Are the Body of Christ
For this Sunday’s sermon, the last time I have a chance to speak with all of you as your Interim Rector, I thought long and hard about the most important thoughts I wanted to leave with you. What can you say that is important, relevant, and engaging; something that will provide a basis for future strength and unity as this congregation moves into a whole new era of ministry?
The answer to that question came to me as I read and reflected on the second of our three Scriptures that make up the Lectionary for this Third Sunday in Epiphany. In it we hear the apostle Paul writing to his tiny and struggling church in Corinth--a congregation made up of individuals gathered from every conceivable background: slaves and wealthy, rich and beggars, people who had almost nothing in common, people whose only reason for being together was a sense that God wanted them to follow Jesus. To that strange and unlikely congregation Paul wrote a letter in which he compared them to the human body. He urged them to respect and accept their differences--to glory in their diversity by understanding that, just as the hands need the feet, the ears need the eyes, and the mouth must work with the stomach, so each of them are dependant on each other if the whole church is to carry out the calling which God has given to them. In short, their differences, he urged, should not be a source of dissention, but a source of unity--a gift intended by God, built right into the fabric of life itself.
The same message that Paul was writing to that branch of the holy Catholic Church in Corinth 2000 years ago seems to me entirely appropriate (despite the years and the miles) that I want to leave with all of you. We are the branch of God’s Holy Catholic Church gathered here in 2004 on the corner of Second and Adams: “We are the body of Christ.”
Now I’m sure that this idea of the apostle Paul is not new to you. It is an extension of what Jesus himself said fifty years earlier, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” as he tried to create a sense of unity in the face of diversity. I’m sure that you have probably many times considered the implications of these two figures of speech--the analogy of the human body and the analogy of growing stems, vines, and leaves. These are pictures of interdependency, mutuality and cooperation--the very essence of unity. What I would like to leave with you this morning is some thoughts of my own about several of the key learnings that, over the years, have struck me every time I hear the phrase, “You are the body of Christ.”
The first is this: If the Christian Church is the body of Christ then, in truth, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. You simply can’t be a Christian all by yourself! Now I certainly am aware that the values of individualism, independence and self-reliance are all the rage these days and, of course, the same notions were popular in the Greek culture that surrounded the early church in Corinth. Still, the apostle Paul challenged those values insofar as “doing your own thing” divides and separates people from one another. He pointed out the inescapable truth that there is no more chance of a person being a Christian apart from the rest of the congregation than there is of a finger having life and purpose if it is cut off from the hand. We still haven’t learned that truth even today. People talk to me about how they reject being a part of “organized religion” as if they could somehow continue to live with compassion, caring, love and service without ever being challenged and renewed by that community which is the repository of the very values they want to claim in isolation.
Just this past week, in trying to tell me how much he appreciated my ministry here at Calvary, a man I know said that I had almost convinced him to come to church regularly on Sundays. He admitted that he hadn’t done that for years because he believes that he can be just as good a Christian on the golf course as he would be if he were in the church pews each week. I had to challenge that notion because it is a partial, limited, stunted view of what it means to be a Christian. I have to tell you that I had to suppress a laugh as my mind pictured just a foot strolling down the fairway or just a hand tapping in a putt. A Christian is not merely an isolated individual who manages to stay out of jail, who reads the Bible occasionally, or who sometimes says a prayer before eating dinner. First and foremost, a Christian is one who participates in a human community that, together, is seeking and serving God’s will. That’s why, here at Calvary, when we say the Creed, it’s always in the plural form: “We believe.” You cannot forgive yourself, you cannot give to another who is in need, and you cannot receive unconditional love all by yourself. There is no such thing as an individual Christian.
The second learning of mine that I want to leave with you is that we all need one another much more than we would like to admit. We give lip service to phrases like, “It takes all kinds to make a world,” or “In unity there is strength.” But I see a lot of behavior that suggests we don’t really believe that. We’re more like Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady who wondered, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Our own theme song is something like, “Why can’t everybody be more like me?” We wish that everyone would see things exactly as I do, vote the way I vote, and live like I do.
I hear phrases such as ‘Our sort of people,’ ‘sensibly restricted,’ and ‘congenial groups’ as if those were common sense social divisions and distinctions. We fail to see that these isolating notions are directly contradictory to the point the apostle Paul--and Jesus himself--was trying to make. All of society, if it is to live in harmony and creativity, if it is to live in ways that are rich, varied, full, all-embracing--has always to be inclusive of every variety and viewpoint. That’s especially true of a church community. Any congregation based strictly on homogeneity of class or color, language or neighborhood, is a contradiction in terms. Such a church is no more the body of Christ than a collection of right elbows only would be a human body. Parts are missing. The body is incomplete. Look at the words we use to describe a church--organization, members, corporate--and think about the implications for how much we need each other, not just as a “good idea” but an absolute necessity. If we are truly to be the Church, no one can be left out. “You are the body of Christ.”
The third thought I want to leave with you is that, although everything I’ve said this morning applies to all bodies (the body politic, the human body, your family) what I’m specifically addressing right now is the nature of the Holy Catholic Church, all around the world, all over this nation, and right here in this building. Each of us is part of a community of Faith that seeks to live in the very presence of Jesus Christ, allowing his Spirit to dwell in us and to be reflected in every word and action of our daily lives. That’s why the apostle Paul goes on to tell the church in Corinth that some members are there to preach, some to think and plan, some to nurture and instruct, some to cook meals, some to raise money, some to care for the sick, some to make laws, and others to sweep streets. Every single person is important and necessary because they’re all part of the whole. There’s no looking down on some or up to others.
There is no question about the necessity of all working in concert if we are to follow the example of Jesus. I promise you, the life of Jesus is all about interdependence. If Christ saw a dirty street he would clean it - a hungry child, he would feed him or her - a prisoner, he would stop to offer support and forgiveness - a sojourner with tired and dirty feet, he would grab a basin and wash him. You and I are, together, called to be Christ’s hands, his eyes and ears, in our own time.
Notice that we’re not called to be Christ, but, rather, we are expected to become the agent or means through which Christ can be himself. That’s why I get weary of people asking, “What would Jesus do if he were here today?” The question is absurd. He IS here. The Spirit of the risen Christ is fully alive and well, as real as you and I. He needs only for us to be the physical body through which he can do his loving, healing, reconciling work. You are the body of Christ.
So, that’s the word picture that I want to leave with you. You
are the body of Christ. You are members one of another. Together, we
can become more and more the conduit through which Christ’s unconditional
love flows. The goal and the challenge and the calling of Calvary Church
has always been, is now, and will be forever to stand in this place
as the Holy Catholic Church, the body of Christ. May God’s grace
give us always the will and the power to do exactly that.
Copyright 2004 Calvary Episcopal Church
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