Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Cor 12:27
When you think of the word “church” or “congregation,” what image comes to mind? What word would you use? What analogy best describes it?
The word congregation is the same as the word “synagogue,” much like the synagogue at Nazareth where Jesus preached to the home town folks. A synagogue was a gathering of people around the Word of God, the Torah and prophets. Jesus preached from an assigned text of Isaiah. The people came together at a synagogue to hear the Word and its exposition, to sing praises to God, and to pray together. Much like what we do here.
The word “church” is similar. Literally, it means “called out ones,” people who have been called out of the everyday world into the kingdom of God. Practically, it means much the same thing as synagogue. It’s an assembly, a gathered community of saints who have been called in Baptism to be the people of God.
Assembly implies order. The congregation is an ordered assembly. It has a presider, the pastor, and it has an agenda, the order of service or liturgy. Everyone has his or her part, whether it is to preach or to hear, to sing hymns, to pray, to say “amen,” to render offerings. Worship is not a spectator sport like football where we sit and watch the pros play a game you and I can’t play, or at least no longer can play. We pay others to do that for our entertainment. Worship isn’t like that. We’re not at a concert, a lecture, a sports event, or some form of religious entertainment where we get to sit back and take it all in and then leave, sometime early, like Dodger fans ducking out at the seventh inning stretch to beat the traffic home. Fans leave early but the players play the full game. But this isn’t a game. This is worship.
Somewhere along the line, our images of the church have gotten all messed up. We’ve attached some strange and foreign images to the concept of “church” and “congregation,” and they haven’t served us terribly well. We see the church in terms of organizational structures, bylaws, and constitutions, directors and boards with their attendant authority. Or we see the church as a kind of country club of the elect elite, smugly congratulating one another on making good choices while looking down in judgment on those who aren’t as religiously wise as we are. Or we see the church as a kind of social service organization, a place to do your civic righteousness and earn your religion merit badge. Or we see the church as a kind of restaurant or bar, where you go once a week or so, where everyone knows your name, more or less, have a drink, “get fed,” and then go on your way to the next thing.
None of those ways are particularly helpful, and ultimately they are harmful. They feed our old Adam, our sinful self that tends to be in it for “me,” my needs, my being fed. They encourage old Adam’s individualism, his desire to be his own “authentic self” and inflict himself on everyone else in the name of “being special.” They encourage us to see the church as something we draw from rather than participate in, something we get from rather than give to, something that helps us make it through the rest of the week or whatever our expectation might be, rather than a place where we can be genuinely ourselves – sinners justified for Jesus’ sake.
As a result, congregational ties tend to be loose, loyalty in short supply, longevity the exception rather than the rule. Division is the norm, with little cliques and factions coalescing around common concerns or interests, each group looking down on the others. Us versus Them. The majority versus the minority.
That’s how it was in the Corinthian congregation. There were divisions. The “spirituals” and the “carnals.” There were parties – The Paul party, the Peter party, the Apollos party, the Christ party. They argued over everything from meats to marriage to morality. They had a man sleeping with his stepmother. They had people teaching “anything goes.” They were a mess. They were the church. They were the body of Christ.
And that gets us to the front-running image in the Scriptures for the church. Body. The body of Christ. Images matter. Just as words matter. And names matter. What you call a thing affects how you relate to that thing. When you see the congregation, this congregation, not simply as a gathering of like-minded individuals, but as the body of Christ, a body composed of diversely gifted members who are interconnected in such a way that we all need each other and serve one another, that changes how you look at this congregation.
First of all, a body means unity. A deep, abiding, mystical unity that transcends all of our differences. We have all been baptized into one body – whether Jew or Greek, regardless of socio-economic status, education, race, political party, or whatever other ways we divide ourselves, we are all one body in Christ. Members of the body of Christ who have been given of the one Spirit to drink. And that’s not a unity we work, but a unity God works in Baptism. We may war against it, but it is God who creates it. We are one body because there is one Baptism, one Bread, one Cup, one Jesus.
Second, it means diversity. We’re not all alike. A body is composed of many different members. If we were all alike, we wouldn’t be a body but a blob. We start out as a blob of cells. But very early on in our development, that blob of cells starts to take on specialized function. Not all cells become the same thing. Some become eyes, ears, brain, liver, toes, etc. And so there are many diverse part, but there is one body. The church is many diverse and differently gifted members, but it is only one unified body. The ear can’t be an eye, the eye can’t be a toe, the toe can’t be a liver. It just won’t work. The modern notion that we are all the same and interchangable is simply nonsense. If the whole body were an eye, how could we hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could we smell? If everyone is the same and interchangable, then you don’t have a body you have a mob.
