the church is the center in Christ

And [God] has put all things under [Christ’s] 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.

Ephesians 1:22-23

So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:19-22

there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling….

speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:4, 15-16

Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.*

Ephesians 5:22-32

The church has fallen on hard times in the western and northern hemispheres. For many reasons. People have said and thought that while they like Christ, they don’t like the church. “Nones” is a phenomenon at least in the United States in which often devout believers in Christ have left church forever. And I know such who have been looking but not finding, although they do have a church in mind. Since I have been a Christian, I’ve always been a part of one church or another. Since leaving a Mennonite expression of the faith not long after my boyhood church closed down, I’ve been a part of too many churches. Some of that stands to reason, but I admire those who have been part of the same church tradition all their lives, or at least I think doing that is admirable. All of this is understandable given the issues and explanations.

All that said, no matter how hard it may be, we will do best I think, if we commit ourselves to a local fellowship of believers, a local church. That is an expression of who we are in Christ, not just individuals, but the one universal body of Christ of which we’re a part by the Spirit. No easy formula here. In the wave of Christian nationalism, not a few churches have lost their way. But in the many denominations present, surely one can find a church in which at least they can be in community with others in the faith and participate in liturgy, hear the word and partake of the sacraments. At the very least one might be able to settle into an Episcopalian church which requires nothing for basic participation. I have returned back to the tradition in which I was raised, but with respect for the Great Tradition, for Anabaptist roots, and what has followed.

But there’s no escape from this. In Christ the church is central. And if we’re in Christ, we’re part of the church, and we will do well to find our way into an expression of that.

*Note that the words in the Ephesians passage are within a patriarchal society, and so it’s written accordingly, not unlike the slave/master section soon after.

not so much an individual, but a part of community

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.

1 Corinthians 12:12

We live in a time and for many of us a place where individuals and individual rights reign supreme. Although exactly what that means differs depending on who you’re talking to. But ever since the Enlightenment, and probably somewhat before that, the individual has taken center stage.

But humans are meant to live in community. We actually are not what we’re meant to be apart from the other, apart from each other. The individual aspect within that is important. Yes, we’re all unique and we all have our special contribution to make. And we are to be known and to know in relationship with God and others. So yes, the individual aspect is important, even vital and a gift. And to acknowledge that there is such a thing as individual rights I think is to echo in our own way the Prophets and Jesus. Everyone deserves respect and dignity at least in the sense of being made in the image of God, being human. Even though that image will be more or less distorted in each person.

But individuals are meant to live in community. And the greatest community according to scripture are those who are seeking to follow Christ as he is portrayed in the gospels. There are other communities we might become a part of, some good for what they’re about, others not necessarily good or bad, and others downright not good. But again, humans are meant for community and whatever tribe we belong to will influence us for good or ill. So on the one hand, it’s not good for any of us to be isolated and alone. But on the other hand, we need to take care what group we associate with and become a part of. A clear illustration is what is popularly called “cults” which can be dangerous when an authoritarian leader is followed blindly.

All of that said, we need to go back to Christ and as Paul pointed out above, back to the body of Christ, those who are committed to learning to follow Christ in all of life. Together finding our true selves in that.

one of the toxins in the air we breathe

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

1 Corinthians 12:27

One of the sacred tenants of our identity as Americans, inherited from tradition, and where we all usually more than less live is the idea that we are autonomous, that we live as separate individuals, each an entity to themselves. At best this is a failure to understand reality. At worst it ends up amounting to pure idolatry. People think that as long as they have the Bible, the church, can pray, then they can make it on their own. A distorted understanding of reality. Or that it’s up to us. God might be present, but we sink or swim ourselves. Along with that the false idea that everyone has to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Now I’m getting into the “political” though actually following Christ is not just some personal and not at all a private affair but ends up being political through and through in that others are linked, and in a sense everything else.

But to the main point: We don’t exist as human beings, relational in our core apart from other human beings. God’s will in Christ is meant to bring the entire world together as one body in Christ. Yes, we’re individuals, but we’re individuals in the one body, as members and metaphorically as parts of that body. The pervasive idea in our part of the world that we’re not in this together, but that everyone has to take care of themselves fails to understand God’s intention for humanity in creation, to be realized in the new creation in the rule of God in Christ. And present today in church, although not “church” as it’s often practiced, or oftentimes not much in that way. We end up being responsible not only for ourselves, but for each other, others being responsible to help us.

None of us are autonomous. We all have history and genetics which go with that, experiences and dispositions inherited, and we all are connected, even if such connection in our case is thoroughly broken in the lie in which we live.

