worship false gods
The double edge sword. The Word of God. It is always true and cuts through the artificial covering I try to put on my sin to justify it or paint it as something that isn’t sinful.
I will be accepted as one of God’s chosen people (the ones fed manna in the wilderness). I will be saved from slavery to be with God in His presence every day. I will be acquitted of all wrong doing by He who is the Judge.