Shortly afterwards in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples say to him, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us’ (Mark 9.38). Jesus rebukes them claiming ‘whoever is not against us, is with us’. The disciples’ actions seem bizarre – surely demons (however you understand that concept of things which bind, imprison and oppress people) are bad, so getting rid of them would be good. But if you pause for a moment you see how easy it is to copy them. Their problem was that this ‘exorcist’ wasn’t part of their group. Communities so easily become self-regarding. Rejoice at the other students gathering to read the bible, or feel frustrated or even threatened that they are not part of your network? Rejoice at the mums getting together to support each other, or feel slighted that they are ignoring your church’s mums and tots group? Invite new people to church because God’s love will be brilliant for them, or because without new people the church will die?
Finally I want to point not so much to a single passage but a running theme – eating. This culminates at the meal Jesus shared before he died, but that itself was merely his regular practice which we see throughout the gospels, from eating with the tax collectors and sinners in Levi’s house (Mark 2.15) to the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6.35-44). Indeed, Jesus was criticised for being a glutton and drunkard (Matthew 11.19). Archbishop Sentamu once commented that the only way we show our faith and love for each other was with ‘prayer and parties’. In my experience sitting down and eating together is very powerful. It changes relationships from being ‘task focused’ to genuine human to human engagement. For many it is a vulnerable experience – few of us feel our food, our house, our children’s eating habits, are up to scratch. It’s also time consuming. But Jesus was right – it works. I know a single mum from a tough background who has now found Jesus’ love for her and her girls because when they wandered into church once and saw us eating together at the end of the service, her four year old said ‘look mum, a real family’.
Good communities are vital to having the life to the full which Jesus wishes for us all. Our fracturing and fragile world is crying out for them. People are drawn to them. But only the naïve think that all communities are good. As we struggle to build good communities we need to listen to Jesus and aim for communities which are focused in a purpose outside themselves; where the weak and fragile are honoured and given equal say; where we rejoice in good even if it is bypassing us, offending our sense of importance and our thoughtful plans; and where we sit and eat together.