Sometime during the Fall of 2010, I got an email from a fella in Canada by the name of Jamie Arpin-Ricci. (I only mention that he’s from Canada because the subject line of the email said “Greetings from Canada” and he was quick to mention the rapidly cooling climates of Winnipeg, where he lives. So clearly he wears his Canadianness on his sleeve, which I, being a Wisconsinite, definitely encourage. We people of the “tundra” have to stick together.) The email was a “reach out” type email to establish a friendship between two people doing similar work with similar values.
Jamie and his wife Kim lead an urban missional community in Winnipeg’s historic West End district called “The Little Flowers Community.” The name “Little Flowers” is taken from the famous chronicle of the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi called (in Italian) the Fioretti di San Francesco (“The Little Flowers of St. Francis“). Francis, of course, being known for his commitment to a life of poverty, community, devotion, and good works, the Little Flowers Community seeks to embody the Kingdom by living together a communal life of discipline, devotion, and good works in Winnipeg. Fittingly, Arpin-Ricci is a “Third Order Franciscan.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds awesome.
In any event, one of the things that our community, Bloom, and Little Flowers have in common is a conviction that faith is more than mere confession. Still more, it is more than mere belief. Faith is about following Jesus in the costly but bracing adventure of discipleship, through which God is made known as the kingdom comes crashing into this world, and one can hardly find a better articulation of the nature and substance of this costly discipleship than in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7).
So I was SUPER excited to receive a copy of Jamie’s book, The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, and Life in the Kingdom in the mail this past December. The book is an extended meditation on the Sermon on the Mount which weaves together tales from the life of St. Francis with stories about how the Little Flowers community has wrestled with the high call of the Sermon. Having just finished the book two nights ago, let me tell you what I loved about it…
I loved Arpin-Ricci’s determination to take the words of the Sermon seriously. Too often, the Sermon has been dismissed as a sort of “high bar” which is designed MERELY to expose our need for grace… in other words, Jesus didn’t really INTEND for us to follow the Sermon, just to feel bad about it so that we’ll ask for forgiveness. But Jesus says otherwise: “Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man…” (Mt 7:24). Clearly the Sermon is intended to be LIVED and OBEYED. Arpin-Ricci, in the tradition of Bonhoeffer, takes this seriously. I loved that.
On the flip side, however, Arpin-Ricci does not allow the Sermon to devolve into legalism. The driving insight is that in the person of Jesus, we see the embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is life in the Kingdom, and the King is the manifestation of the very Kingdom he brings, so that the Sermon is a sort of “veiled Christology”. Further, the New Testament’s ringing affirmation is that the One who is the embodiment of the Sermon has come to dwell in and among us, ever shaping our lives towards the Kingdom. The Sermon was made flesh, and came to live in and among us, John might say, and through him we live the Sermon. Arpin-Ricci always keeps this in view. A robust Christology lies at the foundation of his reflections.
I loved Arpin-Ricci’s emphasis on community throughout the book. All too often, in our modern, individualistic, consumeristic lives, we try to work the issues of discipleship out on our own. But the Sermon doesn’t allow us to do that. It forces us into community, where our sinful passions and prejudices are exposed and we are given the grace of repentance… a true “amending” of our lives to the Kingdom. Arpin-Ricci’s stories from his own community constantly draw attention to this. I loved that. Furthermore, the stories served to make his own reflections on the “cost of community” concrete. No abstract pronouncements from on high about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. Rather, this book smacks of a really refreshing humility. We’re working this stuff out like THIS, and this is what we’ve seen. Truly inspiring.
Finally, I really enjoyed the “St. Francis” angle. I think that part of what makes this book really unique is how effortlessly Arpin-Ricci spins biblical and theological reflection, personal stories, and insights from the life of an often-misunderstood saint together. Encountering St. Francis through Jamie’s vignettes was fun and illuminating.
More could be said, but I’ll just encourage you to buy it and read it on your own. For my part, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount. This side of Bonhoeffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship, there aren’t many modern works that deal so adroitly the high call of the Sermon in light of a robust Christology. Jamie has accomplished this, and to that extent, this book is a great gift to the church seeking to be faithful to Jesus, the ever-living Lord who walks with us, leading us to live lives that bless the world and redound to God’s praise.