The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and Life in the Kingdom
Jamie Arpin-Ricci. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011. 237 pages.
Readers interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a myriad of ways. For example, Clarence Bauman, in his The Sermon on the Mount: The Modern Quest for its Meaning, lists nineteen different ways in which the Sermon has been interpreted—everything from idealism that doesn’t work (Friedrich Naumann), to the challenge to accept it literally as a moral imperative (Leo Tolstoy), to reading it as the Magna Charta for Christian socialism (Leonhard Ragaz), or simply to lay bare the great moral need of humanity (Kittel).
What a treat to read about the Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg, affiliated with Mennonite Church Manitoba, who have ordered their lives around it. Unapologetically, they state their deeply held conviction that “Jesus actually meant us to do what he taught us, especially in the Sermon on the Mount” (13).
The Sermon can be read as an abstraction, a philosophical statement of intent; or it can be read as a necessary and practical instruction about how the Kingdom of God comes and is revealed to the world. There are dangers at both ends of the continuum. The Sermon must not become an abstraction unrelated to life, nor should it become a new legalism that reduces it to specific, decreed acts. Its words must never be separated from the One who spoke them, whose life is lived through the community of faith.
Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century monk, serves as the model for this radical ordering of life. He was of the strong conviction that the words of Jesus ought to be taken as literally as they were spoken, and obeyed. This, however, is not merely a personal journey into radical piety; rather, the Sermon is to be lived out corporately. The Little Flowers Community believes the image of Christ and his mission in the world are best experienced and given witness to through the community of Jesus, the church.
After an introductory chapter, setting out the main idea of the book, Arpin-Ricci divides the material into eleven sections, followed by a concluding chapter focusing on the parable of the Two Builders. The primary emphasis is on Matthew 5, which is the focus of six of the eleven chapters. This might appear to be a problem of imbalance, but much of the material of the first six chapters contributes directly to the final five chapters, which cover most of Matthew 6 and 7.
Each chapter is the blending of three streams of material, which do not necessarily follow the same order in each case. One stream presents an incident in the life of the community or in society, which puts a practical, down-to-earth human face onto the material. Second, an exegetical treatment of the text is included. While this book is not to be mistaken for a commentary on the Sermon, it nonetheless deals very adequately with the meaning of the text. Third, although he is far removed from the Little Flowers Community in time, the book draws helpful insights from St. Francis of Assisi’s extraordinary life. The incidents and illustrations from the life of St. Francis are particularly revealing and worth the effort of reading the book. You will sometimes chuckle or be amazed at St. Francis’ way of interpreting the words of Jesus, but you will always marvel at what can happen when a person takes the words of Jesus seriously.
In each chapter the author also raises questions that explore how belief and conviction find expression in the reality of daily life. The final chapter, entitled “The Wise Builder (or ‘Go and Do Likewise’),” is an apt finale to the book. The author argues that this final saying of the Sermon, the parable of the two builders, ought not to be reduced to a children’s song with actions; rather, “. . . the point of Jesus’ entire Sermon on the Mount is to teach us how to live . . . we are wise if we respond to the call of discipleship and actively obey the very teachings he has just given us in this text” (212).
Would I recommend this book? Yes, indeed, for three reasons: first, it is an interesting book—it is readable and moves along quickly. Second, it is a useful book in that the material goes somewhere, and in the act of reading, ideas and concepts can be discovered that are transferable to other settings. And third, the book is inspirational. It keeps the Sermon, and the One who spoke it, central. If we follow the lead of the Little Flowers Community then we too will understand the true meaning of discipleship and Christ’s mission in the world.