Love that Body!
A sermon on Ephesians 4: 1-16 by Nathan Nettleton, 3 August 2003
Making the Church in the incarnate body of Christ is costly for God, and both challenging and salvific for us.
It is often said that we live in a body-obsessed society. People are always worrying about their bodies, scrutinising their bodies, looking after their bodies, working on their bodies, and never feeling quite satisfied with their bodies. Have you ever wondered how Jesus feels about his body? Unless the Apostle Paul was kidding when he said that we, the Church, are Christs body, then youd have to wonder how hed be feeling about it!
The passage we heard from the letter to the Ephesians tonight is one of a number of passages where this image of the body is used. It is used twice here. The first time is just to affirm that there is only one body, just as there is one Lord, one hope, one faith, one baptism. But the second one fleshes it out a bit, no pun intended. It speaks of Christ as the head and us as parts of the body which need to be receiving instructions from the head in order for the body to function in a healthy way.
Ive begun to think that perhaps this description of the Church as the body of Christ is not just a metaphor or an illustration. Perhaps it is actually a more literal description of the relationship between us and Christ. Or if not, perhaps at least it is such a strong and accurate metaphor that we might as well think of it in fairly literal terms. Let me try to explain what I mean by that and unpack a few of the implications which arise from this passage.
The basis for what I am thinking here is the concept of the incarnation. Now many of you may instinctively be thinking, Big word; not one Id use myself; bit technical; not really that sure what it means. But stay with me for a minute, because I think youll find that you are familiar with it, just in a slightly different form: an even longer form in fact! The word reincarnation is much better known, and the only difference is that reincarnation means that this is not the first incarnation; it has already happened at least once before. Reincarnation does not just mean to come back to life again; that would be either resuscitation or resurrection, depending on how it happened. Reincarnation means to come back to life in another body. So incarnation is just to become alive in a body.
When the Christian tradition talks of incarnation, it is usually referring to Christ, and to his becoming alive as a human being, born to Mary and Joseph in Israel some 2000 years ago. It is speaking of the astonishing mystery of the God of the universe becoming present in mortal flesh, with all the risky limitations and vulnerabilities that that involves. The body of an ordinary fragile human baby became the body of Christ, the body of the God who created the heavens and the earth.
Now what Im suggesting, and Im by no means the first person to suggest it, is that when we stand round this table and say, Let us receive what we are, let us become what we receive: the body of Christ, that we are in fact talking about exactly the same sort of thing. We are talking about Christ becoming alive and present in the physical stuff of bread and wine, and we are talking about Christ becoming alive and present in the congregation gathered around the table, namely us. And Im suggesting that this is not just a nice illustration, but that it is for real. Once Christ chose to become present and active in the world in the single human body of Jesus of Nazareth, and now he chooses to be present and active in the community of human bodies known as the Church. We are actually the living, breathing, physical presence of Christ in the world.
This is a mystery no less astonishing than the mystery of Christ becoming incarnate in the body of one human being. Perhaps it is even more astonishing; especially when you think about the risks and costs it involves for God. Just for starters, think what it means for Christs reputation. At least while incarnate in a single human body, Jesus was fully in charge of the public behaviour of that one human body. But becoming incarnate in the church means Christ putting himself in a position where he cant even control the actions of his own body. It would be a bit like having Tourettes Syndrome or epilepsy or something else that causes you to do conspicuous and disturbing things that you are unable to control. Or perhaps a bit like having small children who trash things in shops and you have to pay for them because you are deemed to be responsible for their behaviour. Having a body with a mind of its own is dangerous, frequently embarrassing, and very costly. But is a risk and a price that Christ has accepted. A risk he was willing to take, and a price he was willing to pay. Perhaps before we can see why, we need to look at a couple of the things that being the body of Christ means for us.
We probably sometimes tend to think of the idea that the Church is the body of Christ as being one of those rather rosy idealistic images that suggest that thing are all peace and harmony and sweetness and light, when we know all too well that the church just isnt like that. But if you listen to this passage from the letter to the church in Ephesus, its author sounds pretty aware of the challenges. In fact he starts of by pointing to the ideal and then saying, I am down on bended knee begging you to do your best to live up to it. And then his words about what that means are all about patience, hanging in there with one another, putting up with one another, making a big effort to maintain unity, and speaking tough truth in love. Doesnt sound like rose-coloured glasses stuff to me.
