A people live and die together

Part IV in the series exploring MB identity

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got 
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise 
And put up a parking lot
(Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”)

Who are we? We are a people, but we no longer know what that means. Somewhere in modernity, a basic human concept has been lost.

Words are regularly lost and concepts routinely become obsolete. Sometimes the loss has deep consequences.

Without understanding what it means to be a people, we cannot understand the biblical story. This is a catastrophic loss. The biblical story is of God who “went out to redeem a people for himself” (1 Chronicles 17:21); of John the Baptist who goes “on before the Lord…to make ready a people” (Luke 1:17); of the gospel, which declares “once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10).

And what is a people? A people have a common origin – either ancestral or geographical – that binds them into a single, permanent unit. In the New Covenant it’s both our ancestry as reborn children of God and our geography as citizens of the kingdom that makes us a people.

There is no theological complexity here, no subtle nuance for the simple to stumble over or the brilliant to confuse. This is Christianity. We’re not merely redeemed individuals – we are a people!

If we don’t understand this, the loss isn’t just theological, it’s practical. If we don’t know what it means to be a people, how can we know how to act like a people?

A people journeys through life together. They celebrate their feasts and mourn their losses. Together, they tackle the challenges that face them, glory in their victories, and grieve their defeats. It’s not the high moments that mark a people, but how they walk that full journey together.

Not having a people with whom to travel through life is a tactile loss but one we observe every day. Its imprints are everywhere – desperately lonely people.

Counterfeit community

What happens with the loss of this basic concept? It’s the same thing that happens when other deep human needs such as family, love, meaning, and fulfillment lose their anchors in us – dangerous counterfeits take over.

The counterfeit of our age is the replacement of a people with “an assembly.” It’s a compelling counterfeit and is so gripping because successful assemblies recreate the sensations of great victories and defining moments that a people experience. Great assemblies even tap into the pathos that trials bring. In assemblies, people gather to laugh and cry and, in doing so, are joined in the sensation of peoplehood.

But these sensations – disconnected from the true meaning of peoplehood – are as misleading and dangerous to us as narcotics are to those in search of life’s meaning. They create a dependency on the trappings rather than the essence. A people will assemble, but an assembly does not create a people.

If a people is defined by its journey, an assembly is defined by its parking lot. It has efficient entrances and exits. People flow in and out of it with carefully designed ease. An assembly is about a good time, not a long time. When a crisis comes, exits facilitate speedy egress. During serious crises, well-marked fire exits mark the safest route by which to flee.

There is no exit route for a people – they live and die together.

For MBs, being a people was once a part of our identity that needed no explanation. Those days are gone – paradise is being paved. We are rapidly becoming a sea of individuals united by tenuously connected federations of assemblies.

But this can’t be the end of the story. Understanding what it means to be a people isn’t optional. We are a people. We who are reborn require constant reminders of this existential fact, especially when the concept isn’t easily understood.

If we can grasp this, our next challenge is living up to the values of our peoplehood in an individualistic culture. It’s not about attempting to recreate the past. That is neither practical nor wise. Our old story had its fine moments, but it was not paradise. Our predecessors had their own misconceptions about being the people of God.

“Paradise” is the biblical description of a people. We must never resign ourselves to the idea that paving paradise is inevitable. We’ve been given an assignment – the building of a people.

Next Month – We Are A Separated People

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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