Body of Christ
The Body of Christ
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’
Meanwhile [as] Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…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.’
1 Corinthians 10:17
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13
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 he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
I’m not going to analyse these bits of scripture, but I hope that they will sit alongside the rest of what I’m going to say, as the source of the ideas.
These passages have to do with the question: what is the church? How should we describe the ongoing life of those who gather as disciples of Jesus? The suggestion I am making today is that the church has a theological identity, as well as a sociological identity. That is…in one sense, the church is a group of people who meet and organise activities out of our shared religious belief and a set of values about life. This meeting can be described using sociological terms, and understood using theories of group dynamics, and organisational structure.
But I’d like to assert that the church is more than that. We have an identity which is spiritual, because we draw our life from God’s Spirit, and that ties us together into a unity and a corporate identity that is richer and more mysterious than simply a club of like minded individuals.
And one of the primary images to describe this mysterious identity in the new testament is that of the body of Christ. It’s this image that I will dwell on this morning.
The image of the church as the body of Christ suggests several things. It suggests that just as Jesus was the incarnate, physical presence of God in the world in Palestine 2000 years ago, his followers are now the physical presence of God in the world wherever they are today. And while I strongly believe that God’s Spirit is present at all times, in all places, working among both Christians and non Christians, I also want to suggest that the church is (or should be) the primary means by which God’s Spirit is made manifest in our world. Our shared communion, our gathering as Christians who all share the Spirit of God, ought to speak by words and actions of the nature and purposes of God, just as Jesus did when he was physically present. To quote from Robert Webber: ‘the existence of the church is an essential continuation of the life of Jesus in the world; the church is a divine creation which, in a mystical yet real way, coinheres with the Son who is made present within it.’ There is a sense in which the church is an extension of the incarnation. Just as the Spirit filled Jesus and declared his identity as the Son of God, to the extent that the Spirit of Christ dwells among us, we are declared to be one with Christ.
And I think that this last point is important, because as a human organisation, as well as an expression of divine creation, the church has not always acted in ways that properly express its unity with God. The church, to be the body of Christ, is reliant on the ongoing presence of the Spirit to fulfil its theological destiny, and it needs to pay constant attention to Jesus Christ as its centre and head, in order to function as his body.
The ways in which the modern and post-modern church in the West defines itself often have nothing to do with belonging to the body of Christ. We describe ourselves in terms of denomination, our particular doctrinal emphases, our programmes and ministries, our worship style – whether traditional or alternative - and the demographic of the people who meet there. Furthermore, the church’s sense of purpose is so often driven by the idea of converting as many people as possible, or by moral or political crusading, that it completely loses sight of the broader notion of being Christ in the world. This kind of thinking can be traced back to the Reformation, when Protestants turned away from the idea of the church as the presence of God in history, and adopted the ‘herald model’ of church – where the church’s purpose is to proclaim the gospel. Rather than seeing itself as the visible, tangible presence of God, it adopted this idea of the ‘invisible church’, where the ‘true’ church consists of the ‘saved’, and only God knows who they are. The gathered church is simply then a means by which God adds to the list of the ‘saved.’ Out of this view of church has emerged sectarianism, and the phenomenon of church as corporation, seeking more effective ministries, marketing, and organisational structures in order to get more people in the door and ‘into the kingdom’.
I’d like to assert that the church doesn’t exist primarily to get more people saved. The church exists because some people already are saved, that is, they have believed and received God’s Spirit, and eaten and drunk of Jesus Christ, and are now formed into a community which is the locus of God’s presence on earth. The church’s mandate is not to ‘do’; it’s to ‘be’. Doing does emerge out of this being, but I think it’s informed by a different intent and spirit, than the doing that emerges out of the church’s desire to replicate.
So, if this image of the body of Christ has any value in helping us fulfil what it means to be church, what are the implications of that for our practice?
Firstly, I think that it should influence how we talk about ourselves as a group, and how we think about our corporate life, and our purpose in meeting together. Because we’re not just a group of like-minded friends who gather together to stimulate and support our individual relationships with God. Christianity is not primarily an individual thing…it’s a corporate identity that goes beyond our personal interests and preferences. This means that our decisions about what we do or don’t do, how we organise ourselves, what actions we engage in, should be taken in prayer, in reference to what we know of God, and seen as an outworking of the activity of God’s Spirit among us. When we discuss our life together, it should be in the knowledge that we are the presence of Christ in the world.
So let’s notice the language that we use to describe our sense of ourselves as a group, and the ways in which we define our priorities. And let’s ask…does this language fit with our theological identity, or is it language that treats our gathering together as merely social, without acknowledgement of our broader calling?
