Part 1 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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For the last three months I have been blogging about the distressing condition of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Yet, given all of my frustrations and criticisms, I have not given up on the Church. Oh, I’m not sure what will come of the PC(USA), but no matter what happens with my denomination, I’m solidly committed to the Church of Jesus Christ.
So I’ve decided to do a blog series on the church. Specifically, I’m going to talk about the church as the body of Christ. Now I realize this isn’t a new idea for most Christians. In fact, the notion that the church is like a body is almost 2,000 years old. But I think I’ll be able to say some things about the church as the body of Christ that aren’t commonly understood, even by Christians who think they know all there is to know about this subject.
Moreover, I believe there’s much to be gained by revisiting this common image from the New Testament. As we think about what the church should be, and as some of us try to figure out the role of denominations in the church, we would do well to return to the biblical basics. And little is more basic than the simple affirmation that the church is the body of Christ.
If you’ve read my book After “I Believe,” you will recognize some basic ideas and even some of the text in this blog series. What I’m putting up is an greatly expanded and updated version of some things I wrote several years ago. (After “I Believe” is now out of print, by the way. You can probably get a copy from eBay for a penny.)
But before we get to the specific topic of the church as the body of Christ, we need to celebrate a birthday.
The Church’s Birthday
It must have been quite a scene. The streets and squares of Jerusalem teeming with Jewish pilgrims from throughout the world. The tempting smells of food hawked by street vendors. The din of raucous voices shouting in dozens of different languages all at once. A thrill in the air as the festival of the spring harvest was about to begin.
And then, above the bedlam, clear voices were heard, strong and joyous voices, voices proclaiming the wonders of God, voices exclaiming in numerous languages, yet somehow strangely harmonious.
As the crowds rushed to see what was happening, they gathered around a small band of Jewish pilgrims, men and women whose clothing and accents gave away their Galilean origins. Oddly enough, this rather unimpressive bunch from a small geographic region seemed to be speaking in all the languages known by the crowd. Each pilgrim heard the praise of God in his or her own tongue.
“How can this be?” some of the onlookers queried. “How can these simple Galileans know so many different languages? What’s going on here?”
Others in the mob were unimpressed. “They’re just drunk,” they sneered. “Ignore them!”
At this point the crowd had grown to several thousand. One of those who had been praising God in a foreign tongue stepped forward and hailed the crowd, “Friends, we are not drunk. It’s too early in the morning for that! Look, this is what the prophet Joel predicted centuries ago, when he promised that God would one day pour out his Spirit on all flesh. Now it’s happening!”
The speaker, whose name was Peter, went on to say some disturbing but wonderful things about someone named Jesus, a man once supposed to be God’s savior for Israel, but who had been put to death by the Jewish and Roman leaders of Judea seven weeks earlier. Yet, Peter claimed, Jesus rose from the dead as proof of his divine appointment as Lord and Messiah!
At first the crowd didn’t know quite how to react. Were they being accused of something? Or was this some sort of invitation? A few felt their hearts moved by Peter’s announcement. “What should we do now?” they shouted emphatically.
Peter replied, “Turn away from your sins and turn to God. Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you too will receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, just like we have.”
At first just a few came forward to accept Peter’s offer and receive baptism. But then others followed. Soon a mass of humanity crowded around the Galileans. By the end of the day, about three thousand had heeded Peter’s call. They turned away from their sins and trusted Jesus for salvation. They were baptized as a sign of their new faith in him as God’s anointed Savior.
On this day some 2,000 years ago, the church was born. We call the church’s birthday Pentecost, which is an English version of the Greek word meaning “fifty.” The Jewish harvest celebration occurred fifty days after Passover, hence Pentecost. (Photo: “Pentecost” by Jean Restout II, 1732).
What did the church do on its birthday? What did three thousand new Christians do next, after then turned from their sins and acknowledged Jesus as Savior? How did they begin their life in the Messiah? The Acts of the Apostles provides a tidy summary of early Christian activities:
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:41-44).
Notice that the new believers joined themselves promptly to the band of Jesus’ followers. They continued to hang around the apostles, those who had been sent by Jesus to bear witness to him, in order to learn more about their faith. They also devoted themselves to “fellowship” (koinonia in Greek). The first believers began to participate in that intimate fellowship with God and God’s people that is so essential to Christian living.
This passage accentuates the human dimension of koinonia. The new converts shared intimate fellowship with the apostles and, by implication, with others who believed in Jesus. Notice that all of these folk “met together constantly” and “shared everything they had” (Acts 2:44). Their fellowship was far more than commenting on Peter’s Pentecost sermon over coffee and bagels after church. They shared their possessions, prayers, and praises (Acts 2:45-47). They enjoyed meals together, during which they remembered Jesus’ death on the cross as he had instructed his followers to do.
The earliest Christians seemed to sense, and no doubt were taught by the apostles, that what they had just done by believing in Jesus should be fleshed out in community with others who had done the same. They didn’t simply add some new religious beliefs to their worldview and go on with life as usual. Nor did they immediately withdraw from the crowd and engage in private devotions. Rather, they embraced the community of other Christians at the same time as they were embraced by that community. They were adopted into a new Christian family.
We Americans, on the contrary, have had a long history of thinking of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as mostly or exclusively a personal, private, individual matter. I’ll say more about this in my next post in this series.