Members of One Body


Lessons – Nehemiah 8:2-10; Psalm 113; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; St. Luke 4:14-21

“Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.” 

One of the most encouraging things that happened in our transition from All Saints’ Episcopal into St. Patrick’s Anglican was the response that we received from the Body of Christ. Encouragement came from Christians of all stripes. A Baptist minister emailed me with words of assurance that we had done the right thing. A Roman Catholic priest wrote that he stumbled across our story on line and was using it as a model in a retreat that he was leading for Roman Catholic clergy. An anonymous person wrote and offered to help us purchase new prayer books. One priest up North said that he was so inspired by our story that he too was going to plant a traditional Anglican parish. And of course we could never repay Pastor Ronnie and Smyrna of God for opening their facility to us, at no charge I might add, as we launched St. Patrick’s.

While it is certain that St. Paul was not thinking of different denominations, when he was teaching about the various parts of Christ’s Body, I do think that the unity that these others Christians modeled for us was the kind of unity and support that we are to have with one another. This reading from Corinthians challenges us to consider our own understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ and our place as members of it.

First, it is so important to understand that because we are members together of one Body, our connection to one another is not to be taken lightly. In fact it is vital. No part can survive unless it is connected to the whole. Simply put, God doesn’t make Lone Ranger Christians.

A priest goes to visit a member who has been absent from church for some time. As he entered the man’s home he saw the elderly gentleman sitting in front of a fire. Without saying a word the priest sat next to him. After awhile, still without saying a word, the priest went to the fireplace, pulled a log out of the fire, and sat it on the hearth. He took his seat again as he and the old man watched the log smolder and its flame die out. Then the priest got up and put the log back in the fire and it burst into flames again. As he turned to leave the old man said, “I will see you in church next Sunday.”

St. Paul’s vision for the Church is very different than what is often preached in American Christianity. The individualism of American Christianity, that the Gospel of all about me getting into heaven, turns us into consumers. We only go to church if we are getting something out of it or we change churches because we like their music program better. But according to St. Paul we are not individual shoppers, we are members of one another, members of One Body. He says that we should be so connected to each other that when one member suffers we all suffer and when one member is honored we all rejoice.

 The Church as the Body of Christ also tells us that our unity is real and genuine. We are not acting as if we are one. We ARE one because God has made us so.

 When I was in college I was a member of a fraternity. We had a lot of fun, we drank a lot of beer and we had very high and lofty ideals of our commitment to one anther as brothers. We would say that our commitment was not for college days alone, but that ended up just being a slogan. Once we graduated, we got married and began raising families, our brotherhood faded into a memory. At the time we felt as much like a family as a bunch of single guys could, but there was no real glue holding us together. The connection we had with each other was enjoyable but temporary because it was not genuine unity

It is very different for the Church. Our unity is genuine because we have been bonded to one another by the Spirit of God. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and were all made to drink of one Spirit.”Blood may be thicker than water but Spirit is even thicker still. That is why untold numbers over the centuries have even been willing to face rejection from their natural families in order to follow Jesus and be a member of His Body.

One of the things that I have appreciated about the Anglican Church is the high value it placed on unity. We were one of the few Churches that did not split during the Civil War. The Church in Chattanooga, where I served was a pre-Civil War Church. There were a number of families that were 5thgeneration members. They told stories that during the Yankee occupation of Chattanooga both sides would worship together at St. Paul’s. It shows how seriously our Anglican ancestors were about unity within Christ’s Body.

The image of the Church as The Body of Christ also tells us that each and every member is necessary. “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body….the eyes cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”

 St. Paul is talking here to those who do not feel worthy or that they are not very important to the Church. He is also talking to the prideful who think that they don’t need anyone else. St. Paul is saying that both kinds of thinking are wrong!

It may be true that some parts of the Body are more obviously needed than other parts but that does not mean that the other parts are unimportant. We know that we cannot live without a heart, and we also know that we can live without a foot, but does that make our feet unimportant? Of course not!

In this section of the passage St. Paul is doing a New Testament version of every coach’s speech that there is no “I” in “Team.” Arguably the most admired person on a football team is the quarter back. He is often the star. And yet how often a game is one or lost by a field goal. You don’t even think about the kicker until he comes out for his one shot and the whole game rests on him. Every part is needed!

St. Paul points out that God has worked it out so that the less honorable members of the Body are actually given greater attention. So if you ever feel unworthy or believe that somehow you are disqualified to serve God, then all you have to do is to review the knuckleheads in the Bible that God called into His service, and see that there is plenty of room for you. In The Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren gives a litany of the ones that God used. Rick says, “Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Joseph was abused, Moses stuttered, Gideon was poor, Samson was codependent, Rahab was immoral, David had an affair and all kinds of family problems, Elijah was suicidal, Jeremiah was depressed, Jonah was reluctant, Naomi was a widow, John the Baptist was eccentric…Peter was…hot tempered, Martha worried a lot, the Samaritan woman had several failed marriages, Zacchaeus was unpopular, Thomas had doubts, Paul had poor health and Timothy was timid.” (p233). Whatever your placement in Christ’s Body happens to be know that you are a needed part of this Body.

