January 24, 2016

You Are the Body of Christ

Passage: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1212-31, Luke 4:14-21
Service Type:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

When my sons were young and interested in playing hockey I decided to get involved in coaching and participate in their house league teams. I found this to be an opportunity to do something with my children. I will confess, though, that part of the motivation for getting involved behind the bench was because I found sitting in the stands a little stressful. Perhaps, like me, your desire to have things go well for your children heightens your awareness of how things could be improved upon. So, if I was unwilling to help behind the bench it felt unseemly of me to pile on those who were willing. And having experienced parental input as I was engaged in that position behind the bench; it taught me that I ought to pray for my children’s coaches.

It is a question that can be asked of many things in life; ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when? Today we read the Apostle Paul’s assertion to the church at Corinth that “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We could then restate the question—if not you, then who?

Next Sunday Central United Church will hold its annual general meeting following worship at which time, among other things, the election of the church council for the upcoming year takes place. This happens annually. And as we approach this day the question of “who” always presents itself. I am grateful for all who put their hand up to be involved in the many aspects of church life. We should pray for and cheer on those who have made themselves available to take on these various responsibilities.

I would like to say word in this sermon in favour of offering our time and talent for the church. I want to be very careful not to lay guilt trips because guilt as a motivator eventually sucks the joy out of the blessing of serving. When I ask believers to serve the church I am not wanting to heap responsibility on the overburdened. I understand that people need to take into account the time required for the many commitments of life in making any decision to serve. At the same time I know that to be asked to serve the church is an invitation to be used by God in ways we could never imagine. Jesus said “I will build my church.” Our Lord’s gathering of a people for himself is central to his mission in the world. To serve the church is to serve the Saviour.

Stop and think about the work we are or have been employed in; on the construction site, at the drill press, caring for the sick, medical practise, educating, in the sales meeting, consulting and planning work, engineering, banking and insurance, fire and police service, and on and on. Honourable jobs at which we give (or gave) our best efforts. Many of us enjoy our work and find a certain satisfaction in doing something energizing. Even so, it is unlikely that any of us would say of our work—that’s what life is all about.

To serve in building the church is to serve alongside of Jesus Christ who is way, truth, and life. His is life and that eternally! He is the author and sustainer of life and in him all things will be gathered together in one great kingdom of light. As the Psalmist declares, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. In the Anglican Book of Prayer the prayer for peace rightly teaches us to pray, “To know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom.” In light of our glorious saviour Jesus Christ our question about serving changes from “If not you, then who?” to “why wouldn’t you want it to be you?’

1. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” The “you” at the beginning of this sentence is the plural word for you in the Greek. In English we use the same word for both singular and plural of the second personal pronoun. The Apostle Paul is speaking here of the congregation at Ephesus—and by implication any other congregation—when he says “you are the body of Christ.” You—the collective you—are this body of our Lord. Paul invites us to look around the room, as it were. We’re it, we are the body of Christ.

Now the image of being the hands and feet of Christ in the world is a common one heard in the church rightly deduced from this and other Biblical text. In the ascension of Jesus he withdraws to a place of his own so he can be everywhere present and through his people his body remains the world. I want to underscore for you something that can easily be over looked and that is the visible nature of the church in the world.

The Basis of Union of the United Church of Canada contains, among other things, the founding doctrinal statement detailing the beliefs of the church. In the section that articulates what we say about the church it states that “we receive it as the will of Christ, that His Church on earth should exist as a visible and sacred brotherhood.” Now the word “brotherhood” was used as a generic term in this statement written in 1925 and attempts to describe the commitment of people to one another in the church. It is the word visible that I invite you to underline in this text.

We may scratch our heads a little wondering why this emphasis on visible. The reasons are theological. The good news of God’s loves for humanity comes to us visibly in the human Jesus of Nazareth. We come to know that God loves us in his self-forgetful self-giving in the cross at the garbage dump just outside the city walls where he bore our sins. This event happened in history in God coming in the flesh and walking among us. We call this the incarnation. God’s love is visible.

So when Paul says “you are the body of Christ” the church is, in this sense, Christ made visible in the world. This is one of the reasons the church holds public worship services. When we gather as the part of Christ’s church is can visibly be seen in the world and through that bears witness. Ancillary to that visibility is the fact that we build building to house worship—we put up sign to say what happens here.

On this point I think about how the structures of our culture seems to be doing everything in their power to render the church invisible. Consider how secularism has successfully silenced Christian voices in politics and education. The unwritten rule of business life is silence on the business of religion. It is still legal to meet together in this country and in this meeting we make visible our witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

2. But there is more to this than simply being seen—as important as that visibility is. This claim that we are the body of Christ is in the context of Paul’s larger conversation about the spiritual gifts God gave to the church among its members. He went on to say, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets (preachers), third teachers.” Now when Paul says God appointed first he is not implying a hierarchy. He made that point clear in his metaphor of the human body that all the members are important for the functioning of the body.

