How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore. ~Psalm 133
When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we went to the big church on the hill.
I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You cannot talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.
We must have liked it there because we stayed, and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone. Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there.
You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You can not play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she dragged me off by my arm.
So I find it ironic, all these years later, that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups. It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic at all, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything.
But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing his revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ…the Church being the Church. But I’m not sure most of us have had good examples of that.
What Is “The Church”?
I’m guessing we’d all agree that it is more than just talking on Sundays and playing with little cups…but what is the church?
• Do you hear the word “church” as a positive or negative thing?
• What do you think the church is supposed to be doing?
• Is it a place or people?
• Is it an organization or an organism?
• Who is in charge of the church?
Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ…we belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” Jesus is head of the church. He is the founding pastor. He gave the vision after his resurrection, and then set it in motion at his ascension.
Paul is the one who helped us interpret the vision. That’s what a lot of the New Testament does. It is Paul, working out his understanding of the Church while he’s dealing with the first churches ever to exist. In his letters, he’s helping these brand new churches understand who they are. They are…in some mysterious but real way…the body of Christ on earth.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit;” and then he continues, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Corinthians 12:12-13, 26-27)
Let this sink in. Hear what Paul is really saying. He is not talking about organizational structure or a membership covenant. He isn’t talking about a civic organization or a well-run non-profit. He is talking about a cosmic reality: those who become part of the Body of Christ…become part of the Body of Christ!
This is what our Bible teaches us: The Church is the Body of Christ on earth. When we talking about sharing life, we’re really talking about sharing the life of Christ. Allowing Christ’s life to flow through us, living out the resurrected Body of Christ.
Where did Paul get this from? Go back to Acts chapter nine, where Saul, who was Paul before he got saved, was breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. Picture this: he is on his way to Damascus where he plans to root out other followers of Jesus and kill them or throw them in jail. But then Jesus Christ himself shows up.
“Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'”(Acts 9:3-5)
I seem to be coming back to this scene a lot lately. I’m beginning to see just how radical it is. Paul was a first-century terrorist. If there had been newspapers he would have been in the news. People knew about this guy. And this is who God chooses. A vision comes to him and tells him he is persecuting not people but Jesus. And then Paul is struck blind for three days so he can think about that.
In his book Give Them Christ, Steve Seamands says that when Paul walked out of that darkness, he walked out with a whole new appreciation for the spiritual connection between believers: “When you persecute the Church, Saul is told, you are directly – not indirectly – persecuting Christ himself. That’s how close the connection is between the risen Lord and his followers. So when we come to faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit, we actually become part of his resurrected body, it is his very life, his resurrected life, in which we share and participate. This is what makes the church essentially a living organism, not an organization. In an organism – plant, animal or human – all the cells share a common life. Likewise the body of Christ, all the parts, regardless how distinct and diverse they are, share a common life – the life of our risen Lord.”
Jesus holds us together. Jesus makes us who we are.
How Does it Work?
Think of it this way: I have five siblings. Four brothers and a sister. What makes us brothers and sisters is my parents, Stewart and Angel Capers. Without them, we wouldn’t be related. But because of them, we can’t not be related. Whether we get together once a year because we feel obligated to, or we text each other every day, we belong to each other, not because of how we act but because we share the same head of the family. We carry their DNA.
That’s the way Paul talks about the church. It is Christ, living on earth as community. Because Jesus was raised from the dead and gave his Spirit to us, we now carry his life into the world. Steve Seamands says,
“That’s why we must preach about this crucial connection between resurrection and church. When we fail to understand it, the church is reduced to a human religious institution and inevitably become more about us than it is about Christ. We, the members and parts of the body, end up taking control of its leadership and setting its goals. Human initiative and energy fuel its life. It becomes ‘our church,’ ‘the pastor’s church,’ ‘that family’s church’ or ‘my church’ more than Christ’s.”
What makes a church Christ’s church? Jesus.
So do you get it? That putting Jesus at the center of everything we do becomes really important? Otherwise, how will they know we’re related? Then Paul tells us that in Christ’s church, all people matter.
Unity in Diversity
We read in 1 Corinthians 12:14-20, 27,
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.”