The image of the Church as the Body and Christ as the Head tells us that our unity is an act of God. Our lesson says, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them as He chose.”

A number of years ago the Episcopal House of Bishops was experiencing a strain on their unity as it was becoming more and more clear that there were two churches within the Episcopal Church. One that sought to obey the Scriptures and one that believed that the Spirit was leading them beyond the Scriptures.

To help their unity the Bishops met in California and hired a relationship expert, who by the way was not even a Christian. The expert had them do relationship building exercises including one day they were to gather at the beach, hold hands and dance in the froth of the incoming waves.  

I could not in my wildest imagination see my Bishop at that time dancing in the froth so I asked what he was doing when all of this was going on. He told me that he was sitting on his balcony of his hotel with Bishop Lipscomb, smoking a cigar and laughing at all the lords a leaping in the froth below.

Unity is a work of God. If the Holy Spirit does not unite us in the truth then we can get together and talk about our feelings, or we can meet in convention and pass a thousand resolutions, or we can dance in the ocean froth till the cows come home and it will all be for naught. What was begun in the Spirit at our baptism must be continued in the Spirit. We do not create the unity but it is up to each of us to cooperate with the work of the Spirit to keep us one.

Lastly, the image of the Church as the Body of Christ tells us that unity may be broken, but only for very serious reasons after every attempt at reconciliation has been made. In this letter St. Paul identifies some rampant immorality in the Church and he instructs them in chapter 5 to separate themselves from those involved. He gives the reason that they should separate. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven…”

When unity becomes more important than truth we put the whole Body at risk. Heresy will leaven the whole lump like gangrene in a foot can infect an entire body. So when the Body of Christ is placed in jeopardy by heresy then unity must be sacrificed. But like an amputation, it is painful, it is a great loss and it is never something over which to celebrate.

So what have we learned from St. Paul? We learned that like a hand to an arm or a foot to a leg we are members of one another. This is something God has done and our unity is no more optional than my hand has an option to remain connected to the arm. The Body of Christ is an organic union and it is a union we must work diligently to preserve but without turning unity into an idol.

So the question before each of us today is where do we fit into this Body? Do you see yourself as an important part of the Body? If so then celebrate that, but don’t get too proud because there is only one Head of the Body and it ain’t you. Do you believe that you are a less important part of the Body? Don’t be deceived into thinking that the Body doesn’t need you. There is NO unnecessary part of Christ’s Body.

Let’s allow this truth about being individual members of Christ’s Body call us to a deeper commitment to find our place in it and to preserve our unity. In this way each member will contribute to the health of the whole and when this happens then Jesus, who is the Head of the Body, is glorified. This is an important step in fulfilling our vision of Jesus being loved, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Amen.

The Mess in the Middle

mess in the middle

Yesterday finished the Christmas season and today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Since I have no doubt that you did not decorate for Christmas until the third Sunday in Advent, you are now free to take down your Christmas decorations. (Right!)

The point of this season is to celebrate that the message of the Gospel is spread beyond the borders of Israel. It is a celebration that Jesus Christ is the true Light, not just of the Jewish, people but of the World. The magi that we read about in today’s Gospel were perhaps the first Gentiles to worship our Lord revealing, as Peter will preach in Acts, that He is Lord of all.

And yet many in His day wanted to hide the light under a basket. They did not want the light of God to go out to all people. They wanted instead to keep their religion parochial. They didn’t want to break from their traditions and that is why the Apostles were regularly challenged, beaten and imprisoned for preaching the good news.

Things are not all that different today. Folks may not beat up or imprison preachers, at least not here in America, at least not yet, but there is still that resistance to spreading the Good News beyond our comfortable borders. In fact many churches put their light under a bushel by being content just to meet budget and have programs within their walls, without real concern for what is going on out there in God’s world.

Years ago I came across a wonderful exception, St. Martin in the Fields in London. When I went to their website I found their mission statement and their charter. It was so good that I want to take a moment to read it to you. Here is their ten-point charter.

  1. We believe in and proclaim both the mystery that is God, whom we partly know and partly do not know, and the human need to worship.
  2. We believe in and proclaim the person of Jesus Christ who distinctively reveals the nature of God and the meaning and purpose of life, and who calls us to follow him through the death of the cross to the place of Resurrection.
  3. We trust in the Holy Spirit who prompts liberty, beauty, truth, love and joy against the waywardness of human nature.
  4. We are committed to using the Bible in a way that takes account of all truth and relates it to the real experiences, both good and bad, that people have of life.
  5. We are committed to a Church that conveys the Christian revelation in signs and symbols, particularly in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
  6. We are committed to exploring the meaning of the Kingdom of God and to making connections between what we profess and the way in which we live and work.
  7. We draw inspiration from our patron saint St Martin who, by cutting his cloak in two, demands that we look both at the resource that we create and possess, and the way that it is shared.
  8. We are committed to taking all people seriously wherever they might be at their particular point of understanding, while at the same time sharing with them whatever insights may have been gained by our relationship with God.
  9. We acknowledge the destructive power of human sinfulness, and we welcome gratefully the forgiveness that God offers to those who are prepared to turn to the truth.
  10. We are committed to identifying and affirming what is good and identifying and opposing what is evil, and living as best we can in the mess in the middle.

