Week 4: “Many Members, Yet One Body”
Vicar Emily Beckering, Wednesday, 2 April 2014; texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Mark 10:35-45
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now our Lord would like us to really learn what “together” can mean. That is where we left off last week, and that is our focus this week. To help us learn this, we are given one of the most vivid and cherished metaphors in scripture of life together: the Body of Christ. We claim this for ourselves each Sunday in the liturgy of sending, when we say, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, sharing one bread, one cup.”
Though we know this to be true, we do not always live like it is so.
We do not live as the body of Christ when we dismiss ourselves. Some of us may find ourselves asking: “Lord, why couldn’t you have made me more like her? A little more like him? If only I could be more articulate, more confident, more accomplished, more attractive, more interesting, more friendly, more approachable, then I could really matter here. Then I could really be part of the body.” In other words, we say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.”
For some of us, the problem is not overlooking our own value, but the value of the members of the body around us.
We do not live as the body of Christ when we dismiss one another. Here at Mount Olive, it is evident that we are deeply committed to loving each other and to being a welcoming congregation. I have seen the people of Mount Olive visit the sick, comfort the lonely, and feed the hungry. I have also witnessed time and time again how people at Mount Olive seek out newcomers and welcome them into life together. The circles of conversation on Sundays and Wednesdays are more open than not, but do these circles always overlap? Are there some people with whom we always visit, and some with whom we never do? Are there some people who we always invite to our parties and some whom we don’t? Are there some opinions that matter to us more than others? Sometimes, out of frustration, do we find ourselves tuning out, rolling our eyes at, or explicitly shooting down the feelings and ideas of our brothers and sisters?
Although we want to love and welcome everyone, by following these patterns, we live as though some of us do not have much to offer. When we disregard ideas, ignore certain opinions, or do not make an effort to have relationships with every person in this community, we are, in effect, saying exactly what Paul warns against, “I have no need of you.”
These same patterns of dismissing ourselves and each other, which we see in our relationships with one other, can also manifest themselves in our relationship with the Church as a whole. Sometimes at Mount Olive, we dismiss ourselves as a member of the whole body of Christ. Now, we are aware of our membership to the whole body in our deep commitment to being rooted in the tradition of the greater Church, which is expressed particularly in our worship together. Sometimes, however, we can dismiss ourselves in relation to other Lutherans. Because not all congregations in the ELCA have found how we worship to be as life-giving as us, there is sometimes a tendency for us to anticipate rejection. We might expect other congregations and leaders in the ELCA to write us off. We may even begin to bristle before we enter into relationship with other Lutherans in anticipation of being dismissed.
While these patterns come from a place of deep hurt from being misunderstood by some of our brothers and sisters, the question before us becomes this: what do we lose by resigning ourselves to not belonging, to feeling dismissed, or to being content on our own?
It is a very common human reaction when we feel attacked to rise up and defend ourselves. One of the ways that this can happen in our life together is that we sometimes dismiss the particular worship styles of others congregations. Here’s something that I’ve heard people from Mount Olive ask a newcomer on more than one occasion: “Have you ever experienced God’s presence like that?” On the one hand, that question comes from a deep place of love. It comes from the joy of experiencing God’s presence with us, of God leading us out of our deserts and bringing us together in order to drink deeply of Christ’s love. We desire for everyone who worships with us to experience this love and presence as well.
On the other hand, when we ask, “Have you ever experienced God’s presence like that?” the underlying assumption is that they haven’t, and it can be experienced as a dismissal of how God has encountered them in the past.
What do we lose when we dismiss others in this way? How can we honor how other congregations have been met by God while still being faithful to who God has called us to be?
In response to our individual and communal patterns of dismissing ourselves and one another, Jesus gives us the same words that he gives James and John in today’s Gospel: “It is not so among you.”
