Ephesians 4:1-7; 11-16; 1 Cor. 12:12-31; Hebrews 10:19-25
A friend in college told me that she was done with church. We were in bible college, training for ministry. “I’m not done with Jesus,” she said, “But I just don’t see the point of church.” This was puzzling to me – mainly because I had had a congregation in high school that equipped me, supported me, and had given me opportunities to serve. Acceptance, scripture, spurring one another on toward love and good deeds: that was church and church was great.
My friend, however, hadn’t encountered what I had. Her church had rigid expectations for what a Christian looked like and believed. It didn’t focus on fellowship but on checking the attendance boxes or saying the right things. It was an obligation in order to be deemed adequately spiritual, and one that didn’t give life to her. My friend wasn’t and isn’t alone in this – there are numerous books out there with titles like, “They like Jesus but not the church.” Many people say they are interested in Jesus but find the notion of church a bit disgusting—when church means legalistic, judgmental, and disconnected from the community. It is a disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and the function and practice of church which has led to an aversion of organized religion.
I remember how I wanted to support my friend in her questioning and I also couldn’t quite put into words about how and why fellowship with other Jesus followers seemed crucial. While I knew church was good, I needed to learn more about what the Bible said about it.
Looking in scripture, there are certain passages or verses that define who Christians are to be as they follow Jesus. The two greatest commandments—Love God and Love your neighbor as your self—set a priority on how love is to be a defining part of following Jesus (Mt 22:36-40). Other passages link our nature as God’s children to certain actions and ethics. For instance, Jesus says in Matthew 5:9 that, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” If we want to live out our identities as God’s children, peacemaking must be part of our calling.
Just as peacemaking is crucial to our identity as Jesus followers, today’s scripture passages in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Hebrews illustrate how being part of the body of Christ is also at the core of Christianity. We read in 1 Corinthians 12 that just as baptism and the Holy Spirit are essential to Christianity, so too is being part of the body of Christ. “There is no Christianity without community” (Zinzendorf).
There are three lessons that come out of our texts that are relevant for us today, as Anya and Joshua make commitments to our congregation, and as we each consider our own commitments to the church, to Washington City (or perhaps to another congregation, if you are visiting). Three lessons about why church matters and about how to be the church together.
Lesson 1: It ain’t just me and Jesus
Sara Miles was an atheist journalist who had covered conflict around the world. In an odd turn of events, she ended up at an Episcopal church, she took communion, and she was profoundly moved. Eating Jesus made God real and tangible, and it led her on a journey of faith and service, which she describes in her memoir, “Take this Bread.” Pretty soon, she came to understand that, while the transformation and conversion certainly involved her own choice and commitment, this being a Christian wasn’t something she did on her own – or even just with people she liked.
Sara Miles writes, “I was not going to get to sit by myself and think loftily about how much Jesus loved me in particular. I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me. I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn’t necessarily like. People I didn’t choose” (Sara Miles, Take this Bread). Eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood meant that she was united with other Jesus-followers, like it or not.
In her second book, Jesus Freak, Sara Miles continues to process this truth, saying: “I realized how my continuing conversion depended on being thrown together in intimate ways with all kinds of strangers I hadn’t chosen. Being the body of Christ didn’t allow a lot of room for sentimentality or waffling, and didn’t depend on my ability or failure to like any particular individual. It just demanded a new heart from me, a new way of seeing other people” (Sara Miles, Jesus Freak).
In our 1 Corinthians 12 passage, Paul explains this to the Jesus-followers who are in the city of Corinth. He uses body imagery and theological language to make the argument that, “it ain’t just me and Jesus.” Despite their class distinctions, their ethnic differences, their religious and theological backgrounds, the Corinthians were together in Christ. The Message translation puts it like this:
“Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink.” (1 Cor 12:12-13).
We said goodbye to our partial and piecemeal lives, and are now joined together as Christ’s resurrection body in this world. Like it or not, we are bound together, baptized into Christ’s body, filled with the same Spirit, nourished by the Spirit’s presence. Being a part of the body of Christ is not an option. The choice is really about whether we are a functioning and useful part of the body—whether we are working together with others to proclaim Christ’s message of reconciliation—or whether we are a dysfunctional and broken body part. Our lone-ranger-ing causes the body to limp along without our help, and we ourselves end up being shriveled and weak instead of thriving as part of the body.
