1 Corinthians 12:12-27
Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When Many Are One
As I shared with you in the newsletter this month, one of my most challenging classes during my doctoral work was a class on ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is a fancy word that means “the study of the nature of the Church.” In the class, we talked a lot about what makes church church. Is it the music? The sermon? Reading scripture together? That we worship God there? Why do we think of some things as church and not others? If you and I get together and sing a praise song, are we having church? For our final project, we had to write a paper explaining our understanding of church. This is what I came up with: “I believe that the Church is the gathered Body of Christ, where the Word of God is proclaimed and enacted, where the people worship, serve, and engage in the mission of disciple-making, both within the church and in the world.” What do you think? How would you define church?
Even though we love our church building, are thankful for the space that enables us to do so much wonderful ministry, we know that the building is not really the church. We, the gathered people, are the church. Over time, over the centuries, around the gathered people, an institution has been established – we have denominations and boards and agencies and committees and hierarchies and organizational plans. These things aren’t bad – they help us order ourselves to do the work of Jesus in the world. But the institution is not the church. The people gathered together in the name of Jesus are the church. And because the church is where the people are gathered, church can happen anywhere. Church happens here because we’re here together. And church happens when we’re together, working and serving in the community.
For the next several weeks, we’ll be thinking about this idea – the idea that church can happen anywhere. We’ll think about what needs to happen, what needs to take place for us to be the church in the world, not just the church in this building. And to help us think about that, we’ll be looking at the book of 1 Corinthians in the Bible. 1 Corinthians is the first of two epistles, letters, that we have that were written by the apostle Paul to the new followers of Jesus at Corinth, a city in Greece. Paul had, according to his letters, helped to “found” the small faith community some time before the writing of his letter. Paul was himself a new follower of Jesus. He was a Pharisee, devoted to the careful interpretation and practice of religious law, and he had been a zealous persecutor of followers of Jesus, until a vision of Jesus calling him to a brand new life totally turned him around.
Paul, steeped in a life of carefully following the law, became the most vocal advocate of the freedom that we find in Christ Jesus – and so Paul reached out mostly to Gentiles – people who were not already Jewish – to share the good news and invite them to follow Jesus. That might not seem like a big deal to us – but Paul was the first to so strongly work for carrying the message of Jesus beyond Judaism.
So Paul would come to a community, teach people about Jesus, and help them set up what we’d call a house church. New followers of Jesus would meet, for practical reasons, in the homes of the richest members, because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. The new church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. We can glean some knowledge from verses of scripture about worship practices. They probably met weekly, on Sundays. They did many of the things that we do still – they prayed, both spontaneously and with ritual prayers. They sang. They read scripture. They shared testimony – their own experiences of God at work in their lives. They celebrated the sacrament. And all of this happened over the course of a meal. We’ll be talking more about their worship feast in a few weeks when we celebrate World Communion Sunday.
These brand new faith communities also needed guidance. They didn’t have anything like set pastors, or a denominational office, or other church leaders they could turn to for clarification or further instruction or support. What they had was occasional letters from Paul, occasional visits from other missionaries, also preaching and teaching about Jesus, and each other. And, like any group of people trying to live a new life and be a new people and build a new thing together, things did not go smoothly all of the time. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are full of instructions about how to live together as the Body of Christ in their new community of faith.
One of the issues Paul addresses is conflict that has arisen among the new Jesus followers. Apparently, some people – people who have been named as leaders among the community, or people who have particular gifts for ministry or preaching or teaching – some people are seeing themselves or seeing others as holding more important places in the congregation than others. If I am a part of the community but I’m the one responsible for teaching everyone about Jesus, and you are only responsible for making sure our space is clean and welcoming, aren’t I more important than you?
Paul answers this question with a resounding no throughout Corinthians, and particularly in our passage or today. Paul writes that even though we are many – and we remain many – because of our identity in Jesus Christ, an identity that we share – we are also one. “In the Spirit,” he says, “we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” All our other labels, all the things that separate us from each other, every other identity we claim is supplanted by our identity as members of the body of Christ. It’s as part of Christ’s body that we find our true identity – and our place in Christ’s body is essential, so very important. And so is our neighbor’s place in the body! This passage of scripture is one in which Paul paints an incredibly vivid mental picture for us, as we imagine along with him – what if a body was made entirely of noses, or eyes, or ears? Maybe some part of the body are less “glamorous” than others, and some are more visible than others, but every part is needed – many members, one body.
Paul goes on to say it goes deeper than just tolerating that we’re all part of the same body. When we’re part of the body of Christ together, when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. And when one part of the body is honored, the whole body rejoices together. Paul’s fervent hope was that there would be no dissension – no arguing, no wrangling over places of importance – within the body of Christ – only building each other up, all on the common path of discipleship, all working toward the same end – inviting more people to be part of the body, to experience freedom in Christ Jesus, to be made one in the Spirit of the Living God.
I think Paul’s words are incredibly important for us yet today. We cannot be the body of Christ by ourselves. The body of Christ is one body, but with many members. Last month we completed a study of Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths, in which he looks at pseudo-religious sayings that people think are from the Bible or reflect the Bible’s teaching, but are really not quite right – half-truths. Here’s a half-truth I hear from time to time: “That’s between me and God.” It’s something people say when there’s a part of their pain, part of their struggle, part of the sometimes one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of our journeys of faith that they don’t want to share with others. When people feel a bit too vulnerable, perhaps, to share with others about their shortcomings. It’s just between me and God. But it’s at best, a half-truth. What’s between us and God, according to Jesus, is our neighbors. The greatest commandments? Love God and love one another. We can’t fully love God unless we love one another. We can’t be in a relationship with God that’s vibrant and growing unless we’re also working on our relationships with each other. We’re in this together. We’re accountable to each other, to challenge each other, help each other grow in faith, and lift each other up.
For the past several weeks, we’ve been collecting feedback from congregational surveys, about church bible studies, favorite hymns, and more. There’s still time to fill one out! I asked you to share prayer requests and something about your hope for the congregation. And a number of responses – a number of the prayer requests and the hopes and dreams mentioned the unity of the church. We long for the Spirit of oneness in the Body of Christ that Paul talks about.
So how do we do it? First, as you’ll hear me say again and again in the next several weeks, we build each other up. Sometimes, when we talk about building each other up, what quickly comes to mind is painful experiences when someone else has hurt us, when we’ve felt torn down. The hard part is setting that aside, and focusing instead on what we can do to build up others. Paul tells us that we need each other. Because we need each other to be the body of Christ, we don’t just tolerate each other. We are called to honor each other. As you look around you, who do you see that needs lifting up? Building up? Who needs to know that you honor them, and their unique gifts, their unique role in the body of Christ?
Church can happen anywhere – anywhere God’s people are together. But it can’t happen alone. It can’t happen when we leave each other behind, when we cut off parts of the body that we have forgotten to honor and cherish. Church happens when we, who are many, are one in Christ. What a witness our oneness could be for a world that is so splintered! So that’s my challenge for you this week – your homework. In your personal life, who needs building up? In your professional life, who needs building up? In your journey of discipleship, right here in this community of faith, who needs building up? What can you do this week to build someone up? I’m hoping you’ll think about it, and then act on it, and then share with me next week – how are you building each other up?
“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.” Let’s go and be the church in the world – and let’s go together. Amen.