Many members, one body
January 28, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
For the past two weeks I’ve talked about community and true belonging, and how I hope All Saints can be a container for authentic community, and a place where people experience true belonging.
I quoted Peter Block, who reminds us that the word belonging has three interlaced meanings: membership, ownership, and in a deeper sense it reflects a longing to be. Authentic community is the container where this longing is fulfilled.
Then last week, I focused on true belonging. I’ll quote Brené Brown again to summarize. She reminds us that “True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. [True belonging] is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.” [Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness, p. 37]
I ended last week by reminding us that our deepest and truest identity is in Christ, and therefore we are free—no, we are called—to live into that freedom by becoming living examples of true belonging in a community of faith.
But it’s not easy. The church at Corinth was trying to live into this freedom, and today Paul cautions them: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to others.”
The desire for true belonging and authentic community can cause us to slip into factions. It happened in Corinth, and we see it happening in our world every day. Our freedom can become a stumbling block.
For the church in Corinth the stumbling blocks had to do with sexual morality, and when to take someone to court, dietary laws—what people could and couldn’t eat—the proper forms of spiritual expression, and beliefs about the resurrection.
For 21st century Christians our stumbling blocks have to do with…well…pretty much the same list.
But those are obvious, other things don’t always appear to be stumbling blocks, but nevertheless can get in our way.
Remember those Big Meaningful Words I mentioned two weeks ago. Mission. Stewardship. Formation. Evangelism. They can get in our way. Especially since their meanings have changed significantly in the past several decades.
Not that long ago, no one talked about Formation, instead we talked about Christian Education but what we really meant was Sunday School. Stewardship also wasn’t a thing because a Tithe was the expectation. Mission meant sending people to foreign lands, or the inner city, or to the rural poor, primarily for the purpose of Evangelism; and Evangelism—when it was linked with Mission generally meant translating and distributing bibles…otherwise it just meant advertising.
For a long time, the church treated these as separate activities…separate domains…which worked OK back in the post-war boom when there was plenty of resources to go around. But the world has changed and keeps changing, and it has felt—for a long time—like we’re being asked to do more and more with less and less, and when that happens those separate domains risk becoming competing factions in a zero sum game. And when that happens, we need to hear Paul bewailing “has Christ been divided?”
In Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses a brilliant—and one of his favorite metaphors—the body.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:12). So it is with us, our faith communities, and any authentic community of true belonging. “The foot can’t say, because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong.” Those involved primarily in Formation can’t say, because I’m not doing Mission I don’t belong. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” If the whole church were focused on Mission, where would Stewardship be? “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’.” The Mission Committee cannot say to the Property Committee, ‘I have no need of you.”
The body metaphor is brilliant because it reveals what true belonging really means…each of us bringing our full and discrete selves…our gifts and our doubts…our strengths and our brokenness…into a community…a body where difference is not merely tolerated or brushed aside, but recognized as vital and necessary.
It also helps us think how the parts are related to the whole and vise versa. Those Big Meaningful Words are even more full of meaning now. Stewardship means more than just what you give to the church; Stewardship requires us to be intentional about spending all our money and about using and managing every resource at our disposal…It’s responding faithfully to every gift God has given.
Formation is more than just Sunday School. Everything we do, not just in church, but out in the world, forms us…whether we’re aware of it or not…Christian formation is ongoing and lifelong because we need to be continually growing up as part of the body of Christ.
Mission is also everything we do. The Five Marks of Mission, is a very helpful set of statements about what mission really is. It’s how we frame the Annual Report. The heading of each section is one of the Marks of Mission which encompasses both Stewardship and Formation.
These more all encompassing definitions reflects our true belonging in Christ…because Christ claims all of our lives, not just the time we spend here.
So when you read the Annual Report (and I do hope you will take the time to read it), I hope that you see more than a listing of all the separate ministries we have and what they did last year…You should also see reflected all the symbiotic relationships between all the parts of our body…how worship and formation and stewardship and mission and property and personnel and programs are all distinct and all interconnected. And we need all the parts in order to continue having a healthy whole. And I know you will see in the report and hear at the meeting that this body is, by and large, quite healthy.
You may have also noticed that I haven’t mentioned Evangelism…That’s the one we’re most reluctant to talk about. Sadly, Evangelism still pretty much means advertising or marketing—which is something we don’t do well. Like all those other Big Meaningful Words, Evangelism could mean a whole lot more…it could mean Holy Listening…getting curious about one another and finding out what our hopes and dreams, our lived experiences, our disappointments really were. Evangelism could mean a practice or a set of practices that draws us closer to one another…closer to all those who share our building…closer to the other churches in the area…closer to those on the margins…It could be how true belonging comes about, because being intentional about those practices would would require us to be vulnerable…to get uncomfortable…to learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. And if that sounds familiar, it should. It’s Brené Brown’s definition for true belonging. But I also think it’s a dynamite definition of evangelism. We can’t have true belonging or authentic community without it.
We’re called…to be continually forming ourselves in the likeness of Christ, to be engaged in carrying out Christ’s mission of healing and reconciliation, to be good and faithful stewards of all God’s gifts…and to be actively engaged in creating spaces of authentic community and true belonging, where we can share our joyful and painful—but always grace-filled—transformations…for the sake of the wider community…for the sake of the world.