1 Corinthians 12:1231
There are many hard sayings in the Christian faith. “You have to lose your life to find it,” for example, or “Take up your cross and follow me.” But few are as hard to comprehend or accept as the one St. Paul offers today.
It comes in a letter Paul is writing to the angry, divided church in Corinth. He spends several chapters lecturing them about all their failures. How dare you call yourselves Christians, he is saying, acting the way you are with each other—your fussing and fighting, your petty divisions, your turning away from living Christ’s way. He gives them specific instructions about how to behave better. Then, even after that long tirade he declares, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Notice, he doesn’t say something like, ‘Come on, you ought to behave as if you were the body of Christ,’ or, ‘Cut it out now, be good Christians and you might become the body of Christ.’ He just states a fact they need to come to grips with: “You are the body of Christ.”
Paul was using a metaphor that went back at least to Aristotle and the Greek philosophers about the nature of the state as having many members, each with a particular role to play. But he picked that image up and applied it with almost literal force to the church. To be a Christian is to take your place in a body that has as many parts as there are fellow Christians. You’re all part of one life, you all depend on each other. In fact, you can’t be a Christian alone. To be a Christian, he was saying, means being in the church. When you were baptized you were made part of this family, this clan, this movement, this colony, this people, this nation, called church. And don’t you forget it!
We’re living in a time when a lot of people have forgotten it. After all, ever since the time of Jesus and his disciples the church has often been a very unimpressive enterprise. Writer Annie Dillard, looking at the arguments and messiness of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles wrote, “What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians.”
The nineteenth-century poet Robert Southey once blurted out, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride, the church.” And speaking of the way the New Testament described Christ as the bridegroom and the church the bride, William Willimon, former dean of the Chapel at Duke University, wrote that “Jesus has many admirers who feel he married beneath his station. They love Christ but are unable to love those whom he loved. For most of us the church is an embarrassment.” [Thanks to William Willimon in What’s Right with the Church for several of these citations.]
It’s hard to find a period when the church hasn’t been in some ways compromised and hypocritical, or boring and depressing, if not flagrantly corrupt. In C.S. Lewis’s fantasy The Screwtape Letters a senior devil tells a devil in training that one of the best ways to pull someone over into the dark side was by continuing to point to all those ordinary, unimpressive people who hang around churches. Get people to think, ‘the saints in heaven’ and then look at the pharmacist or the school teacher or the office clerk or the business executive. Keep them thinking ‘saints of God’ and then ‘these people!’ That’ll win them over every time.
But beyond the disappointments of church going, others have found that they can have their spiritual lives without needing anything as mundane as the church. The standard line you hear regularly now is, “I’m a spiritual person. I just don’t go to church.” Another way people put it is to say, “I believe in God, but I just don’t believe in organized religion.” And whenever I hear that I say, “Great! Welcome to the Episcopal Church.”
The words of a young nurse named Sheilah quoted in Robert Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart have come to symbolize this widespread spirituality of our time.
I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilahism. Just my own little voice.
That’s the new spirituality—people concocting their own private combination of spiritual thoughts and activities that are just right for them—with no one, and no rich tradition, to stretch them, or challenge their worldview, or confront them with truths about themselves and their world they don’t want to think about.
In fact that icon of our time Bill Gates has complained about the sheer inefficiency of church life. “Just in terms of the allocation of time resources,” he said, “religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on Sunday morning.”
This thing called church can be inefficient, boring, hypocritical, and worse. It can be proud and judgmental and narrow, and like families it forces us to deal with people we would never choose for ourselves.
And yet…St. Paul is saying that to be a Christian means to be part of the church. Most of us weren’t consulted before we were baptized into it, and so we are members whether we like it or not, whether we act on it or not. The church is the embodiment of Christ, the way Christ’s Spirit takes on flesh and blood in the world. You won’t find the God of Jews and Christians primarily on a private walk in the woods, or sitting at home reading a spiritual book, but in events in history such as the freeing of the Hebrews from slavery, in the struggle of a community through time to be faithful to God, and in the life and death of a wandering rabbi named Jesus and the friends he left behind. Paul is saying that Christ is present in the world through you and me in the church.
And since the church is Christ’s flesh and blood, it is the place where God physically touches us. We in the church have been given a meal, a holy book, and each other—all of them tangible channels of God’s love. We need each other so that we can be Christ to each other—in how we learn, pray, and work together. You can be Christ for me, and I for you, as we encourage each other when life is wearing us down, as we seek to raise grace-filled children, as we are struggling to live Christ’s way in these complex times.
But Paul doesn’t leave things there. He talks about just how complicated it is to live in this body. The church in Corinth has been dividing into little groups, each with their own firmly held positions, and the bickering is getting out of hand. And so he names all the parts it takes to make up a body—hands and feet and eyes and ears—we need them all. Of course there are parts we don’t want to think about, like intestines and kidneys, but as distasteful as they are, we couldn’t live without them either.
