the priority of the unity of the body of Christ, the church

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours

1 Corinthians 1:2

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

A priority which ought to mark every church is the desire for unity among all of God’s people in Christ, among all the churches. This is a difficult task since so many churches are given to an independent mindset with more or less the idea that only churches of their kind are truly Christian, or at least are the most sound and authentic to the Christian faith. That plays right into the hands of the spiritual enemy, actually coming from its hands as well.

A church is not worth its salt which fails to make unity within its own congregation a priority, and makes expression of the unity all have in Christ a priority as well. Decades back, ecumenical for me was a dirty word. Instead, we ought to downplay our differences as much as possible, and highlight our agreement, indeed our oneness in Christ. I would think on the ground that means churches should participate in ecumenical associations: Protestants with Catholics with Mennonites with Baptists with Pentecostals with the Orthodox and so on. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness along with sin, death and “the flesh” are out to divide and destroy. Christ by the Spirit is present to redeem, save and heal. We can hopefully learn to appreciate our differences as distinctives to be brought into the whole. Yes, we have our different theologies, and that often seems to make the push for unity strange at best, and certainly strained and sometimes it can make it seem worse than that. But we can learn much from each other if we can look past our differences. Without thinking we have to be in complete agreement. It is only in and through Christ that complete unity will be found, and completely so at his return. Until then we’re to seek to find unity where it may be found by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

Especially the first sentence of the last paragraph was written under the influence of Tim Gombis’s excellent book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry. My application of that, so that what is amiss here cannot be blamed on Tim.

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.

dreams and thoughts of what could have been

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-14

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Life makes philosophers of us all? Well, at least for those who take it seriously, though actually everyone has some philosophy meaning outlook on life. We can look back and see better, but mainly how God saw us through in spite of ourselves. And how hopefully we’ve come to see that what really matters is simple faith in and obedience to God. And to understand that our faith rests in the faithfulness of Christ, so that we follow together because of that. That can surely make all the difference in the long run.

If in your stronger more youthful decades you can put your all into following Christ in a community of followers of Christ, and seek to simply live in and from that reality, you will be truly blessed. Toward the end, the strength just isn’t the same, and the heart is often burdened down with the weight of other’s struggles, not to mention the inevitable troubles of life. And for most of us there’s regret and a wish that we could undo something or some things, and do other things all over again.

Lean on community in Jesus, and seek to be a follower of Jesus along with other followers of Jesus. Seek humility, above all just seek God’s love and will in Jesus by the Spirit, and with the desire to love God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves. We’re in this primarily not for ourselves, but for others. Together, Christ’s body for each other and to be light in the world. God will take care of things. And in the end will bring a good end, weaving everything somehow in that for good. Far beyond us, and I doubt we’ll ever fully understand it, but all will end well.

In and through Jesus.

just do your part

But 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 4:15-16

I would like to take just a slightly different turn then what I think this passage might be precisely saying, but then add that this turn is I think an apt illustration of how this might actually take place in the living vibrant organism, the church.

When we gather on Sunday as Christ’s body in that specific time and place there are those who have their special roles. Some to lead in worship and liturgy, maybe another one or two to share something, one or more to read Scripture, another to give the message, perhaps lead in a discussion and give the benediction. And there’s the life together beyond the meeting time, though my focus here is when we gather.

There are times in any organism when some members might have to pick it up and do extra because another member is down or struggling for whatever reason. 

What we need to guard against, and what I want to emphasize here is that we need to be relaxed even if we are that one who is down and may not feel ready, indeed may not be up to or be led to contribute during the service at all. It is Christ by the Spirit who actually directs the service. None of us do, or at least we’re not supposed to. We direct only in a secondary sense under the direction of Christ.

That said, while we should prepare for our part when on assignment, we should relax into the attitude that we ultimately are never in charge. And that on those weeks where we feel more like the lame man who needs healing than the ones given authority to heal, we should simply accept that, find our place, and wait on the Lord during that service. Believing Christ is present and will help us. Not thinking at all it depends on us, because the moment we think that, the life giving flow and direction from the Spirit is replaced by something else.

Instead we simply find our place, content to do and be whatever Christ might have us do or be, even if that means nothing at all, except to receive what Christ might give us from another part of his body.

