Thursday, November 11, 2010

Body Image

We may need to recalibrate our viewpoint.

I was driving to work yesterday, after having taken part in our weekly Lectio Divina service, and I was struck by a strange thought. What if the body is much larger than we had realized?

I'm referring to the "body of Christ" that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 12. He says that just as a body has many parts, all interdependent, so too does the body of Christ, the church. It's made up of many individuals, many parts, all working together under the direction of the head.

Generally, when I've heard this passage read and explained, there's been a sense that it applies to one particular church, perhaps one denomination at most. I'm pretty sure that's not the position Paul was taking.

I think he was speaking of the whole church, the church made up of every local church that had been founded after Jesus' resurrection. A church of churches, if you will.

Now, this isn't really a radical idea, after all. But when we talk about the church being made of many members, we seem to be speaking about a single congregation and its individual members.

What I want to suggest is that we see the CHURCH as the entire body of Christ, thousands of denominations, para-church organizations, ministries, house churches, every instance of a place and people that lays claim to the name of Jesus the Christ. I want to suggest that the members of this body are the individual congregations, not necessarily the individual persons who make up the congregations. I further want to suggest that this fractious crowd of believers, jockeying and elbowing and contesting with each other, disagreeing about dogma and liturgy and hymnody and women's ordination and all that, this whole bunch of disagreeable partisans, is just the way it's supposed to be.

First, let's look at the notion that the church is not just one of the bigger denominations.

By one count, there are about 2.1 billion Christians in the world today. Among that group, Roman Catholics make up the largest group, at just over a billion. I don't think "the church" is Roman Catholic, despite their own belief to that effect. Nor do I think "the church" is Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Anglican. I think "the church" is Christian, with all the other names being modifiers, as in Baptist-Christian, Roman-Catholic-Christian, etc.

The church is the body of Christ. Christ is not a crowd.

Let's look at my notion that the body is made up of communities, not necessarily individual persons.

Christianity has its roots and its initial development in Judaism. Jesus was considered a Jewish rabbi. His first followers were Jews. His initial ministry was intended for the Jews in Judea. It was only after his resurrection that there was any real growth in the non-Jewish population of believers in Jesus the Messiah. Much of that growth was due to the activity of the apostle Paul in his missionary trips around the Mediterranean.

The Jewish nature of the earliest church means that there was a social character to this movement. From their earliest history, the Jews had a social orientation that is perhaps hard for us in 21st century America to grasp. Israel was the new name of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Israel was also the name of the people that claimed him as their ancestor. This one name referred, at the same time, to both the individual ancestor and to his progeny. You could speak of a nation by invoking its progenitor. We don't do that today. We don't speak of Washington to refer to the people of the United States. We don't speak of Jefferson as a synonym for the state of Virginia.

The people of Jesus' day did speak like this, however. Their notions of individualism were almost certainly radically different than ours today, and their vocabulary reflects these different ideas.

Another indication of this is the way that churches were referred to in some of Paul's letters, and in the Book of Revelation. Churches in Revelation were named for their location; there was no mention of particular bishops or elders at those churches. Once again, it was more of a communal viewpoint than what we might see today.

I'm not saying in all this that individual persons weren't important. That, of course, would be stupid. However, there was a sense that the community mattered more than we allow it to matter today, at least in the United States.

Finally, I want to explain why I think the disorderly mass that is Christianity is just the way that it should be.

Does any one of us have a monopoly on the truth? Does any one of us know all, that we might be able to inform others? When we look in the mirror, do any of us really think we have it all down?

Indeed. We need the counsel of others to keep us rooted in reality. We need the advice of others to help us with problems for which we just don't have a ready answer. We need the support of others when our own resources aren't up to the challenge. We need the prayers of others when our faith can't utter a word to plead our case.

We and the others we need, all speak in different voices. We each bring to the conversation our own unique perspectives. We practice the dialectic method on a grand scale, and we all are enriched because of this dialogue.

By the same token, each of the communities that make up the CHURCH brings its own unique voice to the party. And it is a party, you know, the earthly precursor to the Feast of the Lamb. In our jostling and shifting, in our arguments over ritual and belief and music and architecture, we sing the song of God's creative extravagance with gusto. If we watch carefully, we actually see harmony come out of what seems to be cacophony.

Humans can't help but contend and compete, argue and butt heads. It seems to be the way we're made. It was that way in the times of the Old Testament, and it's that way today. We can compete in very lethal ways, and we can compete in ways that enrich us. If that's the case, then I suspect that God had something to do with making us that way. I don't understand why that's the way things have worked out, but then, God didn't ask me to critique his design.

So there you have it - a long-winded explanation of why I think it's just fine that there are Roman Catholic and Orthodox and Presbyterian and Charismatic and Baptist (hyphenated) Christians. To define "the church" as US, and the rest of Christianity as THEM, seems to me to fly in the face of God's design. We're all of us cells in the body of the Messiah. And isn't that a grand and glorious vision to live?

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