Notice that this is neither a command, “Let it not be so among you,” nor a future promise, “It will not be so among you.” Instead, it is a present condition of fact because of who the Triune God has made us to be. In our baptisms, God the Father has claimed us as his own. God the Holy Spirit has poured out gifts on us and united us with Christ in his death and resurrection. We are raised to live as Christ. Week after week, Christ comes to us in the Eucharist and makes us one again at his table. We are a new creation. When Jesus says, “It is not so among you,” he is saying, “This isn’t who you are.”
Who we are is the body of Christ. We are arranged in this body just as God chose. “You did not choose me,” Jesus tells us, “but I chose you and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Because it is God who chose us and bound us together, none of can say, “I don’t matter” and none of us can say “you don’t matter.” Each of us, and every congregation, is a vital part of the body.
When we doubt our place in this community or in the Church at large, God asks us: “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?” God would have us stop comparing ourselves to others and instead see ourselves, one another, and Mount Olive as God created us: valuable, irreplaceable members of the body.
But then, when we are frustrated with or embarrassed by members of this congregation or the whole Church and wish to distance ourselves from those Christians, God asks us, “If you were the whole part, where would the body be?” God values the body itself. The goal is not that we can function independently by being every part, but instead that we are part of the body. The body is what God desires because the one body, and only the whole body with all of its members, can be Christ in the world. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” because in fact the eye does need the hand. The eye cannot do what the hand can do and the hand cannot offer what the eye offers. Each will suffer without the other.
We are most commonly drawn towards people who are like us, but God knows that we are strengthened by our differences. We are given one another so that we can nourish and be nourished. We need the gifts and perspectives of each other, even—and perhaps especially—the perspectives of the people, congregations, or denominations that we think are the most off track, because we can’t see what they can see and they can’t see what we can see.
Therefore, we can’t dismiss one another. We need to take everyone’s concerns seriously and treasure what they bring to the table. Unlike in other organizations and groups that we are a part of, we don’t get to choose who belongs to the body of Christ. We don’t get to say, “He’s just a jerk,” or “she’s ridiculous,” or “Thank you, God, that we aren’t like them” because God has bound us together; we belong to each other. God would have us look beyond ourselves and discern the whole body of Christ: that is, attend to the gifts and needs of all of our brothers and sisters. We are to trust that we all have something to offer and something to learn. We depend on one another, so by binding us together, God has given us just what we need. God knit us together in baptism. We are fearfully and wonderfully made for each other.
Our need for each other goes even deeper than what we do or how we function. Just as the Trinity is inherently relational, so too are we, as creatures in God’s own image, created for relationship.
As such, we long to love and be loved. God knows that more than anything else, what we most need is relationship so honest, so truthful, so real that we are loved—not because of what we do or in spite of what we do—but for who we are.
This is how God loves us, and this is how we love one another.
Christ makes this possible. We no longer have to fear if we are enough or if we will have enough because Christ promises that we are and that he and his body will provide what we need. We no longer have to put up barriers between us to protect ourselves, to assert our identity, or to hide certain parts of ourselves in order to be loved. In Christ’s death and resurrection, all of these threats that would otherwise prevent us from loving each other have been overcome: they have no power over us. We are defined by Christ and Christ alone. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are bonded into one by their love for one another, so too are we, in our union with Christ, bound by love to the Triune God and to each other.
Now with threats overcome, barriers broken, and God’s love binding us, we can be a community where we reveal our deepest pain and brokenness to one another because we trust that our weeping will be met with tears, our joy with rejoicing, our sin with forgiveness, and our love with love for who we are in Christ.
We can be a congregation where we are so secure in one another’s love that we never have to doubt our worth, suppress our thoughts, assert our place, or forget how much we need one another.
We, with all the people of God, can risk being a Church that gives itself away for the world.
The body of Christ is an invitation to dream what life could really be like together and then to wake up and realize that it is not a dream after all, but a reality that the Triune God makes possible through love.
We are the body of Christ, and we, though many, are one.