In and through Jesus.

we need each other

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

In our individualistic culture in which everyone is supposed to look out for and take care of themselves, the idea that we need each other, that we’re our brother and sister’s keeper is all but lost on us. That is not something enmeshed in my white, western culture, at least not where I’ve lived. In fact, I’m pretty certain we don’t believe this at all. We rarely even pay lip service to it. How many times have I heard the thought that the best church is out in nature somewhere by one’s self? And when people do gather together for church, it’s often just to get something out of the message for one’s self, maybe say hi to the few along the way or just the greeters, then head back home.

But Scripture calls us to something else, something we not only fail to practice, but that we’re not acclimated to in the first place, out of our comfort zone for sure. A commitment to each other in Jesus which plays itself out in regularly meeting together, and being ready at least potentially in our spirits to give and to receive. God actually wants to help us through each other no less. Not just directly, but through others.

If we’re followers of Christ and thus Christians not in name only, then we can’t escape God’s call to us to come together since after all we’re one body in Christ. There may be unusual times such as the past year with COVID-19 when we can’t gather in person in the same way as before. But technology did allow us to meet virtually. Yes, not a great substitute for meeting in person, but better than nothing, and some of us we’re able to talk face to face with people we otherwise never would have. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. At the same time, mercifully, such times are only temporary. We need to find the good in them and that can come out of them, and go on.

But we need to be committed to what alas seems more than a stretch to many: gathering together to worship, pray, and just be with each other. In that dynamic Jesus is present yes in and through each other, and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t need that.

the center of God’s work

God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

Ephesians 1:20b-23; MSG

There’s not many concerned citizens in the United States who aren’t biting their nails right now. If you pay attention to the news, you know some of the many reasons why. And what happens in those places is important. We don’t do well to shrug it off and say for one reason or another that it doesn’t matter.

But we don’t do well, either, if we think or at least act as if that’s all that matters, specifically what people are doing in these civic and political affairs. We may advocate for good, important causes, raise legitimate concerns, and have our feet on the ground, somehow active in the political process. And there might well be some good that comes out of that.

But unless we remember where the center of God’s work actually is, we might become lost in all of that. Lost in not having the proper focus. Of course I’m talking about those of us who are Christ-followers.

I think we would do much more good if we made a concerted effort to focus on just where the center of God’s work is. It’s in Christ no less. And on God’s grace and kingdom present in him, found now, or at least primarily evident in the church. So that whatever we are about and do has both its vision and energy coming from that.

This doesn’t mean for a second that we should disengage in neither paying attention to events, nor failing to do anything. But it does mean that our passion and effort needs to come from the center of God’s activity: Christ himself. As the church, the body of Christ in the world, made up of all believers in local expressions of that, we need to center ourselves in that space and reality to find our place in what God is doing today.

This will help us be concerned about what God is actually concerned about, and less on what so many others, including many Christians, really, any of us might be concerned about. For example, it’s not about the preservation of human constructs, whatever good they might represent or accomplish. Nor for that matter are we about trashing such. Instead our focus is on God’s revelation and will found in Jesus. That brings a vision we gather from Scripture, fulfilled in Jesus, in God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus. So that no matter what might happen elsewhere, that remains intact in our faith, because in actuality it will. But our participation in that will depend on our focus and response.

This hopefully can help us learn to relax more, fret less, and do what God has called us to do in Christ. Simply be who we are: together, Christ’s body in the world. Under Christ’s rule, who alone is sovereign over all things. Realizing that God can bring about more good through our prayers, love, and good works than we might imagine, or compared to just being even fully engaged in the political process. We want to follow Jesus, the politics of Jesus, and participate in God’s good work in and through him.

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.

incarnational communities not popular

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.

Isaiah 53:2b-5; NLT

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

1 John 4:16b-17; NLT

This prophecy refers to Christ of course. But some application can be carried over to Christ’s body in the world, the church. Christ alone saves us, but today this is done in significant part through the church. What Christ was in this world, his body is supposed to be now. This involves taking our crosses and following in God’s love for all. Again, it is Christ who saves. We participate in the outworking of that salvation through living out the message and sharing it with others.

The church is supposed to be Christ’s body, not something else that might be more popular to the masses. And actually the church is Christ’s body. We are ordinary, with glitches and struggles, sometimes erring. But present for each other, and for others, for the world as God directs our participation in that.

To be God’s incarnational presence in the world in Christ means to be human and the more Christ-like, the more fully human. We want to be the light of Christ in this world in love and good works. It’s not about programs, even lights out preaching and teaching, great worship music, none of that, although any of it might be good in its place. No, instead it’s about Christ’s presence among us and through us to each other and to the world. In and through Jesus.