We also need to recognise that we are a particular local expression of the wider corporate body, and are not in ourselves the whole body. As individuals we have a specific and unique contribution to make to this congregation, and as a congregation, we have a specific and unique contribution to make to the church as a whole, throughout the world, and across the ages. The ancient creeds of the church speak of the church being ‘one’ – one holy, catholic and apostolic church. There is only one body of Christ. However, there are many, many local instances and denominations, and communities, and house churches and niche churches and café churches and so on…but ultimately, we belong to each other.
This is not an easy thing to work out in practice. We may be quite demoralised, put off, angry and distressed about how specific churches conduct themselves, and want to define ourselves against them, or completely dismantle the very idea of church as it has developed, and start again with a blank slate. I think that there is definitely a place for saying that some groups within Christendom are very poor reflections of who Christ is. But if this idea of Jesus’ followers being his body on earth has any traction, then the church in its theological identity exists, and has a purpose, regardless of the randomness of the behaviour of individual groups. It seems like a good idea to me to work on ways of drawing closer to each other, in an attempt to bring the reality of what happens in our physical churches better into line with the reality of our ‘being’ together as the body of Christ. I suspect that many churches have lost connection not only with each other, but also with this broader theological understanding of what they are. To understand what it means to be Christ in the world, we need to listen to each other, and develop our theology together, rather than in isolated niches.
To be the body of Christ means that we need to know Christ, and take seriously our responsibility to live and act – corporately – in accordance with his character, his choices, his way of relating to people, his relationship with his Father, his healing, releasing, his hard, straight talking, his loving, his eating and drinking, his forgiving, his weeping, his suffering, his dying and his rising. As the body of Christ we need to be Christ-centred, knowing about him through deeper biblical engagement, and also in prayer to look into his face, and receive his Spirit, and so together to become a purer expression of who he is.
Being the body of Christ also means that we need to take our unity, our love, and our respect for each other seriously – that is across all the different churches, but also within any given community. Paul the apostle famously used the body imagery in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians to reinforce his message of how we are to love one another, and make room for each other’s differences, and to honour our own personal contribution. When one of us is hurting, we all hurt, because we all share the same Spirit, and we are all called to be part of each other. This is part of what we proclaim when we take communion. When we eat and drink the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, we share together in the life of Christ, and so deepen our belonging to each other, as members of his body. How well does our corporate life here at Cityside reflect that reality?
While I believe that our primary sense of ourselves ought to be about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, our identity as the body of Christ also means that we should expect our shared life to have a real, concrete outworking in the world around us, in accordance with the way Christ lived. If we take seriously the idea that the church is the living presence of Jesus Christ in this physical world, we need to ask ourselves ‘what did Jesus want to see accomplished as a result of his ministry and personal presence…and how are we to carry that forward?’
Jesus preached and enacted the Kingdom of God. He spoke very little about personal spiritual conversion, and a great deal about how to live…he came to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release for the captive, to reveal the bankruptcy of religion without compassion, to challenge people to a life lived on values other than wealth and accumulation and exploitation, to heal those who suffered, and ultimately, to suffer himself, and die. He came to tell stories of freedom, welcome, and hope. He modelled a life completely directed and enabled by God’s Spirit, lived in prayer and union with God. What does this mean for us here, now, as his body?
I suggest that any activity that we engage in together should be defined by those things I just described. Who are the poor, the sick and the suffering in our world? How can we be Jesus to them? With whom do we eat, drink and celebrate? Who are those who mislead, damage and abuse? How can we be Jesus to them? What stories do we have to tell and remember of life lived with a different vision, of God’s welcome for the sinner, of warning about ways of living that lead to death? How can we tell and share those stories and insights, as Jesus did? How have we in our lives experienced the paschal mystery of dying and rising, of suffering and renewal? How can we model this Easter pattern to the world?
I suggest that it is the role of the Christian church to be all these things – and note the word ‘be’…Our primary purpose is not functional, but to give the fullest possible expression to our identity in Christ, as the presence of God in the world. This is the meaning and purpose of the whole church. As I have already said, we here at Cityside find our own unique methods of working out this vision, in a way that best fits with the unique persons in Christ that we are, and the unique community that arises from our shared relationships.
As we plan, talk and dream, and seek God’s will and presence among us, let’s do so not just as a group of people who happen to share some similar ideas about God and life, but as a group of people bound together in this mysterious thing which is Christ’s body. May our unity and our shared life and our sense of community be sourced in this mystical identity, and may our actions flow from the Spirit of Christ, who gives us life.