It’s generally accepted that the Sermon on the Mount offers the central teachings of Jesus. But agreement often ends there with countless interpretations on how, when, and why Jesus says what he says. If we’re honest, Mathew 5–7 is a difficult text to interpret.
In his book, The Cost of Community, Jamie Arpin-Ricci acknowledges the challenges of this common text, and tackles them head on. Interacting with the example of St. Francis of Assisi and drawing from his own personal experience as a part of Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg, Arpin-Ricci brings to life what it means to understand and live out these key teachings of Jesus. But reader-beware, this is no easy read!
Most people would hesitate to recommend a book that’s hard to read. I usually am, but with The Cost of Community, I’m willing to make an exception. You see, The Cost of Community is hard to read for all the right reasons.
The Cost of Community is hard to read because…
…it doesn’t shy away from the challenge of following Jesus.
With pointed questions on faith and identity, Arpin-Ricci offers prophetic honesty that repeatedly challenges the reader’s faith. At times, his words are hard to take – uncomfortable and perhaps even offensive in the call to commit all of life to Jesus’ teaching. Refusing to separate belief from action, Arpin-Ricci invites the reader to fully submit to Jesus. “By the power of God’s Spirit we are genuinely devoted to trying to hear Jesus’ words, see his example and do likewise…The point of Jesus’ entire Sermon on the Mount is to teach how to live” (emphasis original). Once read, The Cost of Community is not easily shelved. Arpin-Ricci’s challenge demands reflection long after the reader is finished.
…it confronts our perceptions of the Christian life.
Themes of sin, belief, faithfulness, exclusion, spirituality, and community are interpreted through the lens of radical commitment to Jesus’ teaching, a teaching then brought to life through Arpin-Ricci’s personal humility, stories, and experiences. Assumptions are challenged with the express purpose of faithfulness to Jesus. For example, Arpin-Ricci offers this corrective to the common exercise of biblical application:
In application, we take a new insight, idea or truth and apply it to our existing way of life, like adding a LEGO block on top of another. Considering the implications requires that we examine our entire way of life – our assumptions, our expectations and our every choice – in light of this new understanding or conviction. It is being willing to make any change, no matter how difficult or demanding, if it means being more faithful as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The book’s biblical reflection requires just as much self-reflection – reflection on faith, culture, and the very real cost of following Jesus.
…gospel truth isn’t always easy truth.
The model of St. Francis and the example of Little Flowers Community reveal the down-to-earth truth of Jesus’ teaching. If anything, the book could have used even more stories, as they display how discipleship occurs in the messiness of life. Encountering the sin and brokenness of life, be it suicide, mental illness, or wealth and poverty, Arpin-Ricci presents the honest truth of Jesus’ gospel: we are called to follow Jesus wherever we are at in life. Here the reader is given incredible hope – the inclusion of the gospel! But even hope doesn’t come easily. There is still so much brokenness in our lives and in the world. Digesting the book’s hopeful honesty can be hard work.
…community is hard.
For some, the Sermon on the Mount is only a personal ethic, a way of living to strive for, but which we constantly fail to live up to. Arpin-Ricci refuses this individualization of Jesus’ teaching. Instead, he points out Jesus’ intent to create a “community of the beatitudes.” Jesus’ teaching is transformational, not informational; communal, not only personal.
From the solitude of the wilderness, Jesus emerges with a message that immediately forms community. And not just any community but a community of disciples, a community that requires formation and discipline. A community of apprentices who are being changed into faithful subjects of a new King and new kingdom.
The danger is to become overly idealistic or abstract about the potential of Christian community. A few times the reader would benefit from use elaboration or example (Arpin-Ricci admits the limits of space). For the most part, Arpin-Ricci is careful to remain honest about the hard work required to build and sustain Christian community. Getting along is no easy task! But he’s equally honest in maintaining the centrality of community in order for us to faithfully follow Jesus. Whether we like it or not, we need each other.
As Canadian MBs, striving to be united in mission, the book is relevant and inspiring. It’s challenging as we seek to follow Jesus together in a time such as this. Arpin-Ricci’s experience and background (YWAM and Mennonite Church Canada) offers a perspective that fits well with our own Anabaptist-evangelicalism.
Thankfully, given its challenging message, The Cost of Community is actually quite easy to read. Arpin-Ricci offers a creative blend of storytelling, biblical exposition, and theological reflection that pulls the reader along nicely. And there is no shortage of quotable moments along the way (great for the Twitter-savvy reader!). All Christians will benefit from this book: teachers/preachers for the insightful exposition of Matthew 5–7; church leaders for the example of Christian leadership and community; and any follower of Jesus who is seeking daily what it means to follow Jesus in all of life.
When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, we don’t need easy answers. We need honest answers. The Cost of Community is a book we need.
—David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community (MB) Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C. Blog: www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com. Twitter: @warkd