The Church: Why We Need It
We are thinking about the church. Not just our little church, but the Church with the big “C”, in all its different flavors and traditions. But also how our own church can be in light of what Scripture says about churches.
And one of the main points the New Testament makes about the church is that it is the body of Christ. Not just the body of Christians. But the body of Christ. In the first sermon of this series last Sunday, we heard Paul write to the Ephesians that the church is the body of Christ.
In some spiritual, maybe even mystical way, being a member of a church is actually participating in the life of Jesus Christ. He indwells his people. We live in him. There is a close, intimate sharing between Jesus and we, his people.
In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul uses the metaphor of a human body to illustrate not just what a church is like, but what Christ is like. A body has many parts but it is still one body. You have a head, two arms, two ears, fingers, knees, internal organs, feet and toes. They are all different and they do different things, but they are all one body. I know some of us feel like our head is disconnected from everything at times when we forget this or that, or do something ridiculous, but we reach up there and confirm, “No, it’s still attached.”
Do you every do something that makes you say “where was my head?” (Amen?)
One of my best one was several years ago. It was late summer and some weeds were coming up in our lawn. So, I did what I do every summer. I grabbed the weed spray, mixed it up, put it in the sprayer and went out and hit the weedy spots.
A few days later parts of the lawn started to get a little brown. I thought that I must have mixed too much of the weed killer. And then I got to thinking about it: I might have used the Roundup instead of the stuff that is safe for grass. The more I thought about it the more I realized I had indeed sprayed my lawn with Roundup. And indeed, after about ten days, parts of my lawn began turn real brown. In fact, it died.
Now my lawn will never make Better Homes and Gardens, but I always keep it green, mowed, and looking respectable. After a few weeks neighbors came and said to me, “Phil, your lawn always looks pretty good. What happened?” I had to come clean and confess my
stupidity. My head wasn’t connected to my body.
But of course, the sad truth about Phil was, his head was connected to his body. It was my own fault. You’ve been there, too, haven’t you?
Our bodies are made of many members. Churches are made of many members. When Paul was talking about being a member he did not mean membership in the sense of having your name on a list. You may be a member of this church and have your name on the list of members. There are people who have their name on a list of a church and never come or participate in any way in the life of that church. Our New Member’s class today is to help people who want to be a part of this church and have their name on “the list,” but hopefully be active worshippers as well.
But what Paul means by church membership, and the true meaning of what it means to be a member of a church, is about being a member of a body – the body of Christ. The church is really an organism more than an organization. Yes, churches are organizations. Churches have to have a way of doing things, whether you are a 10,000-person church or a 10-person church. But in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is talking about how members in the body of Christ live together, serve together, and get along together. He is talking about how many parts with many different functions come together as one.
Entrance into the body is through baptism. And Paul mentions “Jew or Gentile, slave or free” become part of the body when we are baptized. His point is that it doesn’t matter who you are, your social standing, your religious background or lack of it. When you profess belief in Christ and are baptized you become part of the body of Christ.
And one of the radical things about the first churches in the New Testament is that Jew and Gentile, and slave and free were coming together to worship and live together. Jew and Gentile, slave and free were opposites on the spectrum. All kinds of people were in the church. The church was bringing together people who would not otherwise be in relationships. It caused some tension. It took some growth and understanding. But it also brought a lot of beauty. People who would not be singing together, praying together, and caring for one another unless it was for their common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ were doing so. Under no other circumstances would they be related.
Now apparently some people in the church in Corinth (to whom the letters of the Corinthians are written) were getting bent out of shape about their place in the body. You that have been in churches for awhile, can you imagine that?
Some thought they weren’t needed because they weren’t all that gifted. Some thought they were so gifted that they didn’t need others. Some felt of no importance. Some felt a little too important. Maybe a little jealousy was creeping in. Maybe a whole lot of complaining was happening?
Paul says, “It’s not like that.”
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?
Just as we need different parts for our physical bodies so church bodies need different parts. We need different people who bring different gifts.
Right before the passage we read and are hearing this morning Paul talks about how different people are given different gifts by the Spirit. Listen to what he says:
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
Each one of us has different gifts but it is the same Spirit – the Spirit of the living God – who blesses us with these gifts. We all serve in different ways. You may not preach but it doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the body. How would it look in here if everyone said, “Well, I’m not a preacher so I am not needed.” This place would be empty.
Some of us wish we were musical but God made us really great at organization. Some of us aren’t great up front but get us one-to-one with a hurting person who needs encouragement and we are in our element. Some of us have faith that carries others through. Some of us can make the plans while God made others to know how to carry out the plans. Some of us are artistic and creative and some of us are good with numbers and the books.
Every part is vital. Every part is needed. The loud and the quiet. The heads and the hearts. The brains and the hands. The high energy and the super laid back.
Maybe you are a thumb. Not very big. No one pays attention to a thumb. There are no awards for “Thumb of the Year.” You ever try to take away your thumb and do things? Try it and you will discover how important a thumb is.
In 1981 the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., and was hospitalized for several weeks. The nation’s chief executive was hospitalized but it had little impact on the nation’s security. Government continued on.