Perhaps the opposite is true. Maybe the image of the body actually tells us something about why being in the Church is often so difficult and painful. You see, it really is bizarre to say that the Church is a collection of all-too-fallible, dysfunctional, painful people and that it is at the same time the physical body off the perfectly loving God. Bizarre, but think about what Christ put his body through when he was incarnate in the body of a single person. He was flogged, spat upon, and hung up on steel spikes to die. Even before that he described his feelings as being torn apart inside, gutted, and heartbroken. Why would we think that being part of such a body would be all rosy and harmonious? Even the bodies of those who live a lot less riskily than Jesus are not without their troubles. We get sick when one part of our body starts malfunctioning, and if one part starts attacking or working at odds with another, we get horribly sick. If so few of us are happy with our bodies, why would we think that being in one suggests peace and satisfaction?
And if it is true that this torn apart, gutted and internally turmoiled group of people is actually the physical body of the living Christ, then it also means that we actually cant opt out of it without opting out of a significant measure of our relationship with Christ. If the Church is the body of Christ, then attempting to have a relationship with Christ while avoiding the Church would be like trying to conduct a love affair by phone text messages. The painful reality and the massively daunting challenge is that to journey deeper into intimate relationship with Christ means to enter deeper into relationship with the ugly mob of people called the church. You cant draw closer to Christ the head while avoiding his body any more than you can marry some beautiful body without also having a relationship with its head.
Perhaps if it were possible for us to be instantly and entirely sanctified at our baptism so that we were 100% whole and loving and grace-filled people whose every action was in cooperative response to the impulses coming through the nervous system from Christ the head, then being in the church, the body of Christ might be lovely all the time. But much of the time when the impulse from the head says reach out a hand, I reach out a fist. And you dont get it right either. And as long as all of us are not adequately answering to the calling coming down the line from the head, the body is going to be sick and broken and tormented and fractured.
Now if I left this sermon there, it would be fair to say that Id preached nothing but bad news, but there is another implication of this. If it is true that we are the body of Christ, and if it is true that the bodily suffering of Christ is actually inseparable from the process of his winning salvation for us, then perhaps the pain and anguish we experience in trying to be reconciled to one another are actually part of the ongoing suffering by which Christ is defeating the powers of evil and death which would otherwise destroy us. Christ does not come to us offering cheap grace. He is not on about painting a shiny veneer of superficial harmony and niceness over the painful fragmented nature of our relationships and our individual selves. He is not putting bandaids on cancers.
Christ does not set about amputating all the bits of his body that cause dysfunction. And thats good news, because if he did, Id be chopped off and so would you. He sets about healing it, and thats good news, because even though it means going under the knife, it means there is the promise of a healthier tomorrow. As long as the healing work in you and you and you and me has still got some work to be done, then our attempts to draw closer to one another in love will frequently result in us hurting each other, disappointing each other, and letting each other down. But as long as we stick with Christ who will not let us give up or just write each other off, those very instances of pain and frustration will be the things that confront us with our own need for change and growth and will be the very fires that Christ uses to refine us make us whole. And thats good news, even if its not always very comforting news.
Christ embraces us in our brokenness and gathers us into his wholeness so that we might be healed and reconciled to God and to one another. And his wholeness is a wholeness born of much suffering and grief. Perhaps in closing, it might be easier to recognise the good news in this when we look at it from Gods side. All of us are broken people who fail to respond properly to Christ and who grieve God and wound one another as a result. If we had to stand before God individually, with nothing to show but the results of our own mistakes, failures and a few modest successes, wed be sure to stand condemned. But we dont. We have been baptised into the body of Christ, and so instead of us coming one at a time, it is Christ who stands before God, and we are therein him, all together as his body. So instead of seeing us in all our individual mess, God sees Christ who loved to the full, and sees our brokenness and dysfunction, not as reason to condemn us, but as the wounds and scars in the body that was offered and broken and poured out for the life of the world. And thats very very good news.