What I hear in this charter is a church that is not hiding from the world but engaging it, a church that does not pretend to have all of the answers but at the same time is bold to profess what they know to be true, particularly about Jesus Christ. I especially love the vision given in the 10thpoint that they will affirm what is good, oppose what is evil and live as best as they can in the mess in the middle.

Doesn’t this capture the Christian life? We are citizens of heaven but we are living here in the world. We are sinners whom God declares to be saints. We need a new hymn to the tune of “I’m looking at the man in the mirror” entitled,“I’m living in the mess in the middle.”This is where and how we let the light of Christ shine in the world.

I believe that it was in the 1980’s there was this teenage kid from India whose mother declared him to be the latest incarnation of God. The kid came to America and a friend of mine went to one of his appearances in Florida. Hundreds and hundreds gathered to worship him so they erected a great open-air canopy around a golden throne so that the people could come and pay him homage. For his grand entrance he came across a lake on a speedboat and once enthroned people stood in line to offer him gifts and receive his touch.

What a contrast to Jesus who is the REAL Son of God! First of all Jesus didn’t need a boat to get across a lake because He could have walkeed it. But He also didn’t sit on a golden throne so that people could come and worship Him. He went from town to town on foot, He preached on hillsides and stayed in people’s homes. He ate with sinners. He was not like royalty popping into the pub to have a pint with the locals and then wisk away to his castle. He joined people where they were… right there in the mess in the middle.

If this was Jesus’s m.o. for doing ministry then doesn’t it make sense that we understand that our baptism points us in the same direction. Baptism does not take us out of the world, rather it calls on us to engage the world. It does not make us perfect, it does not make us better than other folks, and it does not even ensure that life will be any easier. What it does do is free us from the mastery of sin so that we can follow Jesus and, in terms of the world, become a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Our baptism empowers us to live in the mess in the middle.

But we must be clear that living in the mess in the middle is NOT the same as having a tamed, reasonable and balanced religion. That is what Jesus called being“lukewarm.”It is possible to be passionate about our faith and do so without claiming to have all of the answers. The two are not contradictory.

One concern that I had after 911 was as folks learned more about radicalIslam, that secularists would paint all religions with that brush.  For example I came across this line in an article in USA Today. “The World Trade Center stood as the material expression of reason and reality. It fell by the material expression of faith and mysticism. To win this war we must ignore the fraud of religion and discover the philosophy of reality, reason, individualism and capitalism.” (USA Today, Tuesday, December, 2001 , p 14A). In the magazine Cigar Aficionado a writer described the terrorists as “God drunk”and said that the solution for this kind of evil is a joie de viethat has us focus on daily pleasures of the flesh.

These writers were calling for a lukewarm religion if indeed they were calling for any religion at all. But they have missed the point. The terrorists were not drunk with God, they were drunk with hate. They did their evil in the name of religion but that does not mean that religion was to blame. As we are told in the Epistle of James in the Message, “Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived…Real religion… is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (The Message, p. 567). The antidote to religious-driven terrorism is not more secularism; the antidote is true religion, or more precicely the Light of Jesus Christ. Sure there are nuts, who in the name of Jesus have instigated mass suicides unspeakable things but the answer for them is not to become more lukewarm in their faith. The answer for them is to meet the real Jesus in whose name they are doing these evils.

Here are the extremes to avoid so that we can live with the mess in the middle. One extreme is by joining a false religion and let them do the thinking for you. The other extreme is to immerse yourself in the material world ignoring the spiritual realities. But there is no real life in these two options. We were created to wonder and think and wrestle with truth, which cults and false religions do not allow. And we were created with a spirit to know and worship God, which no amount of materialism can provide. Jesus lived victoriously in the mess in the middle and He is the only one who can show us how to do the same. There was nothing passionless or lukewarm about Him and yet He stood out as clearly different from the Pharisees who claimed to have all of the answers or the secularists of his day who only cared about what they will wear or eat or where they will live.

Here is a sad post script.  I recently went back to the website of St. Martins and the strong charter has disappeared. In it’s place is a mission statement entitled “Who We Are” and there is not one mention of Jesus in it. It’s opening sentence is  St Martin-in-the-Fields is a unique configuration of cultural, charitable and commercial initiatives rooted in the life of a vibrant Church of England congregation.”That sounds to me more like a description of the BBC than a church. In just a handful of years it appears that they have lost their way. Let that be a cautionary tale for us.

So let us use this season to renew our commitment. Let’s take a closer look at our own lives and the life of this parish to see if we are engaged in the world or hiding from it. Let’s be purposefull about letting our light shime. Let’s renew our commitment to join Jesus in the mess in the middle.