I am left-handed, and I’ve just returned from three weeks in India, where being left-handed can be a bit of a challenge. In many middle-eastern countries, the left hand is used for hygiene, so the custom is that you don’t use your left hand for anything else. Don’t eat with it. Don’t touch people with it. But I’m really left-handed, so that’s a challenge for me.
For a couple of days, we visited in a home for the poorest of the poor. We took nail polish with us. We were going to give the women a treat by painting their nails. I’m not a nail-painter in my own world. I’m really not a nail-painter in a right-handed world. This was way outside my comfort level. But I am a team player, so if nail painting is the task, then I’ll do my best.
The first day, I noticed that some of the other team members pretty quickly gathered crowds. Women were all around them, waiting to get their nails painted. But I had hardly anyone asking me to paint their nails. It took most of that day for me to get it that it was because I’m left-handed. I can’t paint nails with my right hand. That second day, the first person whose nails I painted wanted to know why I was using my left hand. She wasn’t speaking English, but I was really clear on what she was asking. At first, I was a little defensive. I’ll be honest. This person who had lice in her hair, who smelled of urine, who was in an indigent care home, and she found my left hand unsettling. When I told her I couldn’t use my right hand, she wanted someone else to do her nails. That little exchange got me thinking: how often do I decide someone is “less than” or “not as good as,” simply because they aren’t like me?
After that, I gave up painting nails. Instead, I began circulating through the women, praying for them. And now that I was inside my comfort zone, I began to see Jesus. I saw him and heard him. I would pray, “Lord, be present to this person today,” and I would hear, “I am present. You are there.” I would pray, “Lord, surround this person with your angels,” and I would hear, “I have. I sent you.”
I sang with some women and taught them songs. That was fun. (And you’re thinking, “Well, Carolyn, singing isn’t exactly your gift, either. But it is in India!) I danced with a woman who loved to dance. I sat with one woman for quite a while, and she took my hand and rubbed it while she talked. And I listened. I couldn’t understand her, but I could be present to her. After a while, another woman came over and sat with us. She was very old. She balled up part of her sari and leaned it against my leg like a pillow. Then she put her head there, and the other woman put her head in my lap. And the Lord said, “This is what intimacy looks like.” And I thanked God that I am left-handed, so I could have that moment.
There is a story just like this in Acts chapter six. This was a time when the church was experiencing some growing pains. A lot of people were coming to know Jesus and many of them were needy. The church began a food pantry. They wanted to meet all the needs, but it was sapping the energy of the apostles. (This is when they discovered that the need is not the call. The call is the call.)
They all got together and someone said, “If we spend all our time giving out food, there is nothing left for preaching the Word. What we need is a system, where those who are gifted for it can devote themselves to food distribution and others can focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word.” So they appointed Stephen and a team to the mercy ministries of the church, so that everyone was moving in their gifts.
That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ. Each of us using our gifts so that the mission can be accomplished. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”
Unity in diversity. Everyone matters. In this world, community is essential.
No Weak Links
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” (I Corinthians 12:21-25)
My third grade teacher hated left-handed people. But my mom always made me feel special for being left-handed. When our family sat down to dinner every night — remember, there were eight of us at one table — my brothers would complain loudly about me eating with the wrong hand. Pretty quickly, my mother assigned me the place next to her. That was the best place at the table, because passing the food always started with my parents. My mom would make sure I got enough on my plate, and she took care of me.
So there I was, the lone left-hander – with the best seat in the house.
And there was an old woman with her sari balled up and leaned against my leg. Best seat in the house. No weak links in the Kingdom of God. Paul tells the Galatians in 5:13-14, “for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
The law was fulfilled in Jesus and now Jesus lives out the Law through us. Ray Stedman says,“that is what the church is. It is not just a group of religious people gathered together to enjoy certain mutually desired functions. It is a group of people who share the same life, who belong to the same Lord, who are filled with the same Spirit, who are given gifts by that same Spirit, and who are intended to function together to change the world by the life of God. That is the work of the church.”
Church, when we say that we share life, we are saying something profound, cosmic. We are proclaiming that we share the life of Christ. That the resurrected Christ flows through us. The resurrected Christ, who is the hope of the world! We believe and proclaim that the resurrected Christ lives in us and flows through us. That ought to make us excited!
We are the tabernacle of Jesus Christ! Christ in us, the hope of glory!