A magazine article some years ago was entitled: "After affluence, what?  Individualism."  The author was looking forward to an era of even greater individualism (for the affluent) than we have already.  A few years can make a big difference, and today many people would find that article embarrassing.  Nobody can really be an independent individual, not even a wealthy person.  Wealth does tend to separate people from one another, while poverty often brings them together; but then wealth traps people in a complex financial web with other people - a very caricature of closeness.  The dream of individualism is just a dream.  We depend on other people in thousands of ways.  The Christian faith celebrates this and reveals its ultimate depth.  Even the Persons of the Trinity depend on one another.  To live, through Christ, in the heart of that mystery is our destiny. 

As you would expect in an age of individualism, conscience is seen as being always the voice of the individual.  There are times when an individual has to stand up for what is right because no one else is doing so; but it is the rightness of the cause that gives weight to the protest, not the fact that the protestor is an individual.  The protester is speaking in the name of what is right; in other words, he or she is speaking for the whole community.  In such a case the individual is actually the unheeded voice of the community.  We are part of community even when we are making an individual protest against its abuses. 

We are one in the Body of Christ: that is the bedrock of Christian community.  In John 10 Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and we are the sheep.  John 15 expresses an even closer relationship: he is the vine and we its branches.  This is so close a relationship that you could say it is beyond relationship; it expresses identification.  "I am the vine…you the branches."  But a vine is the branches.  Jesus has identified himself with us.  To destroy a branch is to destroy the vine in some measure; to cut off a brother or sister in Christ is to cut off Christ. 

This is also the teaching of St Paul.  Christ, he said, is the head and we are the body. "We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another" (Rom 12:4; see also 1 Cor 12:12).

A favourite word in John's gospel and letters is 'abide': abiding in God, abiding in Christ, abiding in his word…. I counted 37.  To abide is not to be a visitor, it is even more than being a friend; it is to be at home.  We are not lost and isolated individuals; we are at home with one another, in Christ, in God.  Our individual consciences have great power and conviction when they are the conscience of the Body of Christ. 

Donagh O'Shea


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