Third, the church as body image means that we are all interconnected in a profound way. Members of a body need each other in ways we don’t fully realize. The eye can’t afford to say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Nor can the head say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” Every part is indispensible to the health of the body. Lose a foot, and you’ll have to spend months learning to walk again. For that matter, lose your little toe, and you’ll have to learn to walk all over again. You don’t appreciate that little toe, you barely even think about it, until it’s broken or gone, and then you realize how much you relied on that ugly fifth little piggie to do its job. Most of the time, you can’t even get the nail properly clipped on that thing. But it’s important. It supports your weight in ways you don’t even think about, until it’s not there. And then you realize how important that seemingly insignificant body part is.
Speaking of little toes, I think of the little kids of our congregation. Seemingly insignificant by organizational standards. They don’t have money to contribute, they can’t hold office, they mostly get in the way on work days, they’re noisy, distracted, and distracting in church. The modern tendency is to give them a “kid’s church” where they can play instead of worship. It’s like the body saying to it’s little toes, “You go over there with the other little toes while the rest of the foot does it’s adult work.” Won’t work.
Members severed from the body shrivel up and die. I won’t burden you with gross images here. You may pick the severed body part of your choice. That’s a member divorced from a congregation. The body lives on, albeit handicapped. But the part dies.
When one part suffers, the whole body suffers. That’s especially true with the little kids. When they’re hurting, they make sure that everyone around them is hurting too. When one part of the body rejoices, the whole body rejoices and every part shares in the joy. A body doesn’t shame its members but coveres them when they need to be covered. It tends them when they need attention. It takes care of them even when they don’t seem to need attention. My doctor has a sign in his exam room reminding the patient and examiner to check your feet. They’re at the far end of the circulation stream. You tend not to notice problems until they become problems. A little cut, callous, toenail can become a serious issue for the whole body.
Fourth, being a body of diverse parts means that each of us has a place and purpose to which God has gifted us. There are offices that God has established – apostles, prophets, teachers, in our day, pastors. And there are also gifts and aptitudes – healing, helping, administering, speaking. Just as not all are prophets, apostles, or in our day pastors, so not everyone has the same gifts or aptitudes. And that’s good. Just think of how boring it would be if everyone was exactly the same!
So how does this image of the church or congregation as a body shape how we see the church and ourselves? What does it mean for us to be a body of diverse members rather than a loose mob of self-sufficient individuals? It means that we approach church with a kind of peripheral vision with eyes fixed on Jesus and on our fellow members. “Faith toward Thee, fervent love toward one another” as we pray in the liturgy. It means that I don’t look at myself and my needs but at others and their needs.
It means we don’t ask “what’s in it for me?” but “how does this make us stronger as a body?” It means we don’t wait to be asked to do something, but we ask “what can I do?” We don’t rely on that multi-talented person named Someone Else to pull the oars, but we pull our oar and maybe another one as well. It means we take seriously what the Scripture says that each of us has been amply gifted for the common good, we have a place and purpose in our congregation and in the greater church, and we’re eager to find that place and purpose and use the gifts God has given each of us.
It means we deal humbly, gently, kindly with one another, especially the hurting, the broken, the difficult. We’re all in this together. It means we leave our personal agendas at the door and take up Christ’s agenda, namely our own dying and rising in Him, and we help each other in that daily business of dying to Sin and rising to righteousness. It means that we encourage each other with our words and actions instead of tearing down and criticizing. It may mean that we need to admonish and rebuke each other when we are hurting ourselves or others. It means that not every opinion needs to be voiced, not every sentiment needs to be expressed, not every thought needs to be uttered, if it doesn’t build up the body in some way. Speak the truth, yes. But speak the truth in love, since love builds up and binds together.
When we see the church as a body, it’s not just any body. It’s the body of Christ. Two chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul said that we are one body “because we partake of the one Bread.” That’s a Lord’s Supper reference. The church is the body of Christ because the church eats the body of Christ. We are what we eat! Body of Christ talk is sacramental talk – baptismal and Lord’s Supper-ish. We are baptized into Christ’s body, we partake of Christ’s body, we are Christ’s body.
And so this self-sacrificing, laying down its life for the other, seeking the lost, sin forgiving, kingdom preaching, mercy working, goodness doing, sickness healing, leper cleansing, demon casting, new creation body called the church is really Christ in action in the world. Somehow, wondrously and mysteriously, in, with, and under all of our attempts to organize, mobilize, and energize is the Lord of the Church Himself, the Church’s Head and Savior, energizing His Body to do His works of goodness and mercy in the world. The hands and feet of the church have nail scars in them. They are Christ’s hands and feet. The side of the church is wounded, bleeeding. This is Christ’s water and blood.
The church is Christ’s body, and we, individually, are members of it – diversely gifted, wondrously incorporated, humbly dependent on one another as we all are on Christ who is our Head and Savior.
You’ll probably belong to many organizations and clubs and political parties in your lifetime. But there is only one body of Christ, and that alone lives and reigns to all eternity. And you, baptized child of God, are a part of it.
In the name of Jesus,