A Body of Individuals?

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4 (NIV)

*Today we begin a three-week reflection on community.*

Vern was a greeter at my church for almost 75 years.  He stood at the south entrance and warmly welcomed people to every worship service.  He was a fixture in the life our church.  He lived in a house by himself that had treacherous outdoor and indoor stairs.  In his nineties his children convinced him to move out of the house, but he was a stubborn man and decided to move all by himself.  You probably know as well as I do, that when someone has lived in a home for decades there tends to be a lot to move.  His plan was to move on a Sunday afternoon.  He was a slender man, who moved with typical nonagenarian slowness. On this particular Sunday morning I got tipped off to Vern’s plans.  Without his permission or knowledge I gathered a large group of college students and we showed up at Vern’s house just as he was realizing that he could not possibly move by himself.  He saw us in his driveway and I think it almost killed him. 

                He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “We’re here to help you move.”  His look of joyous shock made my year.

If it’s just me who shows up, I’m just a nice guy, right?  Or maybe if it’s three of us, we’re just generous college students.  But twenty of us, arm in faithful arm, we proclaim the generous heart of Christ.  We need not utter a word in order to embody Jesus in Vern’s situation.  Our missional connectedness bears witness to Christ’s enduring promise to be with us . . .  specifically, to be with Vern.[1]

                Every single time that I’ve taught about community in the last 8 years, someone has said to me: “The church is made of a bunch of individuals. All the individuals need to do is be the best that they can be.”  It seems to me that Paul’s point in Ephesians is quite the opposite . . . individuals become the best them because of their connection to the community, the whole, the team.  A hand, aside from the body cannot be a good hand.  It can try all it wants to be the best “individual hand” possible, but the body is where it derives its purpose.  Connectedness is essential to hand-ness.

                So too, Christians are not closed entities, subject only to their own consciences.  You will not find “me-n-Jesus” Christianity in the New Testament.  You will find a gathering together of people, who in their connected, shared-life and by their movements will embody Christ in history and on the face of our earth.  You alone, as an individual are not the body of Christ.  You in connectedness, in community—even when you are acting alone—succeed at embodying Christ.  When we think we can make it happen out of our own will or our own capacity to discern the movement of the Spirit we lose Christ’s basic design for how he intended to be represented in the world.

The more the church has grown individually-minded in its sense of purpose the more our society has seen our fellowship as hollow.[2]  In Rick Warren’s famously popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, he encourages his Christian readers to become familiar with the mantra, “It’s not about me.”  This is ironic, since that very book has been brutally used to justify the idea that individuals have a God-bestowed purpose completely segregated from the movements and mission of the Church.[3]  Correct me if I am wrong, but in the New Testament, every case of personal mission finds purpose not in the person’s self-actualization, but in how that mission feeds, nourishes, and supports the mission of the Christ-shaped Church.[4]   There is no mission aside from humble connectedness.[5]

                My question for us is: are we connected?  Or are we stumbling in the darkness of rugged individualism?[6]  Trying to prove the unprovable . . . that we have what it takes to save the world on our own.[7] By the way, passing out worship-folders is not what I mean by being connected.  I am not talking about fulfilling a duty. I mean sharing our relationship with Jesus in a way that means we serve, are served by, and serve with others. When you find out the world is trying to pack-up and move on its own, will you go rescue it?  Or will you bring the body of Christ along?

[1] I fully admit that individuals and small groups do and can embody Christ.  But I think it is a lot harder to convince the intended audience of that when we act as individuals.  A stranger bought my lunch a couple weeks ago.  It was a very kind gesture that went without any explanation.  The person I was eating with and I spoke at great length about our mysterious benefactor.  Our thought process centered on him—how kind and generous he was.  If he wanted us to think about him as a representative of Jesus he needed to tell us that.  Even if he had, how tempting is it for us to reduce his kindness to a function of his own generosity?  Groups allow the personality traits of individuals to be obscured in a way that makes room for Christ.  At least, this is my argument.
[2] When our culture thinks about Christians gathered together what do you think they think about?  My guess: superficiality and songs.  That makes me want to curse—I won’t, but it does. Please tell me that the Church of God has something bigger and better to point the world to.
[3] I shouldn’t speak for Rick Warren, but my guess is that he had no intention for his book to be used to aid in such destructive isolationism.
[4] For those who don’t know me well, be sure to realize that I have no interest in hierarchies, individual assemblies, or any other institutions as being the Church.  What I mean by the church, is every localized group of believers.
[5] I should say here that I have no doubt that God may/does mysteriously redeem self-contained works of mission.  He also allows us to do damage in the process; damage to our own, community-craving, souls and to those who desperately need to be connected to us.
[6] I know it sounds like I hate individualism.  That’s not really true.  The journey of self-discovery is one of the most important facets of Christian formation.  It’s just that the Church, from my perspective, has lost the balance between personal and communal spirituality.
[7] Or to save your husband, your kids, your mom, the beggar, the President, Congress, majority-world deprivation, etc. 


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