With creator/showrunner Dan Harmon back at the helm, Community is back to it’s former creative genus. More than this, it’s back to providing us with numerous insights into the human condition.
Last week had to do with self-righteousness/justification, honesty, and confession. Let me set the context. The episode, Cooperative Polygraphy, begins with the study group returning from Pierce’s funeral. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot-line of the show, Pierce; played by Chevy Chase; was the slightly racists, always inappropriate, yet somehow full of wisdom member of the group. He also often acted as the scapegoat for the group’s dysfunction as becomes obvious in this weeks episode.
Following their arrival into the study room a lawyer walks in claiming to be investigating the cause of Pierce’s death. It’s later discovered to be a postmortem ruse of Pierce’s to subject the entire group to a polygraph examine (again for those of you unfamiliar with the show, it has off-the-wall plots). Upon this discovery, the lawyer makes the group aware that the completion of the polygraph test is the only way to gain access to Pierce’s vast wealth.
As Pierce’s postmortem interrogation ensues, chaos erupts. The questions, which were designed to reveal the group’s sins against one another, provoke an all out argument. Shirley, who owns a sandwich shop, replaced the tofu in her sandwich shop with a meat-based tofu substitute, much to Britta’s horror (she’s a vegetarian). Britta showed up high to Shirley’s son’s baptism. Jeff kept a memento from his sexual fling with Britta. Troy stole his and Abed’s secrete handshake from a cheesy website. Abed planted GPS tracking devises on every member of the group. Annie secretly dosed the study group with amphetamines to help them get better grades.
As the argument reaches its climax Annie bursts out, “Pierce designed these question to show us that we’re no better off without him.” To which Shirley adds, “No better than him.”
It’s here that the episode, from a Christian perspective, becomes fascinating. Throughout their entire relationship, the study group often used Pierce to feel better about themselves. He was the scapegoat for their sins. Now, postmortem, Pierce holds up a mirror (the law) to show them their sin and in this humble brokenness, true community is birthed:
Annie: Strange after all these years how much we’ve kept hidden from each other. You’d think after all this time we would have learned to be better people.
Jeff: Maybe we got into this mess thinking there was such a thing as better people. Wait that it! If we’re no better than Pierce and Pierce is no better than us. That means no one is really that bad. So what if we’re willing to inflict suffering and pain at the mere prospect of material reward. If we stop now that doesn’t make us any better. It just makes us so dishonest that we’d be rather be poor than admit we’re flawed.
In his book, “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship [think Annie’s revelation above]. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”
Simply put, to paraphrase Jeff, much of the mess we see around us in the church is thinking that there is such a thing as better people. You come to church at a point genuine need. Life has reduced you to the realization that you need a Savior. But after this, you enter the realm of Christian life. You hear phrases like “holiness,” “devotion,” “accountability,” “service,” etc. Now, being a sinner in need of grace fades into the background. You once again put up your walls that prevent you from being honest with yourself, others, and God and you are once again alone. As my friend Paul Zahl writes, “Once save… people are on their own again, to work and prove.” To once again paraphrase Jeff, we’d rather be poor, alone, and dishonest than admit that we are flawed.
Last week’s episode of Community offers the church a stunning alternative. Let’s put aside this flawed idea that as Christians we are somehow better people. Hasn’t history shown the opposite? Instead let’s cling to the truth that’s present in the Gospel of grace. Bonhoeffer writes:
“It is the grace of the Gospel… that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone…
All sham was ended in the presence of Christ. The misery of the sinner and the mercy of God–this was the truth of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. It was in this truth that his church was to live…
All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from… the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another.”
Simply put, the Christian life is a life lived in complete dependence upon God’s grace from start to finish. Because of this it is an honest and transparent life with others that seeks to give them the grace we have received. Again, to paraphrase Jeff, let’s stop believing we’re better people; but rather be honest that in many ways we’re just as broken as the day we met Jesus. In doing this, we might just begin to experience Christian community. Thanks Dan Harmon and Community for reminding me of that. I look forward to #sixseasonsandamovie.
PS: Sorry for all the GIFs just figured out how to insert them into WordPress.
PPS: If you so choose to watch the episode, please be warned that there is some crass humor.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer “Life Together“
John Z. “Grace in Addiction“
Paul Zahl “Grace in Practice“