Lesson 1 is that that it ain’t just me and Jesus, we’re hopelessly bound together as a body with other Christians.
Lesson 2: the church is full of essential toes, noses, kneecaps, and eyes.
Our second lesson from these scriptures is that all of these diverse body parts are crucial; the body of Christ is full of essential toes, noses, kneecaps, and eyes. Without everyone’s gifts, the body struggles to share the light of Christ in the world. Like the song we sang earlier, “He the head, we are his members, we reflect the light he is.” It’s hard to be the hands and feet of Jesus when you’re missing a hand or a toe or a knuckle. The Corinthian church struggled to understand that everyone’s gifts were crucial and important in the body of Christ; there was a lot of social hierarchy and people were making the argument that certain gifts (speaking in tongues, specifically), were more important.
During Roman times, body imagery was often used as an argument to maintain hierarchy and inequality in society. “Some people are just heads, they are more important and deserve high status and wealth. Others, well, you’re just baby toes or elbows. Keep in line, stay further down the chain, as your role indicates.” But Paul uses body imagery to argue something different: every body part is essential and valuable to the body. The significance of any gift or any person in the church comes about when they are a functioning and working part of the whole.
The Message translation puts Paul’s argument this way, “For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, ‘Get lost; I don’t need you’? Or, Head telling Foot, ‘You’re fired; your job has been phased out’? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the ‘lower’ the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?”
Some people’s gifts, like some body parts, Paul says, are flashier and more presentable than others; they may get more facetime at the front of the congregation. Others run behind the scenes – they keep the church clean, they answer the phone, they cook the casseroles, they weed the gardens and mow the lawns, they care for people through facebook messages, texts, emails, and phone calls. Dreaming, visioning, organizing, teaching, serving, nurturing, maintaining, encouraging: the gifts and roles we all bring to the congregation are crucial and essential. As Paul says, if we were all one giant eye, it would be pretty creepy. But instead, we are the body of Christ, made up of diverse parts. The church, my sisters and brothers, is full of essential toes, noses, kneecaps, and eyes. And all the other organs and muscles and ligaments and skin that make up a healthy, thriving body.
Lesson 3: Saying “I Do” with the Church
Lesson 1 is that it ain’t just me and Jesus. Lesson 2 is that the church is full of essential toes, noses, kneecaps, and eyes. Lesson 3 is that being part of the church involves saying, “I Do.” (repeat)
Anya and Josh are saying a lot of “I Do”s: they are saying it to the church today and next Saturday, they will also say, “I do” and commit their lives to each other. We rejoice with them.
When we commit to following Jesus, we commit to living out Christ’s love and peace in this world. Making disciples, sharing the love of Jesus, proclaiming the Kingdom of God: these are the things that make up our call to discipleship. We can’t do this well on our own; it takes more than a loose affiliation with each other to bring about the Kingdom of God. Doing God’s work together requires a covenant, a commitment to be the functioning body, to play our roles, to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.
The early church understood the fact that “church” was more than a one-hour obligation on a Sunday morning: they knew it was about community, relationships, sharing, supporting, and laboring together. In the book of Acts (ch. 2), we see the early Christians eating together, working together, calling people to new roles and ministries, preaching, teaching, and showing mercy and care to those in need.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus calls us to demonstrate to the world what radical, loving community looks like. In light of what Christ Jesus has done for us and in hope of the future Kingdom that is to come, our fellowship and partnership together gives us the strength and courage to keep going until that day. The author of Hebrews urged early Christians toward this, saying, because of what Christ has done for you, keep working together and pushing each towards the goal of God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Hebrews 10:19-25 reads, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Sisters and brothers, it ain’t just me and Jesus. It is all of us together, pressing on towards the goal. All of our gifts, each of us as a body part—whether a toe, nose, kneecap, or eye—is an essential part of God’s work in this world. We need each other. As followers of Jesus, we say “I Do” to the church. We commit to laboring together, as a congregation in this city and broadly across the world for God’s work of reconciliation. What gifts can you bring to the church to keep Jesus’ body functioning, thriving, and doing the work of God in this world? Will you commit or recommit today to laboring with us here at Washington City, seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus?
May we have the courage to commit, to walk alongside each other, to keep meeting together, provoking one another to love and good deeds, and encouraging each other as we see the Day approaching. AMEN.