We need to take a stand against this in no uncertain terms. First in our own lives before we can hope for societal change. Both at the same time, but with priority on ourselves. I breathe and have imbibed this falsity myself. But I am not my real self apart from others. That includes everyone, but especially those who like me are seeking to be followers of Christ, and are thus in Christ, in that one body, the body of Christ, metaphorically speaking, of course Christ the head, the Spirit from God in all of this. We’re all in this together, each and every single one of us. A reality not meant only for us, but for everyone. Someday to be fully realized. In and through Jesus.

(Many of my thoughts, and probably the main point picked up from a particular podcast- not sure which one right now- and from reading, as more or less is always the case.)

faith in Christ for each other

Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

Mark 2:3-5; NRSVue

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:18; NRSVue

In our hyper-individualistic culture, I don’t know how much we really buy into the idea, indeed the truth that we’re really in life and in faith together. We are after all one body in Christ, not only our own bodies, but one body together through the Spirit. And by extension through Christ’s death, that oneness is meant for all.

The story from the gospel is remarkable. To get around the crowd of people pressed together, friends dug through the roof of Peter’s home (maybe Peter one of them?) to get this paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. There is a more than admirable determination in that. They had faith in Jesus that he could heal their friend. The text does not tell us that the paralyzed man had the same faith himself, though maybe he did. Jesus saw their faith and responded to that, telling him that his sins were forgiven. Then after the needed confrontation with the religious leaders present, Jesus healed the man.

Do we realize what difference our faith can make for others? Or for that matter how much at certain times the faith of others can help us? I certainly realize the latter. We can help each other so much by exercising our faith in Christ for each other as well as for others. An insistent, persistent faith.

There will be special times as in this story, but this also needs to be a regular practice as we’re told in the Ephesians passage above. Sometimes in doing so, in fact to some degree more often than not, I feel like I’m treading water or sand, not making much progress, and it seems probably doing little to no good. Feeling other than that is actually not the usual for me. But we have to keep doing it, hopefully to grow in that practice, so that it becomes more and more a part of who we are. And yes individually, but together as well, perhaps an emphasis on that. God seems to especially honor united prayer. This will surely help us to be ready for those special extraordinary times when the Lord’s help is sorely needed.

In and through Jesus.

mutual encouragement by each other’s faith

For I long to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift so that you may be strengthened— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.

Romans 1:11-12; NRSVue

We are not meant to live out the faith by ourselves. In fact that’s a flat contradiction to who we are in Christ, since we’re one body in him. We’re not only individuals, but also joined together by the Spirit.

It may seem that Paul was just trying to encourage these Christians by what he said, but I think without a doubt that all he said here was genuine, that he indeed was encouraged by the faith of others. We would get along a whole lot better if we didn’t think and act as if our faith depends solely on us. Yes, we’re responsible, but we need others in their faith to help us, just as we in our faith can help them.

This seems to me to largely be a missing note in our churches. I’m sure there are numerous exceptions to the rule, but by and large, especially in our individualistic American and western culture we often think we’re meant to do it ourselves, and we feel more comfortable in doing so. Any careful reading of the Bible will reveal that this is not the world in which the people of Bible times lived. They were all, each and every one in it together. What one did, whether good or bad affected the whole.

So let’s hold on to faith not just for ourselves, but for others, for each other. Even as we’re helped by the faith of others ourselves. In and through Jesus.

together we are one

Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Psalm 33:20-22

We normally think of our faith in an individualistic way, and that’s both good and okay, but in our context carries with it plenty of not so good, as well. Even in church, we often see it as strictly an individual endeavor in which we’re trying to get the word from God which we need. Again good in itself, but we’re missing something.

I love how the above passage makes the point that the congregation has one soul and one heart, and how they’re all in it together.

Where two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is present. And not only to care for each individual, but to bind us all together. To be “in Christ” amounts to being a part of Christ’s body, the church. This is not something we do, but something we are through the Spirit. So whatever closeness we experience to Christ should mean a closeness to each other.

But alas, we’re so much in the frame of the individual, that this is all but lost, usually completely so. We touch base with other individuals if at all in our church gatherings. When really “in Christ” by the Spirit we’re on spirit, one heart, one soul in Christ. That includes all of our experience, from joy to sorrow, as well as the struggles we go through.

In Christ we’re all in this together. Impossible to leave anyone behind in this dynamic, since we’re all one body in him. Something which we need to honor in our gatherings as church. In and through Jesus.

it takes a community

I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.

Romans 15:14

While this is pulling a passage out of context, nevertheless the main point Paul made from this verse is true: We in Christ are in this together, and we all need each other. And each and everyone of us has our part to play. It’s a matter of learning to discern together what the Spirit of Christ is saying to us, and what the Spirit is doing. This is not a lone ranger faith, but one in which we are dependent on God and interdependent on each other.

Other places make it clear that God gives leaders to help the body grow and who are responsible for oversight (Ephesians 4; Hebrews 13). But though they have their special role, they too are blessed by the give and take in the body of Christ, in community.