“we all need a home”

Someone recently told me that. It is wonderful, the family settings we can live in. But even the best of them is not without some hurts and wounds along the way, even with some cracks and brokenness. And tragically, sometimes those fractures are not mended and there can be a parting of ways. Home together as family does involve a commitment.

When it comes to church, we Christians at least here in America I think have some difficulty seeing it as family or being comfortable there. Why? It could be in part because of our own experience as family. And churches in our society are like a dime a dozen. Unlike days of old when there were parishes, and you had your church according to your location, in which you may well attend and be part of for a lifetime, now people so to speak go shopping for church. Wherever it’s the right feel, or serves the needs of one’s family, or their own needs, we stop and shop there. Maybe for a few years, maybe more, but often less. Until we move on to our next church and church experience. The older I get, the more I value the practice of those who have been in one church for decades, even entire lifetimes. Unfortunately not true of myself. Though there are times, sadly, to leave a church.

But the church in Jesus is meant to be our primary family, in a certain sense more family than our own family. Though of course each have their unique special place. Jesus made it clear that his sister, brother, and mother were those who did God’s will. And we find in the New Testament letters an emphasis on a community held together in the bond of love in Christ, with the fruit of the Spirit moving that fellowship, and the gifts of the Spirit helping it, all toward growth together into maturity in Christ.

We need a home where we don’t have to perform and have it all together. Where we can be our honest, even broken selves. I’m not saying at all, excusing our sin. But really being honest with ourselves and others. Just that sense given to us together by the Spirit who leads us to the broken body and blood of Christ for us individually and in our relationships with each other.

We need a place where we’re at home. Where people really care for us. Grace-oriented, so that by and by we can start measuring up, but not at all about measuring up, even while there is loving accountability. Where we realize that we’re all in this together, that when one suffers with whatever, we all suffer. Where when one rejoices and is happy, we all are happy for and with them. The sense that we’re indeed not in this life alone. But we’re present and in place for each other. And together for a broken world. In and through Jesus.

the Anabaptist (Mennonite) difference

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncs

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

For some time on my spiritual journey, really beginning around 2000 or so, I’ve been nudged back toward my Anabaptist, specifically Mennonite roots. Now no church or denomination or tradition has got it all right, in fact I prefer to insist on the thought that none is better than another. And that we’re all in this together, for better or for worse. But the Anabaptist tradition has a history to appreciate, and I would like to say, a difference, too. Not unique to itself in that it has never existed elsewhere. But stamped all over its origins.

Back at the time when the church and the state were essentially one in the “old country,” Anabaptists and especially their leaders were persecuted, specifically, executed either by drowning, or being burned at the stake (or even racked, I read) by both Catholics and Lutherans. Yes, it was a different time, and this was the punishment then for “heretics.” The Anabaptists learned the wisdom of being explicit about their acceptance of the creeds of the church. But the hot button issue was their refusal to submit to the baptism of babies. All who lived in a nation then had to submit to that, at least for the most part. And the Anabaptists would not fit an exception to the rule.

The picture above is that of Dirk Willems, a Dutchman who escaped prison, but rescued the one chasing him who had fallen through ice, only to be tortured and executed. This epitomizes the heart of Anabaptism in the best sense of its tradition: Seeking to follow the way of Jesus come what may. As some like to say, not just the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus. With an emphasis on the way of the cross, love for one’s enemies, love for all.

So I’m getting back to my roots: Mennonite. Yes, it’s not exactly the Mennonite I was raised in the first seventeen or so years of my life. But probably with more of an emphasis at being distinctly Anabaptist in a Sermon on the Mount kind of way especially with the distinctives of love for one’s enemies, and never resorting to violence. As well as seeking to be peacemakers. But minus the emphasis on rules of what was thought to be literal obedience to Scripture such as distinctive dress. And more, I’m sure. I have some catching up, and actual learning ahead.

Certainly on many things we are in agreement with the Church. That our salvation is through Jesus in his incarnation, life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension, and promised return. The promise of the kingdom of God in the new creation. Whatever tradition, through faith and baptism we are all one body in Christ. We’re in this together, in spite of what differences we have.

I’m thankful for my upbringing, and now would like to end there. In that expression within the full body of Christ. In and through Jesus.