“The Church as the Body of Christ… among other things”

a sermon based on I Corinthians 11:20-28

 

                  The hymn we just sang was about how Jesus broke the bread of life by the Sea of Galilee.  The occasion that song refers to is when five loaves of bread and two fish were given by a child, blessed by Jesus, and shared with 5,000 people, all of whom (we are told) were satisfied.  That story of blessed bread resonates with our communion meal… the bread broken, the cup shared…

 

                  Breaking bread with people was so central to Jesus’ ministry, that when he came to his Last Supper – the one on the night just before he was arrested, put on trial, and executed – the “memorial meal” that we just shared here, with cups of grape juice and cubes of bread – he asked them (and he asks us) to do it in “remembrance” of Him.  “Remember me, when you eat this bread.  Remember me, when you drink this cup.”  Yes, we remember his death, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, but we also remember Jesus’ life… and his life-giving Spirit ever after.  “This bread,” he said, “is my body, broken for you.”

 

                 “Take, eat, this is the Body of Christ.”  Those words are 1,000 years old – part of the Canon of the Mass, the liturgical communion.

 

                But I’d like us to consider something bigger, deeper, and earlier than the consecrated bread as the Body of Christ.  I see the Church itself as the Living “Body of Christ”, moreso than the sacrament is.

 

               The Body of Christ is not on that plate; it is in this place.  The Body of Christ is made up of you and me, and all other Christians. Together, we are the Body of Christ, and individually “members” of it.

 

              Over the past three weeks, I have spoken about the Church in both personal and social gospel terms.  I experience “going to church” as something positive that feeds my spiritual needs and provides a place for creative expression: music, prayer, preaching, and teaching. Being active in a church is supportive of my life -- often challenging me to do more for others and to make more of a difference in our society.  Without the Church regularly reminding me of deeper spiritual values, I could become complacent, self-absorbed.  Worship steadies my course.

 

               I also see Church as an institution that helps people with their problems and accompanies them through transitions in their lives -- from birth (& baptism), through raising children (& Confirmation), to celebrating marriages and dealing with the demands of adulthood -- and eventually helping us to confront death and grief with hope and healing.  I love the Church!  I love to see it flourish, to the glory of God!

 

              On this first Sunday of our Stewardship Campaign, I can’t help but think of how our financial support of the Church arises out of a spirit of “gratitude” for what it has done for us in the past… People who have come through difficulties with the help of their faith community give their support to the Church.  They appreciate God’s work in their lives, and they know that without the Church they would be less. (I know I would be!)  Some of our earlier members (like Olive Steele, the Pfeiffenbergers, the Bessers, Jennie Kerr, and, of course, Andrew Comstock) have left “legacy” bequests for us to use -- in their name, in their memory -- because they appreciated what the Church had done for them in their lifetimes and anticipated that our Church (their church) would continue to help others in the future. Bless them all!

 

               Belonging to a church was an expression of their personal confidence in the Christian faith (in general), and their loyalty to this local congregation (in particular).  It’s that way for many of us, I’m sure.

 

               With more than 25 churches with various theologies and worship styles in & around Alpena, a prospective church visitor might wonder: which is the “right one” for me?  Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. 

 

               Some people look for a particular “brand” of church.  We are Congregational and UCC.  If that matters to a person, we’re it!  First Congregational is still the ONLY Congregational UCC in Alpena.

 

                 Fortunately, we can also be the “church home” for people who were raised in other faith traditions: Catholics, Lutherans, Nazarene, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed…  The historical marker on our front lawn points out that, when we were founded on March 2, 1862, the founders chose to be “Congregational” because we “promoted the acceptance of people of all faiths.”   We did that 157 years ago and we still do today.  “Whoever you are… you are welcome here!”

 

                 Sometimes it’s not the kind of church, but rather the church’s location, which prompts a visit… The building is convenient to a person’s home, or it is beautiful artichitecture (neo-Gothic concrete masonry, like ours, with stained glass windows, and a high vaulted ceiling), or they like its symbolic location near “the center of town”. 

 

                 Some first-time visitors tell me that this space seems “sacred”. That suggests to me there is something in this 1955 building-style that resonates with their childhood; something that inspired them then, in a “classic sanctuary” back home, has been reproduced here (for the past 64 years).  Of course, the fact that songs & prayers -- and weddings & funerals, and sermons & children’s activities -- have taken place in this space has also “hallowed” these walls over time.  It’s beautiful!

