In every Divine Liturgy after the sacrament of Holy Communion, Orthodox Christians throughout the world sing some version of the hymn, "We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, by worshipping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us." Cleansed and fortified as one community of faithful, our minds and strength renewed and reoriented once again to our spiritual center, we travel back onto the pathways of our daily lives, seeing with spiritual eyes, and giving each other and our communities the best of ourselves as we go about our activities. The sense of community as being the natural environment for our faith and our praxis (practice) is presupposed in our Church.
When I think of true community, I think of the Greek word autexousion (auto, self; ex, coming out from, and ousia, essence). I find this to be the most remarkable word among all the beautiful words of our faith. Why? This word, meaning essentially "essence of the self coming forth," is the word that the early Church used when it wanted to express "free will." How beautiful! If free will does indeed mean the "essence of ourselves coming forth," then any split between our faith and our practice is profoundly falling short of who God created us to be. If free will is truly the essence of self blossoming forth, how do we realize that call within community?
I remember reading about Christ getting angry two times in the scriptures. The two seem related when one thinks of them in terms of faith and praxis. Individuals who agree to suppress their talents and become invisible are as guilty as the fig tree that Christ cursed. That tree (and all of creation) was made by God with a double purpose - to fulfill its given nature in bearing its own particular kind of fruit, and to offer the first fruits back to God by providing for the community. Thus, trees make fruit to drop to the ground and create new trees and new life, just as much as they sustain life in the creatures who eat their fruit. The fig tree was cursed because it failed to fulfill both aspects of its purpose.
Those who pervert their God-given talents to amass profit and to limit growth in others are as guilty as the moneychangers whom Christ cast out of the temple. Each of us was created with the double purpose of bearing fruit with our God-given talents and offering that fruit back to God by providing for the community. The moneychangers used their gifts, instead, for personal power and control, and for gain at the expense of others, and through their very actions tried to change the purpose of the community of the temple to their own purposes.
Those who fail to develop their God-given talents and offer them to the community commit the sin of the fig tree. Those who pervert such development in others, quoting whatever righteous reasons, while thrusting upon the community and its people their own vision of what that community should be about, commit the sin of the moneychangers.
What then are the marks of a true and flourishing community? That we feel at home. That we are accepted for who we really are. That we are encouraged to grow, with our mistakes treated as learning experiences. That our differences from each other are celebrated and that we share a sense of belonging in a community that loves each of us uniquely. That the least is treated with extra courtesy by the first. That we care about one another and are willing to be changed by listening to one another and by receiving each other's gifts. That we offer hospitality with love to each other and to all those who pass our way. That we create and sustain those life-giving fruits God intends for us to offer to our community, thus becoming fully the persons God created us to be. That we live in humility and gratitude, not at the expense of others, not for power over others, neither hiding in fear nor wallowing in apathy or self pity, but in the light of Christ's love and the awareness that He calls us to act from out of our love. That we, as a community, become worthy of our people's trust. That we will support each person's growth, Spirit-filled actions, and unique expressions of autexousion.
We become a true community when each of us can recognize the special gifts that God has given to us and to others. With gratitude for those gifts, and humility before God Who bestows those gifts, we work to see that each of those gifts is fulfilled and honored by being offered back to the community. In this way we may live lives of healthy purpose, bearing the fruits that God intends, and offering them for the sustenance of others. This is the essence of community - learning to feed each other.
When we act with a courage rooted in our trust in God's wisdom in creating us, supporting and being supported by our spiritual community, our faith and our praxis are one. We think and act from our spiritual heart both as unique persons, and as a community. It becomes natural to seek out ways to actively offer acknowledgment, support, and encouragement to our sisters and brothers in Christ for who they are and how they are, not just for what they accomplish. The most important progress we can make as a community is to provide for others that supportive environment that we ourselves know means so much to us in our own growth, to nurture the gifts inherent in the people of that community.