This needs to be emphasized in a culture in which the individual largely takes priority over community. That is a flaw. Each of us are valued as individuals in community. Yes, God values each of us individually, but we find our true life, even ourselves in community, along with others. We fit together as one, learning to settle into our God-given place, giving and receiving. In and through Jesus.

one note often missing in church life: we need each other

No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Ephesians 4:14-16; MSG

From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:16

In our individualistic culture, we Christians too often look at church as being by ourselves in silence before God to hear a good message from God’s word, from Scripture. That’s good. But what might be more vital than that for our spiritual growth, our growth in grace is the realization that we’re in this together, that we need each other, and that God designed it to be that way.

After all, we are one body in Christ, the body of Christ. We get our life and directions from the one head, Christ, by the Spirit. But that’s intended primarily to be experienced together. But it really seems hard to crack that nut in today’s individualistic culture. And sadly to some extent western missionaries have imported something of that culture all over the world, though much of the world does better in this.

What is needed is not some great knock out message, or someone greatly gifted, though those things are good in their place. But what’s essential week after week, on a regular basis is the growing awareness of the reality that we’re all in this together, no one excluded. That we all have our part, even if it is “just” a smile and silent prayer.

We can’t make it ourselves, indeed we’re not intended to. Or at least we won’t do nearly as well, and we’ll be like fish out of water in trying. This is why commitment to the church really amounts to commitment to each other. It’s not just something we confess or acknowledge, but something we need to put into practice. And when that’s beginning to happen, we’ll begin to see the difference and grow up together in the way that God intends. In and through Jesus.

Jesus our true vine, not my true vine

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

John 15:1-17

To read this correctly, we need to keep in mind that Jesus is addressing his disciples. The “you” is always plural in this passage. Unfortunately that often doesn’t come out in our translations. Ideally it’s best if we can read the Koine Greek ourselves, though not essential. But here, Jesus is talking to his followers as those who are together, part of a group. We were never meant to live the Christian life, more specifically to follow Christ on our own. We’re meant to be in this together always. Sometimes the group might be quite small. It really shouldn’t be too large except that we can have smaller groups within the larger assembly. But the point is that it’s not only a matter of abiding or remaining in Christ as individual branches. But it’s also being with other branches as part of the one plant.

We don’t do nearly as well when we read the above passage as just applying to “me” as an individual. But that’s ordinarily how we do it. We need to train ourselves to think and do otherwise. Yes, we’re individuals for sure, but we are not meant to live individualistic lives, nor just lives between us and the Lord. Yes our faith is personal, but it’s also communal, meant to be lived in community. The world needs to see how we live together in community, and not just that, but we actually need this ourselves. God made us for each other, as well as for relationship with him.

This emphasis on community needs to be a vital, weekly part of our faith. But the way even the best churches operate is often more just a “me and God” proposition, with everyone gathered more or less intent on that. And we miss a lot as a result. We can’t do it alone. We are meant to function with others. Otherwise our faith and growth will be stunted. Yes, we abide or remain in the true vine, Jesus, but we do so as branches together. We’re in this together. In and through Jesus.

 

a different way of living

I’ve referred to Stephen Backhouse’s podcast entitled Followers of the Way: A New Political Imagination, and want to again highly recommend that you listen to them carefully in order. I just listened to the eighth session, and I must acknowledge that while it certainly critiques what has been troubling to me, it also critiques part of my own way of looking at life. Too often, or better put, it’s really embedded in me, the idea that what is most important and most real is my own world with God, as if my individual life somehow is central. Of course it’s important to keep a balance, and realize that yes, our individuality plays a part in the whole, for sure. But the whole is so much bigger. We have to deal with our own responsibility, but we do so realizing that we do so as part of a kingdom and way which is an alternative to every other kingdom and way of the world, contrary to every principality, which includes nationalism, and so on. And that we’re in this together in Jesus, as no less than an alternative kingdom under King Jesus.

To get this much more simple (and trust me when I say that the podcasts are simple enough to understand, but profound enough to have to chew on, and continue to ponder), and that’s what I need myself, we need to be aware that Jesus presents to us a completely different way of living. We act not out of what is aptly called “the orphan spirit” so that we’re hoarding, and refusing to give and failing to do what God would have us do. But we keep on giving and giving, and essentially giving ourselves, because we know that in God’s kingdom in Jesus, there’s always more and more that will be available to be given. That is a part of what we might call the economy of God’s grace. We see this especially laid out in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

We live as part of an alternative kingdom and way. Not in lock step with any other way, or kingdom or political ideology of this world. Everything seen in the light of Jesus, what he taught, his way, the way of the cross and resurrection. Something I want to better understand and live into and live out along with others. In and through Jesus.