That God appointed first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers, witnesses to the fundamental responsibility of the church to proclaim the gospel. These offices have to do with this proclamation. We note that the first church was dedicated “to the Apostles’ teaching.” (Acts 2:42) The Apostles are “first” in that these were the ones with Jesus during his ministry and were with him in those forty days between the resurrection and ascension when Jesus “opened their minds so to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 24:45) The prophets (preachers) and teachers proclaim and teach this Apostolic word. The church doesn’t exist so preachers have a place to preach. The church has the responsibility to be the voice of Christ in the world and so organizes herself for this proclamation.

The responsibility for proclamation is rooted in the action of God. First in creation he spoke and things came into existence. The thing that distinguishes the human from the rest of God’s creatures is that God addresses the human—and God said to them. A word from God makes all the difference. God spoke to Abraham calling him to follow where he would lead. God gave his ten words to Israel showing how to walk in company with this one who calls them to be his own people. If the fullness of time God spoke in his Son, the living word of God.

The church has a message to proclaim—it is to bear witness to this living word, Jesus Christ. When Jesus sent his disciples on their preaching mission he said to his disciples, “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” (Luke 10:16) Notice he didn’t say—“whoever listens to you it is as if they are listening to me.” He said “listens to me.” We proclaim because Christ promises in our proclamation that he is heard. Not only does the church make Christ visible in the world but we also make Christ audible.

I referenced the United Church’s faith statement a moment ago with respect to the church. That statement goes on to speak of the mission of the church as “organized for the confession of His name, for the public worship of God, for the administration of the sacraments, for the upbuilding of the saints, and for the universal propagation of the Gospel.” I’d like to touch briefly on these last two—the upbuilding of the saints and the universal propagation of the gospel.

When the framers of this statement use the word “saints” they mean believers in much the same way that Paul uses it in his Ephesian letter. (Ephesians 1:1) We may not feel much like a saint because we have used this word to speak of people who lead exemplary lives or have been used of God in a special way, like the Apostles, for instance. The word biblically speaks of all who belong to Christ. Hearing someone say “you are a saint” seems over the top—remember we are so because our lives are hid in Christ. The church’s statement of faith implies that the saints need ongoing nourishment.

The good news of Jesus Christ—the gospel is never separable from him who is this good news—is that by which a person begins in faith and continues in faith. As our sacraments witness. We are baptized once at initiation because Christ died once for sins. We take communion on an ongoing basis because our faith is sustained by this same gospel. At a recent preaching conference I attended the plenary speaker spoke about a colleague at a church in Atlanta, Georgia. This Atlanta preacher leads his church to be involved in all kinds of social ministry. Asked why he puts so much effort into Sunday worship he said, in essence, because when the people come they come to hear a word from the Lord.

When we gather as a people for worship we bring with us the hurts of the world. There are days we come with heavy hearts or preoccupied by challenges. It can be a kind greeting at the door as you come in, handshakes (or hugs) freely extended, a line from a hymn or anthem, the word of a prayer offered or scripture read, even a word in the sermon; any of these things and we find strangely perhaps, almost imperceptibly that burden is being addressed in us. We are assured again that we are loved by God far more than we can ever imagine.

The world needs this message proclaimed so they too might know that God is love. The gospel has the answer for the angst and loneliness so many feel. Some of the reason for the attachment to our electronic devices is because people are afraid of the silence—we are addicted to the distraction. The 2011 Canadian movie Nuit #1 offers an angle of vision on this loneliness; the young woman in the story describes her life this way. “The people I really like seem to be part of another world. They don’t seem to have a goal as individuals of as a group. They go through life like little white ghosts. They leave no footprints on the ground. They’re almost invisible. If they disappeared altogether, it would hardly change a thing. Odds are that no one would even notice. I’m like them.”

The emptiness expressed by this character is heartbreaking because she speaks for many. The world needs to know that God notices. That in Jesus Christ our hearts find that peace knowing our lives matter to him. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it”, is a word that speaks of purpose and fulfillment. Jesus Christ names the categories of life for the believer. We find ourselves named and claimed by him. He makes life livable.

3. Finally a brief word on this later part. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We have been thinking about this collective “you”; about the shared responsibility we have for making Christ known. The second part of this witnesses is that each person and their individual contribution matters.

Think about our worship service this morning. It is easy to think that the minister is responsible for the proclamation of the gospel. To be sure the minister has a role to play but is only a part of the story—all parts are important. Just think about all that happens so this service could happen.

There were people caring for the building so we have a warm dry space in which to meet, a worship committee that plans and prepares, those who care for our sight and sound technology, greeters who meet us at the door, hosts who make sure things are in place, choirs who have met and practised, musicians who have become skilled and bring their talents, others who care for the coffee hour that follows worship, gospel readers have been organized and appointed, lists of all kinds sent out for individual preparation, instruments need to be tuned, cleaning needs to be done, lay worship leaders share in leadership, Sunday school team appoints someone for our children and preparations are made, etc., etc., etc.—and we haven’t even spoken yet about preaching. All of this and more serves the making of Christ known.

“You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We are in this together and every individual contribution matters.