 

                Often in a smaller town like ours, there are strong family ties to a certain congregation.  For example, you folks were very welcoming of Patty & me when we arrived in Alpena a little over 6 years ago, in part, because you knew my Mom (Dodi) for more than 50 years!  You apparently liked her… and you were willing to extend that goodwill towards me, her son… trusting that (even though I came from Southern California) the “nut” didn’t fall far from the “tree”!   

               Family ties and memories are strong in local churches. (!)  We grew up with certain hymns and prayers (and because of those deep family ties & long memories, we don’t like folks re-writing the old hymns with new words!  Rght?).

 

               So… some people seek a certain “brand” of church: the mission and reputation it has in the community… or the “location” of the church is right for them… or the families & friends you meet at church are “your kind of folks”… Variables like these draw strangers to come “visit” inside these walls.  But what is it that keeps us coming?

 

               Because preaching plays such a large role in Congregational worship, some of you have been very kind to say that my sermons -- my capacity to speak to the hearts & minds of you (the listeners) -- is what keeps you coming, year in and year out.

 

              Some of you have said such things as: “I like your style of delivery”, or “You keep my interest all the way through”, or “That sermon gave me so much to think about last week”, or “I thought that you were speaking right to me this morning”, or “You make the Bible stories come alive”, or “I learned so much.”  Those words mean a great deal to me (!)… and I like to think that you appreciate our Church all the more because of my preaching.  But … I don’t want our success as a congregation to ultimately depend on me.  It’s gotta be more! ... a lot more than just me.  It’s all of us… working together… with God.

 

              Of course, since we’re talking about church worship, we cannot ignore the role of music!  Because worship calls upon much more than the intellect, music has a central place in most Christian congregations.  In addition to singing hymns, our excellent organ and grand piano, the robed choir, occasional special guests like Wild Rose Band (today) & in two weeks Bifocal Brass, enriches corporate worship immeasurably.    People who want to sing in a choir (like Ted Sherwood), or play instru-ments (like Leigh Copeland)… or simply listen to gospel music… will often select their church based on the quality & opportunies in its music program.  That’s why we invest in having Kat Tomaszewski here! 

              That’s why Kat invites a band like Wild Rose, or guitarist Dan Ager, or Bifocal Brass to lift and move our worship into new heights.

 

              Of course, sometimes (as I spoke about two weeks ago), people join a particular church because it provides a channel for their personal commitments to certain social issues or core principles.  The moral stance indicated by our Peace Pole in the side yard & our designation as a “Just Peace” Church, may speak to a person. 

 

              Or being “Open” to and “Affirming” of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, & Trans-gender people may be an important public witness.  (There are, after all, numerous Churches in and around Alpena who are not at all “open” to Gay/Lesbian & Transgender people! We in the UCC affirm them as whole human beings made in the Image of God!  We even think that they may have something to teach us about “loving our neighbor as we love ourself”.)

 

              Or it may be the respect we show toward Interfaith solidarity with both Islam & Judaism -- and even “mythology” for that matter, as shown by Rev. Ginny Titus’s recent class. (!)  It may be our efforts toward Anti-Racism and “White Fragility” during the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend (which members of our church have been promoting for all six years I’ve been here).

 

               Or an Earth Day emphasis on “Climate Justice”, or “Prison Reform”, or attention to basic “Human Rights” – the kinds of issues that are addressed publicly by our National Setting in the UCC – may strike a responsive chord in some people… and bring to us those who are working on matters of social justice… people who might otherwise reject church, because institutional religion is often seen as part of the problem, instead of part of a solution.  (I believe we can help correct that misunderstanding. We are an educated & activist Church.)

 

               Those kinds of public issues -- especially in an election year! -- tend to either draw people to, or alienate them from, a given church.

              I do not use the pulpit to preach a particular political “partisan” perspective, even though some people think churches should do that.

 

             The point I am making is that churches are seen, first, for what the local congregation provides its own members as a community of caring for people who we perceive as “like ourselves” – a church made up of “my kind of folks” – before it is seen as a community that’s committed to a broader social agenda.  As Alpena’s first church, we try to maintain a unique identity within our local context, being real people who are dealing with the real world around us in our lives. 