But then I remember when the garbage collectors in Philadelphia once went on strike. The city was not only a literal mess, but the piles of decaying trash became a health hazard. Could you imagine if the garbage collectors of this nation went on strike for three weeks? Who is more important – the President or a garbage collector? In the body of Christ, the parts that may not seem as significant are essential. “The head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (vv. 21-22)
Paul speaks of the unity of the church but also emphasizes variety. We are all part of the same body but we aren’t all the same. Unity is not uniformity. A church can be united and have people who look different and do different things. In a living body variety is necessary not merely tolerated. Same in a church. This is because Christian life is a matter of interdependence not independence. No one can say “we can get along without you.” No, everyone is part of the body.
We aren’t defined by what we aren’t but by what we are. Don’t just say, “I’m not this” or “I’m not that.” We need an eye to see. We need an ear to hear. Think of the internal organs of the body and their necessity. So there are those unseen gifts being practiced in a church that are crucial. Everyone and every part is important and vital.
Just think of what is happening this morning. People give their gifts to preach, to sing, to greet and welcome, to prepare what is needed for the projection, to give. More informally there is love, sharing, encouragement and prayer. Later people are giving their gifts for hospitality with our New Members Class. People will do accounting for what we have given. Different parts of the body serving for the health of the body.
Twice Paul makes the point that it is God who makes us who we are and arranges us as he wants. It says, “God has placed the parts in the body.” “God has put the body together.” It is his choice. His way. It says, “…just as he wanted them to be.”
With our human bodies, the less honorable and unpresentable parts are actually given greater care. Paul’s point is that the weaker parts of a church are just as important as the other parts.
And his point is that though we are different we have the same care for one another because we are connected. He writes, “…[the] parts [of the body] should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
Christian faith is not about self-sufficiency. A church is not our private, spiritual-feel-good hot tub, and then when I don’t feel good any more I am out. When you are part of a church you are part of a redeemed community that is larger than yourself. Being part of the body of Christ rescues us from spiritual self-centeredness.
“If we're not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church as something like a health club. We're members because we believe in the mission statement and want to be a part of the action. As long as the church provides the services I want, I'll stick around. But when I no longer approve of the vision, or am no longer "being fed," I'm out the door. This is not biblical Christianity. It is not the picture of the body that Paul gives. Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become - permanently and spiritually - a part of the church. We become part of the "family" of God, with all the responsibilities and expectations [that a family brings.] We don't choose who else is a Christian with us.”
A church is a place to give, to serve, to love. Parts of the body separate because they don’t understand that churches are about “one another” not about “me, myself, and I.”
Each of us can ask ourselves: why am I here? What is my place? What do I receive? What do I give?
I know churches have gotten smaller in this nation. I hear the reports of less and less people on Sundays. That people are disenchanted with the church. There are several reasons I can think of for that and I get it. But one big one is what I might call the “me-ism” in our society. By that I mean the self-centered, self-seeking, personal-convenience lifestyle that is taking over. It stands in opposition to the other-centered, self-sacrificial, cross-oriented life of Jesus Christ. And people think, “If it isn’t right down my alley then forget it.”
Churches care for one another. It isn’t just about sitting in a room with stained-glass windows and listening to a nice message.
It’s about being connected to people, knowing names, being in a place to suffer with them and rejoice with them. I can’t do that if I am hiding in a corner just trying to soak in for myself.
By the way, that is one of the beautiful things about smaller churches. You can know everyone’s name. You can be more in tune with relationships in a body. You are often needed more.
When Paul said that the body of Christ is made of many parts he was thinking of individuals, but just like local churches need all types of people with all kinds of gifts, so the larger church needs all types of churches. There is no one “best church.” All the little churches in cities and towns, of every tradition, make up the larger church.
The Lord Jesus Christ is so big, so deep, so multi-faceted, so awesome that it takes all of us to honor him.
We need churches in the larger body that know how to praise. We need churches in the larger body that know how to really get dirty and feed the hungry. We need churches in the body that bring evangelical zeal, and we need churches in the body that minister in quieter ways.
We need the churches that are large and have lots of resources, and those that are small and know everyone’s name. We need those that crank up guitars and drums, and those with massive pipe organs. We need those that kneel and those that stand. We need those that like to move in the Spirit and those that are a little more orderly.
Larger isn’t better than smaller. Louder isn’t better than quieter. This type isn’t better than that type.
I am thankful for the Baptists. And I am thankful for the Episcopalians. I am thankful for the African-American Pentecostals. I am thankful for the Roman Catholics. I am thankful for those churches that think they are non-denominational even though they are their own denomination.
I have worshipped in different parts of the larger body of Christ and have been enriched. And I have many friends from different parts of the larger body.
I repeat what I said last Sunday: It’s not about style, its about substance.
And the substance – the health, the muscle, the blood – of any church body always has to be the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is the head. I am not the head of this church. The elders are not the head of this church. Those who have been year for years and years are not the head. Jesus Christ our Lord is our head.
Any healthy church body will allow Jesus to control and coordinate. We look to him. We surrender to him. We follow him. We seek him. And if you want to be a healthy part of the body, make sure you are connected to him. Like branches to the vine.
We come to Jesus by faith – faith that he is Lord, faith that he was fully human and fully God, faith that his cross and resurrection are the only work that is needed for our relationship with God, faith that when we turn our lives over to him he takes our lives and makes us right before the Father.
The more we are connected to Christ, the stronger this whole body will be. Let’s live into that. Let’s live as the body of Christ.
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, you gave your life for the body. You make us part of your body. Bless your church wherever she is, on every continent, in every country, in every city. And may your life flow through our church so that we can be filled with you, working and functioning as a healthy body. In your name we pray. Amen.