The wholeness of the body depends on all the parts, as different as they are. In fact you’d have to say that the body couldn’t survive without difference. We need kneecaps and eyelids and little toes. And so on he lectures to those ornery Corinthians—“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” We can’t be ourselves without all those parts.
And neither, he says, can the church. If Christ is to be alive in our world, and we are his body, we need people of every kind imaginable. We need prayer types and activists, we need Bible study groups and political advocacy groups, we need someone to run the altar guild and someone to serve the meals in the soup kitchen. We need people who love worship above all, and people who want to change society. We need people of every age, race, gender and sexual orientation. We need liberals with their passion for a gospel of justice that speaks to the contemporary world, and we need conservatives who insist that we stay rooted in a faith thousands of years old.
And one thing is sure. If we have all that variety there will be conflict. Things certainly haven’t been easy for the Episcopal Church in recent years, and especially since the consecration as bishop of an openly gay man living in a committed relationship. If we Episcopalians had ever been yearning to have a prominent place in America again and have people notice we are here, well, we’ve done it! Thanks to almost four years of conflict, accusations, and now divisions in our church and in the worldwide Anglican Communion, we have entered the talk of the nation.
Over the past few weeks some eleven Virginia churches have voted to break away from the Episcopal Church, two of them among the largest and most historic in the diocese. And last week an op-ed article appeared in the Washington Post written by the Rector and a lay leader from the Falls Church detailing their reasons for leaving. “The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers,” they said, and supported their claim by citing some dreadful assertions about the faith that some unnamed people have been making—not one of which I had ever heard.
It’s a sad thing to behold—that within a community of Christians called by their Lord to love each other, a group is deciding to call it quits, throw in the towel, and go their own way. We in the church have been disagreeing deeply—about human sexuality and about how we read scripture. Here in this Cathedral we have stood firmly with those advocating a deeper engagement of our gay and lesbian friends in every part of our life. But other faithful Christians have disagreed. And an array of cultural and global forces have been at work driving a wedge between the sides.
There have been actions and words on both sides that have been arrogant and dismissive of the other. And as in any long-term marriage, both sides can point to hurtful things said and done. What’s sad is the exit language, and now the exit. Sad for the Episcopal Church, for sure, but sad for the world around us, and sad above all, I believe, for Christ. It is tearing his own body.
Christianity requires “body language.” You know how we say when someone is speaking, “Watch their body language.” Watch the signals they are sending by their facial expressions, the way they smile or frown, how they hold their bodies. Because we can see who they really are by how they act.
It has to be said that the Episcopal Church’s body language has been undercutting its message. Our body has often been angry and unyielding. One of the earliest descriptions we have of the infant Christian community in the years soon after Paul wrote his letter were the words of a pagan historian who said, “See those Christians, how they love each other.” Alas, in these days people are saying something different. “See those Christians, Episcopal and many more, how they argue and divide and accuse. They do not seem to love each other.”
The prayer on Jesus’ lips in his last hours was that his followers would be completely one as he and his Father were one, so that the world would know who he was and why he came. Do you see what he was saying? It is our unity, our capacity to love across all our differences, that is the surest gift we can give our world. The church is meant to be God’s new vision of how the world can live—loving each other across lines of race, nation, and belief. We are meant to be God’s hope for a divided and bitter world. Our unity, our oneness, our bodiness, our body language—that is our sacred calling. And we must remember, it isn’t our like-mindedness that calls us together. It is Christ’s love for every one of us in the midst of our self-absorption, blindness, and failures that makes us one.
For all of our conflict, I believe the Episcopal Church has struggled faithfully with an excruciatingly difficult issue. But we have not found a unified way forward. I don’t know where things are going with our church. It looks as if we’re going to have to live through the ugly scene of watching Christians sue each other over church property. And we will watch the Archbishop of Canterbury, our own Presiding Bishop and the bishops of our church, and the leaders of the other parts of our Anglican Communion, struggle to find a way to keep our church together, often in the face of people and groups who do not want that. We should be praying every day for Archbishop Rowan, and Presiding Bishop Katherine, and all the leaders of our beleaguered church and communion.
Christ’s body is in pain. But I still can’t imagine any place I’d rather be than among a people who are seeking to know Christ and live his love, even with all our imperfections. The church is the one place where we can know we are loved completely, and that this love will not stop seeking to break down the walls that divide us, even until the end of time. There is nothing, nothing, that the world, or you and I, need more than that love.
I have one thing to say to our friends across the River who are separating from the Episcopal Church. Your leaving feels to us like losing an eye, or a hand, or a foot from the body we share. It breaks our heart. But we want you to know that we’ve left the door open and the light on, and we will be praying that one day, before long, you will come back home.