 

            You’ll notice that there’s not a lot of “heaven” talk here, and we’ll never try to “scare the Hell out of you”!  We in the UCC don’t use guilt & shame as motivators, and we don’t worry about eternal damnation… so you can relax. Have no fear –Jesus covered that long ago!  You are in the clear; your sins have been forgiven!  Get over it & get on with it.

 

            So… we realize that people choose their church for very personal reasons!  They want one that “fits” their lifestyle -- serves their special interests and their needs -- and preserves (& expresses) their values.  But do we really see this congregation as The Body of Christ?

 

           Barbara Brown Zikmund, who taught my UCC Polity Class at the Pacific School of Religion back in 1982 and who recently spoke to our United Northern Association in this sanctuary on September 21, says in her book “Discovering the Church” (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, © 1983, page 44):

                    Calling the church the “body” of Christ carries a powerful ambiguity.  On the one              hand, it refers to the “group of believers” who follow Christ and who embody his ongoing            presence on earth through the organizational Church. (!) On the other hand, it clearly                 points to Jesus’ crucified body on the cross, and the conviction that sharing bread and                  wine allows every believer in some way to be part of that sacrificed “body.”

                   The image is strengthened because the lines between the “body of believers” and                “Christ’s body” remain forever blurred.

                   St. Paul writes about the Body of Christ in many places.  It is his preferred

         metaphor for the Church.  It is a way of highlighting how the Church is more than any              human club or organization.  It is an “organic” metaphor that describes the Church in the          world.”

 

        “Just as the body is one and has many members,” writes St. Paul in First Corinthians Chapter 12 (verses 12-15) – the very next chapter after what Bonnie Bartz read for us this morning – “and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into One Body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of One Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member, but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body! … As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”

 

         This image of the Body as explored by St. Paul provides helpful ways to speak about the unity of the Church despite its obvious diversity of gifts, emphases, and membership… and about its potential for growth… because it is a living, organic metaphor.

 

        I like to imagine the Church like a cellular organism -- alive and functioning, healthy and whole in each cell -- but taken together we are a whole living being… a vehicle for Christ’s on-going presence and ministry in our day.  We are the Body of Christ, just as we are the People of God.

 

        When a body is in good working order, the “sum” is greater than all its “parts”.  A person is so much more than the conglomeration of her limbs and senses; more than the collective working of his hands and feet and head.  To be part of the Body of Christ (the Church) is an evolving and organic experience -- a dynamic and changing elasticity -- with the potential for robust health and growth, because it is grounded in God’s Love which matures in faith and trust and hope.  The Church, as the Body of Jesus Christ, is not a secular institution.

 

        The ambiguity that BBZ pointed to is when the Body is broken…

        You see, if we are the Body of Christ here in Alpena, how is it that there are 25 separate churches, each claiming to be “the one” body?  Is that not a scandal, a betrayal of our basic unity -- the divisions and walls that separate us within the One Body of the Church Universal?

 

        It brings us back to where we began: on the night in which Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and promptly crucified… he took bread, and when he had given thanks, He broke it and said: “This is my Body which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  This is the tradition St. Paul inherited from the followers of Jesus.  To say that the Church is “the Body of Christ” carries with it a powerful reminder of a body broken, a body betrayed, a body crucified!  And nevertheless, it is a body that is REMEMBERED.  We remember Him.

 

        You and I are individually “members” of the Body of Christ.  When we come together, the Body is RE-membered… brought back together, resurrected, given new life.  This was understood by the body of believers who followed Jesus after his crucifixion.  They still looked to their “head” to guide and direct them, drawing new vitality from the on-going presence of Jesus’ Holy Spirit within them.  To belong to the Church meant to share in the gift of the Spirit of God and to live in a new community by that power.

 

        That’s us, friends.  We are the Body of Christ here in Alpena. 

 

        And even if our body is broken, or has been betrayed, and (yes) even when we die (as did Jesus), the Gospel reassures me that this will not stop the reviving, reconciling, resurrection power of God to renew our ministry in Jesus’ name.  As the Body of Christ, we can rely on the sustaining presence of the everlasting God.

 

       May God continue to bless us in this way, now, and into the future.

                                                                                                                                                    Amen.

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